I’m sitting in traffic on 95 after a red-eye flight from Portland to Atlanta and then Atlanta to Philly. Thankfully my stepfather offered to pick us up at the airport because if I was driving, I’d be seriously cursing right now. Instead, I have about 30 minutes of battery life to share a few thoughts about the conference.
Right before I got off the plane, I read Erica D. House’s post about the conference. She shared her honest thoughts and offered some constructive criticism, which, of course, immediately made me feel a little defensive. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature. As I read through the comments and caught the phrase, “the organizers” I realized there are probably a lot of people who don’t know I’m pretty much the primary organizer and decision maker of the conference, which is why I take everything so personally.
Her experience is still her experience, regardless of who organized the event. It doesn’t matter if it was me or a team of professional event planners.
I value her (and all) feedback, as I know there are many others who may have similar feelings and suggestions but fear sharing it or simply won’t take the time to do so.
I agree with many of her observations, but I also feel the need to let everyone in my head a bit because I like being completely transparent and, honestly, it makes me feel better.
First, a Little History
An abbreviated history is in order for those who don’t know how FitBloggin’ got started or why it even exists.
If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you know one of the things I credit my 70-pound weight loss and new love of fitness to is blogging. I started in 2005 and this blog has been and is a journal of my personal journey.
In 2009 I started attending blogging conferences, such as BlogHer and Blissdom. I found them fun and energizing. It was inspiring to be around fellow women who understood blogging and social media regardless of whether they were carving out their own careers or using them as creative places of self expression.
But as I sat in session after session, I realized I didn’t have much in common with most of these women besides our love of social media. I was approaching my blog from a very specific angle — weight loss and fitness — and I had a specific goal of bettering myself and inspiring others.
That’s when it hit me: Why not bring together a group of bloggers who share a similar goal of using blogs and social media to spread a culture of health and wellness?
After attending Blissdom I got motivated. REAL motivated to have a conference. I really see a need for a tighter niche conference around weight loss, health, food and fit blogs. There’s the big dawgs like worldblog expo, right? Then there’s the women interests conferences like BlogHer and Blissdom but how powerful would it be to do a conference around our niche? We could not only inspire but educate in the realm of blogging AND fitness.
The rest of the year I spent planning FitBloggin’10 (yes, I somewhat regret the name now but it didn’t seem as cheesy back then) At that time time I was working full time and I had a 3-year-old. To say I knew nothing of event planning is an understatement. The only event I ever planned was my wedding 8 years earlier.
To my surprise we sold out and I hosted 150 people in Baltimore for the weekend event.
I was in a state of shock when folks asked if they could preregister for next year’s event. It wasn’t a flawless conference by any means, but I worked hard at offering a variety of topics and approached planning the agenda from an attendee point of view.
This was an interesting time for me professionally. I didn’t make any money from the conference. I was toying with blogging full time but I quit my job teaching at the community college only to accept another position at a university because I was just too darn scared to take the leap of total self employment. I was also considering another child.
That next year I started planning the conference, quit my job — for real this time — and got pregnant. Before I knew it I was hosting FitBloggin’11 with a 2-month-old baby by my side.
It wasn’t perfect and there were a lot of things I wanted to do differently but again (most) people seemed happy.
Finding a venue for FitBloggin’12 was an absolute disaster, and after 2 years of not making much money I decided I needed help in the sponsorship department. So I hired a sponsorship coordinator and aligned with another company to help deal with the hotel negotiations.
FitBloggin’12 happened and again it wasn’t perfect, but folks had a good time.
I never wanted a fall conference but due to circumstances beyond my control, we were hosting FitBloggin’12 in September. So I worked my butt off to pick a new date and venue for 2013. Now that I was charging sponsors appropriately, I actually made some money and gained confidence to hop coasts.
These past few months of planning FitBloggin’13 have been a whirlwind. I’m not going to lie, I was really on the fence about continuing with the conference. I was bouncing a few ideas around like making it smaller or even stopping it all together. Then this happened …
I’m still having a hard time comprehending the success of FitBloggin’13. I’m speechless to the response and gratitude so many have expressed, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to make so many people happy.
I know there’s room for improvement. There will ALWAYS be room for improvement. Every year I learn from the year before. The conference has evolved based on a variety of factors including but not limited to: The response from attendees, sponsor interest and options, the venue and space available to us, our budget and my sanity. I thought I’d focus a little time on each.
Every year I’ve done an attendee survey — I hope to get this year’s out next week — and every year I take everything in the survey to heart. Most of the changes you see year to year are in direct response to what was mentioned by a majority of folks the year before. For example this year we made the discussion sessions longer and added workshops based on feedback after last year. The year before I added as many water stations as possible after getting called out on not having enough at FitBloggin’11.
I, of course, can’t put every suggestion into practice, but I try to keep all of them in mind as I plan the next year.
I feel very blessed to have the amount of sponsor interest we do. Many brands see the value in targeting such a tight niche group of bloggers even if they may not have the budget to participate. When I first started, I accepted a ton of in-kind donations and let sponsors pay pennies many times not even covering the basic costs of their event involvement.
Now we charge much more appropriately, and I have a heck of a lot more overhead costs, especially now that we host in other cities.
Signing sponsors to an event like this is quite a balancing act. There are a lot of opinions in the health/wellness/fitness realm and signing certain sponsors always comes with a lot of flack from one group or another.
I’ve turned down some brands that I thought were not a good fit and I’ve signed some I later regretted for one reason or another, but I always try every year to sign a variety of brands that have something to offer to most attendees.
One thing I don’t think folks understand is how much the venue affects a conference. I try VERY hard to find hotels that will host us in a tight area. Have you ever been to an event that was scattered on different floors? It’s annoying and you lose some of the social aspect by not having everyone mingle in close proximity.
Every year I have to react to the event space to design the overall flow and agenda. I can’t always do what I want to do or even what the attendees/sponsors want to do. There are only so many hours in the day and so many rooms to utilize.
Venue also affects food options. I try hard to offer a variety of healthy options, but depending on the hotel this may not be possible or it could be double or triple the cost of their typical menu options.
The first two years we had fresh fruit available at every break because it was an affordable option on the banquet menu, but I haven’t been able to offer that again because other hotels literally charge obscene amounts per dozen of fruit. One year I was just going to bring my own but most hotels don’t allow outside food. This year for example, I had to have an exception written into the contract so we could allow sponsored breaks with product samples. It was a huge deal and we had to pay fees even though the products were donated.
Bottom line: Sometimes event planner hands are tied based on the hotel’s space and rules.
This is truly a confession. I’m HORRIBLE at official budgeting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually really good with money; I just do it all in my head. Every year I have to commit to spending so much money at the hotel to secure the space. So that’s pretty much my revenue goal.
Once I hit that amount with ticket sales and sponsorships I breathe a sigh of relief and just focus on designing the optimal conference with foods choices, breaks, AV needs, etc. Then a few weeks before the event I get my estimate bill from the hotel and I compare it to how much revenue I generated. If everything is covered, great! If not, I have to start pruning. Last year I almost had a heart attack when I had to cut my costs with the hotel in half two weeks before the conference. So it’s not that I don’t want to offer the most amazing meals and have coffee available 24/7, it’s just that I can’t afford it.
There have been so many things I’ve wanted to do, this year especially, that I just couldn’t because I didn’t have the time to plan or wrap my head around it.Every year I literally hit a point of saturation. Thankfully, I’m learning to delegate. Hosting a successful event depends on it, and I’m building a team of folks that I can really depend on.
I didn’t expect this post to get this long, but it feels good to share a bit of of my perspective and a look behind the scenes. I only wrote half of this in the car and finished the rest after the kids went to bed. Since I’m in “confession” mode, let me just say my house is a disaster (totally my fault when I got home), I’ve stuffed my face with pizza and really can’t wait to get back to my routine.
Tomorrow I have a LOT of work to do, but I’m tackling everything with enthusiasm. I feel so blessed to be able to do what I do and FitBloggin’ has inspired me to keep doing what I’m doing.
Yikes! I just realized I didn’t get my mile in. I’ve got to go!
Update: Alan just sent me this and now I’m a blubbering idiot.
I consider each and everyone of those people in that video (and many not shown) true friends. I love you guys too.