For several months, I was part of the Student Leadership Summit (SLS) planning team with USC’s chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), a professional organization for transportation planners, engineers, and enthusiasts. (I fit into the last category.) In case you’re not familiar, the Student Leadership Summit is an annual event, typically organized and hosted by ITE student chapters, that helps connect ITE students and professionals across the country. Students get the opportunity to show off their work (including growing their ITE chapters and developing transportation research), while engaging in fun networking events with professionals. This year, the SLS was co-organized by USC, UC Irvine, and Cal State Fullerton and hosted on the USC campus. I was primarily responsible for handling catering and arranging site tours with LA Metro, the largest regional transit agency in Southern California, so my insights will be skewed by that role.
Just a few weeks ago (Feb 24-26), the SLS team and I were able to see our hard work pay off in the form of a successful conference. Here are a few lessons I learned from working on the SLS.
Time is everything
Planning stuff is hard, and it takes a long time. In particular, I found that many vendors worked more slowly than I expected. That means it’s important to leave them enough time to do their job – after all, without catering or AV equipment, we wouldn’t be able to host the conference at all!
That means it’s very important to start early. We only had about 4 months to plan the conference, which seems long but really isn’t! (I was surprised to learn that the team at Cal Poly organizing the IISE Western Regional Conference had been planning for nearly 8 months for a much smaller conference than SLS.) In the future, I would aim for 6 months or more to have more breathing room for delays and prevent any last minute scrambling.
Hold all-hands meetings
I don’t believe in micromanaging people but integrated team communication is imperative. Leaders need to keep team members updated on event strategy while team members need to keep leaders updated on their progress and ideas. This was especially important for SLS as we had three teams at three universities working together.
While synchronous meetings are really bad if they happen too often, I found that our frequency of one one-hour meeting every Sunday worked well. Our weekly meetings were time efficient while still keeping everyone from the same page.
Find a diverse and capable team
Perhaps this is a cliché, but a great team is the foundation of any successful endeavor. A great team is not only one that is diverse, but also capable. Not everyone is committed to the work it takes to put on a conference, particularly baccalaureate students. Many may leave early, which is ultimately good for the team’s health. Individuals assigned tasks that they don’t complete can seriously drain leadership effort.
Our team for SLS was incredibly diverse, not least because we drew from talent at three universities. Our ad-hoc, student centered culture meant everyone felt safe to contribute their ideas on the conference. In fact, the vast majority of events in the final conference were contributed by team members who weren’t ITE chapter presidents. Without that diversity and freedom of thought, I doubt our SLS would’ve been nearly as successful as it was.
Promote and promote early
A conference is meaningless if no one knows about it. However, getting people to know about it is rarely easy. That refers both to sponsors and attendees.
SLS, like many professional conferences, was dependent on sponsorship to cover most of our costs. Though it might seem trivial to ask large conglomerates to contribute a few thousand dollars towards a conference, companies often have complex and slow internal approval processes for sponsorships. That means they need to know about the opportunity to sponsor well before the sponsorship money is needed, and they should have a high-quality sponsorship packet laying out the conference and its benefits at that time. The same applies for material sponsorships, like the free swag bags and lanyards that we gave to participants.
Promoting to attendees is a little less rigid than promoting to sponsors. While it’s still important to let attendees know early to allow them to arrange travel, several months of advance notice may actually be too much. To me, what’s more significant is reaching potential attendees where they are – some people may want to hear about a conference through a newsletter, while others may want to find it on Instagram. And of course, take advantage of partner promotion; for instance, the national ITE organization, which has huge reach across the transportation sector, promoted our SLS to its members.
Plan for everything
Murphy’s Law says that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. This is true for event planning. Perhaps the best example for SLS is the weather! We originally planned to host most of the conference outdoors in a beautiful park on USC’s campus. However, it turned out that an “atmospheric river” was passing through Southern California during our conference, and that it would be pouring rain for the entire weekend. Luckily, we had planned for the remote possibility of such an event happening, and were able to quickly move our operations to a new indoors facility, cancel contracts for equipment needed outdoors, and update our participants. Without extensive planning for an inclement weather situation, the rain could have been catastrophically disruptive for SLS.
On the plus side, many attendees had their first (and probably only) experience of a very rainy Los Angeles 🙂
Develop a “Run of Show”
The “Run of Show” is probably the single most valuable thing I learned from planning the conference. In military and other tactical fields, pretty much every planned operation has a “Run of Show”. The run of show lays out everything that is to happen, when it’s going to happen, who is responsible for every task, and what each task is going to require. Check out our sample run of show spreadsheet:
Having the run of show meant our large team of day-of volunteers was always aware of what’s happening, what they’re responsible for, and who they can contact if they have any questions. Confusion among event staff, particularly when it’s attendee-facing, is terrible. Additionally, having a list of everything needed for every task made it trivial to order supplies for the conference. This is especially important for items that must be purchased within a few days of the conference (such as food), when planning staff may not have time to tally up items to purchase. Finally, the run of show made it easier to rehearse the entire conference. Rehearsal naturally surfaces issues that may not otherwise appear until the day of the conference.
If you’re not familiar with the Pareto principle, it’s the idea that 80% of results come from 20% of the effort – essentially a rough quantification of the law of diminishing returns. When planning a conference, it’s critical to keep the Pareto principle in mind. Human effort is finite, so it must be expended on tasks that deliver great marginal value. For example, the planning team was originally interested in developing event management software to allow attendees to asynchronously network with each other during and after the conference. However, we realized that this task would require significant effort for relatively little value, and so the decision was made to scrap it. We ended up simply printing QR codes of each attendee’s LinkedIn profile on name badges, which I am told worked quite well. And doing that required much less effort.
Assign a historian
A LOT of stuff happens when planning a conference – far too much for anyone to remember. Therefore, it’s important to assign someone to take notes during planning meetings, record actions each team member takes, and note decisions. This not only improves accountability when something goes wrong, but it also makes it possible to record lessons learned throughout the planning process and share them with the community. In fact, the documentation created by our historian is the only reason I’m able to write this post!
Ultimately, I’m so glad that I decided to join the SLS planning committee. It was an invaluable learning experience that will help me plan events and guide teams in the future. Plus, it was great to see many familiar faces in the SoCal transportation sector at the conference. Though it may be several years before USC hosts again, I’m excited to keep participating in ITE and attend next year’s SLS!