Conferences, workshops, retreats – they are a part of every writers life. We read about them, hope to attend them, but what goes into putting those events together? Here are a few answers to questions I’ve been asked by group members.
How much experience do you have planning workshops, retreats, and conferences? I’ve been a part of planning these events for more than 10 years.
How far ahead of a workshop, retreat, or conference do you start working to put it together? As soon as you know it's going to happen, the planning begins.What does that planning look like? First, you try to decide who (speakers, presenters, workers) and how many will attend. Secondly, you make a budget and research what will be the expenses of running the event. Event location fees, Lodging, food and speaker’s fees are the most important considerations. You will need to decide how to split the costs evenly between attendees.
Then what happens? Be aware of what tools and services your location will provide: outlets for various technology, work space, seating, and food - and what you need or will be allowed to bring yourself. Some speakers will prefer their own equipment and provide materials for attendees. Others will expect you to provide everything. Make sure you keep a clear communication line open between yourself and your presenters so that day runs smoothly.You mentioned tools. What type of tools would be needed? You have to determine beforehand what will be provided, what attendees need to bring with them and even what you want to ban from the event. Some writers prefer to hand write their notes, drafts or perform edits; just as many prefer to do all of their work on their laptop. So, will you provide pens and paper? Will internet be available to attendees who want it – some of us can’t live without tweeting and facebook. Also, internet connection is useful for research, but like the cell phone, it can become a bigger distraction than an aide. A printer may be desired as well. I prefer to leave the printer out of events because you eat into your group time waiting for something to be printed out. Consider asking your attendees to print their work before coming unless you plan to allow large amounts of individual time. You also need wires, charger, extra batteries and everything necessary to ensure the technology is always working. A TV and DVD player may also be desired. Some speakers will use powerpoint, slideshows, etc. Will you provide your own projection unit or expect speakers to bring their own? If it’s a larger event, microphones, speakers, and a soundboard may all be used. An alarm clock or timer can help you stay on schedule. Coordinators will be needed to help during larger events – be clear on each individuals responsibilities. Comfortable clothes are a must!
How do you determine a schedule? If you keep the gathering small, you can tailor your schedule to specific needs. You may want a single day experience, or if you all have the time, an entire weekend or (in writer’s Heaven) a whole week. If you are planning a large gathering, you may want to have speakers, break-out sessions, critique times, scheduled agent and editor pitch sessions, etc. The first talk, class or workshop should provide an overview of the schedule and what you hope to accomplish, even if it has been discussed beforehand. From that point, try to alternate between group and individual time.What do you mean by group versus individual time? You will have planned sessions with speakers or directed activities. Be sure you leave time for writer’s to brainstorm, plot and critique together as well as solitary time – this may be a whole hour for lunch or personalized sessions, or just a series of 15 minute breaks throughout the day. This gives the writer a chance to digest, plan the next sessions to attend, or even begin implementing tips offered. Also, nothing keeps the creative juices flowing like time with friends that share your passion. I have heard of some retreats that offer time at a spa, massages, shopping, dinners out etc. Obviously, the amount of time and options you have available will be determined by the length and size of the event. A few friends getting together for the day might just enjoy a leisurely lunch together.
Is there work to be done after the event? Yes, the follow up. If you didn’t provide a critique sheet to the attendees, you’ll want to do so soon. A week or so after the event, seek feedback. Ask each participant what made the gathering great and ask for any suggestions to make future events even better. If you are lucky, then you didn’t plan this occasion alone, and you also have a group to help you review.What other considerations are there? Learn to play the “what if” game. "If Speaker A cancels, who do I have as a back-up?", "If we wind up with 100 people instead of the 150 I'm planning for, can we still break even?", "If we have 250 registrants, do we have a place to put them?" “If someone asks for money back because they couldn’t attend or they were dissatisfied, what is our policy?” – hopefully, you have decided and stated this somewhere before individuals begin paying. Try to plan for as many possibilities as givens.
Retreats, workshops, and conferences are meant to be a relaxing time of creativity and accomplishment. By planning ahead, you’ll save time and ensure success for everyone involved.
Sylvia Ney is an author, speaker, and teacher. You can learn more about her or connect with her at her blog Writing in Wonderland.