3 Bits of Wisdom About Producing a Writer’s Conference



By Donna Talarico

I’m a conference junkie. I have lots of notches in my conference bedpost, but over the past five years, my love for them has grown much deeper. Since 2010, I’ve attended almost 30 conferences and spoke at almost just as many. For me, events where likeminded people get together for a few days to learn and share are completely exhilarating experiences. I liken my favorite conference, HighEdWeb, to a creative writing residency: an intense few days where, around the clock, you’re with colleagues who turn into close friends over the course of just a few days. It’s also quite like summer camp. And if you attend annually, it’s a homecoming of sorts every single time.

So when I launched Hippocampus Magazine, a monthly creative nonfictional journal, a creative nonfiction conference was part of the plan, but it was part of Phase II. Our mission is to entertain, educate and engage readers and writers of creative nonfiction, and a conference would allow us to bring that vision to life, bringing something that resides on the Internet into real life.

At Year Five, I decided we were ready: we had credibility, we had a following. Planning began in August 2014, and August 7-9, 2015, we held our inaugural HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in Lancaster, Pa. It attracted 140 writers from 19 states. It was, in my mind, a huge success. The energy from the conference lasted for weeks, as seen from hashtag activity and attendees blogging about their experience and cheering on new friends. That energy is still kind of there today, as of this writing almost three months later.

I took aspects of conferences I love—mostly in the technology and marketing/communications realm—and put our own spin on them. I’d like to share a few conference planning tips, which may be of interest to others planning writing (or any kind of) events or those who just want to be more involved as an attendee.

Keynote speaker Lee Gutkind presenting at HippoCamp 2015.

Keynote speaker Lee Gutkind presenting at HippoCamp 2015.

The Back Channel Matters; Nurture It

It’s a given these days that your conference should have a hashtag. But, aha! It’s what you do with that hashtag that’s a challenge for many conference planners. This fall, I went to two events that had hashtags, but the organizer’s official accounts were silent. And, barely anyone was tweeting. If you’re going to create a hashtag, here are two bits of advice:

1) As the organizer, use it. I repeat: use it. Attendees want to interact with you, so if the official account is not even using the hashtag, getting a conversation going will be slow-going. Also, get the folks behind the organization to use the hashtag, too. For example, I tweeted from the @hippocampusmag username, and then also from my own account, @donnatalarico.

2) Don’t set it and forget it. We had hundreds and hundreds of tweets because, for our conference, social media wasn’t passive. We encouraged people to tweet during announcements, and, of course, the hashtag was all over our printed materials, on the website and every email and social media post leading up to the event and in all follow-up communications. If you can’t hang with the hash, leave it off (but I strongly advise against that).

Finally, some people may be following along with the hashtag, even though they are not in attendance. Pay attention to them, wherever they are. Talk to them. Tweet them messages like, “Oh! We wish you were here!” Sometimes, through Twitter, people discover conferences from the hashtag while the conference is going on—and then they’ll sign up for your newsletter to get more information for next year. This happened to me; my friend Nikki was tweeting with #asja-something. I was like, “What is that?” And then I discovered an organization I hadn’t heard of: The American Society of Journalists and Authors. And ASJA has an annual conference in New York, and also regional events throughout the year. I wouldn’t have known about it had someone in my network not tweeted about it. I can say that #hippocamp15 got major traction. We made new friends, and I bet we’ll see some of them at HippoCamp 2016.

Money Matters; Watch It

It’s so cliché to say, “I was a communications major; I don’t DO math.” I even have an MBA! But I’m more of a words person. Your conference budget matters. On paper, we had a clear budget – this is what we spend on keynotes, this is what we spend on marketing, etc. However, this was the first year, so it was risky to guess what attendance might be, what a fair price might be based on that goal. When it was all said and done, everything worked out, but not without the need to put personal funds into the mix. Know that, just like in any business, the first year might not break even (that’s all I wanted to do with the conference; have it pay for itself). If your organization doesn’t have funds set aside for a large-scale event (we didn’t; who does?), be prepared to take out a loan or borrow from elsewhere, even to get you started. You will most definitely have expenses before tickets go on sale and conference revenue rolls in. For example, your location or keynote contract may require a deposit before registrations really kick in.

You want the conference to be a good value, but you also need to price it right so that, based on your attendance goal and expected costs, you can be sure to cover expenses. Pay close attention to the convention center contract to find those add-on fees so you aren’t surprised later, like a 21% service charge. So, say your food minimum is $10,000: you need to actually plan for $12,100 for your food line item. Make sense? Also, pay close attention to what your registration costs and how many discounted/free passes you give, especially if you’re financing this yourself. (This isn’t the equivalent of giving a friend a free meal, folks.) Factor discounts into your budget from the start, otherwise you’ll eat away at your bottom line. Don’t undersell yourself, either. In all, treat your conference as you would a business.

Atmosphere Matters; Create It

“This is the best conference food I ever had.”

I heard that statement dozens of times at HippoCamp 15. One of the things I’ve seen at other writing conferences, and even a few within my industry (marketing/communications), is that food is hard to come by. Even water. It was important for me to keep attendees fed and caffeinated. It makes a difference in attention span. Every session room had water glasses and chilled pitchers—we even got compliments about that. Many conferences, attendees buy their own drinks or fill up their own water bottles at fountains. HippoCamp also included most meals, except for a “dinner on your own,” which was deliberate, because it was a big deal for me to invite writers to my city, and this allowed people to get out on the town. Since the days were long, we had built-in snack and coffee breaks, too. Of course, all of this contributes to the ticket price, but think about it: if attendees needed to purchase meals elsewhere, they’d still be spending money beyond the registration price. Why not keep people on site and bonding with one another?

I started with food because I’m writing this post before lunch, but there’s more to the atmosphere than just an array of birch beer, Lebanon bologna, and cheese. What is the overall feel of the conference location? Is it cozy, colorful and comfortable? Or does it feel like you’re in a prison, with harsh, institutional lighting and rock hard seats? Don’t underestimate the importance of location and professionalism of presentation to the morale and spirit of your guests.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of leaving the logistics to the pros. Our conference venue was professional and offered a team of experts in executing a conference—we did not have to worry about a thing after we gave them our schedule, technology needs, attendee counts, and menu. Rooms were just set up. Food just showed up. If a room was too chilly, I just had to push a button on the Marriott’s Red Coat app, and someone took care of it. While it’s a bit more expensive to go to a conference center, it’s worth the stress-free experience for planners. I didn’t have to coordinate tech and an outside caterer or talk people into helping me set up 200 chairs (in five rooms!). Because of this attention to detail from the venue, the conference staff just focused on being part of the conference, being there with our attendees. You can piece-meal an event, or you can trust one provider with it all.

In Summary

There is so much I could say about planning a conference, but I wanted to focus on three areas I feel other conferences could improve upon or that might get overlooked by a new conference planner; after all, when it’s said and done, whether the logistics get screwy, attendees will overlook that if the caliber of content is high.

Our post-conference surveys were overwhelmingly positive. This is because we built a little community for these few days—actually, more than three days as it began months before the conference and, as I noted, lasted for months after. We put the attendee experience above everything. (We also had cookies and milk, so that helped!)

If you were at HippoCamp, you can attest at how seamless things went. But don’t let this fool you! Planning a writing conference—any conference—is grueling work and there are many moving parts, many minute details, and personal sacrifices (in time and money) that you’ll make. But, done right, man—you just might have a life-changing experience and, in turn, get to change others’ lives by what they take home from the conference.


Donna Talarico - HippoCamp15Donna Talarico is an independent content writer and social media/storytelling consultant

Founder/publisher of Hippocampus Magazine. She is a three-time Wilkes alumna and currently completing her M.A. in Creative Writing – Publishing.

3 Responses to “3 Bits of Wisdom About Producing a Writer’s Conference”

  1. Dawn D'Aries Zera Says:

    Heard great things about the event and, after reading this, I know why. Details matter and you are a detail person! Incredible accomplishment.

  2. Joanne Says:

    Great article, and HippoCamp was an example of a great conference, expertly run. Kudos to you!

  3. Donn Says:

    Thank you so much! I’m so proud of this. We had great volunteers, great speakers and great guests that contributed to the success. I’m looking forward to 2016.

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