How to Organize a Conference

Behind the Scenes with SLA NY Conference and Expo organizers

By Daniel Barron

Sarah Davis, Vida Cohen, and Rebecca Hahn

Conference organizers Sarah Davis, Vida Cohen, and Rebecca Hahn

An annual conference may look just like the one that occurred twelve months before, but that doesn’t mean it organized itself. An outfit like the Special Libraries Association New York Chapter (SLA NY) relies exclusively on volunteers, and the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes at an event like the SLA New York Conference & Expo often means that a fresh group of planners is needed every year.

All three of this year’s principle organizers—Rebecca Hahn (research assistant at the Institute for Agean Prehistory), Sarah Davis (information and research coordinator at Redeemer City to City) and Vida Cohen (independent consultant and long-time SLA NY contributor)—were volunteers at the 2014 conference and were recruited by last year’s organizers, current SLA NY President Marcy Winker and President-Elect Emma Davidson, to run the 2015 event.

Planning begins well in advance—more than six months in the case of the SLA NY conference, which takes place on Friday, September 25. At the first meeting, the first item on the agenda was a review of the 2014 conference. At the conference’s conclusion, attendees were asked what they liked and didn’t like about the event. Overall, comments were very positive. (The biggest complaint was that the coffee was not available early enough. Note to those planning to attend this year’s conference: the organizers have gotten the message.) This was important for the conference planners because it meant that there was little that had to be changed. “We were lucky that Marcy and Emma did such a great job last year,” said Rebecca. “It made our jobs a lot easier because a lot of things were in place.”

Next step was the site. The organizers knew that certain things were essential. “You need a larger room for your featured speaker,” said Sarah. In addition, added Rebecca, “breakout rooms are needed so we can have smaller events going on at the same time. They mean you don’t have to spend the whole day in the same room.” And, said Sarah, “you also need the right infrastructure, such as wi-fi, screens for presentations, and audio-visual equipment.”

Sarah Davis and Rebecca Hahn

Sarah Davis and Rebecca Hahn

They explored other locations just to measure their options but all agreed that last year’s venue—Baruch College—was their first choice. The planning committee liked the fact that Baruch offered them a large, central room which not only was fitting for a keynote speech but an ideal space for vendors to set up for the entire day. “Vendors use the bigger room,” said Rebecca. “They get to be in the same room with the featured speaker while people come and go. Vendors like that.” Another point in Baruch’s favor, according to Vida, is that “academic institutions are generally more affordable than hotels.”

Fortunately, “SLA NY has a relationship with Baruch,” says Sarah, so they were able to secure the venue with little difficulty. They were even able to reserve it on a Friday, which they considered ideal, since local attendees prefer to take a day off at the end of the week and out-of-towners can make a long weekend of traveling to the event.

Next on the agenda was the theme. The conference always features a keynote speaker so your options are come up with a theme and choose a keynote speaker to talk on that topic, or choose your keynote speaker and come up with a theme that he or she will be comfortable speaking about. Once the theme and keynote speaker are established, everything else will follow. A good theme will catch the attention of potential attendees and also be broad enough that breakout sessions stemming from the theme can cover a number of topics.

After considering a number of possibilities, said Sarah, “we piggybacked on Marcy Winkler’s theme as [SLA NY] president: The Future is Now.”

When the planners (with the help of last year’s organizers) started kicking names of potential keynote speakers around, they knew they not only wanted someone who could “hold the audience’s attention” but someone who would play an additional role in the conference by participating in panel discussions. Names were tossed out, and they began Googling candidates, following them on Twitter, and watching YouTube videos of their presentations. Emma Davidson, suggested Zena Applebaum, whom she had heard speak. Zena is the Director of Competitive Intelligence at Bennett Jones LLP in Toronto and the Chair of the SLA Competitive Intelligence Division Board of Directors. She’s an engaging speaker who has given a number of talks, is highly involved in SLA at a national level, and works in a field—competitive intelligence—that is dynamic. She seemed like an ideal keynote speaker for a conference about bridging the present and the future.

It turned out she wasn’t difficult to track down. Vida had her email address, Sarah contacted her, and Zena accepted enthusiastically soon after. She will speak on “Using Competitive Intelligence to Transform the Role of Information Professionals.”

Venue, date, theme, and keynote speaker were now set; the conference was coming together. The next step was coming up with the programs that would make up the heart of the event.

“We looked at what worked last year and what we wanted to change,” said Sarah. “Last year it was more structured. There were just two tracks: Social Media and Professional Development. We thought tracks were too limiting. We didn’t want to do that. This time, the format is similar but it’s not as rigid. It’ll be easier to listen to speakers on different topics. ”

To devise programs, they turned again to the feedback from last year’s conference to learn what was on attendees’ minds. “It’s critical to give membership something tangible, something they can use right away,” said Vida. “They’re looking for tools to enhance their skills. It’s important to understand what people are doing, what they want to do, what skills companies are seeking. You also need to remember that not everyone is working in a library.”

“We wanted to continue what worked but add new and different programs,” said Rebecca. “For example, social media was a big theme last year and it will be a big theme this year. Last year half of the programs were on social media and half were on professional development. This year, there will be just one on social media and then there will be a number of other choices.”

The committee held a brainstorming session. “It took a while to come up with the programs,” said Rebecca. “At one point we had about 20. We had to narrow them down.”

But how to choose? “We wanted ones that were feasible,” said Sarah. “We wanted to make sure that for each program we knew people who could contribute to the panels.”

After much deliberation, the organizers settled on seven programs:

  • Soup Up Your Social Media Skills
  • 360 Degree Emergency Management
  • Hands-On Tech Tools Workshop
  • Small Steps to Working with Big Data
  • What Else Can I Do with My MLS? Transitioning into Nontraditional Information Jobs
  • Using Media Intelligence and Data Visualization to Provide Strategic Insight
  • Succeeding in Corporate Research

And yet, as Sarah said, it’s no good coming up with programs if you don’t have panelists to speak on those topics. “It’s basically about using your contacts and reaching out to other SLA members, such as Tom Nielsen from Metro, who has been a big help,” said Rebecca. “Vida was especially helpful because she’s been in SLA so long and knows a lot of people.”

At the time of writing, scheduled panelists included SLA President Jill Strand, Candidate for 2016 SLA President Karen Reczek, Tracy Z. Maleeff, Christine Hayes (Market Intelligence Director at NBC Universal) and Mitch Stripling and Andrew McMahan, hosts of the Dukes of Hazards emergency management podcast.

Venue, theme, keynote speaker, and panelists are confirmed. Next come the vendors, whose support is crucial. “They make the conference possible,” said Sarah.

“We have different sponsorship levels and vendors choose which one is right for them,” said Rebecca. She explained that based on the level they choose, vendors get certain perks such as advertising and publicity in addition to space to exhibit at the conference.

And because they’re featured so prominently, in the large room where the keynote speech will be held, “conference-goers get to interact with them and discuss products that will help them,” said Sarah.

Now, with just about everything in place and the conference only weeks away, the focus is on getting the word out. Organizers will send emails to the SLA NY membership, post information on the SLA NY website, and talk it up on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.). They’ll place an ad in Information Today and contact the area library schools and ask them to help promote the event on their listservs. They even handed out flyers and cornered attendees at the SLA national conference in June.

There’s still catering, registration, the post-conference reception, and all the other usual day-of-event concerns but a team of volunteers will help the organizers make sure the event runs smoothly on the big day. There’s so much to keep in mind that the burden would be too much for one person. “It’s a good position to share,” said Rebecca. “It’s too much for one person. If one person forgets something, another remembers.”

Finally, the organizers want everyone to know that they’re really excited about the conference and the speakers and panelists they’ve been able to recruit. And as for organizing the conference itself? “I would tell people that if you ever are considering doing something like this to just do it,” said Rebecca. “I learned a lot of new skills and my skills improved in areas such as event planning, professional communication skills, and logistics. Don’t be intimidated, you can learn as you go, and you make a lot of connections. There are people to help you.”


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