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Notes from a new conference organizer

July 29, 2013

Y'all Connect keynote

The kickoff of the first Y’all Connect conference in Birmingham

I haven’t had much time to reflect on my first Y’all Connect conference, which debuted last week. Post-conference work, while at a more relaxed pace, still takes up many hours.

But having attended, volunteered at and spoken at many conferences over the years, I’ll throw in my initial impressions as a fully initiated organizer.

• You can’t please everyone, but you can at least try a little harder. Our guests seemed to be pleased with the various aspects of the conference, from the lineup to the food to the wi-fi. But one guest wanted a little something extra.

A book.

I had offered 100 free copies of Mack Collier’s “Think Like a Rock Star” to the first 100 ticket buyers online. They went fast.

This particular guest was not in that first 100, but when she saw everyone else with a copy, she had to have one that morning. (And no, she wasn’t interested in purchasing one from the book table.)

I offered to give her a copy at day’s end if someone didn’t pick up their copy. She was still unhappy.

At lunchtime, I checked on the remaining copies and gave her one personally, with a free drink coupon to boot. She seemed satisfied.

But I had broken my own rule. I had told the volunteers that if they could make a guest happy for under $25, do it. Just spend the money, get a receipt, and give it to me later for reimbursement.

I could’ve just given her the book on the spot and wowed her with responsive customer service. But I let myself get distracted by worries over having enough copies to last the day. Oops.

It’s something I will keep in mind as I work towards delivering better customer service personally.

Speakers do whatever they want. And I mean that in a good way.

I like to think of myself as a good speaker, and someone who’ll be invited back again and again. The reality is that I’m a pain in the ass sometimes because I want it to go smoothly. (See the legend of Van Halen’s “demand” for no brown M&Ms.) For example, I’ve shown up to gigs where a promised screen and projector were nowhere to be found.

I think it’s fitting that I have speakers who do whatever, whenever, despite the pleas of a harried conference organizer. In a perfect world, I have all contracts and slide decks in hand months before the big day, and that all my very important emails are read thoroughly (twice!) so they’d have no surprises.

Alas, no.

They will still ask about small details already covered, but then again, they travel a lot and the dates start to blur together. Many operate on their own, so no personal assistant is on hand to keep info organized. Some will go over time limits, or balk at a stationary microphone (or wearing a microphone, or standing behind a podium).

I conveniently forgot that I did all of those things in my speaking career. What a joy it must’ve been for organizers and volunteers to manage little ol’ me.

I love my speakers, and I hope they found the event on par or better than the ones at which they routinely perform. (crosses fingers)

You will never see your own conference. I managed to visit almost every talk on the lineup. For about 5 minutes.

I wasn’t running around frantically. But I like to see how the rooms are going, and if the volunteers need any help. I also like to see how guests are reacting to the speaker (rapt attention, raucous laughter, insightful questions).

All credit to my staff and volunteers — they planned it out and executed near flawlessly. That left me to wander casually and jump in where needed.

I couldn’t have asked for a better experience from my end.

Eventually, I will see every minute of the show, having had videos recorded of each session. I’m prepping them to sell online in a few weeks.

While I did cover a  lot of ground, I am wholly reliant on guests, speakers, volunteers and staff members to tell me what’s working and what isn’t. I am a stickler for improvement, so that feedback is always welcome, no matter how critical.

I thought about my opening remarks for the last few weeks, and one rejected version goes something like this: “Are you looking to lose weight? I have the perfect diet plan for you. Organize a conference.

“No more time to eat, or even sleep. You’ll sweat away those extra pounds hunting for event insurance brokers and filling out paperwork over and over.”

It’s not the speech I went with, but it’s the learning experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. Except maybe a well-deserved martini.

• • •

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