When a small group of us were asked to lead the planning of the 2015 Wild Rose Signature Event we eagerly stepped up to the challenge. Although the group was seasoned in our varied areas of practice, it quickly became clear that most of us did not have extensive experience planning a conference. Furthermore, 2015 has been a particularly economically challenged time for Albertans. This was not going to be a year with ample professional development budgets and time available for our members to attend a conference. However, we didn’t want this to stop us altogether from providing a valuable learning and networking opportunity for our peers. We knew we needed to offer a diverse, valuable and short program at an enticing, reasonable cost.
In the end, our lack of collective conference planning experience is what helped us to plan for an event that needed to be different, unique, and adaptive to the context we found ourselves in. We weren’t tied to expectations of a typical conference as we didn’t believe participants (or employers) would be able or interested in attending a multi-day, more fee intensive event. As we navigated through these new waters, we relied heavily on those on our Board that did have more experience with SE planning. These individuals acted as a great sounding board and were more than willing to lend extra hands to get things done.
With this in mind the group settled on more of a “house party” feel for the day-long experience – less structured and more focused more on a relaxed, interactive atmosphere. We wanted people to enjoy the act of learning as much as they were interested in the content of what was being taught.
Key to this process was the perfect venue. We chose a warehouse-style, think-tank space that allowed for free and easy flow of movement, maximized interaction and was comfortable (think big living room couches and chairs). Foregoing the pricey catered hotel venue worked much better for our budget and allowed us to think more creatively on how the event could unfold. We ordered food that was reminiscent of breakfast at a kitchen table (which there was a long one off to the side of the room) or lunch that was likened to a back yard BBQ. This helped in setting our desired mood and kept costs manageable.
Thankfully, we were provided with outstanding proposals from speakers and we ultimately chose an agenda that was diverse and eclectic enough to provide wide appeal since we weren’t able to provide multiple concurrent sessions:
- Brenda Walton, Kairos Creative Solutions – Ice Breaker
- Deborah Eastlick, Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) – Defining and Achieving Best in Class Engagement
- Leighton Ginther and Bob Mack, Urban Systems – Visualizing Change
- Darryl Zerr, Zerr Communications – Create Your Own Narrative – Tell the Story Before They Do
We were also extremely grateful for the sponsorship we received (which we also kept low) in response to our adaptive format. Increased interest in sponsorship allowed us to provide more bang for the buck for our participants thanks to Canadian Trainers Collective, TransCanada, SustaiNet Software and, ISL Engineering and Land Services.
On the day of the event there were nearly 60 participants. Feedback surveys indicated an extremely high rate of enthusiasm for the day:
- “Awesome Day – I LOVED the value”
- “Inspired my work in the field”
- “Loved all of the activities”
- “Excellent event, it was energizing, practical and uplifting”
- “Innovative and collaborative”
- “Great job! I really enjoyed the day! Good flow and energy”
- “Best SE I’ve been to”
Despite the amount of work it took from the SE committee of volunteers to hold this event, no one regretted their time and commitment. The group, in fact, was invigorated by the day and its success. The lessons learned will certainly be taken forward in subsequent year despite what the economy chooses to do.