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5 Things I Learned From Hosting A Conference

Hosting a conference or live event seems to be all the rage right now and everyone is interesting in creating an in-person experience. I absolutely love live events and think there is so much power to getting people in the room and immersing them in an experience.

I hosted my first conference, The Haven Conference, in April of 2019 and am beyond excited to host our second Haven Conference in November of 2019. But I had so many good lessons I learned from hosting a conference for the first time that I want to share with you today in hopes it will make your live event one for the books!

 

#1 Focus on having strong content vs. a bunch of pretty stuff.

I see this time and time again. People want the event to look pretty so they end up spending $10,000 a moss wall for a photo backdrop, $300 in silk ribbon to tie on the welcome bags, $3,000 on floral centerpieces and the list goes on and on. Then they have to jack up the ticket prices to cover their expenses or even worst they end up taking a massive loss from the event and decide to not do it again.

I get it – pretty sells tickets. But pretty sells first time tickets – do you know what sell returning tickets? Content. Strong content, with a clear takeaway and an amazing experience is what makes people leave events feeling on fire and ready to give you their money to come to the next event.

For my first Haven Conference I spent roughly $300 total on “pretty” things that included; supplies to make a DIY balloon garland, linens, a rug for the stage (which I’ve used over and over again) and couple of other small things. Everything else was either borrowed or something I already had at my home. Even the chairs, pillows and the end table we used on the stage we borrowed from our Airbnb we were staying at (sorry if the Airbnb owner is reading this – we took great care of them!).

All this to say, is if you are hosting a first-time conference, retreat, workshop or live event – focus on the content before you start getting quotes for flower walls. I’m a firm believer you should be able to host your event in a shack in the woods and have people leaving feeling great because the content is so good. Oh, and if you are going to make the excuse that your audience likes the pretty – I beg to differ. I was thanked by multiple attendees as they were leaving The Haven Conference for keeping the decor minimal and simple and spending their ticket money (yes, it is THEIR ticket money) on good speakers, the experience and awesome food.

PLEASE NOTE: if you are hosting a conference that is design-focused (i.e. floral workshop, photography portfolio building event, interior design conference, etc.) thats when pretty becomes a part of your content and then you want to invest. I do recommend doing everything in your power to get things sponsored/donated.

 

#2 Create an atmosphere for easy networking and community building

If you are hosting a conference or live event I recommend creating “moments” throughout the day that encourage conversation. We started the morning of The Haven Conference with a light networking breakfast were the attendees, speakers, sponsors and volunteers could walk around and get to know each other.

Then once everyone took their seats in the opening remarks I challenged everyone to get to know someone they didn’t know or separate from the friend they came with. Even during one of the exercises we had everyone find 1-2 people they didn’t know and share their biggest dreams with them. Yes, it was intimidating to some people, but I was thanked by so many attendees as they were leaving for making them get to know each other, even the more introverted attendees.

Most people want to network and meet new people but it can be intimidating/vulnerable to do it. So create those moments and a supportive atmosphere for them to do it. A few other ways you can do this is by…

  • having assigned seating and putting people next to people they don’t know
  • allocating a few minutes for introductions and have people break off into small groups or go around the room and introduce themselves
  • lots of breaks/mingling times
  • exercises where they are put into groups with new people
  • Having content dedicated to why community/tribe is important

There are so many more but make sure you get attendees to meet each other because those are relationships that could last a lifetime.

 

#3 Find a team to help you execute the event

I cannot recommend having a team enough when hosting a conference. During my first conference I had a team of 4 including myself, but what I found was I took the lead on coordinating/executing the day rather than delegating it out to my team, which was 100% my fault. By taking the lead on coordinating/executing the day I spent a lot of time and energy worrying about what was next, what we needed to do that I didn’t get to really listen to the other speakers and by the end of the day I was exhausted.

So when you are hosting a conference I recommend defining everyone’s roll and make your roll the host. Greeting people as they arrive, making sure everyone has a good time, sitting and listening to the other speakers, networking/visiting with attendees during breaks. Your roll should not be set-up or tear down or making coffee or laying catering out. Make sure you save your energy and time for those who have paid money to be there.

#4 Start selling tickets as early as possible

Planning and hosting a conference can be so scary, especially when you have no clue if your tickets are going to sell. But I think the sooner you launch the tickets to your event the better. We launched tickets to The Haven Conference 3 months before the conference actually happened. So I only had 3 months to educate as many people as possible about the event and hope that they wanted to join us.

For our second conference we launched the tickets immediately after the first conference, which have us the over 6 months to sell tickets. It has been so helpful to have more time to educate, sell and make sure the right people get in the room. I also think the longer you sell tickets the more time people get to think about it/plan for it to make sure they get in the room.

 

#5 Ask for feedback

If you are planning on hosting a conference multiple times then I think it is super important to ask your attendees for feedback. We created a simple survey in google forms that we mailed out to everyone a few hours after the conference. We asked them about their experience, had them rate the speakers, asked what they loved, what we could improve on and more.

This gave us such a good idea of how we could make the next Haven Conference even better. It gave us insight to what speakers we should get, what topics they want to learn about, ticket pricing, how we could make the experience even better and so much more.

 

Bonus tip for hosting a conference: Create a percentage based budget instead of set dollar amount

What I mean by this is instead of saying your budget is $6,000 for your event, say your budget is 40% (or whatever percentage amount you choose) of all ticket sales. That helps you from overspending and making sure your event is profitable. I know this is tricky with fixed costs (i.e. venue costs, speaker fees, etc.) so you I encourage you to know your breakeven point. For example, if your fixed costs = $4,000 and your tickets are $500 then you need to sell 8 tickets to cover your fixed costs. Everything above 8 tickets go on the percentage based budget rule.

 

I hope these lessons I learned will help you host a fulfilling, profitable and truly amazing conference or live event. I recommend checking out The Haven Conference Recap from our West Olive conference along with our 10 Tips For Attending A Conference and Getting Your Moneys Worth to share with your attendees!

 

Photography by Hetler Photography 

Brooke DePauw

Brooke is the owner of Stellaluna Events and a top Michigan wedding planner. She is a lover of celebrations by the water, with extensive experience with Lake Michigan and other lakeside weddings. Brooke believes in tossing away the trends and creating fulfilling experiences for her clients and their guests.

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