EPICon-2006 Lessons Learned
EPICon-2006 was a tremendous success by any measure. The problems were small and resulted from a higher turn-out than realistically expected based on previous years' conferences. We had a total of 105 registered attendees and 138 for the banquet. I hope most of the problems were transparent to most of you.
We held the conference fee to the $150 for members we have had since we began. Naturally, this does not begin to cover the costs of the conference and EPIC covered a lot of the cost. EPPIE more than pays her way and she contributes mightily to the quality we were able to provide. EPIC paid for the Alamo Tour, the River Cruise, and all the other amenities. The conference fee barely covered the catering costs for the meals. All the other extras, the breakfasts, the mixer, the free sodas were covered either by EPIC or by our sponsors who were so generous in supporting this event.
San Antonio is a tourist-oriented city with excellent public transportation, easy access to the airport to/from downtown, plenty of things to do. We were able to offer two special events to our attendees this year, The Alamo Tour and the River Cruise. Both were great successes. The Alamo Tour was taken by 60 people (our limit) and the River Cruise had about the same number, though I didn't count. We had rented three boats for 40 people each, so we had room for 120. However, we had to send one boat back empty before the cruise started. But those who braved the walk to the Hyatt dock had a wonderful experience. We got to see parts of the river the normal cruises don't go down and got a great history lesson from the guides.
SUGGESTION: The location must be near a major airport where attendees can get the best fares. Transportation to/from the airport should be easy and inexpensive.
SUGGESTION: Site selection is currently limited by the weather in March. As EPICon gets bigger and more important and we can compete with other conferences, we might look at a different time, maybe in the early summer, when we can open up the choice of sites to those farther north. I don't believe this is a viable option for the next couple of years, but later on it is something to reconsider.
Our hotel was the historic Menger. Though we didn't see any ghosts, except for Miss Ruby's rather cheeky visit to Betty Hanawa during the night she roomed with Jane Bierce, all the comments I heard about the site were positive. The Menger was my first choice and I can only praise the cooperation and assistance I received from the Sales and Catering staff, particularly from Marcia Sheingold and Doreen Sanders. The staff was unfailingly courteous in my dealings with them and responded quickly when we had any problems. I apologize for the mix-up during E-Fiesta! with the help. I had not expected them to do anything, since we were off hotel property. My thoughts were that we would have to move everything ourselves. I should have made this clearer. However, the fact that they DID help is a testament to the quality of service the Menger provided us.
SUGGESTION: Provide in the budget for tips for this kind of help. I understand the bellmen were not tipped when they helped schlep stuff out to the Plaza. Please correct me if I am mistaken in this.
Some folks have told me the sleeping rooms were really small. This is probably a function of the Menger's age as some of these rooms are almost 150 years old. I don't have a suggestion for this, unless we can ask future hotels about room sizes and give people that information ahead of time so they can plan accordingly, or ask for a bigger room if necessary.
We had some mix-ups with the program that I will take full responsibility for. I had given Doreen an older version to make up the room tags and there were discrepancies with the actual program people were trying to go by. I really appreciate the flexibility everyone showed and their patience as I ran around trying to get things straightened out.
We also had some confusion from people who had not registered yet and didn't know where the meeting rooms were.
SUGGESTION: A welcome to EPICon package which could be put on the website for download. The attendees could then have with them a floorplan of the hotel, a schedule of the first day's events, where to bring books for the store, where to register, etc.
SUGGESTION: EPICon committee members could be flagged with big buttons or tags or some such identifier that marks them as people to ask for directions or information. At least that would give people someone to start with if they're having a problem.
Of all the program issues, the one that was the most disruptive was the swap of rooms and the loss of Meeting Room C on Saturday afternoon. Many thanks to Marilyn Meredith and her workshop attendees who gamely moved out to the pre-function area and carried on. We also missed getting Cathy Snodgrass's tax workshop handouts into the program binder. I was able to get some copies for those who attended, but am so sorry the rest of you don't have this. I asked Cathy if we could put them up on the website for you and will follow up on this with her and Dan.
Again, I apologize for the inconvenience and thank Marilyn and Cathy for their grace and patience.
SUGGESTION: Not much you can do about human error except to check and recheck.
In general the meeting spaces were more than adequate. We had a switch of rooms which was, I hope, easy since the change was for the whole conference. This was because the room where we'd originally placed the provided AV was the smallest and we wanted to make sure there was room for everyone who wanted to attend. So we swapped A and C and it appeared to me to work fine.
Tim in AV for the Menger was an angel in working with us to get everything we needed done. I asked him to move the AV from Meeting Room A to the Minuet for the Keynote, and he gave us a whole separate system for that instead of moving stuff and probably delaying our afternoon workshops while he moved it back. I do not believe we paid any labor or extra rental for this. I will also tell you that we got the AV equipment for less than HALF the usual fee.
SUGGESTION: Better coordination between the on-site person and the program coordinator to ensure the best use of space and any conference-provided AV.
One other thing that I wish I had done differently is to provide microphones in all meeting rooms. I confess to being cheap on this and it was not necessary.
SUGGESTION: Provide microphones in all meeting rooms.
Keynote: George McKenzie received rave reviews. He was funny, engaging, and informative. More than one person said his keynote was the highlight of the conference. George even stepped in to fill an open spot and I heard he was great.
He had not prepared to do more than his keynote, but he was able to sit and talk to people about promotion in a way many of us had never thought before.
Agents: Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada were wonderful. They participated in the conference, even attending workshops, besides taking lots of appointments. The reviews I've heard were that they were gracious and showed real interest in what we do. They admitted to me when we first talked that they didn't know much about electronic publishing, but they came ready to listen and to learn. Elizabeth has since told me that it was a pleasure to be able to learn something at a conference.
I am so proud of how everyone embraced them and made them feel like a part of everything. Even Jeff included them in the banquet monologue and they jumped right in to mix it up with him.
I hope every one of you who got an invitation to submit will follow up with them. As I've said before they represent just about everything.
The workshop program Micqui Miller and Barbara Woodward created for us was a big success. Everyone seemed to enjoy them and they were well attended. Thanks to all the speakers who donated time to prepare and provide their expertise on a wide range of topics. The Two-Page Read was a GREAT success with both authors and editors and the hope was expressed that this workshop would be offered at future conferences.
SUGGESTION: More advanced-level, special interest programming, like Rob Preece's Kick Ass Heroines workshop. Micqui and Barbara tried to get some outside speakers on subjects like police procedure, etc., but we just weren't able to do that this year.
SUGGESTION: Rate workshops for level, beginner, intermediate, advanced.
SUGGESTION: A feedback form for workshops in the conference binder. These could be either one overall form or maybe even one for each workshop.
SUGGESTION: Two-Page Read: Have attendees include a short synopsis with the two pages, to give evaluators a better idea of where the story is going.
The bookstore was too small. Our "realistic" projection was for 70 people, and we ended up 30% above that, which I consider to be a GOOD problem. But, once the actual number of attendees was confirmed, it was too late to switch to a bigger room. We could have gotten the larger Cavalier Room on Friday, but it then we would have had to wait until Friday morning to set the bookstore up.
SUGGESTION: Plan for the "hoped for" number, or limit the number of books.
I got a cash box and loaded it with $100 in change. That seemed adequate. I won't mail this to Lisa because it's so heavy, but I'll bring it with me next year to Virginia Beach and we can pass it on to the next year's conference chair.
We missed some sales because we didn't take credit cards.
SUGGESTION: Allow checks with valid ID. Perhaps arrange for one of the publishers with a credit card account to accept credit card payments and then disburse funds to all publishers.
The meals were spectacular. Ginny McBlain was our catering coordinator and her selections were great. Naturally this is where the hotel makes its money, so the prices were higher than we'd have had to pay if we'd been able to cater it otherwise, but I believe we got our money's worth.
Doreen in catering bent over backwards to work with Ginny to be as flexible as she could. However, in catering for a large group, choices are necessarily limited.
Ginny also went out of her way to help out those whose allergies and needs couldn't be met by the hotel staff.
I will say that EPICon feeds its attendees better than ANY other conference. There was not a rubber chicken on any menu.
The only problem I have heard was that the filet on Saturday night was underdone for some folks. I apologize for this as Ginny ordered them cooked medium and they came out medium rare in a lot of cases.
SUGGESTION: Offering vegetarian meals is an absolute must. However, limits have to be placed on what we can do.
SUGGESTION: Make sure undercooked meat can be sent back and cooked a little more.
The table decorations were created by Ginny and hauled all the way from Omaha, except for the few things I got for her down here, such as the bluebonnets. We owe her a BIG debt of gratitude for making out meals so enjoyable.
Photographer - I understand pictures have not started showing up yet. I have asked Sam about this and will follow up.
He has been paid for the photographer's time and for a CD of the banquet pictures which he was supposed to have sent to Dan already. I apologize for the delay.
It has been suggested that we consider hiring someone to tape the workshop sessions. We can sell the tapes at cost. I like this idea, as the content of the conference can then be available to those unable to attend.
SUGGESTION: Audio taping sessions to sell at cost.
The biggest production cost was for the conference binders. We did beautiful color ads and professionally printed the whole thing. If the conference gets bigger, we will definitely want to make the compiling a professional job too. It took a lot of time to put the binders together, even with me putting together what I could before the conference.
SUGGESTION: Have conference binders professional produced.
EPPIE certificates for finalists are still being done by a volunteer. Micqui Miller did them this year. Since the number of these are probably going to remain pretty much constant, a volunteer can probably do them for a few years yet, but if the contest adds categories and the number gets much above the 100 or so that it's been historically, it might make sense to consider other avenues for this production cost as well.
Thank-you gifts for EPICon committee: I did these myself and believe this is something each conference coordinator should decide on. New Voices CDs: Debi Sullivan and I burned 300 of these off and I printed the labels. It was not as bad as I had thought it would be. If the numbers stay the same for next year, this production can easily be done by two people with decent equipment.
Professional services: We contracted with Jo-Ann Power to do promotion for EPICon. Now, I am not able to evaluate everything she did and say it was worth the money. Besides sending out oodles of press releases, which I know we could have done ourselves, she also fielded questions, used her media contacts for more possible coverage, and received, compiled and mailed the finalists' press releases. She also did the legwork for our ad in RWR, which I am not convinced did anything for us, other than to get out image out there before an audience of 8000 RWA members. The cost was good for the three month's worth of ads, but I fear we got little return for it. The reason for this, I believe, is the entrenched resistance to and lack of understanding of e-publishing among the RWA membership. We can only change this through gentle education.
As for why we got no media coverage, other than a visit from a writer from Scene in SA magazine, I can only speculate. I believe our conference was too small and our topic too esoteric for most of the media here in town. The editor of Scene in SA is Cynthia Leal Massey, who was an EPPIE finalist years ago. I don't know how the story will turn out, but will report to you if it is actually published. My main desire in hiring Jo-Ann was to try an all-out PR campaign, just to prove the concept, and to try to get local authors to attend and learn about us and our medium. I am convinced, based on who was at the conference, that it was not cost-effective. We did get one person who was not an EPIC member, nor even a published author yet, from Boston who was able to join us at the last minute. I did not think to ask her how she learned about the conference. The other non-member attendees appeared to be EPPIE finalists or people who had heard about the conference from their friends.
Members of the local RWA chapter did show up and have joined EPIC. This is due to Jo-Ann, Deloris Lynders, and JoAnn Prater telling them about the conference.
Volunteer efforts: Lillie Ammann did yeoman's work in promoting New Voices, posting the press release on multiple sites and monitoring the results. I know several others also did promotional work for the conference on the author loops, Brenna Lyons was out there big time!
SUGGESTION: If volunteers are willing to handle the PR for the conference, I believe this would be as effective as hiring a professional firm.
We've tried doing writing contests a couple of times before, but the efforts just didn't go anywhere. This year, Lillie Ammann, Billie Houston, and Grace Anne Schaefer created and promoted the contest beyond the confines of our host state and we got some awesome entries. Though not quite what we'd hoped for, we did get a good number of entries to make the contest credible.
Fictionwise donated eight e-bookwise readers for prizes and the winners are now able to read e-books easily.
Lillie planned to send press releases to announce the winners, provide the winners with personalizable press releases, and make the press releases available to EPIC members for further promotion. She was also talking about putting it on PRWeb for a fee, so it could go out on emediawire and to Google News and Yahoo News. If she has updates on this, I'll let her pass that on.
The information for New Voices 2007 is already up on the EPIC website. The anthology is available for download from the EPIC website in pdf format. In addition, Brenna Lyons (who, as we have already established, NEVER sleeps) has formatted the anthology for print at Cafe Press. It is available for sale.
With more promotion about the success of this year's contest and a longer planning period, New Voices should grow and be even more successful in 2007.
The best part of the whole contest was the fact that two of the winners came to San Antonio and did a booksigning at E-Fiesta! Giving these kids a chance to experience that was worth the effort, I believe.
Booksigning vs. special event (a la E-Fiesta!)
I made the executive decision to not bother with a booksigning this year. I have been to every EPICon and have yet to see on that was worth the trouble of schlepping books back and forth, only to sell to ourselves. I truly believe the evening we weren't out sitting at tables, waiting for someone to come over and buy a book, was much better spent either touring the Alamo or cruising the San Antonio River. I still think booksignings are a waste of time, unless there's some HUGE reason for people to come in. Even in Tampa, people came to the booksigning, but they mostly walked past us to get to Piers Anthony.
The desire to replace the booksigning with an educational event is where E-Fiesta! came from. I wanted to really try something different, where we weren't shilling books, but the medium, because I believe in e-publishing and have long thought EPIC wasn't doing that educational effort as strongly as we should. I thought carnival-type event would be inviting and if we entertained and educated and gave away plenty of goodies, we would have a good turn-out.
Of course, it became much more than that. Deloris Lynders came up with the new name, E-Fiesta! which was perfect for our venue and the whole flavor of the event.
I decided I couldn't run the conference and E-Fiesta! and do justice to both . Once Brenna Lyons joined the conference committee, I knew she was just the person to take it on. I will pat myself on the back for this decision! She did gangbusters! Her enthusiasm for the project and the great ideas she added to what was only a very sketchy dream of mine created something really special. Circumstances conspired to keep us from entertaining, and she had a terrific entertainment program all ready to go, but those same circumstances brought us a crowd we could not have imagined. I certainly didn't.
SUGGESTION: I strongly suggest that future conferences continue what Brenna started here in San Antonio. We still have a lot of education to do.
SUGGESTION: Booksignings are really not effective for mid-list authors in my experience. Unless the signing is part of a larger program, such as readings or a public workshop, I strongly suggest not wasting the energy on it.
SUGGESTION: Promotional excerpts should be formatted in a standard fashion for use on demonstration readers. These should include: title, author's name, possibly web site or publisher. This would make it easier for the person loading the files.
Deloris Lynders created a list of cell phone numbers for those committee members who would be carrying cell phones. This was a great idea and it could even be included in the conference binder, the conference chair's number at least.
SUGGESTION: Create committee cell phone list and include at least part of it in the conference binder. All committee members should carry this list with them at all times, even those who do not have cell phones, so they can call people if they need help.
Packing conference and goodie bags
Packing conference and goodie bags was a very time consuming and exhausting process. I know I could have planned this better and am open to any suggestions. Brenna is talking about doing most of this before the conference starts. I would only say that such an undertaking is overwhelming for one person, which is why I planned a stuffing party for Wednesday night before Thursday registration. With a big enough crew and a little better organization, this can be done in an evening, which in fact we did.
Shirts - We did polo shirts this year and they are great. The cost was reasonable and they appear to be very good quality. I've washed mine a couple of times already and it's holding up well. T-shirts are okay, but I think the polo is just a little bit snazzier.
I did have a bit of a scare as the deadline approached and I couldn't get in touch with the vendor. So, I did a bit of looking around to see what we could get and found we could have had stitched shirts for not too much more. This extra touch might be nice if a future conference has shirts.
SUGGESTION: Polo instead of tee if shirts are offered, as long as the quality is good.
Pens - I hope everyone is enjoying the EPIC pen we distributed at the banquet. I think such a keepsake, which is also useful, is a great thing to give. I still have mine from EPICon-2003 in Tampa and I hope this will be a nice reminder of EPICon-2006.
EPICon-2006 was the biggest yet. Of course, it was held in Texas. . . I am so gratified that our annual conference was attended by nearly 20% of our world-wide membership. Those of us who worked on EPICon-2006 are so happy that our efforts were so successful and that those of you who could be with us had a good time.
While there were snags, everyone was patient and took it all with a good dose of humor. I really appreciate that. Any problems were my responsibility and I offer my apologies for them.
Organization is not my forte, and when I told Dusty Rhodes I'd do this (Memo to self: NEVER, EVER, say "If nobody else wants to do it..." ;-), the caveat was that I would have to have a big committee to spread the work around, so nobody got burned out. I tried to even out the load, but some jobs, like the program, formatting the art, taking the registrations and making sure everyone got the information they needed, arranging the appointments (especially when we kept getting moved!), New Voices, collecting promotional materials, and so many other jobs, took a LOT of time and effort. I do not want to end this without again thanking my committee for the hours and hours of hard work they all put in to making this a success. You are all my heroes and have my undying gratitude and admiration for your dedication to this organization and to making EPICon-2006 a wonderful, memorable event.
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