Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Planning a Writers Conference

Nancy J. Cohen

Organizing a writers’ conference is a year-long, time consuming event. Having recently attended the inaugural Mystery Writers Key West Fest, I can appreciate the hard work put in by its co-organizers, Michael Haskins and Shirrel Rhoades, to make everything run smoothly. We’re doing the same thing for SleuthFest, scheduled for February 26, 2015. What steps do you have to take to organize a conference? This is by no means a comprehensive checklist, but here are some suggestions if your group is interested in moving forward with a big event.


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Book the hotel and the date. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. You have to estimate the number of people attending, including speakers, editors, agents, and special guests. Why? Because you’ll need meeting rooms to fit your capacity. How many persons might attend each session? How many tracks per hour will you offer? Thus how many break-out rooms are required? Day by day and function by function, you’ll have to map things out with the hotel liaison. This includes social events like meals and cocktail parties. A contract is drawn up. What is the cost of each meal? How much in deposits are required and when? What’s the cancellation policy? If you’re in Florida, what happens if there is a hurricane warning that weekend? How many rooms of your block do you have to fill? You need a good negotiator for this aspect, and that’s only the start.

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Obtain the keynote speakers. Once you have a date and place, you can put invites out for the key speakers. They’ll be a draw for everybody else and for press coverage.

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Devise a conference budget. This will help you determine how much to charge for registration. Decide if your goal is to break even or to make a profit.

Appoint committee chairs. You’ll want to assign volunteers to take charge of the different roles, such as Programming, Editors/Agents, Author Liaison, Raffles, Publicity, Sponsors, etc. Put your key people in place early.

Brainstorm for programming ideas. What’s your conference theme? What topics do you want to cover? Will you have panels or one-on-one workshops?

Arrange for special events. Do you want to go on a shoot-out at a local range? Visit a morgue? Have a demonstration by K-9 dogs? Offer a murder mystery dinner cruise? Will you fill up the evenings, or will attendees be on their own?

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Once you have laid the groundwork, you’re ready to solicit speakers and post your registration forms online. Assign a publicity person to be in charge of tweets, Facebook posts, and other online promotion. Another one can be in charge of obtaining sponsorships, like for tote bags and for maybe a coffee break. Don’t forget to solicit ads for the program book. Now you’re getting down to the nitty gritty details.

Be gracious and praise your team. Putting on a conference is an effort of love. We need to appreciate the volunteers who work so hard. Giving out token recognition awards or publicly recognizing your team mates at the event itself will go a long way toward getting those same volunteers to come back next year.

Even if your event seems to be a well-oiled machine, be prepared for last-minute snafus. Tell yourself that everything will work out fine. No one will notice the glitches, and they’ll all have a wonderful time.

If you wish to read my reports on conferences I've attended, visit my blog at Nancy's Notes from Florida.

Have you been involved in conference planning? If so, what has been your biggest challenge?




18 comments:

  1. Wow, Nancy, it makes me tired just thinking about it.

    Your notes on the recent Mystery Writers Key West Fest, on your blog, were interesting.

    I would be interested in reading your thoughts, in some future post, on organizing a writers' retreat in a smaller, rural setting.

    Thanks for your post. I'll know who to call on if I ever get tapped to be on a planning committee.

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    1. You'd have to determine your purpose for the writers' retreat and then define the parameters. Would people be critiquing or working alone? Will they get meals on their own? What accommodations would be appropriate, and how many people could attend? It seems to me this would be less formal than a conference.

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  2. Nancy, thanks for sharing what it takes to put together a writers' conference. It's an accurate detailing of all it takes to put together a meeting that runs smoothly. For a number of years, I was course director for a conference for physicians at which they learned the nuances and latest techniques in a particular field. During that time I learned that a course organizer is like an umpire--when he does his job well, nobody notices.

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    1. That's very true, Richard. A well-organized conference appears to run smoothly even if there are unseen glitches. On the other hand, you can tell when the organizers need a helping hand if things are lacking.

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  3. Nancy, I'm a co-planner for the California Crime Writers Conference that happens every other year (next up in June 2015), and the biggest thing I see is to try to stay on top of deadlines. Planning can seem manageable at first, but as the conference grows closer, things have a tendency to snowball!

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    1. Good point, Diane. It's helpful to make a schedule for the committee heads to follow, as to which items have to be done by what dates. Thanks for the mention.

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  4. Thanks for this great info, Nancy! I've been to a lot of excellent writers' conferences (and a few that could have been better organized), so I know the planning that goes into them is huge!

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    1. Indeed, it is. Conferences take a tremendous amount of advance planning.

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  5. And by the way, here's an extensive list of writers' conferences and book festivals in North America in 2014: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.ca/2014/01/writers-conferences-book-festivals-in.html Anyone have any to add to the list?

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    1. Thanks for this great resource. I've added a link to our Florida MWA links page (for members only).

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  6. Hardest thing I had to learn chairing SleuthFest 10 years ago: Delegating. You have to have good folks and then trust them. Second was staying on budget. As you said, Nancy, establishing a budget is essential. Looking forward to SF 2015!

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    1. Sticking with the budget is even more essential than having one, as you say.

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  7. Wow, Nancy. I find it challenging just to attend one, but I bet it can be gratifying to put together a great program where your attendees can benefit. Nice post. Thank you.

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    1. The best result is when attendees go away praising the event and telling other writers to save the date for next year.

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  8. I am part of the committee for our Alaska Writer's Guild Conference, and yeah....there's a lot to this stuff.

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    1. Good Luck, Basil! Having a good team is essential.

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  9. A great plan to follow for almost any event. Thanks for the details.

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    1. I didn't really get much into details, just the groundwork. It helps to have a month-by-month plan on what to do and deadlines as suggested above.

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