Diary of a Conference: Campus Outreach National Conference
The holidays are a time when many planners set their out-of-office email responders, turn off their iPhones, and settle in at home for a week or two to recharge and get ready for the new year. For the planners of the Campus Outreach National Conference, this year’s holidays were when everything was really heating up.
College students from around the country pencil in a few days at the end of every year to attend their regional Campus Outreach conferences. This year was different, though. Every 10 years, the regional campus ministries and alumni gather for one national conference, which includes inspirational speakers, concerts, breakout seminars and sporting tournaments. Dubbed CONatCon by organizers, the conference took place in Chattanooga, Tenn., Dec. 28– Jan. 1. The major endeavor required four key event planners leading a preconference planning staff of 20 and a conference execution team of 60.
The event’s lead planners—Mary Beth Rogers, Luke Niday, Bobby Pepiot and Chris Devine—took the time to document this year’s event for Rejuvenate magazine from their point of view. They arrived in Chattanooga on Dec. 26, two days prior to the start of the event, and worked tirelessly until the conference ended on Jan. 1. They’re used to planning small regional conferences for about 500 to 1,000 students. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to organize an event for 5,500.
Monday, Dec. 26
We arrive in Chattanooga and get ready for set-up tomorrow. We organize the office, and Bobby and Chris stay up late working on a detailed guide to hand out to resource staff. For tomorrow’s events and throughout the rest of the conference, we will divide into four strategic teams:
Team Mary Beth
• Pre-con meetings with hotels
• Organizing conference notebooks
• Set up assembly line to complete conference registration materials
• Work with DCR Media and Systems, based out of Atlanta, to set up ballroom, lighting, sound, video screens and set
• Set up Cafe, which is a trade show, bookstore, concession and gathering area
• Gather free-day passes for city attractions
• Prepare for sports tournaments
• Secure food discounts
Tuesday, Dec. 27
Everyone meets, and we divide the more than 60 resource staff members into groups that will pack registration bags, make name tags, organize T-shirts and giveaways, set up the stage, mark off fields for free-day tournaments, meet with hotel staff members to set up nine different decentralized registration locations, and meet with local food vendors to secure discounts at more than 20 restaurants in the downtown area throughout the day.
The frenzy begins. People are dispatched throughout the city, others jam out to music in the office, spending the day stuffing 5,000 bags and preparing name tags.
All staff gathers for dinner and a short meeting to assess progress: registration areas are ready, staging area has made much progress, and all free-day tournaments and food vendors are set up. Only a few specialized tasks remain, so we call it a night.
Wednesday, Dec. 28
We start the day with a meeting to gather the troops and give them the evaluation of where we are and what still needs to be done to get ready for the conference. Luke shares three key tips to make the most of the conference: 1. Prepare for the King. 2. See Jesus in the little things. 3. Enjoy your work.
Our teams scatter to set up nine registration areas at our conference hotels: Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, Staybridge Suites, Marriott, Sheraton Read House, Courtyard by Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn, DoubleTree Inn and Suites, Hampton Inn, and Holiday Inn and Suites. Each registration area has a live twitter feed streaming on a projector screen, computers to register attendees via Eventbrite, sound systems to play welcome music and a photo booth. Each location also has one of nine pieces of a 60-foot banner that students can sign that will be hung up in the hallway during the conference. (This is a hit!) Team Bobby puts the final touches on the main rally room and gets the lighting hung in the Cafe area.
Registration begins. Mary Beth did a great job in getting her team prepared; through Skype she was able to train the registration point people to be proficient in Eventbrite. Attendees use Sharpies to write their own names on name tags, which makes the system really simple. Members of regional campus staffs greet attendees. Students mostly arrive as groups; buses of students came from Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Daytona Beach and other cities.
We have a slight hiccup with registration at the Sheraton as we received the keys in room number order not in alphabetical order, so our team has to put them in alphabetical order before they can be processed at registration. There’s also not a great set-up for registration at the Sheraton; we have a very small room and 700 people have to make their way through one standard-sized doorway, but it’s the most convenient meeting space in the hotel. All the other locations are flowing great. Of the nearly 900 keys at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, there are only eight wrong keys, and seven of them are Campus Outreach’s fault.
At the end of registration, we’ve processed 3,900 attendees at the nine sites.
Attendees begin lining up outside the main rally room at the Chattanooga Convention Center for the opening session.
Doors open, and hundreds of college students sprint to the nearest seats available. Speaker J.D. Greear arrives on time and sticks to the schedule.
About 350 students arrive to the city for late registration. Overall, the conference sees about an 18 percent increase for the national conference compared to the combined total of last year’s regional conferences.
After the main rally, we help guide students out of the main room to find their regional rallies. We have 15 different ballrooms set up for regional rallies. The goal with the regional rallies is to make this large conference feel smaller. Each regional rally is shaped differently to bring a personalized feel to the conference. They were set up by the conference team and are executed by the regional staff teams. For these first rallies, some regions are throwing a welcome party with music and dancing and games. Other regions are walking through how to make the most of the conference and staging a flash mob. Other regions are talking about how this conference is going to change the shape and scope of what they are doing back on their college campuses.
We come together as a planning team to evaluate day one. It’s going better than expected. The twitter feed is blowing up with tons of positive comments. Four meetings are added to the agenda.
Thursday, Dec. 29
The entire planning team meets in the morning to walk through the day’s big upcoming events: feeding 5,000 attendees, setting up security and rally teams, and concert planning. We spend 30 minutes focusing on the food plan. We divide into our teams to prepare for speaker arrivals, set up AV in breakout rooms, attend programming meetings, etc. A hot topic this morning: One student did not check into the hotel on time last night. We referred to our master online database, sending out an email to registered attendees to help us find the student, who was in the wrong hotel. We’re a little tired from the search.
Morning session with speaker Matt Chandler begins on time, with about three minutes to spare. Attendees really respond to Chandler; tweets come in at a rate of about one per second for the rally’s first 30 minutes.
Men leave the main ballroom for lunch while women remain inside for a rally. In 15 minutes, 2,500 men are served lunch. The only problem: We get them through the line too fast, and they’re left sitting for 45 minutes to an hour before their rally.
About 20 staff members help send men out of an exterior exit to re-enter the ballroom elsewhere while the women are released to go through the lunch line.
Smaller breakout sessions begin. One of the projectors goes out and we realize we don’t have remotes to flip through PowerPoint slides. But all seminars start on time and all speakers are here.
Second set of seminar sessions begin. More than half are at maximum capacity and the rest are all at least half full. We’ve also set up two information tables and have stationed staff members throughout the center for students who have questions during the event. After the session, students have free time to eat before reconvening for the 8:00 p.m. rally.
Students arrive early for the 8:00 p.m. rally and enter the rally room. They start waving regional banners and become a bit unruly because we have a lack of leadership and security inside the ballroom. It’s all stationed at the door. We should have used our @conatconstaff Twitter handle to send a message to our regional campus staff leaders to help calm them down. They were mostly just having fun. As soon as the emcees came out on stage, everyone started listening.
Rally with Matt Chandler begins. Attendance holds steady at rally.
A concert with Trip Lee and Sho Baraka begins. For late-night events, we add security at the ballroom door and in the hallway. After the concert, we’ve organized free shuttles for attendees who have to walk more than five minutes to their hotels. We feel responsible for students the whole time due to the fact that their hotels are conference hotels and we paid for them the same way we did the convention center. We’ve worked with local CVB to communicate with the police force and get them up to scope on our schedule. We ask students to stay in groups. We also have campus staff staying in each hotel, helping the students go from their hotels to the convention center.
Our day is finally over.
Friday, Dec. 30
Staff meeting begins, and members are blowing up 1,000 beach balls for a rally later in the day. Chris leads a group of 35 people to set up concessions stands and equipment, fill out brackets, and set up basketball courts and flag football fields. Pre-conference planning included locating fields, getting insurance and waivers, coordinating teams, seeding brackets and setting up field coordinators, logistics coordinator and runners. Our team will also spend much of the day setting up the alumni conference running simultaneously over the weekend days of the conference.
About 225 alumni will come to town for the weekend. They will have their own room off to the side and their own emcees, stage, and band during each rally. Live video of the main session speakers will be shown in the alumni room during rallies.
Sports tournaments begin: a basketball tournament with 110 teams and a football tournament with 55 teams. More than 1,000 attendees take part. They last all day.
Trip Lee and Sho Baraka return for a rally. We had planned to break a world record with beach balls, but had to cancel it for this meeting because of time. We’re not sure where they will fit it in the program, but there are 1,000 beach balls blown up and ready to go.
Students again break up into their regions for rallies, which last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half.
We convene one last time before calling it a day. The biggest problem today was that we had to move five regional rally rooms because they weren’t large enough. Also, one of our staff members was approached by people from a blood-donor mobile who were in crisis and needed blood. One of our staff people allowed them to set up outside the center’s doors and recruit students. After we got word of this, we had to put a stop to it as this could cause a liability issues, especially in light of our stringent schedule. They set up their operation a few blocks away and students donated when they had free time.
Saturday, Dec. 31
Our team meets for our daily morning meeting and we discuss how Campus Outreach directors are pushing for mobilization, which is being involved in the Campus Outreach movement after students leave college, to be large takeaway from this conference. Some of that communication didn’t cross over to the planning team, so we’re making adjustments to add meeting times for different regional mobilization times. Adjustments also have to be made with the musician because there hasn’t been enough time given to the band, creating some tension with our planning team.
Fifth conference rally begins with Harry Reeder.
Women’s lunch and men’s rally begins. There are no problems coordinating today’s lunches.
Men’s lunch and women’s rally begins. More than 2,500 people are served lunch in 11 minutes.
After seminars begin, many are overflowing and we have to send some students to their second or third options. One seminar was moved from the room it was in two days ago, and the AV equipment wasn’t moved. We set up our own equipment rather than asking the convention center for help because it needed to be done quickly.
The event’s sixth rally with John Piper begins. It begins and ends on time. We coordinated an extended worship time with music and devotions at the end. After the rally, we have 30 minutes to set up for a New Year’s party we’ve planned. We move and stack 2,000 chairs for the party and set the room. The party starts on time and the team decides to bring in the beach balls. More than 1,000 beach balls create a wave of fun over the crowd. It brings a lot of energy to the room energy and works out so much better than if we had tried to do this during a main session. We have to document the event to send it in for a new world record of the most beach balls in the air at one time.
The New Year’s party is in full swing. We’d ordered black lights and party favors, created highlight videos, and hired a D.J. During the party, we give away gifts such as Kindles and iPads. We use a mobile text drawing system to give away prizes where students text in their phone numbers, one is randomly drawn and the number is called back to award the winner. We ring in the New Year at midnight, and the party lasts until 12:30 a.m. We send everyone back to the hotels by 1 a.m. After a brief meeting, staff members head to bed at 2:00 a.m.
Sunday, Jan. 1
Campus staffs and students meet to fill out evaluations, either on paper or mobile phones. Everyone is tired but excited about all that is happening and looking forward to hearing from John Piper again.
All the students stay until the end of the conference for the final rally with John Piper. Each student receives his book “Don’t Waste Your Life.” This rally is always short and sweet from a programming standpoint because we have to get people on the road.
Campus Outreach planners always had four key objectives in mind that guided all decision-making. See a grid outlining the objectives here.