Designing a conference

For the past few years, I’ve been working behind the scenes, supporting a small conference series named FLOCK. Over that time, I’ve learned a lot about what goes into pulling off these conference-type events.

Letters and balloons at a FLOCK event

We just wrapped up our 13th conference. This was our first three-day event. Up until this one, all past FLOCK events basically fit into a single day. Each event has its own theme, curated for small business entrepreneurs, writers, photographers, and content creators. The theme for this event, Show Me the Money, revolved around ways for creators to diversify and expand their revenue streams. It was held at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Welcome sign entering Disney World property that reads: "Walt Disney World, The Most Magical Place on Earth"
As we arrived at Disney World last Sunday

Context of my involvement

For the past few years, I’ve been working behind the scenes, supporting FLOCK as they created a small, intimate conference series with minimal resources and a tiny team. Despite experience speaking at a few conferences earlier in my career, I never realized all that goes into conference planning and hosting. Since working with FLOCK, I’ve learned a lot about what goes into pulling off events like these. So I thought I’d share my experience.

So many hats to wear

As is typical with most small-team companies, each person wears multiple hats. Once you realize something needs to be done, you’re often the one who needs to figure out how to get it done.

The two cofounders typically do all the heavy lifting for each of the events they plan, market, and host. So far, they have 1) created themes, 2) found, vetted, and invited speakers, 3) courted sponsors, 4) negotiated venues, 5) planned catering, 6) booked staff and speaker travel, and 7) physically hosted and MCed every event. There’s so much more they do for each event, and I don’t even know all the moving parts.

As you’d expect, I took on all design and creative tasks. I crafted the FLOCK logo, expanded the identity system, customized email templates, and designed and built a website to promote events and sell tickets. All of these have evolved since their first iterations five years ago.

Screen showing the projected title slide for Show Me the Money event at Disney World.
Testing the projector before everyone arrives

In addition to creative tasks, businesses need to tackle lots of other basic responsibilities. I stepped in to form the LLC (using Stripe Atlas), register the business, set up bank and email accounts, manage finances (QBO), configure servers, fight my way through Facebook and Google ad UIs, and source and set up all the other systems and services FLOCK uses to support and grow the business. I also play tech support and troubleshoot various issues as we encounter them.

Event ads for Instagram and Facebook
Event ads created for Instagram and Facebook

Event-specific design

Designing for a conference meant adding a few more unique components. The biggest one was selling and managing tickets, and collecting information for each attendee. When FLOCK started in 2018, we opted for the simplicity of Eventbrite, embedding its registration flow into each of our event pages.

A few years in, we wanted more control over ticket sales, the registration flow, and the data we collected from attendees. I have plenty of experience customizing WordPress and WooCommerce. But I needed help with the logistics of selling and managing event tickets. I knew about The Events Calendar, a heavy-hitter in the WordPress event plugin space. After some advanced customization of templates and code from TEC’s Event Tickets plugin, we were able to build out FLOCK’s event pages and registration flow as we wanted them to be.

The FLOCK UI for selecting ticket type and quantity. User chooses among Early Bird, Regular, and Pro tickets.
FLOCK’s event page module for initiating registration

Beyond ticket sales, we use Airtable to manage event data, because we like how easy it is to customize the views and data types. Zapier pushes data from WordPress to Airtable. We use a badge printing service (now under Eventgroove) to print attendee badges on a synthetic no-tear film.

FLOCK badge variations for speakers, attendees, and staff
Variations on attendee badges

Since the schedule often includes last-minute changes, schedule cards that go in attendee bags are printed only a week in advance. UPrinting handles our schedule cards and all of the printed material on a tight timeframe.

Schedule card for FLOCK's Disney World 2023 event
Front and back of the Disney World event schedule card

One of my challenges has been sourcing reliable vendors to produce custom notebooks, pens, bags, and other swag items on a tight budget. Quality and efficiency have been hard to guarantee. In our first couple years, I used Promotique (now under Vistaprint).

I sourced our latest pens and bags from vendors on Alibaba for cost reasons. I’m not sure I’d recommend doing that again, as language and time zone barriers made it challenging to solve issues that arose. Our first batch of pens got lost. And our bags almost didn’t show up in time, despite ordering them six months in advance.

Tote bags at a recent FLOCK event
Attendee tote bags and swag for a recent event

Missing pieces

I’m not naive to think that our tiny team covers everything we could do for these events. I only attend a fraction of the events FLOCK hosts. So I don’t always see or notice what might seem missing from a creative or experience perspective.

This last event in a large Disney convention center was a stark reminder that we were missing branded signage outside the doors to help attendees find the right room and welcome them to it. Signage also would have been another opportunity to present our major sponsor logos.

I’m now filled with first-hand knowledge and experience that conference planning, marketing, and hosting takes a lot of work. It’s totally possible — just hard — to do with a small team. I also know how hard it is to make events profitable without a few large-pocket sponsors, especially for small events like these.

If you have tips or experience to share, or have questions for me about planning or designing a conference, reach out here or on my social channels (linked in the footer).