Running Our Own Conference

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November 2014
by Eli Jackson

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Before A.J. Scudiere and I decided to launch a conference, we knew it would be a huge undertaking, requiring a lot of planning and organization. Now we know that it’s do-able with time, dedication, and a little help from our friends.

My company, Griffyn Ink Publishing, has been in business for more than six years. We publish fiction, including award-winning suspense novels by A.J. that feature fight scenes she develops partly by talking with fighters at her local Mixed Martial Arts school. Other writers are interested in getting information directly from fighters, too, she told me a while ago, and that’s when we came up with the idea of an annual Authors Combat
Academy hosted by Griffyn Ink that would give interested authors direct access to trained fighters.

Between us, A.J. and I had many of the necessary skills for proceeding. I have experience organizing large groups of people, setting up venues, and making sure everything runs smoothly. I also have more than 30 years of martial arts experience, a third degree black belt in Isshinryu, and a second degree black belt in Mixed Martial Arts (as I write, I’m training to test for my third degree in MMA). A.J. has experience with writers’ conventions, so she knows what writers like, what works well, and what doesn’t. We’ve both attended a variety of conferences. But it’s almost impossible to put one on with just two people.

Knowing that we needed extra hands, we enlisted a friend who’s organized and very good at asking the right questions and comparing all relevant factors.

I provided a list of carefully thought-out “Must Haves” and another list of “Would Love to Haves,” to facilitate researching possible venues and whittling an initial list down to a few that met our needs.

Along the way, we compiled a list of important things to know:

  • How many conference rooms (what sizes, what style—auditorium, classroom, open floor plan, etc.)?
  • Is there AV equipment? Can someone at the venue run it? Is there a charge?
  • How many attendees (the maximum and any necessary minimum)? Is there room to grow in the future?
  • Can we serve food and drinks? If so, what kind (sit-down meals, snacks, etc.)?
  • What’s nearby (restaurants of various kinds, entertainment, activities, etc.)?
  • Is there transportation to andfrom the airport?
  • How do staff members respond to you? Are they friendly? Attentive?
  • Are rooms clean, comfortable, and quiet? Is there Wi-Fi (free or for a fee)? Is there room service?
  • Are there additional spaces that the conference can utilize if needed (lobbies, restaurants, parking lot)?

For our purposes, the Inn at Opryland was a perfect fit. We chose to have a three-day conference annually in April, when the weather here in Nashville is likely to be beautiful.This allows us to use the Inn’s parking lot for outdoor demos designed to supplement our indoor classes and Q&A sessions.

Getting the Buzz Started

To help our conference make an initial splash, and to raise some early funds, we ran a Kickstarter campaign. Using Kickstarter instructional videos and speaking with people who had run Kickstarter campaigns in the past, we learned from both successful
and unsuccessful efforts, and we raised $4500, 112 percent of our goal.

In the process, we learned three additional things:

  1. Prep is important. If you’re using crowdfunding, tell your friends, fans, and others well in advance of the start date. Have a few people ready to make contributions during the first few critical days. We sent many e-mails ahead of time and created a team of friends and fans ready to copy/paste/share our posts. This way they didn’t have to make their own, and the easier you make it for supporters to help, the more likely they are to do so.
  2. We are terrible actors. It can take several tries to set up and film an effective video, even though minimal editing skills are necessary. Our outtakes video (available at www.AuthorsCombatAcademy.com) turned out to be more popular by far than the video we set out to make.
  3. Frequent updates are necessary. It’s important to keep people coming back and posting/ tweeting/talking about you. We use short videos of techniques attendees will learn at the conference and posts about speakers we have lined up, and we ‘leak’ news of events that will be happening during the conference.
Eli Jackson (on the right) in action with training partner Marli Howard

Eli Jackson (on the right) in action with training partner Marli Howard

Attracting Attendees

To get the right people to attend your conference, you need great presenters you can advertise. Reach out as early as possible to everyone you know who might be a presenter or might suggest someone. Don’t be shy about approaching people you don’t know. Sometimes conference veterans need to think through their schedules, but every single person we reached out to was excited to be asked. And when we requested an interview or a video, everyone happily provided it.

As our plans developed, we found that we needed to expand the content of our courses. When we began, we knew we would cover various aspects of fighting, but we soon realized that the writers at our conference would want to know about more than that.
Additional, solid instruction on how to turn new information into wellpaced, tense, easy-to-follow fight scenes became a clear need. So we decided to add master classes on writing the scenes.

Of course, we carefully vet potential presenters to make sure that students will get the information they want from someone who knows how to present it well. And we will offer Q&A sessions so writers have the chance to ask the experts about their own plots and get specific ideas and answers.

Once we started using Facebook ads costing less than $200 that directed people to our website and Facebook page, experts began coming to us about presenting. We now have a waiting list of presenters, and we know we’ve covered that part of the conference.

It’s important to reach out to as many friends and family members as you possibly can about what you need for your conference. Yes, you will get some useless “help” but you will most likely be surprised by which friend just happens to know a famous presenter who would be a perfect fit! A.J. used to babysit for someone who’s now a best-selling author, and who will be teaching for us, and I reached out to contacts from a conference two years ago to find a dynamic speaker I remembered. People are out there; you have more useful connections than you think you do, and your friends have even more.

Making Common Cause

We are cross-promoting much as possible. A full year before our first conference, which is scheduled for April 2015, we began reaching out to conferences with audiences we wanted to attract. This entailed using IBPA’s Ask The Experts feature to get a list of websites, and contacting people we had met at previous conferences and conventions to say, in essence, “You promote our conference and we’ll promote yours.”

We offered to promote their conferences on a variety of social media sites, which was something we could do immediately. We also offered to send information about their conferences to our mailing list. Because we have a fan base that is several thousand strong, we are offering something substantial when we offer to cross-promote. If you don’t already have that kind of base, look for something useful that you can provide. For example, you could offer another conference free advertising in your program and/or you could distribute flyers about that conference.

We ask for permission to send our flyers for distribution to other conferences’ lists and/or for permission to market our event directly to their attendees. For nearby events, we request a table and the chance to attend, and we offer the same in return. People who run related conferences can be a big help as long as an agreement is clear, in writing, and in place ahead of time.

Delivering Value

Because people are going to be spending money at your conference (and possibly a lot of it) you have to make sure attendees leave feeling it was worth every penny. All presenters, classes, and other events must be on topic and valuable. Some fun events must be scheduled as well, giving people time to unwind. We aim to pack more good things into our conference than any attendee could go to, so people will want to come back next year to catch what they missed.

Even when the topic is fascinating, very few people enjoy sitting and listening to lectures all day, so we’re going to get attendees on their feet by starting each day with a live fight demo. We’re also offering contests, raffles, a bookstore, games, and more. We are even offering personal time with trained “ninjas” so writers can play out their own fight scenes and ask questions. In short, we want our attendees not to just listen, but to participate. Ideally, when they leave, they will feel the need to tell everyone what a great time they had.

Realizing that every conference has its own tone, its own audience, and its own needs, we have this general advice to offer: find your conference’s niche, settle in, and reach out from there. Whether your event will run for days or hours, make certain that the people on your end are excited and can convey that excitement, so that it will spread. As I write this in August, we are in full swing, with a good handful of attendees already enrolled for a first-time conference more than seven months away. We have booked a third of our speakers; we’re in talks with another set, and we have that waiting list. We are on our way, and we wish you success with any conference you may plan.


Eli headshot 2Eli Jackson is the CEO of Griffyn Ink Publishing and the Lead Ninja for Authors Combat Academy. To learn more: www.AuthorsCombatAcademy.com; ACA@AuthorsCombatAcademy

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