Recently I chatted with Teagan Eastman, the Chair of the Utah Library Association's 2020 Annual Conference. We discussed the event planning process from start to finish (though it was clear that there's never really an end). Read on to learn more about the importance of trusting your team, how even small changes can improve your attendees' experience, and what tools they use to make ULA happen each year.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Michelle Lee: Can you describe the event to somebody who's never attended before?
Teagan Eastman: Yeah! ULA is the Utah Library Association. It's our annual conference. It's a pretty broad conference, it's meant for librarians across the state. That could be public librarians, academic librarians. Librarians that work for an archive or just for the state. It's got a pretty broad focus. Whereas other conferences, for example, that I might go to, that have just a specific academic or instruction focus -- this one's pretty broad. [The ULA Annual Conference] might be the only conference that somebody attends in the year if they're a public librarian that doesn't get a lot of funding. Something we keep in mind when we plan our programming or the speakers that we invite, so we try to keep that at kind of the heart of our planning.
ML: You went over this a little bit, but what is the goal of the conference?
TE: I think it's kind of two-prong. I think it's a networking opportunity, so a chance for everybody to get together. It's a three-day event: pre-conferences and then two days of a general conference. It's an opportunity for people to come and learn on those days. But it's also just a chance for everybody to kind of just get together once a year. Utah's a really big state and it might be the only time for us to get together and talk about the issues that we're facing as a profession or as a state, and talk about how we handle those challenges or learning strategies or anything like that. So networking and learning, and just coming together as a group of individuals in the state.
On the first step (or the continuous process):
ML: Going into the process of planning the conference -- as your gear up for the new year, what is the first step you guys take when you're starting to plan for the upcoming conference?
TE: I guess I don't feel like we ever take a first step. It's always a continuous step, I don't think it ever stops. I guess the first step for me as a chair was just filling all the positions; making sure that I have manpower.
ULA's pretty lucky. We have an Event Planner, so somebody that's logistically responsible for coordinating with the event center and maintaining those contracts with the location and handling all of that. I feel like her job's probably the most critical and she takes those first steps probably before the last conference even ends.
ML: Wow. So you're right, there's no break really, you just kind of keep going.
TE: We already have the next locations lined up for the next couple of conferences. And contracts for those signed. So yeah, I don't feel like it ever really ends or begins.
On a unified team & message:
ML: Just to touch back on something you mentioned, I know you were the chair. So do you bring together a new team every year to help manage the conference?
TE: Yeah, so I was vice chair last year, so I had my training year. And then there's a whole bunch of positions. We have a list, I don't even know how many there are, maybe twelve: Publicity, Programming, Vice-Programming, Hospitality. There's a person kind of in charge of each one of those and then the chair is...
ML: In charge of all of those folks.
TE: Yeah, like I have my hands in all of them because of who I am as a person, but..
TE: Last year, I was watching the old chair, making sure that I was aware of everything. It's definitely a team process with the chair making sure everything's running smoothly. And then we also worked very closely with the ULA Executive Team. We have a conference call once a month with the planning team – that's me and then all of my people – and the ULA President, President-Elect, and past president joins to kind of give you that institutional knowledge to make sure that we're representing goals of what ULA's mission is for that year.
Every year they have kind of a message, like "These are the things we want to achieve for this year. And let's make sure that we're aligning our programming and the people that we bring in." [To] make sure that our conference represents that message and that mission that ULA's trying to achieve for that year.
It's really helpful to have the ULA Executive Team on that call. They bring that institutional knowledge because a lot of them have been around for a really long time. Whereas I've only been around for like two years.
ML: And it kind of brings some consistency I imagine, having that kind of continual contact with leadership, things like that.
TE: Exactly. This year we made the decision that the past chair also stays on the committee. So we get that institutional knowledge there too.
On solutions, digital and otherwise:
ME: What are some of the tools you guys use whether it's reaching out to the potential audience, or [something else]. What are some of the solutions you guys use?
TE: Yeah! Okay, so we use Zoom a lot for our conference calls. Because we are all across the state it's hard for us to meet [in person]. We use Wild Apricot to send out email blasts to submit proposals and calls for things like that. Or if we need things like raising awareness about scholarships or sponsorships or things like that, sending out blasts through Wild Apricot is really an easy way to do that. We're pretty low tech and we use Google Drive for a lot of our internal communication -- not communication but like I have all of my budget forms are in Google Drive.
ML: Resources and things like that.
TE: Yeah, or like all of the past letters of advice from presidents are in there and our planning documents, that's all Google Drive. Our agendas. We use Survey Monkey a lot for conference surveys. We use Sched for our conference online schedule. We use that, it's kind of a secondary [since] we have a print program. But my preference would be to use Sched primarily and save some trees.
ML: Yeah, I imagine that's a slow process
TE: It's a fight that you gotta fight, you know, and pick what hill to die on. But Sched is something that we do use. We have a print program, Zoom, Wild Apricot. We used to use RegOnline which was our registration company. When they were bought out we decided to stick within Wild Apricot and try that out for a year because they have a registration company. It's kind of simultaneous with our membership; makes that process a little bit more seamless.
On building a community:
ML: Are the attendees of the annual conference only ULA members? Or who's the audience? And then how do you handle that registration aspect of it?
TE: This will be the first year that we've used Wild Apricot for registration. So that'll be a good follow-up question to see how it goes. We give a discount [on ULA Conference registration] for people that are members. A lot of organizations tend to register a lot of their members [with ULA], like everybody that works for Salt Lake County Libraries is a member of ULA. So a lot of people have a membership already. I'd say probably 80% of the people that come to ULA are members.
If you're going to be a part of anything, and you can't afford to be a part of anything else, ULA's that conference you go to in the state. Especially if you're at a small, really regional library, this is probably the only conference you can go to right -- you can't afford to go to the American Library Association because your library's not going to pay for that. But they'll probably pay for you to go to ULA.
ML: But you don't have to be a member to attend.
TE: You don't have to be, but the membership fee is like $20. It's not that bad.
ML: Yeah, it's like you might as well be part of that community.
TE: Yeah, and there's a few perks that you get. There's not a lot of barriers to [ULA membership]. We try to keep that really low and then you get the lower admission to [the conference]. So...
ML: Worth it for sure! Cool, so you guys are this coming year, for 2020, using Wild Apricot for registration?
TE: Yeah, and that's the first time.
ML: Well, I'll definitely follow up in the summer to see how it goes. It's always exciting and kind of scary to try something new.
TE: Especially when you're in charge.
On determining the program & trusting your team:
ML: As far as the actual content itself, I know just like looking at this past year's conference, there's a mix of what looks like keynotes and workshops. How do you guys determine that schedule and programming?
TE: We solicit proposals in October. So we're doing that right now, and then in November and December, we have our conference team and then our ULA Board look it over. Our board is made up of a bunch of roundtable individuals. So that would be people in different sects of areas of librarianship like Youth Services, Diversity Services, Academic Librarians or Special Collections. They all have a roundtable and they're all a part of the Utah Library Board. So all of those roundtable leaders come to this big meeting in December and we all vote on the programs that we would like to see.
We take all of the submissions that we received, we rank them, and then we take the final 60 or so and turn that into our program. It's a little bit about what we receive but then ultimately those roundtables, and then the conference board, kind of craft that together. We rank [proposals], and then obviously, right now we're kind of looking at those and seeing, "Hey, we're not getting a lot of X and we're trying to solicit more of those." I just emailed our Diversity roundtable and it's like, "Hey, you should send out the message to your people. We're not getting a lot of topics on this and that's something we'd really like to see." So we can kind of craft [the program] as we go, but obviously we're only as good as what we get. We try to make sure that the roundtables have a say in the final [program].
ML: Oh got it. Right, so you have a big pool of content and then hopefully, you guys kind of determine, "Oh, we have some representation across the board."
TE: Yeah. And then the roundtables can go back to their people and say, "Hey we had a say in this. This is what we had to work with, and we voted on this." So it's kind of like a democracy in a way.
ML: That's really awesome. So let's say, kind of digging into that a little more, let's say you got this pool, you've spoken with the roundtables, you know, maybe it's January of this coming year. At what point, and what does it look like when you start having to nail down the final program of, "Hey, this is the keynote at 8 a.m." And that kind of thing.
TE: So keynotes are a little bit different. The keynotes we solicit. The President of ULA gets to pick those. We pick an author speaker for lunch, then we pick two other keynote speakers for Thursday and Friday. And then the President of ULA picks those kind of based on that mission for the year.
ML: Right. That makes sense, the keynotes are selected rather than self-submitted.
TE: Right, and you have to pay those people, so you kind of have to work with like who you can get within your budget. So if they asked for like, Barack Obama, we would have to be like, "Well, that's a great but we can't afford Barack."
ML: [Laughs] Like absolutely not. So, how does your team like actually put together the schedule of, "Oh, we're going to throw this workshop in at this time" you know. Is it a fish bowl and fingers crossed, or...
TE: We have a Programming Chair and Vice Chair and they are magical at that. I think that the people that are in charge of that are like a different breed of human that are superhuman, like they are up here on the scale of awesome, and I'm a normal human.
ML: It's different kinds of awesome.
TE: Yeah. I just trust that they figure it out. Obviously when we solicit proposals we ask people, "Can you only present on Thursday or Friday" and that would help us kind of determine [the schedule]. Like, "Do you have a preference for morning or afternoon?" Sometimes people can only come to that.
The most high priority things for ULA are public librarianship topics because this tends to be like the only thing that public librarians can go to during the year because they don't get as much funding. I work for an academic librarian, and our University, just because of the nature of our jobs, we get a lot more funding to go to conferences. But public librarians don't get that. So we try to make sure that we have at least one really good [public librarianship] program in every slot.
ML: I didn't realize there was a whole Programming Chair that's part of the team that you had mentioned earlier; that that's their thing.
TE: And he was like me, he trained last year and then watched how it works. I think [the program] fills in like if everything goes perfectly. As long as there's enough public librarianship to fill in those slots everybody's happy, we're good.
ML: I mean, it's teamwork. It's what helps you guys get through it. That's always you know, "That person is great at this [thing] and has these skills"
TE: I just trust they got it all down.
ML: That's yeah, that's the number one part of being in charge of other individuals.
On kicking off the new conference:
ML: How far in advance do you make that first announcement of the upcoming, the new conference? And what's that first thing you do announce?
TE: That's a good question. We always talk about it at the conference, like that last day, "Next year, look forward to ULA in Sandy, Utah."
ML: Oh right, because you have you have location already.
TE: So we announce that at the conference, and then we send out a post-conference survey to try to get an idea of how many people are going to use the conference hotel. In the survey it says, you know, "Look forward to ULA 2021 in Sandy, Utah! Would you be interested in the conference hotel?" That's an announcement there, and then we have it up on the website. So it's kind of like a soft launch, and then starting in August to September we start pushing out on social media a little bit more, saying "Look forward to," "Save the date," – kind of like a wedding announcement.
ML: Right, because if you guys already know the date and location you can share that right away and get it on folks' calendars.
On Day One:
ML: What does Day One of the conference look like for your team? You know that people are here and all that.
TE: Yeah, so that's pre-conferences. That's pretty logistically easy. You're making sure that everything is working smoothly in the center, that all the signs are up that say where the rooms are, and all the ULA signage is up. You make sure that the conference Wi-Fi is working, you get the registration booth up and going. Make sure about you have all the stuff that you need there. And our event manager is really good at that, she prints off all of our names and tags and everything. You make sure that that is good, because that's most important. Then you make sure that your keynotes are getting into town okay.
ML: Right, managing talent.
TE: I guess you make sure you have thank you notes for everybody. I remember that was a really big deal, thank you notes.
ML: Is it thank you notes for speakers or for your own team?
TE: Speakers, the team, sponsors -- we have a lot of sponsors for stuff. And then on the first day of the conference, we have exhibitors come and set up so we gotta make sure that they're doing okay. That's pretty much it. Pretty much at that point like things are – it's a fine, really tuned ship. You just make sure everything is where it needs to be.
ML: Right, you kind of already have done all the planning and preparation, so day one is more checking off a list.
TE: Yeah, you just make sure, "Okay print programs: they need to be here. This needs to be there." If something isn't done, there's nothing you can do about it, right? Like...
ML: This is it, people are walking through the door.
ML: That's actually much calmer than I had imagined day one would be.
TE: I went there expecting to have to do a whole lot and they were like, "No, it's fine." And day two's a little bit busier because there's more people. Again make sure like lunches go okay. But I feel like at the [conference], because you have the event planner there, that's her like – that is like her church. You don't mess with her zone, she's got it.
ML: That's awesome to hear that you have teams with such specific roles and they all kind of come in to, "This is their time to shine, they work on this."
TE: Yeah. I hope it goes on smoothly again this year, don't jinx me.
ML: Oh no, knock on wood, it's going to be good. And it definitely sounds like you have a very well thought-out process you guys have been following for a while.
On determining success:
ML: Once the event is done and your team gets a chance to gather together, how do you guys determine whether [the conference] is a success or not? What does that look like to you?
TE: Yeah, so before the conference happens, out of the last planning meeting we go over our survey that we're going to send out after the conference. We developed those questions together, and a lot of them are pretty standard survey questions that they would send out for conference, but we make sure we know: what are we assessing? What do we want to learn from this and what do we want to look at? So a target for improvement.
We talk about that together, which I really like, and then after the conference, after we get that data, we meet as a group and go over that and talk about that, which is amazing. Then the new committee meets and we all go over that old data and then come up with goals for the new year. So we say, "Okay, this didn't work. This did work. Here's why this didn't work. Here's what we can do a little bit differently for next year." It kind of helps you look at the past and helps you formulate goals for the future.
On trying something new:
ML: Is there a new process or solution that your team implemented this year or will implement? And if you did, how did it go?
TE: Yeah there was just a little thing that we did that was kind of new and it's like super small. I'm really big on going green and recycling. So we started with putting out bins for recycling lanyards and the print programs, and that was a huge hit for people.
ML: Oh that's awesome!
TE: People loved it. And in the survey they were asking for more opportunities for going green in the conference, which is -- I've been kind of using it as ammunition for less print programs in general. So I thought that was kind of cool that they saw that as like an opportunity to comment on more areas for that. So that was just a small thing. Like I said, we do really small changes.
ML: But that still is still a change in something that you guys did. I mean maybe small on the scale of the event, but also that's a big deal! Otherwise all of those things would go in the trash. That's huge. That's really cool.
TE: So much plastic!
ML: That's really exciting that people received it really well too. You just add in little things see how you can improve the experience.
Thanks again to Teagan Eastman, Chair of the ULA Annual Conference 2020. You can learn more about the Utah Library Association and their event at the links below:
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/UtahLibAssoc
- Facebook: https://facebook.com/UtahLibraryAssociation/