How to Organize a Successful Peer Conference: Behind the Scenes at the Financial Blogger Conference

Philip Taylor - Financial Blogger Conference Organizer

Is this thing on?

If you’re a follower of my twitter feed you’ve no doubt seen my recent references to #FINCON11 and the Financial Blogger Conference. I thought I would take a moment here to explain this new venture of mine.

The conference itself was a blast; a great experience. Most everything went off without a hitch and most of the 250+ attendees have given it positive reviews. To read more about how the conference went down, be sure to check out some of the recaps:

The conference was also covered by the Marketplace Money podcast.

Instead of doing another recap, I thought I would provide some information about how the conference was conceived and planned – a behind the scenes look, if you will.

A Word About Our Community

Even though I try to keep this blog centered around you, the reader, my blog probably wouldn’t have done as well as it has if it weren’t for the other bloggers in my community that have supported and encouraged my blogging efforts over the past 4 years. We comment on each other’s blogs, we participate in forums where we talk about blogging and business, we create networks (like the Money Life Network I was a member of) and we email back and forth about various things.

Financial Bloggers at Phils Friends Event

The attendees visit Phil's Friends for a little pre-conference community service.

Heck, the reason I got started blogging about finances is because I was addicted to reading other blogs, primarily Consumerism Commentary. I figured if I was going to be obsessed with consuming this information then I should at least start producing a bit of it on my own.

What I’m trying to say here is that there is a real online community of people blogging about their money. This is a self-serving comment, but I think there is something special about a person who chooses to share their financial story online. We’re the ones writing about the things that no one naturally wants to open up about. That open-ness really has a way of connecting each of us. It’s also the reason that some of my face-to-face connections with these bloggers has been so strong. This connection is what eventually led me to want to start a conference.

How a Conference is Born

Back in April of 2008, I attended WordCamp Dallas, the peer conference built around the WordPress developer and blogging community in my area. It was a wonderful experience. Charles Stricklin (who used to run the WordPress Podcast before Joost de Valk) and John P (a fellow blogger and local entrepreneur) did an excellent job of putting this on. It was geeky, fun, and I left with many connections and takeaways. That was actually the first time I thought about meeting up with other bloggers in my niche.

That event inspired me to create the personal finance bloggers map. I saw it as a tool to facilitate local meetups. Bloggers could check the map and find other bloggers close-by who might want to meetup and talk shop or finances.

I like to think that my map led to some “offline” connections, but I know that meetups were happening long before I came along. The DC area bloggers have been doing a meetup for a while, and the Bay Area bloggers have had plenty of get togethers.

My first “offline” connection didn’t happen until August of 2009 when a local blogger, Jason from One Money Design, stumbled upon my map and decided to reach out. We met for a beer at a local pub and had an instant connection. It was great. I now consider Jason a good friend.

Attendees at the Financial Blogger Conference

The attendees at the first annual Financial Blogger Conference.

My next big “real world” connection was at another conference: Affiliate Summit West 2010. It was here that I got to meet DR from Dough Roller, Ryan from Cash Money Life, and David from MoneyNing. This was a life-changing experience. All three of these bloggers had learned to effectively use their blogging efforts to generate enough income to quit their jobs. This was something I’d struggled to do on my own. The conversations at this conference were what eventually led me to be able to strike out on my own, connect with my consultant Michael, and do this blogging thing full-time. You can read the rest of the story here: self-employment – a year later.

Other critical meetups I’ve had along the way: meeting Baker of Man vs Debt post-SXSW 2010 and meeting Glen from Free From Broke at Affiliate Summit East 2010.

All these meetups led to 2 conclusions:

  1. Financial bloggers are “my people” and it’s fun to be around them.
  2. My business improves with each meetup.

Imagine the fun I could have and improvements I could make if I got *everyone* together?

Well, that’s how I arrived at the place where I really wanted to make this conference happen. But I still didn’t have permission to do it. I needed someone to tell me it was okay to do it. In January of 2011 I was reading up on what conferences were happening in 2011 and I stumbled upon this post: Is 2011 the Year of Niche Blog Conferences? That was it! Somehow that post totally gave me the green light to do this!

From Meetup to Full-Blown Conference

After saying “yes” to myself, I decided to bounce the idea off of some online friends. The responses were all positive and most agreed to come if I had it. I decided Chicago was the best place to have it because it was in the center of the country and I knew 10 to 15 bloggers who lived within driving distance that would come (thank you guys…you know who you are). Initial projections were that we would have around 10 people fly in, giving us a total of 25 bloggers there. Maybe we could stretch this into 40 or 50 if we got lucky.

My initial vision was a weekend in Chicago where we all have dinner together and then the next day a few of us very casually lead sessions on our respective areas of expertise.

My next step was to enlist Pete from Bible Money Matters and Logos for Websites to design a legit logo to give the conference idea a professional look. Pete didn’t disappoint. I slapped the logo on the website and Facebook page, created an email list in my Aweber account and got ready to soft launch the idea.

I was nervous. I was about to stick my head out there with a big idea and I was a bit afraid it wouldn’t be well received. Who was I to be putting on this conference? I’m by no means the oldest, biggest, or brightest financial blogger.

Lunch at the Financial Blogger Conference

Attendees chatting it up during lunch at the Financial Blogger Conference.

After a weekend of fretting over it, I decided just to do it. On February 24th I told members of an online forum that I participate in about the conference. By midnight that night 35 people had signed up for the conference email list. By the end of the next day, we had a total of 50. By the end of the week, we had over 100 people on the email list! This thing was blowing up! What I quickly realized was how ready this community was for this thing.

The next couple of months were a lot of fun. Energy for the conference remained steady as we picked a date, and opened up registration on Eventbrite.com. When I saw people actually putting their money where their email address was, I started to breath easier that this would happen. I wanted to keep the conference affordable and also to reward the early adopters. Therefore, those on the email list received a discount coupon, and early bird prices were set at a very reasonable $89.

In hindsight we didn’t do a great job of picking a date. I chose to do this part open-source (those on the email list helped pick the date) and it I thought we had picked a good date until we realized:

  1. it wasn’t ideal for those who deal with an accounting close each quarter
  2. it wasn’t ideal for those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah
  3. downtown Chicago hotels were mostly booked up by members of a retail store convention.

Lesson learned. In 2012 I’ll pay more attention to work and religious calendars, as well as consulting the local tourism organization about conflicts.

Picking a hotel location proved to be a difficult task. Not only because of the Downtown conflict mentioned above, but because I wanted to keep the price affordable. I had help from the search firm HelmsBriscoe (specifically Carolyn Coughlin), who very patiently helped me find the best spot for us. I had initially envisioned Downtown Chicago, but that just didn’t work out, even after the folks at Morningstar generously offered up their beautiful facility.

Stuffing Conference Tote Bags at the Financial Blogger Conference

Volunteers stuffing the conference tote bags the morning before the conference kicked off.

We eventually decided on the Chicago Marriott Schaumburg. I was familiar with this suburb, it was relatively close to the airport and it had very affordable hotels. The best thing about this choice was that it kept everyone on one central location. We all got to spend a ton of time with each other before and after the sessions. The hotel lobby was never void of a few bloggers just hanging out chatting it up.

Creating Value for Sponsors

Once I signed a contract with a hotel, I was looking at a food and beverage minimum of $10,000. After looking at the hotel catering menu though, I knew it would be much more (the final food and drink bill was closer to $35,000). The financial burden of this event was real, and I’m not a risk taker. At that time, I knew registrations would likely help us cover $7,500, so I knew I needed some outside help to make this event possible.

Thankfully, I had a few friends at some financial companies and ad networks that I knew might be interested in being a part of this event. My thought was that I would do this in two phases. First, I would roll out an initial set of sponsorship opportunities that would help cover some of the basic needs of the conference. If the conference continued to grow (beyond 100 attendees), then I would introduce a second level of bigger, more visible opportunities for any interested companies. It worked!

This whole sponsorship deal was a challenge for me. I’m not naturally very good at sales, negotiation, or contract organization. Basically I copied what I saw other conferences doing and trusted that the companies involved would find value in their investment. Hopefully they were not disappointed.

Let me just say that this conference would not have become what it did without the generous support of over 25 organizations throwing their support at it. I really, really appreciate those initial sponsorships and everyone else that came along to make this an affordable success for the attendees and not a financial burden for my family.

Planning Content

I knew the primary focus of the conference was going to be networking: people meeting each other face to face after all these years of connecting online. But I also wanted it to have some nice, unique and niche content – something that other, bigger conferences couldn’t deliver.

Following in the steps of the WordCamps I’d attended. I wanted the content on stage to be from people in the online community and I wanted it to be very tactical and fast-paced. No fluff.

Again, I opened up this opportunity to those in the financial blogging community and they did not disappoint. Many big name bloggers came forward to speak at the conference. This totally legitimized what I was trying to put together and I saw ticket sales spike as a result. Thank you, speakers!

Will Chen Speaks at the Financial Blogger Conference

Will Chen from Wise Bread delivering his presentation.

One of the toughest parts of planning the content was selecting speakers and topics and then fitting that in on the conference schedule. Many excellent speaking proposals were submitted. I appreciate everyone who submitted something. I hate telling people no. So I had to overcome that during the course of building this thing. One of the things that helped was having a pre-conference survey. This definitely helped me determine what the attendees wanted on stage.

In addition to the survey, I also implemented some other peer conference tactics: ask the expert tables and birds of a feather sessions. In hindsight, these weren’t executed perfectly, but I think they helped to build community and connections that otherwise might not have happened.

Beyond the educational content, we also had plenty of social time, a community awards ceremony, and a service event built into the conference. I’m really proud of our efforts as a group to give back to the local area by doing some work for the cancer-support organization, Phil’s Friends.

Making it Look and Feel Like a Conference

Two Sided Conference Badges

There are two sides to every good conference badge.

Up until mid-August of this year, I was pretty much running this conference by myself. Of course, I wouldn’t have had anything to run had it not been for the attendees and sponsors, as well as, a few volunteers who were assisting with bits and pieces. But I knew I needed some real help to pull this thing off, leading up to the conference and on-site.

That’s when I turned to my conference staff to help bring this conference home. Jessica has been my virtual assistant (for PT Money) since June and so I knew she’d be a perfect fit to be the lead staff person and administrator. Justin, college friend and former band mate, was a perfect choice to help run all of the AV. My friend Ryan Yates, freelance writer and t-shirt company owner was the perfect fit to help design all of the signage, t-shirts, and other creatives. Finally, Ryan S. is a friend and sounding board, who’s advice I’d used all along during the planning phase. I knew he’d be great to have there as an extra hand and confidant.

FINCON Staff

The Conference Staff - Ryan, Me, Ryan S., Jessica, Kevin, and Justin

The conference still would not have gone so well had it not been for even more people: Kevin Mulligan, who helped organize the tote bag stuffing and ran a camera at each of the main sessions; Andrea Travillian from Smart Step, who helped choose our menu for the weekend; Shareeke Edmead-Nesi from The Conscious Spender, who helped organize the Tweet Chat, Kyle from Joe the Runner, who helped with sales; Ryan Guina from Cash Money Life for letting us store all of the conference material and swag for over a month; all the kind bloggers who participated in the tote bag stuff.

Breaking Down the Cost of a Conference

No behind the scenes look would be complete without a breakdown of the costs of the event. I’m still finalizing some of the numbers but this should give you an idea of what it takes to put on this type of event.

  • Hotel Conference Rooms (Free) – The hotel throws in the meeting space for free when you guarantee x number of rooms and a certain amount of food purchases.
  • WiFi ($2,000) – The WiFi in the conference area was $1,000 a day, and that was at a discount.
  • Food and Alcohol ($37,000) – Hotel food is expensive, y’all! In an ideal world I would have liked to have covered more meals than I did. But you can see why this was tough. Also in an ideal world I would like to have catered more of our own food into the conference (bring in more local flavor), but hotels don’t work that way.
  • Buses ($1,200) – The buses that ran between the hotel and the restaurant area on Saturday night we’re a necessity considering the location of the hotel. A cost that will be avoided next year.
  • Community Event ($5,000) – Transportation, coordination, food, travel, etc.
  • Audio/Visual and Equipment ($12,000) – We purchased a few things, rented a few things from private companies, but did the rest through the hotel. Like the food, they have you where they want you and can charge a premium.
  • T-Shirts, Signs, Totes, and Badges ($5,500) – I’m glad we were able to do some of this. Gave the conference that official look and feel. Loved those badges.
  • Insurance ($200) – Event insurance is cheap. One of my favorite purchases.
  • Staff ($6,000) – The 4 staff members earned every bit of this over the course of two months.
  • PayPal and Eventbrite Fees ($2,000) – The Eventbrite system and PayPal payment receipt system are nice and convenient, but you certainly pay for it.
  • Travel, Hotel, Transport, and Shipping ($4,000) – Having the conference in Chicago definitely made it more expensive logistically.
  • Gifts, Printing, and Etc ($3,000) – I wasn’t sure what was typical, but I decided to give the speakers who spent time preparing remarks a little gift for their time. It’s possible this was a bribe for them to be a part of next year’s conference.

Total Expenses – ($77,900)

Sponsorships – $64,000
Ticket Sales – $25,000

Amount Available to Invest in 2012 – $11,100

How to Run Your Own Successful Peer Conference

If you are going to run a conference of your own, here are some of the things you should consider doing:

  • Read the book on it. I only used a small portion of his techniques, but Adrian Segar who wrote Conferences that Work, was key in influencing the type of conference this became.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. While Adrian’s ideas are new, there are some conferences already executing variations of his techniques. I copied many of the best elements I’d seen from WordCamp, Affiliate Summit, and even SOBCon.
  • Tap into an already engaged community. This is huge. Besides my time on the conference blog and Facebook page, I never spent a dime to market this conference. It went viral in an already connected community.
  • Grow it organically. Plan two or three variations of a conference, then see where you end up. Adjust accordingly.
  • Make the attendees the stars. As much as possible I tried to let the participants of the conference create the experience. I did this using the pre-conference content survey, by paying attention to the Twitter hashtag for suggestions, and by asking for feedback at every step of the way.
  • Invest in a local staff. My staff members and I had many long face-to-face meetings. Having them right there by my side pouring over planning documents or designs really allowed us to knock out the detail work very quickly.

Well, I hope that gives you a sense of what inspired me to do this and what it takes to pull it all together. I can assure you I’ll be doing this again in 2012. It was too much fun.

Jeff Rose from GoodFinancialCents.com did an interview with me about the conference planning experience:

Have any questions about the conference or the planning process? Fire away in the comments below…

Photo by Peter.Anderson and by Jesse Michelsen and by RedPhoenixGroup.

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Last Edited: July 28, 2014 @ 11:54 pm
About Philip Taylor

Philip Taylor, aka "PT", is a husband and father of two. He created PT Money back in 2007 to share his thoughts on money and to meet others passionate about managing their finances. All the content on this blog is original, and created or edited by PT. Read more about Philip Taylor, and be sure to connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or view the Philip Taylor+ Google profile.