by Del Taylor
Putting together an ALHFAM annual meeting and conference begins long before the members show up. I recalled how great it was to be at my first ALHFAM conference in 2000. One of the many memories I have was being in contact with conference chair Edward Baker. I’d never been to a conference like this before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Edward answered all of my questions and made me feel that there was nothing to worry about. It was this experience that I used during our conference at Sainte Marie among the Hurons this year.
Having a realistic budget is crucial to hosting a successful conference. Although we started off with a finance committee, we ended up with a three-person group that was the driving force of the conference. When decisions had to be made, we discussed the best course of action, and we divided the tasks that had to be done, whether that was receiving invoices, making sure the bills or paid, or finding financial support and sponsors for many aspects of the conference. And an important point: The largest part of our budget was food services, and the food is what folks tend to remember. The food service staff both at the conference hotel and at our site did an amazing job and served us well.
Along with setting up the budget, we had to find an appropriate venue. We were very happy to secure the Quality Inn and Conference Center, as it met all of our requirements. The location was ideal, as was the room rate, especially because so many attendees were from the States and had to deal with the exchange rate. The only real concern was the size of the meeting rooms, but this was balanced by the size of the hospitality room and the great service from the hotel management and staff.
Key to running any conference is to spread out the work load among teams and committees. I followed ALHFAM’s guide to running an annual meeting and conference and sought volunteers to assist with the project. We are very fortunate to have some very talented staff members who put in some serious time organizing various aspects of the conference.
The format of the conference was another important topic, as this has taken various forms, depending on the host site. We did the best we could to make sure that there was a good balance between session days and field trip days, and worked with area museums, historic sites and attractions to arrange visits that would be interesting, informative but also within our budget. We received low-cost or free admission from all of them. By all accounts our partners provided excellent services for us.
One of the very special parts of this year’s meeting was the overnight on our site. I’d wanted do this from the beginning, and our management worked with us to make it happen. We decided that the group would spend a majority of its time in the longhouse, discussing history and the story of Sainte Marie. It turned out to be an exceptional evening and one that I will not soon forget.
The initial response to our call for papers brought only a trickle of proposals, but, as usually happens, many came in right before the deadline, and we ended up with 75 to consider. The program co-chairs and I decided on the number of sessions we could handle and the selection criteria for the proposals. We agreed that we would use our site for sessions, as we looked at it as being the perfect opportunity to bring the professionalism and knowledge of ALHFAM and its membership directly to the visitor as well as attendees. We found that if we mixed curatorial, programming, administrative and hands-on sessions, we had the luxury of having a broad range of topics from which attendees could choose. A part of the program which many ALHFAM members look forward to is the annual plowing match. Despite the great challenges of finding a local person who would be willing to allow us use of a team of horses, and the necessity of finding a suitable location, we were successful in securing both.
There are always many questions that come from conference attendees, whether they are ALHFAM veterans or first-timers, and each of them is important. My philosophy was simple: answer the questions as they come in, immediately if you can, and no more than a couple of hours later, if at all possible. I used the same standard in relaying information to the membership at large, using the ALHFAM listserv and email messages sent via the ALHFAM webmaster.
The lesson: Communicate; communicate often; communicate quickly.
Another important lesson was a very simple one: Never appear to be tired or burdened during the event. Showing frustration, in my mind, shows weakness and loss of control. If you look happy and appear happy, you will be happy. I personally was very happy that all who attended had a good time, so that made it easier. Do everything with a smile, even if you are frustrated. I firmly believe that if your attendees see no problems there will be no problems and all will be well. I was fortunate to have a wonderful team to share the load. Knowing your people and what their strengths and weaknesses can certainly make your work easier. Count on them and use them.
Use the ALHFAM Annual Conference Planning Guide. It includes the organization’s expectations for the conference as well as the collective wisdom of the many great people from various organizations that have hosted annual meetings and conferences over the past 50 years. These guidelines are very helpful in making sure specific details are not missed.
You can count on attendees to offer help. They will and, this year, indeed they did. I will be eternally grateful for the help that was offered and given. No one knows conferences like our people, and it is second nature for all of us to offer a helping hand.
Finally, good luck to the future conference chairs, and in the wisdom of a previous conference committee member, “breathe”.