Planning the 2017 Blog Connect Conference

Planning the 2017 Blog Connect Conference

Photos by Tim Becker Photo

Well, I think it’s pretty much confirmed at this point. If you want to plan a conference you must be at least a little bit crazy and a heck of a lot of stubborn. Lucky for me, I’m both of those things.

What a conference.

In case you’re a little bit behind, last month was the second (annual?) Blog Connect Conference. We went from 52 tickets purchased year one to 81 tickets purchased year two. We added a kick-off party the night before. We flew in our keynote speaker from San Diego. We made even more great connections in and around the city. And we were able to bring together a kick butt group of people from around the United States. Well, that last part wasn’t different from last year, it was just really cool to see all over again.

With a new year of conference planning came a new year of challenges. We made it through them all. And as a blogger, it is (clearly) my responsibility to document these challenges, lessons learned, and how we handled them. Maybe they’ll help you plan your own conference, and maybe it’ll help me figure out how to go forward from here.

What it looks like to be really sleep deprived and really adrenalined at the same time.
Photo by Tim Becker Photo

Sometimes it’s best to stick with what you know.

At the very beginning of our planning process this year we spent 2 months looking for a conference venue. We felt like since we were doubling our number of attendees, knew that we would need to purchase chairs, and just for variety’s sake we should probably mix it up for the second year. After looking at many other venues, I realized that we weren’t going to find a better location than the one we used the first year, the Saxbys headquarters. They were, and are, absolutely wonderful. The team is amazing to work with. And there’s free coffee all day.

On top of that, we knew how it worked. We knew the space. We knew all the breakout rooms. We knew what we were and weren’t allowed to do in it. We knew how to get in and out of it. We had built enough trust over the past year that we were able to collaborate the entire way. This was invaluable.

Start planning early.

Before we knew we were going to choose the Saxbys headquarters as our location for the second year of the conference, we were looking for a venue for 100 people for a full day conference in April. What does that mean? We were competing with wedding season. Which meant we were competing with wedding prices. How the heck did that happen?

We also lost a few key sponsorships from the previous year because we didn’t reach out to them with enough notice and they already had their schedules filled out for the year. Lesson learned. Start early.

Planning for 100 is way different than planning for 50.

The first year we started our sponsorship planning by reaching out to some of the larger brands to see if they wanted to sponsor our conference. It was year one of the conference. Nobody knew anything about us. It wasn’t always an easy task.

This year, after some discussions among the team, we decided that we wanted to try to keep the sponsorships local – so we made a list of our favorite places and adorable boutiques in the city. Unfortunately, when you’re planning for 100, sometimes it’s not always possible for local shops to give you enough product to sponsor the conference. And we worked around that, and found some different ways to work with sponsors, but we found ourselves at the end of the process reaching out to some of those larger brands that we did in the first year. This time with a little more success. It’s all a learning experience, right?

Photos by Tim Becker Photo

You’re going to need a flexible schedule to make it happen.

Dear Lord. I can’t tell you how much time I spent on this conference in the two months leading up to it. Middle of the day phone calls, late night phone calls, morning meetings, early morning pick-ups, late night drop offs, weekdays, weekends, holidays – the list goes on. I’m so lucky to have a job that can be flexible. If I need to be somewhere in the morning, I can pick up a few more hours in the evening so long as I’m making deadlines. I was also able to take the Friday before the conference off to run around like a crazy lady. Never in a million years would it have been possible otherwise for me.

(That said, if you don’t have a day job, this probably isn’t a problem.)

It’s not possible to do without a team.

The Blog Connect Conference Team Photo

The team.
Photo by Tim Becker Photo

On that same note. I never could have done it without a team. Our amazing creative director, Sarah from smoorelovin (in gray) killed it with the branding, website, and entire creative vision. Melissa from Skinny Affair (blue dress) and Sarah from Shades of Sarah (blue dress with denim jacket) killed it on the sponsorships. They were doing all of the reaching out for our team, keeping track of our promises to the companies, and all of the contracts and logos. And Priyanka from Paint the Town Chic (black dress with gingham shirt) did a great job coordinating the party at ellelauri the night before (those ladies were also absolutely incredible to us).

That said, managing the team was more complicated this year. More people meant more people to keep in the loop, more people to make decisions, and more complicated to make sure that we were all on the same page. This is something I’m still learning. We were able to simplify our email chains, got better at using Google drive, and had much more of a process in place around everything, but as somebody who’s always trying to gain team consensus before making a decision (for better, for worse?), it made it a little tricky. That’s a personal problem though. Yay for growth opportunities?

The amazing swag bags coordinated by Melissa and Sarah.
Photo by Tim Becker Photo

If it feels wrong, it’s probably wrong.

There were a few things about planning the conference that just didn’t feel right. Some of them we caught at the beginning. The location we were originally going to hold the kick-off party at was taking weeks to get back to us with information. We finally figured out that they were not the right collaboration for us at the time and we were so happy working with the amazing ladies from ellelauri. HIGHLY recommend checking out their shop if you’re ever in the Rittenhouse area.

That said, a few people we tried to collaborate with that didn’t understand our group. A few people we emailed that didn’t appreciate how we operate. Every one of those situations that left a crappy feeling in my gut eventually evolved into something that I wasn’t happy with. Things fell through, it created hours of extra work, and I felt like I had lost control of my own conference for some time there. Lesson learned for next year?

ellelauri was the perfect backdrop – and excellents hosts – for our party.
Photo by Tim Becker Photo

Keep pushing through. Good things will come.

There were definitely moments during the conference planning that were so draining, but every so often something incredible will happen to blow your mind. One of the biggest days of planning was the day we got a text message that said Erin Condren wanted to provide planners for each of our attendees. What a win. The planners were absolutely gorgeous, with tabs built in, and sections for everything – and the team was able to personalize them with our conference logo. Other big days included solidifying our amazing monetary sponsors. A huge thanks to Creative Business Accounting & Tax Services for sponsoring us two years in a row – go visit Tamara, she can help you with any of your accounting needs and she’s wonderful. And thank you to Verna Law – Anthony (Verna) was in the same church choir as me in college, and it turns out he specializes in advertising law, trademarking law, and copyright law – and he’s super nice. Other key highlights included finding out ellelauri boutiques wanted to provide a 20% discount for our party attendees, and reading the email from Sarah Morgan saying she would love to be our keynote speaker.

The lesson learned here? Keep on going. Keep sending emails. Sooner or later you’ll find your people.

The amazing planners courtesy of Erin Condren.
Photo by Tim Becker Photo

Friends are actually the best.

The week leading up to the conference the messages started. People from all walks of life wishing me well. Emails telling me “Just wanted to say hi and wish you luck on the next couple days of rush that I’m sure ae happening to pull everything together for the conference!! I know how much work can be involved. It will be wonderful 🙂 Thanks for all you do!” Text messages telling me “Good luck today but remember to enjoy yourself. You worked so hard don’t let the experience pass you by.” I had friends who when I posted on Facebook saying I needed coolers and room dividers they came through within 24 hours. There was even some snail mail that wished me well with the conference. Friends are the best.

Sometimes, it is about the money.

This seems worth mentioning somewhere. At the very end of the conference somebody came up to me to ask how I made a profit on the conference. For all the information they got, all the food they got (there’s that food thing again), and all the activities they got to be a part of, how could I have possibly made a profit? I can tell you that I wasn’t actually sure we made a profit until somebody bought a ticket the morning of the conference. There was a grand total of about $200 profit. Which I will probably use to treat my team to dinner. So there definitely wasn’t profit built into this.

That was something that was extra stressful about this year, and seems like not a great way to run a business. I don’t know exactly what this means for next year yet, but it’s something I’m going to have to start thinking about if (a) PHLbloggers is going to continue to grow, (b) my team is going to keep putting in as much hard work as they did for free, and (c) I want to stay sane.

It’s also extra complicated because Eventbrite doesn’t actually pay out for the ticket revenue until 5 days after the conference, which means I was fronting the money for any of the vendors that needed to be paid before the conference. I’m super lucky to be able to afford to do something like that, but the cash flow situation definitely made things really tricky.

It’s important to talk through the plan.

It’s so, so important to have a plan. It’s important to talk through all the options, talk through everything that could go wrong, talk through who’s going where and when, talk about how things are getting from point A to B, talk about how things are getting paid for. This way, when everything goes wrong, you at least have some logic to fall back on. Things you learn when talking through the plan include:

  • When you use raffle tickets, both halves of the ticket go to the attendees.
  • You may have ordered the pizza for an hour too late.
  • One of the speakers can’t actually eat the pizza you ordered for dinner.
  • You were actually supposed to get a hotel room for your keynote speaker.

Yeah… glad we caught all of those things ahead of time.

Our lovely keynote speaker who almost didn’t have a hotel room…
Photo by Tim Becker Photo

Treat yo’self.

By the end of conference weekend I had pretty much hit a brick wall. Lucky for future Chrystina, I knew this was going to happen in advance and took two weeks of PTO immediately following the conference. Sure, there’s still a pretty big to do list for conference closeout (sometimes you can tell I do construction when I talk, huh?), but I’m going to be taking that head on from the sunny shores of Ventura, California. The plan? To be a real person at the end of two weeks off, find some energy, and make a plan to keep PHLbloggers growing – and to make The Blog Connect even better next year.

I guess I got to answer there, huh? Next year. Yeah, you definitely have to be a little crazy, man. There’s just such a space in Philadelphia for a community like this though, and it would be a shame to stop now, just as it’s getting good. As for what it’s going to look like? I have no idea yet. Haven’t even spoken to the team. I’ll get back to you after this upcoming vacation.

But with all the lessons learned, what could possibly go wrong next year, right?

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  • You and your team did such an incredible job organising the conference, and I had a great time experiencing it all! Major props to all of you for hosting such a large conference, and thank you for all your hard work <3 -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

    • You’re very welcome, it was so good to meet you in person! Hope to see you soon!

  • Ro

    It seems like it was a huge success! I would love to be able to go next year!!

  • Yay! for next year! I think you did a wonderful job and it all came together beautifully.
    Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help from afar!

    • Will do. And thanks so much for being a huge help that weekend!!

  • Congrats!! It sounds like a great conference. 🙂 I am a corporate event planner for about a decade now and I know how hard it can be! Enjoy the time off!

    • Thanks so much!! Especially means a lot from somebody who does this as their day job. (Props to you by the way.) Also, corporate event planner sounds like a really awesome gig. So cool.

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