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05 November 2014

The Little Details Matter at a Conference

The inner workings of local family history conferences is much on my mind. I have assisted in the planning of a conference before. I also have a renewed interest in behind the scenes decision making. I recently attended a conference hosted by a local church. For the most part, the conference was wonderful. I learned much and felt a renewed fire to do my research. Much great conference planning was also observed. Let me share some of the little details to consider if you, or I, plan a conference in the near future.

Pre-Registration Is A Must

Andy Lee at Family History Conference
How can you plan for something if you have no idea how many people will attend and what they would like? I remember my wedding reception planning. If we never asked people to RSVP, how would we know how much food to provide, how many tables to set up, and so forth? Same goes when I'm hosting a party of any kind at my home. How many people are coming and their dietary needs are very important pieces of information when planning. 

I've heard some people indicate that pre-registering for a free family history conference would turn people away who don't have computers. These potential attendees may feel they can't come if they are not pre-registered. Would someone really not attend if they could not pre-register? How many people fail to RSVP for wedding receptions but still show up? Enough that wedding planners advise brides to plan for such people. Same would hold true for conferences. Plan for the pre-registered individuals and leave some wiggle room for additional guests.

Without knowing how many folks are coming and what classes they hope to attend, classroom allocation becomes nothing more than a game on the Price is Right. Like those contestants, you don't know enough to make a truly informed decision and you're making a best guess. Often, that guess is wrong and the contestant doesn't win the prize, but sometimes they do. When planning a conference without pre-registration, the prize is a comfortable learning environment. Frequently, a popular class will be put in a small classroom and a sparsely attended class will be in a large room. This is easily solved by knowing how many people wish to attend each class.

Tell Me Where to Go

Having learned the importance of signage while working for an airport, there is a marketing fact that says people need to be visually directed where to go. Often, small conferences will simply give a building map or place signs on the outside of classrooms. A conference that goes beyond these essential items really understands people. Signs with classrooms and arrows would take it to the next level. A simple detail that reaps tremendous rewards, though often unappreciated.

This conference had beautiful signs identifying the location of each conference room. A plain sign could have done the job just as well. However, the crafty signs were lovely and added an extra special flare to the conference. 

Don't Over Use a Feel Good Item

Many conference have themes and invite presenters to work those themes into their classes. I'm all for themes as they create conference synergy. There is a difference between synergy and overkill, and it's important to know the difference. 

Overkill is listening to the same discussion of an article three or four times. Further, when the analysis of the same article gets progressively longer in length during each subsequent class, presenters have wasted valuable class time. (This applies to feel good / introductory articles, not necessarily a staple such as Evidence Explained or other genealogy reference book.)

If you witness that an article you were planning to use in your class has been discussed at length in previous classes, cut your usage down. Use a quote or two to tie the classes together and then focus on the remaining content of your class. If you find that your class material is considerably shorter without your article discussion, then allow more time for class participation and questions on what your class was supposed to teach. If your class ends early, send them to the snack table or exhibits.

A Little Bit of Hospitality Goes A Long Way

This is the first conference that I've attended that offered a refreshment table. The coordinators had small water bottles, a choice of granola bars or cookies, and complimentary napkin. At first glance, I thought that this was unnecessary. However, I soon learned the wisdom of this hospitable decision.

Around the second hour of the conference, I was a little hungry and definitely thirsty. Could I have made do with the water fountain? Sure. However, the snack table was really nice. Especially considering I hadn't eaten since very early that morning and lunch still hours away.  

Kudos for this conference to adding a little bit of hospitality. I hope more conferences will consider this in the future. 

Set the Mood For the Conference

Family History is Everyone's Responsibility
Set the Mood with a slide show of cool things
Finally, this is one area that few local conferences have done perhaps because it isn't absolutely necessary. Many conferences have registration starting 30 minutes to 1 hour before the opening remarks or first class begins. What should be provided for those individuals who arrive early and have a long wait before everything starts? I'd really like to hear some answers from you. 

I arrived at this local conference early primarily because it was potentially more than 45 minutes away. I wanted to ensure I didn't get lost or run into traffic along the way. Additionally, I didn't know what to expect from their registration process, since they didn't have pre-registration. I would hate to come in close to start time to spend wasted learning time in a registration line.

Things ran so smoothly that morning, I arrived with plenty of time to spare. After picking up my name badge, I had a lot of time to kill. Now what? Honestly, I was bored.

I observed that conference exhibits were still setting up but some were already prepared for the day. I went and visited these displays knowing I probably wouldn't make time later. I'm not sure, but I sensed some conference planners weren't to pleased with me. The exhibit folks didn't mind and were happy to visit with me as they really didn't have anything else to do. Maybe I'm making more out of this than I should, but without knowing it was really okay, I did feel guilt but also needed something to do.

After visiting a handful of exhibits (remember, small conference), I still had 15 minutes to kill. By now, about half the day's attendees were at the site and had completed registration. Many were visiting in the opening meeting room. Some were visiting but many looked as awkwardly bored as me. What do we do? How do we kill the time? In that moment, I felt something was missing. What could a conference do for such inevitable situations? Then a thought came to me. Set the stage. 

Perhaps it's the pageant background in me. Perhaps it's a small thing I noticed at larger conferences. Perhaps it's having children who have been in dance recitals. Whatever the reason, I remembered how various events set the stage and generated excitement by having music or a slideshow play 15-30 minutes prior to the start of the event. The music doesn't have to be loud and the slideshow doesn't have to be professional. The subtle clue invoked is we're going to start sound and we're going to have a great time together. 

My father-in-law teaches seminars around the country. He has a loop of photos that he starts 30 minutes prior to the start of his workshops. This loop has photos of him, his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. It's nothing fancy and not all photos are great quality as many are from the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, they tell stories to give attendees a sense of who will  be presenting. There's not a lot of work involved in creating this slideshow but the little detail really sets the stage for the meeting.

I would love to see more local family history conferences do the same thing. Someone on the tech staff can create a slide show of family photos that plays on a loop. If they add a little music to the slide show as well, all the better. Simply give your attendees something to do while they wait for the conference to start. Let them feel like they're going to have a great time because you added this one little detail. 

Anyway... I'm sure many of you have other little details that make a small scale conference go from good to great. I'd love to hear them. Leave your tips below. Perhaps they'll be used at your next local conference. 


  1. These are all great ideas! As someone who works at a non-profit and helps to plan conferences a pet peeve of mine is lack of registration confirmation or an incorrect registration confirmation. Taking the time to draft a simple "thank you for registering" and making sure to proofread it before sending it out shows your attendees you appreciate that they're using their precious time for your conference and that you pay attention to details.

    1. Oooh! Dannel, that's a great tip too. Thanks for stopping by.