Unique Venues

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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Take a Risk: Think Outside the Four Walls of a Ballroom

Think outside of the ballroom!  This week we are challenged to take a risk on venue choice, picking something exciting and unique.  Ashley from the Driskill, a community loved hotel in Austin Texas joins Charles and Lisa to talk about managing a unique venue and brining in meetings and events. 
Tell us about you.
Like a lot of people that end up in hospitality, I kind of stumbled into it. I had a passion for events, all the way back to high school, planning my prom, being social chair in college. I would not want to have to plan events with me then knowing what I know now! I wanted to make it a professional career, stumbled into my first job at the Hyatt and the rest is history.  Been here since, moved to five different cities.  It’s been a wild ride, never would have expected that.
Tell us about what you’re doing now.
I’ve never worked at a hotel like this 189 rooms, part of our unbound collection, 133 years ago. It is always been a cornerstone of the community.  In the 60’s it was going to be torn down, the community put together a bake sale and sold bonds to save the building. We feel an obligation to our community to stay true to the history of the hotel. 
Our audience is about events and ideas around them. What does non traditional spaces mean and give us ideas and examples of things you’ve seen and done.
Every hotel has something non traditional they can use for meeting spaces.  Whether its a patio or terrace, think of it not just as a reception venue.  Could you use it as a break out?  Get outside of the boring four walled ball rooms, and have fun with your events in non traditional ways. We use just about every space in the hotel.  We are small so we have to get creative. We infuse touches of history so every space feels important and important to what you are doing.
I love how you mentioned spaces that help you to think outside the four walls of a ballroom.  Tell me some of the experiences you’ve see happen.
We cater to much smaller programs, depending on the scale of the meeting, our customers come here because they want an intimate environment so they can idea share.  There is a lot of wellness and purpose discussion that happens at meetings at our hotel. We have a lot of natural light, unique architecture. For a lot of our customers its not just sitting in a general session, there are breakouts and networking and we have spaces that serve all that.
What tips do you have for people looking to get into the hotel and hospitality side of the events industry?
It depends where they are in their career.  I saw a lot of planners got their experience in hotels, so I did that. Don’t be afraid to start from the ground up.  There is no position too small. If you tackle it with energy and creativity you can move up quick.  Reach out and connect with others, directors of sales or events at hotels.  
What is the biggest lesson you have learned?
The thing that I’ve surprised myself with is how comfortable I’ve gotten with resolving problems.  A lot of our job is anticipating problems, but you can’t anticipate everything.  Trust yourself to be able to problem solve on the spot. No problem doesn’t have a solution. 
What is the advise you give to people that are new?
I wish there was a manual for how to do events! Keep your eyes open absorb and learn everything. Ask questions.  I’ve been able to work with seasoned teams I’d spend a lot of my time observing. You have to be patient, you can’t beat yourself up after making mistakes. Don’t be afraid to come to me and tell me you made a mistake I’ll be more upset if you don’t tell me. 
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