Sanity Check 101 Amidst Crazy Growth

FOCUS experiences a crazy amount of growth each event.  We sit down with Christine Sarnow to talk through how her and her team maintain sanity throughout the process!

Tell us about you. 

 I work for an organization called FOCUS, stands for the fellowship of Catholic university students. I found FOCUS in college. We had missionaries on campus and FOCUS is a Catholic campus outreach organization and I felt called to become a missionary. I was fairly reluctant about doing it because missionaries for FOCUS fundraise their own salaries, they move wherever they’re asked to go. Your first year as missionary, you go on a dating fast. So when I was graduating from college, I graduated with three degrees. I was ready to go do something special and somehow I felt this tug to go and meet FOCUS at one of our recruitment interview weekends. I actually had a terrible experience. I wasn’t involved in FOCUS on our campus really and didn’t enjoy the interview weekend. When I got the call to the offer to be a missionary with FOCUS, I went to a chapel to pray and the only thing that I heard was, will you drop everything and follow me? So that was in 2006 so I’ve been with FOCUS for nearly 14 years now, which is crazy cause you never would have thought, given that story how long I would’ve been here.

I worked on campus as a on-campus missionary for four years and our conferences, we have all of our missionary staff help out with the conferences on site. My fourth year as a missionary, I ran all of our speakers and entertainment for our national conference in 2010. The last year we did a new year’s Eve party and I basically had two full time jobs. But seeing it all come together was, it was incredible. It was incredible to sit back and watch everyone enjoy what you put together. I realized I had a knack for it. And so I moved to our national office in Denver after that and have worked there ever since. I oversee the whole events department. So what we do where 16 people at our national office and we predominantly work on these conferences, I’d say 60-65% of our time. And then I have staff that work on all the other events that we do. But you asked why I do what I do. And last night was the experience of really why I do what we do. So on the third night of all of our conferences, we have a adoration and confession night. If you could picture thousands of young people dropping to their knees when they see the Eucharist, we call it adoration. When they see the Eucharist comes out for adoration, they dropped to their knees in prayer. And then we offer the sacrament of confession that same night. And you see thousands get up when confession is announced. And the line weeps through our vision way all of our exhibit booths. And we have thousands of people in line who choose to go to confession where they get to be redeemed of their sins and freed. We offer freedom, you know, really through our Lord. And it’s incredible. And I always tell people, whether you’re Catholic or not, the vendors we work with, whether you align with everything that we’re teaching, you will not experience more joy and to be able to come and see how everything you do and the work you do has a meaning in someone’s life. It’s incredible. So every year, you might be thinking during the craziness, like, why do I do what I do and then see that and I’m like, this is it. 

How do you maintain the mission and keep it at the center when you’re scaling at this rate that you’re at? 

I tell my team and all of our staff that kind of become our hands and feet here on, on site that we always say. Now bear with me where where mission oriented faith based organization. So it’s just going to come out. But I always say that if we, if we run an amazing event, but we find ourselves further from the Lord and further from our faith at the end because we were frustrated, we were angry, we got annoyed with each other and we really let ourselves give in to that. We have failed because the goal is that each one of us grow further and further and become more and more of saints every single day. So on my team, I find that there’s a total transition when were just asked to do more work and were asked to do more work and were asked to change this and do this differently and we’re getting bigger. If that’s what we focus on, we get frustrated and exhausted and, and we stop thinking about how can we do it the right way. When we flip that mentality and we go to more of a contributive mindset and we remind ourselves what the mission is and will this help the attendee at the end of the day? Will this help our guests encounter our mission more? Everything switches in their minds and everyone refocuses and chips in even more. I think about it and I’m like, we couldn’t hire staff to do what my staff does. We’d pay overtime that was outrageous because my staff works, you know, 20 hours a day when they come and it’s not just my staff, it’s the whole organization because everyone’s committed to mission. I find in almost every single team meeting and almost every single conversation we have the continued reminder. Let’s go back to mission, let’s go back to mission. It takes people from kind of a comparison. It’s about me mentality, which we all have naturally to a, it’s about us mentality. How can we all together accomplish what we’re trying to do? 

Help paint the picture of what this looked like the 10 years ago that you guys started working together and the growth and what that’s looked like. 

So the first time we worked together [EideCom and FOCUS] was in 2011 and you guys reached out to us. That year was a rough year. So we did four conferences in one month. All across the country. And that was crazy. So one of the conferences was EideCom’s first time with us and those conferences were roughly a thousand people each give or take. Since then FOCUS has also been trying to hit it’s strive. We’ve been testing I suppose, or trying out different conference models FOCUS grows about 15 to 20% annually. And we have since our inception in 1998 and we see that growth here at our conferences, which is unbelievable. So in 2011, we tried smaller regional conferences. Since then we’ve realized that people like to come together in this one spot. Now we might try regional conferences again as they become not so small. The conference has continued to see that same growth year over year. In 2012, we introduced what this conference is, SLS, and that is intentionally a smaller audience size because the goal of the conference is a little different. So we say it’s to inspire and equip people who want to be leaders for what we call the new evangelization. These are people who have all opted in to say, yes, I want to offer people what I have found here. And so that conference continues to grow year over year. And then the larger conference that we do is called Seek. So last year we were in Indianapolis with over 17,000 registrants. So managing, not just the growth of the actual operations of the conference, but also the structure and the right strategy for us, that’s a continued fun challenge to work on. 

Tell us about your mentality behind engaging people in their living room. 

I actually see remote engagement as the future of our conferences. So rather than the main site being the main site as everyone thinks about it and remote insight, remote engagement being supplemental, I think the will come when remote engagement is our main Avenue of getting our message out. It’s so new and so different that it’s hard to think about how that strategy will look. a few years back we realized, people like to tune in online. So we started to invest in what that remote engagement looks like. And I would say especially last year was the first year we partnered with you guys and really kind of developed our strategy and said we are going to try to dive deep in. 

What advice do you have? 

Work hard. Events are hard work. I always say that there’s not very many glamorous moments of my job.

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Don’t Fall Prey to these Event Snafus!

This week Charles, Lisa, and Paige sit down and talk about things they see at events that could be avoided.  Check out these tips below:

  1. Audio in your non – general session areas. A lot of times people are so focused on the main room. If you have a large group you need to get them into room fairly quickly and its difficult to do if you don’t have anything guiding them.  Having audio in the hallways or spaces really helps to get them prepared.  It’s not just audio though, we have a client put an LED sign in the spaces with the schedule so people know what is going on.  You can loop sponsors and scheduling.  There are so many opportunities when your audience isn’t sitting in their seats.
  2. Spending too much time and money on the wrong things. People spend thousands on the little trinkets at the table. Does anyone really care what brand it says on it.  A hotel brand is probably good enough, using that money elsewhere can create a greater impact. Get sponsors to cover the cost of things.
  3. Buffet style food. It could work for some events but at an event, some of the largest donors go there later and they could not start the main program because they were still in line at the buffet. It pushed the whole program back. You need to think of timing and making sure everyone is fed. 
  4. Content being ready too late. Many events that have been done year after year with a flow but I’ve realized a lot of times we are getting to the show and are just receiving the content two hours before going live.  That gives everyone anxiety, you don’t have the time to check everything over and make sure it is going to run smoothly. You have to have that time. 
  5. Not having a singular decision maker. A lot of times we work with a board of directors or a group of people, and it is great.  However, when all of those people become the ultimate say, it gets really confusing for vendor relationships and everything. From a vendors perspective it’s important to know who we should listen to or talk to for changes and additions especially on site. 
  6. Don’t hire vendors too late in the game. You might not get the a – team or vendors might not be able to work well together. 

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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.

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Why is the Inc 5000 Event so Successful

We are joined by the VP of the Inc 5000 Event Breana Murphy. Tell us about you!

I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. I started in Marketing, I’ve worked in Media my entire career. I’ve worked in the corporate marketing department, and I grew up there, we put on varying types of events. We did roadshows, tours, pop up stores.  I was there for 10 years. I worked for rolling stone and did stuff on the festival circuit. Then I ended up here as a freelancer. Was recruited by a friend of mine who worked in the industry and she needed someone to help produce the Inc 5000. This will be my 16th 5000 next year.

Tell us about the Inc 5000 event.

The Inc magazine is the premier magazine that services small business magazine.  Every year we publish the Inc 5000 list, the fastest growing small businesses in America. It’s a three day event that celebrates their achievement. It’s not easy to make the list. The folks there are people really excited to come and celebrate their achievement and be recognized for their hard work. Its rooted in content. Everything about our event starts with the content and how we can better empower our audience and readers.

1 day pre conference

2 day conference

1 day gala event.

Tell us about the conference.

The attendees are people who have made the list. Business owners. The speakers are generally other founders. We try to put on the stage notable founders, Mark Cuban to Ben Chestnut, people who have had remarkable success. Or we also do teachers, people who are inspirational. Our audience is across the industry so we don’t cater to any specific industry.

How many attendees?

Just shy of 2000

Where is it?

We move and try to keep it in resort areas. We are in San Antonio this year, coming up it will be in Scottsdale, then Palm Springs.

When it comes to the event, tell us about your process.

There’s two parts, multiple actually. We have the logistics side and the content side. Last week I sat down with my editorial team and my programming team and we brainstormed who will be the big names, who will be interesting, who will make impact, who is relevant, we made a laundry list of people we’d like to go after. That’s on the content side. On the logistic side, the floral plan, anticipating if we have enough rooms, our setup how we like it, keep our sponsors in line.

We have a lot of return sponsors because we deliver a lot. We give them a lot of ROI on their investment. If they keep coming back we are doing something right.

Tell me about the design.

We redesign. Every year we try to inject something new. What we did this year that was successful and unique was a session in the round. We do concurrent sessions and gave the options of really small pointed conversations with business leaders. 30 minute topics with a maximum of 10 people per table. Then they switched and moved tables. Or they could do a breakout session.

It wasn’t just providing them with keynote, it’s interactive.

And that is probably the note we get back most. How can we provide more networking opportunities and that is something we strive to do. We do a kick off networking before our opening session. We do purposeful networking. We do an in depth survey to drill down the content pieces. They are there to be inspired and they want to meet other people.

It’s lonely to be an entrepreneur. You get them in a room it’s amazing they start solving each others problems.

How much does a company need to grow to make your list?

There’s not a set number, you have to be in business for at least 4 years and you have to have over a million in revenue. The growth percentage ranges. Some grow 3000%.

Do you include the room and other things with the ticket?

The ticket is just itself. The marketing department handles that. We have a room block, almost 800 room nights reserved. We have a portal where they can book and get a discounted rate. We do not arrange for travel or pay for hotel.

Tell me about when you are doing the coordination and working with hotel, are you negotiating directly with them?

I work with an organization that I connected with a few years ago. Hotels for Hope. They help us negotiate the room block. I work with them because my contact there is amazing and because the process of managing that block is hard and I have a small team. That process is made turnkey with working with them.

What do they do?

Part of their commission goes to a charitable organization.

When it comes to pricing your ticket, have you had to move it around?

It has stayed, we have separate consumer marketing team that handles that. The price has been pretty consistent year after year. We have to keep in mind inflation. The industry average is 10% i do my best to negotiate that. But food goes up by 10%.

Tell me more about your programming.

I have an executive producer, I’ve worked with her for six years. We sit down and do a draft agenda. We do a lot of planning with our editorial team. We look at who is making waves or has something new coming out, something that will be relevant and topical. We start with key names we want to put in and we try to round out the content and make sure we hit all the notes. Talk about money, company culture, human resources, economically, we empower them to grow their businesses.

Meeting Minds by Eidecom