Surviving Conference Season: Advice From Non-profit Event Pros

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell and Tammy A. Barnes, YNPNdc volunteers. 

Spring in DC buzzes as associations, charities, and other non-profits host large-scale events to sustain their missions and goals. In support of every event, professionals work long hours and juggle timelines, all while prioritizing their attendees’ experience. Detailed processes and to-do lists keep event organizers on track, but how do they manage crises? How are they able to balance post-conference debriefing with much needed R & R? Four DC-area conference and meeting specialists share their advice for keeping calm and collected during one of the most taxing times of the year.

Surviving Conference Season

Successful conferences are a result of many months of hard work. How do you keep yourself from getting overwhelmed in the lead-up to a conference?

Joan Eisenstodt, Chief Strategist/Founder at Eisenstodt Associates, LLC:  I'm not sure there is a way to not be overwhelmed! When there are so many people involved in decisions and changes fly fast and furiously, it is tough. Too often I have seen it in clients' organizations where the roles are not easily defined. We need to show decision making skills and guide the process from the start with timelines and gentle reminders about the contractual obligations.

Nicole Ratner, CAE, CMP, Owner of The Next Steps, LLC: Having a detailed process is the key. It helps keep you on track and organized and it also becomes the working document that anyone can follow if they need to step in.

Laura Vannucci, Special Programs Coordinator at Council for Advancement and Support of Education: I work with two other people, so while we each play individual parts in putting on the conference, we do work as a team. It really helps to have a sounding board for new ideas and to assist you when things are particularly busy. I make quite a few lists and keep multiple calendars to stay on track and not feel overwhelmed.


What is the number one priority for you when you’re on-site at a conference? Why?

Vannucci: My number one priority is attendees’ experience. The main goal is for the attendee to have the best experience possible so that they get value from coming and a desire to return the following year.

Eisenstodt: Safety. No matter how great the program or food are, if everyone isn't safe nothing else matters. For maintaining my own sanity, I prioritize taking short breaks - like going back to my hotel room and breathing or brushing my teeth or going into a bathroom stall and putting my feet up even for 2 minutes.


How do you manage unexpected things that pop up during the course of an event?

Ratner: It would always depend on the unexpected. I once had at a major dinner event at a high scale hotel property serve the entirely wrong meal. Though it was unexpected, no one knew but me. Clearly we discussed the issue on-site, but it was really something to handle after the fact.

Andrea Y. Massengile, Manager of Global Meetings at American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA): I manage with a smile and by taking deep breaths. I keep things in perspective and remain calm so that I can find a solution under the constraints of the situation. One should always remember honesty is the best policy. You need to ensure that the people who will be impacted understand what has happened and, most importantly, what you are doing to fix the problem.


What are ways you or your team recover or regroup after a conference is over?

Vannucci: We typically have a meeting afterwards to share our thoughts about things that went well and things that we could improve for next year. For some events, we will begin making a timeline for next year's conference.

Ratner: When I was working full time, we would always have the day after a major conference off. My staff would work 10+ hours a day for 6 days or more, so it was the least I could do. Then we would reconvene and do our recap of the good, bad and ugly and see where we could improve. We would also debrief with a committee.


What is the most rewarding part of your role as a conference planner?

Eisenstodt: I see conferences as a way to world peace; no really, I do! People can learn and build community through conferences and we are the ones who can, with vision, ensure that.

Vannucci: I love seeing all of my hard work come together! My team and I just put on our largest annual conference (roughly 1,200 people); seeing everyone in the same room and using the app that I had managed was truly memorable. I also enjoy interacting with the attendees, particularly those that I have had  previous contact with but have not had the chance to meet in person.

Ratner: The most rewarding thing is seeing how my attendees react to the event. When I see smiles and
“a-ha moments,” it makes it all worth it. When they say what a great time they've had and they can't wait for the next event, I know I've done my job.


What are some words of wisdom you have for those who want to pursue a career in conference or meeting planning?

Massengile: Planning ahead is key, but always have a “Plan B” ready to go. Any and everything can happen to push aside all your pre-planning.

Eisenstodt: Decide what about this line of work is most appealing to you. Look at the many aspects of what one can do in this profession and then start from there. Believe you can change where you are and what you do as you gain knowledge.

Vannucci: Connecting with others that have been in the industry for a while is a great way to get your feet wet. They can often share with you various tips and wisdom as you are beginning to pursue your career. I have also found a lot of benefit from attending various industry related events - they are perfect environments for learning about the industry and meeting folks who can perhaps guide you along your path.

YNPNdc would love to help you expand your event planning experience. Learn about how to get involved with planning our events and other volunteer opportunities here.

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