S.2 Episode 23: 70,000 People in One Room?!

Tell us about you.

Like most people I ended up in  meetings and events by accident.  I was in my last semester of college and there was a test class called special events. A professor asked me to take it. I jumped in and never looked back. I had no idea this industry existed. I have been in events ever since. I’m so thankful I accidentally fell into this industry. I moved out west for a little while and got into doing events for an education company. Came back to Indiana and started working for the FFA 11 years ago.

Your events are big,  tell us about the event.

We have several different events. FFA is a student led/based leadership organization. We have several different conferences we put on through out the year, our big one is the national FFA convention and expo held every hear in the late fall. Last year I was just shy of 70,000 people. The majority of those events are students. We host about 350+ events in a 3 1/2 day period. 

Tell me about these events.

We host 9 general sessions the opening session we have to repeat 3 times to get all the attendees through! You get the kinks out by the third one 😉

We have leadership workshops, a large expo with about 450 exhibitors, we build a shopping mall. We have about 40 mall vendors. Career tours, service projects, and we different leadership networking events. And we have competitive events.  We have a concert and three rodeos. 

Do you ever gather everyone in one space at one time?

No not at one time. We come close during the opening session. 25,000-30,000 people.

How does National FFA get students to come to the event?

Each state has an FFA and there are several chapters within each state. A lot of students get to come because they are competing. For those not competing it depends on the local level.  There are teachers that will bring a different set of students each year, some school comes every other year. It depends on their local program. Overall, our complete membership numbers: over 650,000 FFA members. Usually we end up with 10 % of our membership as our attendance.  The more that our membership continues to grow, I see our convention attendees growing too. 

Have you ever considered breaking it up?  What has been your process to stay one event?

We have had that conversation quite a bit over the last several years. How big is too big? For us we have a couple of factors. 

  1. Capacity and what a city can hold. We use multiple venues and we try to stay within a 50 mile radius so when the bus drivers are driving, they are not behind the wheel for more hours than what they can be. 
  2. Experience: we want you to be able to walk through the expo and be able to go to a booth, or have a seat at a conference.

We take that into consideration each year.

We see a 1-2% increase in attendance each year. By the time we get about 5-7 years down the road, it will become a reality. 

When you are doing this, how do you ensure safety of minors?

It is the first and foremost thing I think about every year. Large events are just not as safe as they used to be. We have an amazing partnership with all the government service entities. I couldn’t do this without their help. They are apart of my planning. They make sure the street is safe as well as where the events are. 

What things do people need to think about for a large conference in a new city?

You have to ask what the working relationship is between police, fire, FBI etc and how they work together. The other thing, we created our own internal emergency safety plan. We have our own structure for our staff but also so we can keep ourselves safe as well as attendees. 

How do you choose the right city?

We send an RFP, with a 5-10 year lead time. Last time we sent it out to 14 cities and it quickly got narrowed down to 3 cities. I have a committee that helps with the process. It takes several months to go through that. 

You guys have had some big names.

Yes we have been so lucky!  We try to get people right when they are on the cusp of becoming really big. We are a non profit and don’t have the pockets large corporations have. A lot of them love what the organization is and love being around the students so the artists have just as much fun as the students. 

What tips do you give to planners?

I have two that I use: 

  1. You have to build a good team around you. We feel like we have to do everything. We have to be the super hero, we make magic happen. 
  2. Get involved in a local meeting planning association. 

mhazlett@ffa.org

Instagram: eidecomcreative

Charlesevaneide

Twitter: TheMeetingMinds

About the Author
Event and Video Production

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