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GROWING A GREAT CONVENTION
Planning a convention takes months of work and a strong, though relatively small, committee. The Convention Committee should consist of seasoned members with proven track records and at least one individual who is motivated and willing to learn. This individual should be teamed with a committee member who is willing to teach and to supervise his/her work. The president of the chapter or affiliate must be involved on some level in the planning process. Finding an individual active in the community, someone with expertise in a field such as arts and crafts, sports, running a small business, motivational speaking or entertainment and leisure activities to partner with the Convention Committee is like finding a treasure, one that will bear fruit for years to come.
The president is responsible for appointing and overseeing the work of the Convention Committee. Subcommittees form naturally as the components of the convention are broken out. These subcommittee chairs should be allowed to invite individuals to work with them if they wish to do so. The president may delegate the responsibility for planning the event to the Vice President(s) or to a convention coordinator. Delegating responsibilities to people who have proved themselves is important. It is crucial to the continued growth and success of the organization and its programs to give the opportunity to work and learn to those who show promise and express an interest in doing so. It is vitally important to take into account both the strengths and weaknesses of the potential workers when setting up the committee structure.
Typical convention subcommittees include: site selection, program, awards, decorating and Hospitality. Needless to say, standing committees such as Scholarship, Constitution and Bylaws and Resolutions must complete their tasks in accordance with the Constitution and Bylaws in order for their recommendations to be considered by the members present and voting at the convention.
Handling services such as room set up, menu selections, recording the program, meeting special needs such as the provision of interpreters or hearing devices, must be assigned soon after the convention site has been selected. Once committees have been appointed, the president or convention coordinator must check on their progress regularly. Effective communication between all committee and subcommittee chairs is essential. Regular communication with key staff of the hotel will do much to eliminate those unpleasant and frustrating surprises during the convention. Pre-registration forms must be sent out in a timely manner and have a return date that will enable committees and staff to use the information to efficiently plan forum set up and meal functions. Some organizations offer a discount to members who register in advance of the convention. Pre-registration greatly facilitates the registration process.
Choosing a Convention Site
When negotiating for a good ADA compliant hotel with the sufficient space and amenities for your conference or convention, remember to think about the following questions.
After some potential convention site hotels have been chosen, the sites should be visited by either a small group from the Board or a committee appointed by the President. The convention hotel should be chosen early in the planning process. Keep in mind the balance of good rates and the necessities that must be at the hotel in order to make the event accessible and enjoyable to all. The members should be informed about this process, the choices available and why a particular choice was made in order to keep them vested in the convention and excited about participating in it. After a hotel is chosen, a contract must be signed as soon as possible. Most hotels give a specific time period for the offered rate. Contracts must be negotiated in a timely manner in order to insure facility availability on the desired dates. The contract should be signed no less than nine months before the event. It is important to present a realistic idea as to how many people will be in attendance, how many meals will be needed at meal functions and how many sleeping rooms will be reserved. Rates for meeting rooms, audio visual equipment and meal prices are governed by these numbers. However, most hotels allow for a ten percent variance before a higher rate is charged. Holding the event during a time of the year when the hotel is less busy guarantees a more reasonable rate for all convention activities.
The type of program and number of program participants must be considered when outlining room setup requirements. Rooms that are either too large or too small make participants feel uncomfortable and less likely to become truly involved in the presentation taking place. meeting room requirements, including all audio visual equipment needed, must be clearly spelled out in the contract in order to protect the integrity of the event and to avoid last minute costs. When making provisions for a hospitality room, be sure to take into account rules regarding the serving of food and liquor not purchased from the hotel. The cost of this room must be balanced with the benefits to the convention attendees. All deadlines for room reservations and the number of meals to be served must be included in the contract as well. If specific services are requested that will not be included in the contract price, these services and the fees for their provision must be stated in writing. Be sure to reserve sleeping rooms at the convention rate for speakers and key convention people who may need to come to the site early or stay after the event has concluded.
Planning Convention Programs and Activities
Finding a theme or central message makes it easier to invite the right speakers and to plan unique activities. Think about how the overall theme concept could target a larger audience. The target audience might include newly blind individuals, younger and older blind persons, service providers, friends and family members. The ultimate goal is to be sure that segments of the convention program speak to all of the targeted groups in attendance. Think about what sort of program each target audience might enjoy. Check out programs presented by organizations that serve the targeted audience. Run a survey in the newsletter or send it to members, soliciting their input regarding theme and program content. Since written surveys are often ignored, conducting a phone survey may produce more helpful information. Taking into account the questions asked during presentations at previous conventions may bring a wealth of information regarding the preferences and needs of convention attendees. Recording convention programs or streaming them on a web site is essential because these captured moments in time can be shared and learned from. Information gleaned from recordings of previous conventions will allow for reflection on the program ideas that were least and most successful. Including taped programs in audio newsletters not only provides another opportunity to share the wealth with those who were not in attendance; it renews interest in certain themes, ideas, initiatives and organizations and service providers. This is a natural springboard not only for convention program ideas but for the ongoing work of the organization and its chapters. Themes may center around ideas such as legislative activities, access issues, arts and leisure, interesting careers or hobbies, special or international trips, motivational strategies, and significant accomplishments of members. Some theme titles used by others have been "The sky is the limit", "How we can make a difference", and "Partners, the bridges to independence". Some topics or program items might include a local historian, new products, microwave cooking, transportation, education, and participatory activities. Identify all the possible resources in the theme area in order to bring to it the broadest scope or focus. Remember that it may be necessary to change the main focus if difficulty arises in finding either the central speaker or experts to participate in the workshops and other planned activities. It is essential to begin planning the next convention immediately after the last one concludes so that such focus changes are not cataclysmic.
Corresponding with those who are responsible for presenting at the convention is crucial. Send a confirmation letter to each person who has agreed to make a presentation and send a reminder letter to each presenter approximately one week before the date of the event. Clarify in the confirmation correspondence what was discussed and agreed to being sure to include all financial arrangements such as room provision, per diem expenses, and any payments or stipends. Restate what was agreed to in the reminder letter.
Be sure to include a mainstream issue or topic as well since the interests of people who are blind and visually impaired are broad and are in no way limited to blindness related themes. A convention topic, the many uses of herbs, mushroomed into a major fund raising project for one organization. Innovative programming is essential. Keep the agenda moving by using a variety of facilitators and types of presentations. Be sure to choose topics for work shops to be held concurrently that target specific groups of attendees in order to add choice and variety to the convention offerings. The keynote speaker must be a draw with the expertise to set the tone of the convention. He/she must interact with the audience. Convention attendees have a need to be linked to the keynote speaker, sharing the visions and experiences he/she relates. This is an emotional phenomenon that is difficult to attain but when attained can be the current that fuels the entire event and its outcome.
Hands-on activities, entertainment, panel discussions and different people to preside over the various program activities are natural sources of variety, keeping the audience alert, curious and anticipating what comes next. Remember that a representative from ACB is available and eager to participate in the convention.
Programs presented by ACB affiliates or other organizations provide a rich source of ideas materials and presenters. Remember that there are no assurances that any program will meet the expectations of those planning it. Learn from failures and successes alike remembering that each was planned with the best of intentions. Take joy in the successes and use them to motivate everyone in the planning process to continue to strive for bigger and better programs. Don't loose heart. Keep trying! Learning how to plan a great convention is always a work in progress.
Pre-registration packets and flyers publicizing the convention must be prepared for circulation at least three to four months prior to the convention date in order to allow potential attendees time to make all the necessary preparations for attending the event. Be sure that the publicity materials truly target the intended audience, i.e. newly visually impaired and blind people, service providers, family members and friends.
The theme, if well chosen, automatically targets the intended audience and makes it much easier to prepare the publicity that will call to that audience. The scope of the publicity, local, state or national, must be taken into account when determining publicity content and destination. Select from the most appropriate publicity options including group voice mail messages and telephone trees, radio reading services, flyers displayed in public places, newspaper advertisements and interviews, newsletters that reach a significant segment of the audience targeted and community calendars and bulletin boards aired on local commercial and public radio and cable TV stations. The public service announcement (PSA) is a valuable publicity tool in that it reaches a very large audience. The announcement must be brief, from 30 to 60 seconds, and must meet the other requirements specified by the radio or TV station. Make friends with key staff at the radio reading service and ask them not only to publicize the convention but to cover the event by broadcasting certain programs interviewing attendees and by providing basic coverage throughout the event. If the affiliate has an audio newsletter, be sure to interview program planners and include good programming from previous conventions in order to educate or remind the target audience as to why they should make the effort to attend the upcoming convention.
Whatever form of publicity is chosen, it must be accurate, convey a clear message, and sound good. TV and printed messages must be visually eye-catching. All publicity, including the pre- registration form, must highlight what attendees will come away with as a result of attending the convention. Be sure to include pertinent information such as date, time, place, program information, and cost. the address and phone number of a contact person who will be available to answer questions in a courteous and timely manner makes the pre-registration process less formidable.
The pre-registration form serves as a publicity tool. It must be written clearly and concisely and provide all pertinent information in an easily understood and enticing manner. Prepare a letter of invitation or announcement to any organization that includes among its membership a significant segment of the target audience. Telephone new members or individuals who are no longer as active in the organization with a personal invitation. Remember that people attend conventions for many reasons. Being mindful of these reasons when planning the program is key to a successful convention that will leave attendees feeling that they have gained something from their participation in it and looking forward to attending and, hopefully, helping to plan the next one.
Presentation and Appearance
The content of agendas and other program materials must be accurate, informative and presented in a manner that will cause those reading them to be both curious and interested. All formats (Braille, cassette, large print and computer disk) must be prepared with care, being sure that basic requirements of each format are met in order to insure that they are truly accessible. All event tickets must be attractively printed.
Center pieces and place favors add a certain festive quality to luncheon and banquet meetings. Many hotels have center pieces available for meal meetings. Some companies will happily donate, for the sake of good will and advertising, small items such as candies, cosmetic and other product samples, pens, pencils and even coupons that can be used to make up table favors.
Certificates and plaques being presented to recipients of awards must have all information printed correctly and must have a look of simplicity and elegance. Those presenting the awards must, in a very few minutes, introduce the recipients of the awards in a well informed manner while setting a tone of celebration for hard work well done that has enriched the lives of many present. During time allocated for announcements, publicly thank each speaker and presenter and be sure to acknowledge the hard work of each individual who has contributed to the success of the convention.
There will always be people present who do not regularly attend meetings and there will usually be people visiting who are deciding whether or not they would like to join the organization. As a result, do not act in a "good ole boy" manner or act too familiar with certain members of the audience. Do not refer to inside jokes. It is extremely important to make everyone feel comfortable and included. Having people available to seat late-comers or those wandering into the room relieves a great deal of stress and uncertainty. Assigning people to distribute hand-outs, acknowledge raised hands during periods of questions and answers, assist with audio visual equipment, provide water for speakers and presenters, and be on call as needed gives an air of polish and smoothness to the convention and is a deterrent to stress and uncertainty for those running the meetings. Theater style seating should be avoided as it is not conducive to audience interaction. Nontraditional seating, three sided around the head table which is set in the center is a seating configuration that has worked for some organizations. Keep the audience interested and involved by planning activities and presentations in which they can be directly involved such as question and answer sessions, exchanging of ideas or entertainment in which the audience takes an active part.
Incentives for Participants
Some wishing to attend the convention will have limited resources and no decent local transportation. Make every effort to alleviate as many expenses as possible. Conventions should never be fund-raising efforts although activities such as an auction or a raffle to benefit the organization are acceptable. Continental breakfasts, free coffee and inexpensive lunches or banquets, a hospitality room stocked with food donated by members and friends, delightful offerings such as sandwiches, fruits and vegetable plates, a variety of appetizers and snacks are fun, promote wonderful opportunities for socializing and lessen the financial obligation of attending the convention. Before setting the wheels in motion to provide a well stocked hospitality room, be sure to check with the hotel regarding whether or not it is permissible to bring food in. Some hotels have a clear policy that is stated in the contract that requires that all food and drink be purchased from the hotel.
Providing a stipend to cover a portion of the cost of the hotel room or transportation is also an incentive that allows many to attend the convention. Renting a van or bus to pick up people in particular regions or areas does much to alleviate the problems of transportation cost and access. offering to pay drivers who bring a group of people is another very excellent solution to the problems of transportation cost and access. Encouraging chapters of the organization to offer incentives to their membership promotes good will and guarantees the realization of the goal of their being well represented at the event.
Exhibits are a definite drawing card for some convention attendees. In order to assure the greatest interest in this offering, plan a variety of exhibits such as technology, crafts, jewelry, books and other accessible materials, health products, special foods, hand made and unique items appropriate for giving or collecting and services of particular interest to the targeted audience.
The first moments at the convention when attendees may feel unsure and confused are often the most difficult. Provide a group of trained, outgoing greeters to be at the ready to welcome attendees as they arrive, assist with orientation to the hotel, perform introductions to make everyone feel included and provide general assistance throughout the convention in order to make the experience a positive one to be repeated time and time again.
Make every effort to accommodate the child-care needs of the members.
Be sure to include a time in the program for A wrap-up session in which the audience has the opportunity to ask questions and make comments and suggestions. Use what is learned from this session in preparing the next convention program and to add new workers to the team.
What is it that makes a convention great? It is the miracle of men and women with one common goal, the goal of planning and carrying out and participating in a successful convention. It is individuals who have agreed to write a letter or make a phone call or give a speech or participate in a panel or lead a sing-along or bring a glass of cold water to someone who needs it or give an arm to someone who is a bit disoriented or extend a hand in friendship to someone who knows no one. Most of all, it is the coming together of a group of people who want to learn and want to teach, who want to form new friendships and enjoy old ones, who want to work together to make the world a better place in which to live, work and play--in other words, to live out their own custom made version of the American dream!
Report of the ACB Membership Committee
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