5 Things I Learned from Planning a Blog Conference

5 Things I Learned from Planning a Blog Conference

photo by Tim Becker

Holy crap, we had a blog conference. If you haven’t heard yet, PHLBloggers planned its first blog conference two weekends ago, The Blog Connect. Our team was comprised of three people: me (the conference mastermind, a name given to me, not chosen), Sarah from smoorelovin’ (the conference creative director), and Melissa from Skinny Affair (the conference sponsorship coordinator). The best team a girl could ask for when planning a blog conference. I started to think about the idea of hosting a conference last year around October and actually put it into action in December. Once we decided on a headcount goal and venue everything else started falling into place. I remember the moment when I realized that no matter what happened next and what planning did or didn’t happen that we were still having a blog conference. That was very cool.

People keep asking how I think it went. The answer? I thought it went really well. Logistically it went off almost without a hitch (a small microphone situation happened, but after that we were home free), almost everyone knew the conference hashtag before they showed up, and when surveyed everyone said they had enough food and beverage throughout the day (which as an Italian is kind of a big deal in my life).

That’s not to say that there’s not already a huge list of things that we want to change for next year. Actually, we were saying it while we were planning this year. Next year we’re aiming for 100-120 people (this year it was 50); we’d love to have a keynote speaker; we’re considering hosting a party the night before the conference; and we’re already brainstorming the best way to keep all the emails, sponsorships, and other details organized (hint: it’s not all in the same email chain).

4.16.16_PHL_CROWD SHOTS_19

photo by Tim Becker

Everything about planning a blog conference was a learning experience. From beginning to end. I’ve planned 50+ person events before, but they’ve been 4 hours, not 8 hours; I’venever needed to set up a speaker line-up before; and I’ve never has to coordinate multiple vendors before. And I’ve definitely never had a creative director. It was always amazing to me how I would have this very basic vision for something in my head and the next thing I knew everything would arrive in my inbox in tropical colors with innovative execution ideas behind it. It was so fun to watch Sarah’s creative vision for the conference come to fruition. The girl knows her shit.

The Blog Connect Crowd - photo by Julia Dent

photo by Julia Dent

Here are my four biggest key takeaways from planning my first (of hopefully many) conferences:

The conference line-up should look like the group of attendees you’re trying to attract.

We’re about to get real. This was a big one for me. I’ve never needed to prepare a speaker line-up before, so I did it the most efficient way I knew how. I emailed our entire PHLBloggers mailing list and said “hey! I’m planning a conference, who wants to speak at it?!” Well, everyone who volunteered to speak was white. At the time I didn’t think twice about it, especially because it was a pretty fantastic lineup. I said yes to almost every person who volunteered. I figured this was the most fair way to do it.

Well, this line-up caused some not so good feelings outside of the PHLBloggers community. The actual worst part of the whole thing was that nobody was asking me about how the speaker line-up was chosen, they were asking the other PHLBloggers members who had no idea how it had happened, they only knew that I probably had the best intentions.

So then I/we ended up stuck in a conundrum. Do you change the great speaker line-up that volunteered and already committed? That didn’t seem like the right way to go. We ended up changing the overall conference schedule a bit and decided to offer a few more openings to speakers. This time only women of color applied. Our line-up coincidentally ended up balancing itself out, but that doesn’t change the overall message of this lesson.

This is me admitting my own ignorance to all of you. At first I didn’t really understand why the entirely white line-up was a problem. I asked a very diverse mailing list if they wanted to speak; the whole group had the same opportunity. It wasn’t until I started looking at other conferences that I realized what the problem was. If I looked at a conference and the line-up was all women of color, I automatically assumed that my presence wasn’t wanted at that specific conference. All of a sudden it made sense, embarrassingly much so.

And let me pause to say that I really enjoyed all of our speakers this year. They were amazing. They had great content to share, people left feeling inspired, and they all had a fun story to tell. That is not, and was never the problem.

It’s never that I wanted only white people to come to the conference, I just assumed that everybody would automatically know that they were welcome because that’s how PHLBloggers works. But if you don’t know our group, and have never met our people, that may not have been overwhelmingly clear.

What’s going to happen next year? Well, this year I set the entire speaker line-up before the conference was even announced because I wanted to make sure that somebody would want to speak at this conference. Next year we’re going to be opening up speaker applications. If you felt there was a perspective missing from the conference, whether that’s a difference is race, gender, or age, I would love for you to apply to speak, because I would love to hear what you have to say. And so would the rest of our group. And when we go to choose the line-up we’re going to choose the best people for the job, and I guarantee you that the best people for the job are all going to bring their own diversity to the table.

Alright, onto the other things I learned now.

The Blog Connect Workshops - photo by Julia Dent

photo by Julia Dent

When you’re planning a blog conference you’re not attending the conference.

This was something I realized about a week before the event. I realized that I was planning a blog conference, not attending a blog conference. I didn’t expect there to be a chair for me, I didn’t think I would have a bunch of notes on what the speakers said, and I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to meet anybody new. My purpose at this blog conference was to make sure that everything happened when it was supposed to, that everyone felt prepared to do what they needed to do, and to make sure that all of the people had access to the building at all the right times. And that’s how it happened. I barely sat in a chair (by the end of the event I had my shoes off, prom-style though), I have no notes from the conference, and I didn’t meet anybody. That said, I was so glad to know that somebody had logistics on their mind all day.

It’s not possible to plan one of these alone.

It’s just not. I don’t know what I would have done without Melissa and Sarah. Melissa did all the sponsorship outreach and coordinated all of the deliveries of swag bag and giveaway items. Sarah designed everything that had our logo on it – from the logo itself, to the website, to the conference brochures. I literally couldn’t have done it without these ladies. We’re trying to figure out what other roles we want to bring into the team for next year, because we’re sure that as it continues to get bigger we’re going to need even more hands on deck.

It’s not over when it’s over.

So you do all this planning to make sure that the day of the event goes correctly. You get the design stuff down, you drop off everything that you need, you execute the day – and then you’re flipping exhausted when you go home. What you want to do is crash on the couch immediately, but what actually happens is that you need to send out follow-up emails, thank you notes, and sponsorship statistics, which I’m super excited to do all of. And you need to write down what went well and what you would change for next year right after it happens, because it’s going to become a blur very quickly. All that said, next year I might take the week after the conference off of work.

The Blog Connect Panel - photo by Tim Becker

photo by Tim Becker

I love nice people.

This isn’t something that I learned, this conference just reitterated it. The speakers, panelists, and workshoppers were all fantastic. I emailed Schmear It to see if they would give us breakfast for the conference on a whim one evening before I even had any conference material written up yet. And you know what? They said yes. They looked at our PHLBloggers conference, knew it was going to be something special, and said yes right off the bat. I met the General Manager of Snap Kitchen in Philadelphia at a Casino Night event in the city. My friend had mentioned the blog conference to her and the GM within the first 5 minutes of meeting me said, yeah, I’d love to talk about that opportunity with you. My accountant, Tamara from Creative Business Accounting & Tax Service, heard about the conference and immediately wanted to donate to the cause. They sponsored our swag bags (the literal bags) with a donation. At this point I time I hadn’t even considered that businesses would want to sponsor our event that didn’t have a product to sell. I’m pretty sure my jaw hit the floor as she offered. The Saxbys team was SUPER on board from the second it started and were incredibly helpful before and during the event. I couldn’t have asked for a better venue for our first conference. The Philadelphia Brewing Company folks also immediately said yes and reminded us that they make both beer and cider, so we got to work with Commonwealth Ciders as well. And then I emailed Sarah from XO Sarah who I’ve taken classes with before (and had lunch with in San Diego!) to see if she wanted to get in on the fun and she gave copy of her e-book, Double Your Blog Traffic in 90 Days or Less, to everyone at the conference. Pure awesomeness. It was just cool watching all of these things come together. It felt really good. And it made me really flipping happy.

Please note that I didn’t work directly with most of the swag bag or giveaway speakers, that was all Melissa’s jam.

I definitely learned so much more from planning this conference. So many things that are captured in my “Blog Connect Master Plan” document that has been a living document for the last 4 months. Melissa, Sarah, and I are sitting down next week to do our overview and recap of the event and I can’t wait to get all of our ideas for next year in the same place. Thanks again to everybody who came out to the event, I can’t wait to make it even bigger and better next year.

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  • I had some severe FOMO the day of the conference! From everything I’ve heard, you ladies did a fabulous job. I hope to go next year! I think you’ve really got something great here and I love the lessons you’ve learned too. So on point and thoughtful. Congrats to an excellent conference!

    • Aw, I’m sorry, never looking to be FOMO-inducing. BUT hoping to meet you soon at an event. And thanks for all the kind words!

      • Haha no it was a good thing. 🙂 I just had to make some money decisions. Thankfully, grad school is over in two weeks. So I will be attending ALL of the PHLBloggers events. Finally!

  • The conference went off sooo weeelllll, I think everyone was incredibly impressed with all that you, Sarah and Melissa were able to pull off! Thank you #ConferenceQueens for your incredible vision and drive! Can’t wait for next year!

    • Thanks so much!! It was definitely fun! And yeah, definitely couldn’t have done it without those ladies.

  • Congrats again on an incredible event Chrystina! I am SO ATTENDING next year!!

    • Thank you, thank you! Awesome, we’d love to have you there!

  • I think the conference was amazing and lots of fun! I really enjoyed being there and meeting new people. I also love being a speaker! Very cool experience.

    • I’m glad you had fun! And I enjoyed your session! Glad to have you as part of the group and hope to see you soon!

  • What a great post. That is all.

  • Whitney H

    Yes yes yes yes yes to all of these! Diversity in a speaker lineup is definitely something I never thought about (admitting my own ignorance here) and we got an email this year commenting on it. At first I was offended (not because of the sentiment but the way it was worded,) but after reading your take on it, it absolutely makes sense. I’m so glad that you all split up the responsibilities, that’s so important. And the point about “planning” vs “attending” is SO true. I felt so bad sitting down at Thrive that I ended up just getting up and walking around in the hallway because of my nervous energy!

    Even though I’m not involved with Thrive anymore, I really hope that I create something like this in Charlotte! I’m so proud of you and everything you have done!

    • As a conference organizer I feel like you spend so much time thinking “I hope people come!” at first that all the other logistics and considerations are thrown off. Time for us to make some changes going forward :). Also, yes, I definitely felt bad sitting down, I just kept worrying that something needed to get done that I had forgotten about. That said, I definitely learned to wear more comfortable shoes for next year.

      I think you could do a great job with something like that in Charlotte, such a fun city!

  • I <3 nice people too! Girl, you never cease to amaze me. Congrats again on an amazing conference! xoxox

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