It’s a changeable afternoon in Upstate New York; the kind of fall day in this area that makes everyone look a bit foolish. It’s mild, but there’s a cold breeze; the sun shines in the morning, but by early afternoon it’s pouring rain. This isn’t exactly the kind of weather that makes you think of a warm, desert atmosphere, surrounded by hundreds of your passionate, handcrafting buddies-but that’s exactly what Leigh O’Donnell, Executive Director and conference planner extraordinaire, and I are talking about on this particular day.
Leigh has a confident way about her, and when I sat down to talk to her for this interview, I knew exactly the type of answers I’d get; to the point, realistic and honest facts about the Handcrafted Soap and Cosmetic Guild’s Annual Conference and the immense amount of planning that goes into it. I’ve worked with Leigh for a little over a year now, and I’ve seen her serious, jovial, busy, determined; but not shaken. Planning a conference for hundreds of people? She’s got this.
Leigh attended her first Annual Conference in 2004, was on the conference crew in 2005, and began planning the event in 2006; 2017 will be the 12th conference she’s planned, and you can tell; she knows the welds and rivets of this conference as if she was the captain of a very large, very exciting ship.
When I ask her what distinguishes the HSCG Annual Conference as the premier event in our industry, she says, “the level of professionalism is through the roof with this event.” She goes on to explain that “the participation of vendors, sponsors and speakers is unique because they stay through the entire event; they will interact with attendees at meals, sessions, and parties.” What she’s describing is one of the most amazing parts of this event-everyone is accessible. You may find yourself sitting next to a speaker or your favorite supplier at the Networking Lunch, a favorite for meeting new friends and making new connections. The Networking Lunch is a great example of the comprehensive experience that the HSCG is looking to offer; the point of the conference and the planning that goes into it is to create an immersive attendee experience that gives handcrafters not only the ability to be in the same room as their favorite educators and vendors, but the opportunity to reach out to them on a personal level.
In fact, this intensive, focused planning is what Leigh says is her favorite part about planning the conference. When I ask her what her favorite part of the organizational process is, she says “I think trying to think three dimensionally. When an attendee walks in, what will they see? What will their experience be?” she pauses for a minute, “We want them to have a successful experience and all the moving parts of the conference are planned with that goal.” If the conference is a huge machine, the attendee’s experience can be thought of as the gears that make it move. Without taking each experience personally into consideration, the conference would be just another event; and this careful planning is exactly why it’s the best and biggest of it’s kind in the world.
If you’ve attended one of our Annual Conferences, you know that one of the most amazing parts is the dedication and passion of the volunteers who help keep it running smoothly. I ask Leigh, what do you look for in a volunteer? “Someone who can take physical and mental abuse with a smile!” she says, laughing. “But seriously…a sense of humor, a strong work ethic, and a passion for the event. Someone who understands how rigorous the conference schedule is, and can keep smiling!”
Now, I’ve only been to one Annual Conference myself, but I was taken aback by the friendliness and grace of the volunteers, even under pressure. Even through difficult times, the staff stayed cool and more importantly, kind. These are passionate, excited handcrafters who have given their time not only to the HSCG to help keep the conference moving, but to their peers to give them the best possible experience; that passion is at the core of what the Annual Conference is all about.
Many potential attendees ask the same question; How is the venue chosen? When I ask Leigh this, she says, “Cleanliness, but really, how do you feel when you walk in the door?” By putting herself in the shoes of the attendees when considering a venue, from the very beginning, the experience is faithfully planned not just around the educational and networking experiences an attendee will have, but how the environment and meeting space will make them feel. Leigh shared with me that its not all about location, although that’s important. It’s also important to the HSCG that the venue is comfortable, clean, well taken care of and lends its own positive experience to the overall event. Considerations like proximity of the meeting rooms to the exhibitor space, and the general conference area to the guest rooms are all taken into account when choosing a venue. Location does play a part in planning, however; the Annual Conference moves around the country to try to give the fairest chance to everyone that wants to attend. Because the Annual Conference has grown so much in the past 10 years (it has gone from less than 80 attendees to over 600 expected attendees in 2017), it is a challenge to find a venue that can house the event; but that hasn’t stopped the HSCG from finding amazing, engaging resorts and hotels each year! 2017’s venue is no different; the Tropicana Las Vegas is a beautiful property with an abundance of amenities, not to mention its prime location on the Vegas strip. Best of all, meeting, exhibitor and meal areas are all located in the same building and in close proximity to each other and the guest rooms, making the Tropicana Las Vegas a comprehensive experience from start to finish.
Planning an event of this size isn’t an overnight task, and when I ask Leigh when planning officially begins, she laughs. “I have a two week rule: no one is allowed to say the word ‘conference’ in front of me for two weeks after the conference. Of course, I always break that rule.” In reality, she says that the conference planning begins nearly 2 ½ years before the actual event. Venue selection is a time consuming process, and it is important to make sure that the desired dates and conference space are available; this is why Leigh chooses the venue locations so far in advance. As for the meat and potatoes of the planning, this typically starts a month or two after the previous conference ends, and the speaker selection process begins.
“If someone has a passion and a fire, it projects onto the attendees.” Leigh tells me when I ask how the speakers are chosen. She says that a few things are taken into consideration: what topics we have had in the past (so that there aren’t many if any repeats), and what credentials a speaker has. By credentials, she explains, she does not mean a degree or certifications (although this helps, too). If someone has passion and knowledge when it comes to the subject they are interested in speaking about, that will translate into a successful speaker session, and those are the speakers she loves to work with. Speakers are also considered based on referrals from fellow attendees, members and vendors; there are many factors to consider when choosing the perfect speaker, and no detail is overlooked.
Choosing pieces of the conference like the speakers and venue are obviously very important, but another important consideration when planning the conference is the cost. “The conference eats and feeds itself,” Leigh says, “As a not-for-profit, our goal is to make enough to cover the cost of the conference; we would rather come out ahead by a small margin rather than fall short.” As a trade association, it is the HSCG’s duty to keep the cost of the conference low while presenting a well-planned, innovative event to the industry. Making this event available at an attainable cost level is important to Leigh and the HSCG; it goes hand in hand with the location. Accessibility means traveling around the country and intense negotiations with venues to keep room rates low, while maintaining the type of quality that the Guild has taken pride in over the past years. The registration cost is determined by a few things; expenses for speakers and staff/volunteers, cost of printed materials and graphics, cost of the venue itself and food for the attendees. Relative to other events, the HSCG has managed to keep the cost of the annual 3 ½ day event low compared to many other large-scale gatherings; a goal that the HSCG keeps in mind when planning each event.
By the time we start to wrap up our interview, it’s been 45 minutes; I get the feeling that Leigh could talk about the conference and her vision for it for hours. When I ask her what she believes the future of the conference is, she is optimistic. The HSCG Annual Conference has grown by hundreds of attendees since it first began, and the trend of additional attendees is a definite goal. The conference has been sold out each year since 2010, and is expected to sell out for 2017 once again. Leigh is realistic about this, though. “I would like to keep growth under control; if we went from say, 600 attendees right to 1000 attendees, there’s a chance of a drop in quality and we want to avoid that.” Maintaining the integrity of the conference is important, which is why the attendee limit is raised incrementally from year to year instead of exponentially. What will a large attendance mean for the locations of the conference? “I could see us settling on 3 or 4 major cities due to our size and the space needed for the event.” Leigh says. Don’t worry though, folks; she also reiterated to me that, even if the event was limited to a few standard choices, the quality of the venue would in no way suffer; the HSCG has high standards to meet.
This year, as with past years, there are many new faces attending the conference. Attending the conference means something different to everyone, but what everyone seems to share at the conference is a sense of camaraderie. My last question to Leigh was, what is the best advice you can give to a first time attendee? “Lose your fear right away,” she says immediately. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there-you’re not going to be disappointed.” The Annual Conference is about elevating your industry education and meeting your favorite suppliers face-to-face, sure. But it’s also about meeting and making connections with hundreds of like-minded individuals with the same passion and love for handcrafted soap and cosmetics that you have; a rare sight all in one place. Many attendees, including Leigh herself, have told us that they have made lifelong friendships that started as simply as saying “hi” to someone at their Networking Lunch table, or complimenting another attendee’s outfit at one of the incredible nighttime events at the conference. What you take from the conference personally, if you take the time to get to know your fellow attendees, will be far more valuable than any education you could receive (although that’s pretty great, too).
Whether this is your first conference or your 10th, each conference has its own personality and experiences; there is something different for each attendee, and no two attendees have the same experience. Speakers will be there to energize and encourage you, vendors will be there to give you the tools to implement what you’ve learned, and the passionate and dedicated volunteers will be there to give you a little nudge in the right direction, just in case you get lost-but who are we kidding, getting lost in a sea of handcrafted soap and cosmetic makers doesn’t sound too bad!
The Premier Rate for the Annual Conference will expire on October 31st at 4pm EST; as always, you can visit http://www.soapguild.org/cart/conference/1/registration.php to sign up online, or you can reach us in person at our Saratoga Springs, New York headquarters by calling (866)900-7627, Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm EST.