How to Run Your Own User Conference

Posted by David Ciccarelli

Just as soon as the snow melts it seems that people are ready to get out and network.

It’s conference season!

For me, I do a lot of observing at how these conferences are run because I’ve always had a dream to do our own conference.

Recently we ran VoiceWorld Toronto, a conference for Voices.com customers as well as fellow voice actors, narrators and audio producers. VoiceWorld brought out 225 attendees, 8 sponsors and 10 speakers.

Here’s the inside story on how we pulled it off.

While each conference is unique, most have similar building blocks. Executing well on these “critical few” will ensure that your event goes smoothly.

EVENT MANAGEMENT FIRM

Don’t get me wrong: running a conference is a huge undertaking. Plan on six months of prep time and probably a couple hundred hours to be divided across your team members. Since this was our first event of our own, we felt it would be wise to consult with a firm who, you know, has done this a few times.

We selected Ruby Sky, who was just fabulous throughout the process. We liked their no surprises, flat fee structure. The value they added before, during and after the event was definitely worth it.

Tip: Work with an event management firm. You’ll be glad you did.

VENUE

It all starts with a venue. Even before the website, we needed a venue because people wanted to know where and when the conference was happening. We initially selected one hotel but then got bumped. Taking the roll-with-the-punches approach (as every entrepreneur should) we found an even nicer hotel in downtown Toronto at the Hilton.

We considered attendee “flow," how people would arrive, register and then walk from keynotes to breakout sessions. We did a site visit to be sure there was a good feel to the space and could visualize where the registration would happen and where the speakers would present as well as an areas for sponsors.

Tip: Spend a day and visit 3-4 hotels or other venues. It’s a chance to not only see the space but to meet the people who will be helping you out on the big day.

SPEAKERS

With the date and location settled upon, now you’ll need speakers to make the day worthwhile for your attendees. At Voices.com, we had a great network of celebrity voice actors, talent agents, coaches and industry experts. In fact, we have a podcast called Voice Over Experts which is a collection of contributed shows from these very people. Just by looking at download counts for each episode, we knew who would be a popular speaker. We asked Pat Fraley, the "Man of 4,000 Voices," and David Goldberg, a top audio producer in New York City.

In the future, we plan on asking several customers to speak too. Naturally, since this is your company’s conference, this is your opportunity to give a keynote speech. Don’t miss your chance and add yourself to the speaker line-up.

Tip: Get great speakers. People will come for the keynote alone.

SPONSORS

Every industry has service providers, advisors and product vendors. You can probably name them off right now. That’s what we did. We brainstormed 100 companies and called them up. We created a nice document in Apple’s Pages program and introduced the conference, profiles of the attendees and detailed exactly what they’d be receiving for their sponsorship.

What was amazing is that the feedback we received after the event is that our attendees actually wanted more sponsors. We held back to avoid it being too sales-y.

Tip: Create a variety of sponsorship packages and present them in an easy-to-read PowerPoint.

ATTENDEES

At this stage, the website is up and you’re ready to start selling tickets. We used EventBrite for the ticket management. I was always impressed when I brought my iPhone to conferences and they scanned the QR code at registration. It was such a smooth process and a great first impression. I wanted to recreate that feeling.

EventBrite also allows us to offer Super Early Bird rates to the first attendees, then Early Bird rates and finally Conference Passes at the full rate.

Ticket sales were fairly consistent, but we didn’t anticipate the last minute rush. I should have seen that coming considering that I’ve been there registering for an event the day before (and I know you have too).

The marketing of the event was mostly online through the VoiceWorld Toronto website, the Facebook page and Twitter account. We also cross-promoted from our Voices.com website and social media channels. I should also mention that we used our CRM, Salesforce, to geographically target potential attendees and we sent them a few email messages informing them of the event in their city.

Tip: Prepare for the last minute rush. People will not only call the day before, but arrive at the conference expecting to pay, in cash.

THE BIG DAY

On the day of the event, we arrived early and focused on registration. People just loved having us scan their EventBrite QR codes with our iPads. It was fast and we looked cool.

After a continental breakfast, the morning was packed with speakers and breakout sessions. Before you knew it we were all enjoying lunch and mingling around the exhibitor area. We got to give our customers demos of upcoming products, get feedback and fresh ideas from power users. The afternoon was equally busy with more sessions and an amazing keynote to wrap-up the day.

Tip: Put something valuable in the conference bag. Since we just finished writing Voice Acting For Dummies (Wiley, 2013) we thought people would like to get a free copy of the book in their bags. Everyone loved it. Many people asked Stephanie and I to sign their book which was quite humbling.

Last tip: Add a surprise. We had a Headshot Lounge where people could get their photos taken for free. The photos are posted publicly on Flickr, freely available for download. Many people said this was worth the price of admission alone. The headshots were a huge value-add.

FEEDBACK

The Monday after the conference, send out an Attendee Feedback Survey. You’ll want to capture this information while it’s fresh in everyone’s minds. Keep it brief and to the point but be sure to ask about the venue, speakers, sponsors and for one thing to improve for next year. The result? 92% of the attendees rated the event “Very Good” or “Excellent.”

Now, what should we do with all those wonderful suggestions? Run another conference next year, I suppose!

FINAL THOUGHTS

We truly enjoyed this experience. Since we run a web company, we rarely get to meet our customers. The conversations were invaluable and the enthusiasm that the team of 15 of us who attended brought back to the office was contagious.

With proper planning and a supportive team, you too can run a conference for your customers. Try it and you’ll discover it can be the best thing you do all year.

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David Ciccarelli

David Ciccarelli

David is the Chief Executive Officer of Voices.com where he oversees finance, operations and technology. David was nominated for the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award by the Business Development Bank of Canada and has also presented Voices.com as a New Voices winner at DigiFest, an award recognizing Voices.com as an industry leader who provides digital media products and innovations that... more



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