Planning a conference – tales from a first-timer

Planning a conference can be one of the most time-consuming, difficult things you’ll ever do. But it can also be one of the most rewarding. This is my personal experience with planning my first one, Ela Conf. I learned so much along the way and hope I can be a resource for others who have had the idea to plan a conference or something of a similar scale. I considered breaking this post up into multiple posts but considering how long it’s taken me to publish, I’m going to keep it all as one. First, a little background about me and my event planning experience.

How I came to be part of Ela Conf

I have been helping to plan various events in Philadelphia including LadyHacks (an annual introductory hackathon for women), workshops for the Women in Tech Summit (WITS), and numerous classes and social events for Girl Develop It Philly. In my personal life, I’m often the one that friends turn to for planning help and have been known to throw some pretty fun parties. I actually love event planning, if the developer thing doesn’t work out it’s something I would seriously consider as a profession. Because of my experiences and love for planning stuff, when I was approached by Joni Trythall in April of 2015 to help plan a conference I had no hesitation to say yes.

I had met Joni through Girl Develop It Philly and worked with her to organize Philly’s first CodePen meetup, a WITS workshop she taught on SVG and a GDI Philly Intro to SVG class. Joni is hilarious, smart, and insanely talented and I was excited to work with her on such an awesome sounding event. I had the opportunity to attend Write/Speak/Code the month before Joni came to me with the conference idea and the topic was something I felt we were lacking in Philly. We have GDI to teach tech classes but there was no outlet similar to W/S/C that was geared towards getting more women into writing and speaking about tech, two areas where we are still underrepresented.

What I got out of planning a conference

Where do I start with what I personally got out of ELA conf, there’s so much. I had the opportunity to meet so many amazing, badass women and build my network. I learned a ton about planning an event of this scale, questions I need to ask for next time and what to be aware of the next time around.

Lessons learned (or questions I wish I thought to ask)

  1. Are there other costs associated with the event? We had a venue sponsor which was great and something we thought would save a ton of money. The benefit of this was we were able to start promoting the event with our date and location without having to raise a single dollar or sell a single ticket. The downside to this was everything I didn’t realize or didn’t think to ask. Using this space meant we only had the option of using their list of caterers and there was no way to bring in outside food. We had to pay an AV fee which became our second highest cost after food. There was a housekeeping fee (the venue sponsor paid this but something to keep in mind). We also had some issues with security and the list of names I had sent the night before not being the right format. Being told “technically the guard doesn’t have to let the attendees in” on the day of your event is a phrase I’d want to steer clear of. Not fun.
  2. Will there be any other events going on at the venue at the same time? Our event was at a university which was fantastic for what we were looking for in terms of space. We had an auditorium for the main talks and used classrooms for the smaller breakout sessions. Our food was in the main area, where I didn’t realize other attendees from two other events would be walking through. There was an issue with some of our food being taken by high school students and the lunch break was crowded with non-Ela people. Having other events going on at the same time probably wasn’t something that could be avoided but something we could have planned better for knowing beforehand.
  3. When the caterer says coffee break, does that actually include coffee? This was 100% my fault, I didn’t read the contract closely enough and completely missed that the coffee break didn’t actually include coffee. When I did realize, about 10 minutes before the break was supposed to begin, we were scrambling. I had to apologize to so many people because no coffee when attendees are expecting coffee is no fun.

What I would do the same

  • Feedback – Sending out a survey after the conference was so awesome for us to reference when planning for our second year. It was so insightful and I’m so glad to everyone that took the time to fill it out.
  • Schedule – When we were planning out the schedule we decided to do single track talks in the main auditorium then breaking into multi-track breakout sessions, finishing back in the main auditorium for the final talks and closing keynotes. I think this was really helpful to break up the day, get people moving and not just have everyone sitting in the same seat/room all day long.
  • Buffer time – On the topic of schedule, we had about 5 minutes between each speaker. In reality, we probably only needed 1 or 2, but this was immensely helpful to keep us on track. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a conf that started exactly on time, and Ela was no different. Because we had so much buffer time built in between speakers we had no trouble staying on time for lunch and our breakout sessions.
  • Slack – Slack was such a great tool for so many aspects of the conference. We had our own private organizer channels where we could discuss things between our bi-weekly calls, a private channel for speakers to connect & receive feedback on their talks while they worked through them, and then a bunch of public channels where anyone could join and connect before the conference and keep in touch after. We’ve even had women join the Slack group who didn’t attend the conference but were still able to benefit from the connections made within. There are channels for job seekers, speaking opportunities, goals, and achievements, just to name a few.
  • Emcee – We decided to have an emcee that wasn’t one of us and it was one of the best decisions we made. Our emcee was fantastic and it will be difficult to find an equal replacement for the next one. She helped keep the flow of the whole day and made the transition between speakers seamless.
  • Videos – I am so glad we filmed the speakers on the main stage, this year I hope we can have the chance to film the breakout sessions as well. It’s so awesome to be able to rewatch all the amazing speakers, there were also a few I had to miss to deal with some logistical things. You can check out all of the talks here!
  • Sketch note takers – We had two women designated to taking sketch notes for the conf and it was awesome! I found myself anxiously awaiting the tweet that we shared after every talk. Below is one of the sketch notes taken while I spoke about a not-so-great speaking opportunity I flubbed.

What I would do differently

Overall, Ela conf was a huge success. Every single speaker was amazing and I will speak to the continued awesomeness of it shortly. Attendees were unaware of the small things that had gone wrong (other than the coffee showing up late) and the feedback we received following was very positive. That being said, there are still some things I would definitely do differently and will be aware of for next time (oh yes, there will be a next time).

  • Food estimates – We did a kickoff event on Friday night, knowing that not everyone registered would show up. The caterer still prepped for the amount of people we were expecting overall and it was such a waste. There was way too much food both days. Again, I take responsibility for this and wish I would have looked at exactly what was covered. It was a lost opportunity to negotiate the cost down and not see so much waste at the end of the night. Note: I have never, at any event I’ve planned, figured out the magic that is food estimation, if anyone has some sort of formula for this, please let me know!
  • Speaker room – I think we completely overlooked the importance of a speaker room. Having spoken at a handful of events that provide this, I can definitely say this is something so important. Giving speakers a place finalize slides, take the time to practice a little more or just relax and decompress is so valuable.
  • Gather attendee data – I wish we had asked a few more questions during registration to give us a better idea of who our attendees were. This is great information for sponsorship solicitation. So many sponsors want to know who attendees are and how the money they’re contributing is beneficial to the demographic you’re serving. Note: Ela conf is for women in tech or women that are tech adjacent. This can include anyone from a PM to an Android dev to a designer, if you’re running something like Rails conf, you’re sponsors know exactly who is going to be there.
  • Speaker payment – Because this was all of the organizers first conference we really didn’t know what to expect. We kept a projected budget doc going but really had no idea what we could expect in terms of sponsorship and ticket revenue. Having a better idea of what the actual cost of the conf was, I definitely want to build in money for a speaker stipend or, at least, more money to cover speaker travel & expenses.
  • Speaker contracts – I had the opportunity to speak at SassConf this past year and they had all speakers sign a contract. Doing so, you were agreeing to follow the code of conduct, among other things. I regret not asking more from some of our speakers in terms of helping with promotion and outlining other expectations i.e. sending me slides by a certain date. 
  • Have all slides sent by a certain date – and set up on one machine. If everyone is presenting on the same stage, it can save a lot of time and fumble to have everything on the same computer, loaded and ready to go. There is no worry about having the right adapter, making sure the resolution is right or any other thing that can possibly go wrong switching between multiple computers.
  • Volunteer responsibilities – Volunteers are the heart & soul of most events if you have the means to pay staff, even better. This was one area I felt we kind of winged and is not something I would recommend doing. Be respectful of people that are there and volunteering their time. Give them meaningful tasks and clearly outline the timeframe you need them for and what to expect.
  • Social media – Find someone who can be in charge of social media on the day of. There are going to be a million other things for you to worry about as an organizer and RTs and responding to tweets shouldn’t be one of them.
  • Clearly defined roles – Similar to the volunteer roles, make sure there are clearly defined roles amongst the organization team for the day of. Who is going to be in charge of sound checks, who will be the point of reference for the caterer or other vendors, who can be the point of contact for volunteers, etc?
  • Sponsorship levels and benefits – This was another learning lesson for us. We used some other sponsorship docs from other events and adjusted to fit our needs. There were so many different levels with different benefits that we didn’t really pay enough attention to. Then there were sponsors that gave at different levels that hadn’t been set and we were unsure what level of benefits they should be receiving. This year, we’re scaling back the sponsorship tiers and making sure that the sponsorship benefit is something that is meaningful and beneficial for them.
  • Date of event – The date of the event is probably never going to be a perfect formula, especially if you are located somewhere like Philadelphia that will always have competing events going on. We opted for the weekend before Thanksgiving which, after feedback, didn’t seem like an ideal weekend for most. Ultimately, this is just something you have to figure out that works for the majority and

Continued awesomeness after the conference

Before the conference, we created a Slack group so attendees could make connections beforehand and keep in touch afterward. It has been so awesome to see all of the activity that still goes on in here. Anything from goal setting to accolades to job postings. People have used this group to call out other opportunities for speaking engagements or to share other conferences and see if others are attending. The community that was built around this conf was amazing and I can wait to see what the 2016 event brings!


More posts about ELA Conf

Where are the women in tech? Right here. And they’re organized and taking over.
A look back on ELA conf
My love letter to ELA Conf
How these 3 women found their place in the tech scene
Getting started speaking workshop at ELA Conf

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