As many of you know, 30% of my position with Church Publishing involves travel. This week I am wrapping up the final conference I will be attending for 2010. (Hallelujah!) As I reflect back on a big year that brings me close to platinum status with Delta and with three years under my belt with CPI, I’m ready to share some perspectives about what makes a good Christian education conference. I’ve attended plenty of “acronym conferences” this year – NAECED, REC, APCE & CEF as well as some regional (Kanuga & WCEC), diocesan (too numerous to mention), and organizational ones (CEEP). I’ve given workshops at most of them, had a display of some sort at all of them, and even keynoted at a few. Having also had my fair share of being on a Design Team for many major events, I understand what it takes to put on a conference.
- Hospitality – From registration to conclusion, how are participants greeted and included? Is water (with cups) readily available in a variety of areas . . . plenary space, workshops, exhibit hall? Are there opportunities and places for newcomers to gather in the evening to build new relationships? Do the planners hang out with each other or spend time with the participants? Lastly, is there light food available for those who may have traveled from a distance and are adjusting to a new time zone?
- Plenary – What’s the purpose of having a keynoter or large group gathered? Does your speaker fit with your theme? I want to be fed. I want a speaker or keynoter who can tell a story and inspire me and make me think. This is part of every conference that I feel is for me, personally. Keep them short – no more than 1 hour (1.5 if there is small group conversation). And hopefully the person is not on the circuit selling his or her book.
- Workshops – To me, this is the portion of any conference in which I want to take away practical, usable new ideas that I can take home and implement. I want to be respected by the presenter and be engaged, with an opportunity to ask questions and be in conversation with other participants. I don’t like sitting in rows to hear a lecture with or without a power point presentation. Again, I don’t want a sales pitch of a new product. And I like handouts – if you want to be green, (which is fine with me) e-mail them to me at the conclusion of the event.
- Worship – This needs to feed me, too. And it’s got to include scripture, music, prayer and a reflection. Yes, I’m an Anglican – so all those parts need to be there or else it feels like a hymn sing, lecture, or “come to Jesus” event. And it doesn’t need to be long. Candles and contemplative centering are nice too, not necessary, but again, I’m a cradle Episcopalian.
- Exhibit areas – Be open during free times – not during worship, plenary or workshops. And make them centrally located. Make sure booths have someone at them so I can ask questions. But I don’t want them to chase me down the aisle handing me something I will throw away when I get back to my room. And no music please – exhibitors don’t want to hear the same song played over and over for hours at a time (i.e. – the saxophonist at General Convention in 2006 & 2009).
- Transportation – For those who need to take mass transportation (plane or train), share shuttle or taxi options in the registration or confirmation information. It’s part of hospitality. If you want me to come, make it easy for me to figure out how to get there.
- Lodging – Check out the hotel or conference center ahead of time. Notify participants if they need to bring a hairdryer or soap (yes, I stayed in a retreat center that did not have any). And while all of our budgets have been downsized, you get what you pay for with a cheap rate. Check out Yelp! or Trip Advisor to learn what you’re in for.
- The Schedule – Is there a schedule that is clear and consistent? Offer free time; it’s needed to digest all the presentations as well as care for one’s self. Having it after lunch gives an opportunity for a walk, checking out exhibits, or simply recharging one’s batteries after sitting most of the morning. And don’t keep changing it. And if you do, don’t forget to let the exhibitors know also.
I’m tempted to rate each event I’ve been to this year. But each of you know who you are and can figure out how you measure up.
A note to Design Teams about your exhibitors:
- Get in touch with them far in advance.
- Be clear about where stuff gets shipped to and when it needs to be there. And provide a means for stuff to get shipped back – at least a UPS pick-up.
- Allow them to share meals with the participants.
- Be open during free times – not during worship, plenary or workshops.
- Tell us how many participants are expected – and be realistic.
- Keep the hours short.
- Lock the room when it is closed – or have a security guard that doesn’t let anyone in except during open hours.
- Ask for feedback.
- Be hospitable to them too.