Events

Confessions of a Conference Planner

aect14You know that conference you go to every year? That one that you look forward to all year long, whether you’re presenting or not. It’s the family reunion that brings together your heroes, mentors, and colleagues. That’s the one. That’s the conference that I spent the past year planning. No, not just one division or special interest group with maybe a dozen or three sessions with anywhere from one to three presentations per session. I was the one behind the scenes helping all of those division planners, working with the organization, hotel staff, division leaders, and individual members to make all of the magic happen. When you agree to a task like this one, you say “yes,” thinking that you have a good grasp of what the job will entail. And then you realize on the last day of the event just how much of your energy, heart, and soul went into the event.

Now that it’s all over, I wanted to share with you some confessions about what it takes to plan an event that attracts 950 participants from 26 different countries.

Hotels are EXPENSIVE.

We may be able to negotiate a decent room rate for you that you think is still too high, but holy cow I learned a lot this year. I’ve known that hotel food is insanely overpriced (anyone know why?), especially when coffee is like $25/gallon. Did you know how much they want to charge for internet? I’ve seen contract proposals for thousands of dollars, seriously. We’re not being stingy when we don’t give out that really awesome wifi password. We’re trying not to incur the wrath or an added bill from the hotel management. Tired of receiving eleventy billion emails about what equipment you might need? Well, AECT provides the projector and various cables, but the hotel charges us for the screen in the room, to the tune of $250-400 (depending upon location and screen size). Those really awesome dry erase and bulletin boards we had at the Job Center in JAX? Yeah, $300 per board per day. So, the Job Center essentially cost us $2500 by the time you figure in printing and tax. This doesn’t include the cost AECT absorbed by staffing the center with graduate student volunteers.

It takes every bit of a year to make this event happen.

On the last day of the convention, the next year’s planning group meets. In this meeting, the new convention chair (AECT President-Elect) and planner meet with the representative from each division, affiliate, and/or committee who will participate. Major dates for the upcoming year are discussed along with an overview of currently known details, such as the location, hotel, and date. Some feedback is given regarding the current convention, and there’s often discussion about ways to improve.

We met almost every month between January and July, usually twice.

In November and October, tasks were minimal and included getting the call for proposals finalized, working out some marketing ideas, and getting a system into place for the next year. At the beginning of January, AECT staff, the convention chair, and the convention planner have a “site visit” with the hosting hotel. During this trip, it’s a whirlwind two or three day review of the facilities, meeting space, and rooms; meeting with the local tourism/visitors group, touring potential sites for study tours, and deciding on big picture things like an overall schedule (when to have meetings, how to divide up meetings so that folks in multiple divisions or committees don’t have to choose which to attend). Starting in mid-January, we began the regularly scheduled planners meetings. I made arrangements with UGA to use their Collaborate installation for standing meetings; this allowed us to record them for those who couldn’t attend. We set the meetings for the first and third Tuesday of every month, noting that we’d cancel a meeting with at least 24 hours notes in case we didn’t need to have one. For the most part, though, we met twice a month, every month for six months. By the time July came around, most of the major planning was done. So, we dropped back to once a month and just settled for an email update.

The planner has a lot of prep work for meetings.

What did this mean for me? Well, a few days before each meeting, I drafted an agenda for the chair to review. Once approved, I emailed this out with reminder instructions on how to connect to the meeting to all planners. I tried to send this email 24 hours in advance, but it was always at least the day before. During the meeting, I would turn things over to the chair as needed, but I pretty much worked through the agenda topics. Early on, this focused on instructions to planners on how to promote the event, solicit proposals, and start navigating the proposal system. Each meeting, I would have to demo at least one task; e.g., how to accept volunteers as reviewers, how to assign reviewers, how to accept/reject proposals, how to use the bulk email system, etc. I also had to provide updates and/or reminders on tasks. Obviously, this meant that I was doing little things throughout the week to stay on top of it all (or to teach myself how to complete one of the tasks).

The division planners are constantly working, too.

So, if I was putting together these meetings and generating biweekly task lists, of course the division and affiliate planners had to spend their own free time working on those tasks. So, this meant they were approving/adding reviewers, assigning reviews, conducting reviews themselves if they didn’t have enough, making the tough decision to accept/reject, communicating with authors, grouping individual presentations together into sessions, recruiting/assigning facilitators, finding replacement facilitators…the list goes on. It really did take a small army to make this event happen.

I could send/receive 15-25 email messages in a day about the conference.

Early on, questions usually involve how to submit, what deadlines do we have, do we have specific technology capabilities, etc. During the review process, questions were usually about how recruit more reviewers to make sure it wasn’t just a few people doing the work of many. Some logistical questions started popping up, like can we schedule extra tours, how to schedule food for a meeting, or identifying local restaurants for large group outings. Once it was time to make accept decisions, I was helping to provide guidance on acceptance rates or shifting a proposal from one division to another. By the time summer rolled around, we were in the thick of scheduling, which meant LOTS of emails with our scheduler to decide when to place meetings, how to resolve conflicts, or identify special equipment needs.

If you were left off an event, it’s not because we hate you.

If you find yourself missing a meeting or special event, because you weren’t listed as an attendee and it didn’t show up on your personal schedule, we are genuinely sorry. Leadership and membership of special groups, committees, and divisions constantly change. Since there’s no central reporting mechanism for these changes, we have to rely on updates from you. Even if your unit updated the page you manage through AECT, it’s not like the scheduler, electronic services director, or planner get notification from these sites. So, we can’t add or remove someone to an event without knowing the details.

Legacy systems are both good and bad.

AECT has been using AllAcademic for years to manage the proposal review and scheduling process. The good: as we use it more each year, we get better at the system. This year, AA rolled out some great changes that I think will make the system even better in the upcoming years. The bad: if something isn’t input correctly this year, it’s still going to be incorrect next year. Many events, like meetings, meals, and competitions are simply copied over from the previous year. So, if something was listed incorrectly (even a typo) or someone was listed as an attendee who no longer works with that event, this won’t be corrected by magic. Advice: PLEASE, please, please contact this year’s planner as soon as you know who needs to be in attendance to these events or if a description needs to be updated.

Really active members get scheduling priority.

This one may sound like bias, but it’s not because we love them more. Instead, the folks who are on committees, making presentations, and serve in multiple ways wind up with scheduling conflicts. So, when we identify time(s) that work with all of their obligations, those events get locked into place. The rest is a bit like playing Tetris to fit the other sessions around these locked ones, using only the rooms that we have available.

Please, use the special request fields!

Got a presentation at a time you’ve known wouldn’t work (you have a regularly scheduled Skype meeting at that time)? Sorry! If you know about conflicts, then make a special request when you submit your proposal.

On two presentations and wind up presenting the first day and the last day, but wanted to get them out of the way? Tell your planner in the special requests. Ask if all your presentations can be scheduled on a specific day (even better, tell us you want them on Thursday — or whatever day you prefer).

Want to do something innovative? Tell us! We may wind up saying, “sorry, we don’t have the infrastructure at this time.” However, we may find a way to make it happen. Use the special request fields to tell us when you submit. If you don’t know, at least email us as soon as you do know! This year, we made it work when a member wanted to present using BeeDocs on her iPad, projecting with AppleTV. It wasn’t an easy task, but it was one we were happy to investigate.

Some special requests will make you laugh, cry, or both.

I was mildly amused by disgruntled graduate students who were upset with the lack of communication from the division to which they submitted a proposal or who demanded they not have to present at 8AM. Even our most amazing scholars in the field don’t make demands like spoiled divas. Advice: Word your request respectfully and make it a request, not a demand.

Telling us that you’re going to cancel and want a refund, because you’re flying through Dallas and are afraid of contracting Ebola will help me form a number of opinions about you; none of them positive. Advice: Practice what we preach in the field; use good evaluative judgement before making extreme requests.

Even if your request is just letting us know that you have made or are making travel arrangements and can’t make the days/times we have for you, we do sympathize. We’ll make every effort to move things around and accommodate your request. The bottom line is that you are one of more than 900 people, and if you’re rude or demanding, it doesn’t help your case.

If I had to do it all over again?

Rewind the clock to February 2013, when Rob asked me if I would be his convention planner. Yes, without a doubt, I would say yes. I won’t lie. It was a challenge to start my career as a first year, tenure-track faculty member while juggling this task. However, I had a great team of planners and graduate student volunteers to help me. And while I still managed to get five publications (some peer reviewed, some edited) out the door in the past year, I realized at the end of AECT just how stressed I had been. So, if I had it to do all over again, I would, but if asked to help again in the near future, I don’t think I could agree to help at that same level.

That said, if you have the opportunity, if a President-Elect Designate ever asks you, I urge you to carefully consider and accept. It’s an amazing experience that allows you to really form a more complete picture of how the organization works and who’s who in the organization. You won’t regret it.

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