Planning a Second Year Conference: Avoiding the Sophomore Slump at #FinCon12

Adam Baker Opening Keynote FinCon12
Adam Baker from ManVsDebt.com giving the opening keynote at #FinCon12.

Just like last year, if you follow my twitter feed you probably saw a barrage of #FinCon12 tweets come across over the last several weeks.

That’s because I just got through holding the second FinCon.

This post will cover the details behind planning a second year conference, plus recap some of the fun we had at #FinCon12.

The first conference was a lot of fun and attendees were raring for more (I actually think the first year’s conference was too short, so we had a lot of pent up energy left behind).

So just days after the 2011 conference I started planning #FinCon12.

You really have to start right away because hotel meeting space goes fast and you really want to capture the energy left over from the previous event.

Note this is something fixed-location conferences don’t really have to worry about.

Location, Location, Location

Speaking of locations, I decided to move FinCon to a different location. I’m thankful for our experience in Schaumburg, IL last Fall, but the attendees wanted a different place for #FinCon12. How do I know? Well, I took a post conference survey and one of the questions I asked was where do you want to have next year’s conference.

The overwhelming majority of the attendees said they wanted a location that was within walking distance to other things: restaurants, bars, shopping, activities. Basically they wanted it in the heart of the city.

ManVsDebt 90s Party at FinCon12
ManVsDebt.com 90’s After Party at #FinCon12

Getting the Price Right

In addition to location questions, I also asked the attendees what their thoughts were on hotel room pricing. It turns out $99 is the sweet spot for keeping most of the attendees at the main conference hotel vs jumping ship to find alternative lodging.

This is critical as I see it because this crew is so tight knit that they want to be together the whole weekend, not just during sessions. So the $99 price point keeps them at the same hotel where they can hang out longer after sessions, chill in the lobby, and hit up the hotel bar late at night without having to worry about transportation to wherever they might be staying.

This may seem trivial to some conference planners or regular business conference attendees, but I see this as a critical element in keeping the camp-like atmosphere at FinCon. It’s the same reason I turned down the beautiful Downtown Chicago facilities at Morningstar last year.

Mile High Accommodations

As you can imagine, there aren’t too many decent-sized cities in the U.S. that have a conference hotel which can be had for $99. San Diego (a popular attendee selection) and Chicago just don’t have that kind of deal. Luckily Denver did.

So, we chose Denver and it turned out to be a solid move. Of course, the decision wasn’t as easy as I made it sound. There are a ton of factors: hotel availability, acceptable dates, meeting space packages, etc. that all have to be negotiated.

The Main Stage at FinCon12
The Main Stage at #FinCon12 – 400 in Attendance.

Similar to 2011 I turned to the services of Helms-Brisco’s Carolyn Coughlin who did another solid job of presenting me with my options. FYI, Carolyn gets paid a % by the hotel for bringing me in.

Bring in the Big Guns

By the end of last year’s conference I was beat. Being the hub of information for 250+ attendees, 25 sponsors, and countless vendors and facility managers takes a toll. I was worn out. I swore I would not do it that way again and that I would seek out more help in managing the process.

First up was sponsorships. I turned to Michael, who manages ads (and many other things) for PT Money. He was a perfect fit and did an excellent job of not only bringing in more sponsorship money, but providing more value for the sponsors: Ally Bank, Chase, Fidelity, etc.

The only thing I had to do was deposit the checks. Michael is a natural at this stuff and I could not have done FinCon again without him handling this aspect. Michael and I decided to handle the evening events a bit differently this year.

To make it easier on ourselves, we sold the rights to exclusive evening events vs trying to plan something ourselves. This freed up a lot of time that Jessica and I didn’t have, and it ended up making for some unique experiences (like the Ignite FinCon event).

Bankrate Party at FinCon12
The Bankrate.com Party at #FinCon12

Next was administration. Jessica is my virtual assistant, so she’s working for me five hours a week regardless of FinCon. But this year I brought her on double time in June (as apposed to just a month before last year), and by August I had her devoting all of her hours to FinCon. She needed every hour too after I assigned her the role of conference magazine coordinator.

FinCon Connection Issue 1 Cover
FinCon Connection Issue 1 Cover

That’s right, we decided to add a conference magazine to the mix. It was well received, but it was a huge expense and massive time drain. Jessica and I were pulling our hair out at times. We’ll have to rethink this element going forward to make it more efficient.

Jessica did much more than the magazine though. She coordinated the conference service project with the City of Denver, she managed the checklist and helped me wrestle with the schedule, she arranged all the speaker and staff’s travel arrangements, she coordinated with the hotel catering for the menu, and she did much, much more.

Getting the audio visual needs right is always a challenge. I turned for help here early on as well. Justin, who handled audio last year, is my go-to guy. He put together the post-conference promo video that I credit for selling 50% of the tickets to this year’s conference. He perfectly captured the scene at #FinCon11 with that video.

Justin also traveled with me to Denver to scout out the facilities before this year’s conference and he successfully negotiated the audio visual contract down to under our $25,000 budget (he saved us over $20K). AV costs, IMO, are the biggest ripoff when it comes to conferencing. They’ve got you captive there in the hotel and contracts are laden with penalties for using outside vendors.

Jim Wang Panel at FinCon12
Jim Wang from Bargaineering.com and His Panel at #FinCon12

But Justin cut through all the clutter, used competing bids to lower the cost, did the hard negotiation and kept us well under budget. He also crushed it when it came to handling AV at the conference and did a professional job of quickly turning around all audio, video, and slides from this year’s sessions.

Both Justin and Jessica also hired and managed a small staff of their own at the conference. Man, I need to pay these guys more.

Don’t forget conference visuals. Just like last year I turned to my friend Pete to handle the initial logo design. He gave me just what I was looking for. Then I turned to my local friend and assistant, Ryan, to handle all the signage (on-stage, posters, step and repeat backdrop, badges, etc.).

Ryan was in the middle of a transition of his own. He’s now a full-time missionary in The Bahamas (for real!). Mostly due to my poor planning, I was wrapping things up with him while he was in The Bahamas without an Internet connection.

It made for an interesting last month. In the panic I turned to local artist and friend Jeb who owns a texas-themed t-shirt company, to do the conference t-shirts. They were able to turn something really nice around in a few weeks.

Last up was the on-stage content. I held onto this responsibility, but I still turned to the community to submit ideas and to vote on the sessions they wanted to see. I also went after one or two speakers that I knew I wanted on stage again, or for the first time.

I wanted this year’s conference to contain some of the same elements of the last, but not to be an exact repeat. So I knew it would be important to bring in a big outside voice. We were blessed to have Liz Weston, popular personal finance expert and author, attend.

Liz Weston Keynote at FinCon12
Liz Weston Keynote at #FinCon12

Liz did fantastic in her talk and really brought an air of professionalism and credibility that the attendees appreciated.

Other main stage speakers included J.D. Roth (from Get Rich Slowly More Than Money), Adam Baker (from ManVsDebt.com), Greg Go (from WiseBread.com), and Jim Wang (from Bargaineering.com) who led an expert panel. It’s so wonderful to have these stars from the community participating like this.

Even though I had all of this staffing help I was still consumed with the conference to-do list in the weeks prior to #FinCon12. There are so many other things I could outsource or turn over to volunteers.

But I struggle with this. Especially as the event draws near. I start internalizing everything and tell myself to work harder and faster to get it all done. I guess in ways I’m somewhat of a perfectionist, so I hold the reigns too tight. I’ll get better at this.

Others who volunteered their time at the conference to help included: Carrie Rocha (from PocketYourDollars.com), John Philbin (from PowerWallet.com), and so many others who held a camera, stuffed swag bags, assembled badges, chairs, signs, and more. Thank you all!

As for the conference itself, #FinCon12 was a hit. Attendees brought their usual energy, speakers blew away expectations, volunteers on cameras and swag bag stuffing did a fantastic job, and the City of Denver (and the Grand Hyatt) turned out to be the ideal location.

Added Elements in the Second Year

I’m really proud of some of the improvements we made in year two. We spent some money in ways that benefited both the community and helped to market the conference.

FinCon Connection – I’ve already mentioned the conference magazine, FinCon Connection, which serves as one part conference guide and one part industry resource. The magazine will also become a natural marketing tool going forward. Our plan is to publish it every six months (this gives us a post-conferencee magazine and a pre-conference magazine/guide).

FinCon12 Registration
#FinCon12 Registration

FinCon Local – I also created what’s known as FinCon Local, where FinCon attendees and others can get together periodically in their cities to keep the conference conversation going all year long. This is being loosely managed as it should be, but it’s definitely helping to brand FinCon as the leader for offline financial blogger connections.

Virtual Tickets – I heard from a few of last year’s attendees that they hated to miss this year’s conference. A few mentioned that they would like to see videos and slides from the conference. So, once the conference sold out I mentioned that we would be selling virtual tickets.

Since this choice was not available to everyone initially I felt I needed to keep the ticket price the same as the regular ticket. After a bit of promotion I’ve only sold a handful of virtual tickets. Next year I’ll skip the push and just offer them for sale for anyone who inquires.

Swag Bags – After last year’s big effort I had decided to skip the swag bag stuffing, give attendees an empty tote, and let the attendees get the swag they wanted at the exhibit tables. A few months out I thought of an idea that would allow me to still offer swag in the totes, give some love back to the speakers, and not have to do any work.

TaxACT Exhibit Table at FinCon12
The TaxACT Exhibit Table at #FinCon12

I put the speakers in charge of stuffing the totes. The catch was that only they could put something in the tote. They could put something of theirs in the tote or reach out to an advertiser to trade the value. Many speakers took advantage of this opportunity and ended up funding their trip to FinCon12. I liked this idea and I think we’ll keep it going forward, with limits, of course.

Social Media Usage – As for social media use, the conference does have a Facebook page, a blog, a YouTube account (for slowly releasing prior year sessions), and even a Pinterest account, all of which do a good job of promoting the conference to engaged users.

FinCon12 Trending on Twitter
#FinCon12 Trending on Twitter

But the big social media arm of FinCon is my twitter account and the hash tag #FinCon12. Twitter is where I put my focus. Why? Because internet entrepreneurs talk to each other on Twitter.

I’ve used the #FinCon12 hash tag so consistently that it’s become a mainstay in communicating with conference attendees.

We even hit the top of the Twitter trending list during the weekend of the conference.

It was a localized trend, but it was still awesome to see. Overall, the #FinCon12 hash tag had over 13.5 million impressions and reached 1.3 million unique people over 5 days.

In the future we’re going to develop a Facebook group to allow those more natural with Facebook to have a hub.

Traditional Public Relations – I invested in a little public relations freelance work for #FinCon12. I thought I needed a more active approach to garnering media attention for the conference. This obviously makes the conference more appealing to speakers, attendees and sponsors.

Ramit Sethi and Philip Taylor at FinCon12
Ramit Sethi and I Chatting at #FinCon12

And it worked! We got picked up by two local affiliates, got the attention of a few online media outlets, and got a ton of links from various outlets that picked up the press release. I’m going to continue to invest a little in this area and hopefully start the process a lot sooner next year so that we get picked up by even more outlets.

Tools That Run FinCon

The tools I used to run the conference were:

The Financials of #FinCon12

Just like last year I’m going to pull back the curtain on the financials to show you what it takes to run a successful conference. Here are the financials (some expenses estimated):

ItemAmount (2012)Prior Year (2011)
Tickets (400 attendees)42,874.7525,000.00
Sponsorships (20 sponsors)149,170.5064,000.00
Total Revenue$192,045.2589,000.00
Hotel Food67,500.0037,000.00
Staff (Pay, Travel, Meals, etc.)20,750.0010,000.00
Speakers (Travel, etc.)6,900.003,000.00
Totes, Badges, Promotional Material4,500.001,500.00
Social Events4,250.001,200.00
Stage and Signage3,700.001,000.00
Public Relations and Promotion2,900.000.00
Eventbrite and PayPal Fees2,825.002,000.00
Misc. Travel, Meals, Shipping, etc2,500.000.00
Community Service2,180.005,000.00
Software and Data885.000.00
Total Expense$156,300.0077,900.00
Total Profit$35,745.25$11,100.00

There’s a lot I could say about this profit. I’ll just say that I’m glad to have it, but this is probably the most I’ll ever make from this conference. The other benefits are just too valuable for me to bother with trying to make this a financial success on it’s face. This money will go into the #FinCon13 budget and allow us to do a lot more next year.

What’s Next?

Well, I’m still analyzing results from this year’s post conference survey. Once I finish that and send all of my thank-you’s and payments, I’ll start the process of setting up #FinCon13. I’ve definitely got my hands full this year. The bar has been set high and to get this community to come out again I’ll have to follow their lead and give them more for less.

Two things that give me confidence are that I feel like I know the needs of the group, and I’ve got simple goals: help the attendees connect and learn. If I do that I think I’ll be alright.

Any question about how I ran the conference? Fire away in the comments below.

All images courtesy of Gen X Finance. Images located at the FinCon group on Flickr.com.

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  1. Avatar SustainablePF says:

    Wow – what great detail PT!  Mrs and I hope to attend the 3rd one.  Lil’ SPF just turned one and he doesn’t travel well unfortunately.  I even had to go to CPFC12 solo.  Thanks for the drinks on the Saturday night!

  2. Avatar frugalportland says:

    I thought you did a great job — I think in the future you could cut the magazine out (as wonderful as it was!) and reduce the number of sessions, giving people 30 minutes between sessions to chat with each other.

  3. Avatar gregorygo says:

    Phil – amazing to see the growth between the first and second FinCons. I can’t wait to see what you have lined up for us in year three! You’re just raising our expectations. 😉 THANKS for the amazing effort. It’s truly appreciated.

  4. Avatar seedebtrun says:

    You did a great job putting this all together!  I’m so glad I was able to attend.  Can’t wait to see how you raise the bar for fincon13!  It’s already pretty high..

  5. Avatar Mike Holman says:

    Interesting look at the finances.  Wow – those sponsorships sure made a difference – kudos to you.
    I don’t care where the conference is.  Nothing wrong with doing surveys, but you could have held it in Schaumburg again and I don’t think anyone would have stayed away.

  6. Avatar Carrie Rocha says:

    This conference really did feel like summer camp for grown-ups. To create that, you’ve done something amazing! I’m also with the folks that hope you make an even larger profit in the years to come. The ticket price is already super reasonable and hopefully you can increase sales of virtual tickets as another revenue stream. 
    As for location – Kansas City has a really fun downtown area and you can’t get more central than that. St. Louis could be another option that is more moderate in temperature than Texas. If you moved the conference up into August, Minneapolis is beautiful with lakes and green space that is reminiscent of Denver’s atmosphere.
    But, like Martin said – hold it on Mars or even Dallas in mid-July – and I’ll be there. (Not so sure you’d get folks to come to Minneapolis in January, but you could try that too) 🙂

  7. Avatar joetaxpayer says:

    @ptmoney, as one of many bloggers who touches on the topic of frugality, I have to say I find it remarkable that my ticket is priced at less than the cost of feeding me for the three days. You and your team have done an excellent job of securing sponsors, and to those who tweeted “Why are we watching Chase bank before the keynote?” it’s simple, these folk put up a lot of money that offset your ticket cost and they deserve 15 minutes of our thanks by way of watching their presentation.
    Unfortunately, for me, most business functions I’ve attended since FinCon11 have seemed amateurish in comparison. The amount of effort you put into these functions really shows, and is much appreciated. 
    The 3rd weekend of November ’13 looks great for me, anything to avoid my mother in law’s dry turkey!

  8. Emily Guy Birken Emily Guy Birken says:

    Two things: as both a BlogHer attendee and a FinCon attendee this year, I have to say that FinCon did a much better job of making it easy to connect with other bloggers and possible clients. FinCon made it clear that all are welcome, while BlogHer felt like it was for the big names, but the little people could hang out on the edges.
    I also would love to have FinCon13 at a Midwestern city. Believe it or not, Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana are both pretty cool cities with lower price points. And you can’t beat the food truck scene in Columbus. 🙂 They both have small airports, but I’ve never had a problem with any finding flights through any major airline.

  9. Avatar Rob_Bennett_ says:

    I hope that won’t be the biggest profit you ever make from the conference, Phil. You’ve changed the personal finance blogosphere in a big positive way with this conference, it’s an enormous amount of work and you do it exceedingly well. I want you to make enough that you can’t afford ever to pull back. It’s super that you provide the transparency you provide in this article. I’ll be there next year, wherever and whenever it is.
    Take care.

  10. Avatar William_Drop_Dead_Money says:

    Hearty amen to the kudos! Definitely one of the best conferences I’ve attended. And thanks for the financials – great education! 
    An under the radar location that surprised me once is Omaha. Don’t laugh. It actually has a nice downtown-y area with restaurants and stuff. San Antonio with its Riverwalk might also be an option, but you already thought of that, I’m sure. For both those and Dallas, timing the conference for cooler temperatures would definitely be welcome. As the conference grows, you also might want to think of restructuring social events in a way where the ambient noise is a tad lower.  Just a thought… 
    My vote is Denver again, though — it’s the best compromise.  

  11. Avatar Jason from One Money Design says:

    PT, awesome recap.  As you know, I attended FINCON11 and FINCON12.  Both have been invaluable to my blogging endeavors.  I have pages of notes and action items that will keep me busy until FINCON13!  I really appreciated the mixture of content this year as well as last – SEO, social media, writing, video..it was all there!  Personally, I was most interested in the topics on writing and my ears always perked up when I heard some of the more experienced bloggers talk about ‘voice’ and ‘story’ in your writing.  FINCON is the only blogger conference I’ve ever attended.  I can’t imagine any other conference having this type of community and energy!  Thanks for making all this happen!  Can’t wait until next year!

  12. Avatar Money Life and More says:

    PT! Thanks for putting this together even though I didn’t get to go. I just beg of you to hold the conference during the middle to late part of the month late year. Us accounting folk can’t get the first 5 business days of the month normally and it kills me I couldn’t go!
    Keep up the good work! I’m totally going to FinCon13… assuming I can get the time off work 🙂

  13. Phil, I’ll say it again: you can set that conference up at a hotel on Mars and I’ll show up. Good job on the hard work! The financials are amazing to look at. I hope that you keep some money for yourself!

  14. Avatar Heather Stephens says:

    I have to say that I’ve attended 4 blogging conferences this year and hand’s down FinCon12 was the best one.  I absolutely loved the networking and family atmosphere you created with the outings the first day.  I also appreciate the videos since there were several trainings I wanted to attend that were held at the same time as another one I wanted to see. It was all so well executed PT, and I’m grateful we were able to meet in LA at BlogWorld last year and you invited me to attend.  I’ll be there in 2013 for sure!

  15. Avatar SmartMoneyChick says:

    Thanks for being so detailed in the recap. As a person who holds a conference 1/3 of the size I know conference planning is not for the faint of heart.  Hands down, I think FinCon is one of the best conferences I have attended. The attention to detail, the community are top notch. I would love to see FinCon Dallas or Austin.  Kudos to your and your team for all the hard work… Everyone is so great.  Can’t wait to see Todd on the Dance Floor next Year!

  16. Avatar InvestorJunkie says:

    First off thanks for the conference! I had a great time and enjoyed meeting everyone, including you. Second congrats on the profit, you deserve the income as I’m sure you worked much more than that in return. It would be great to get national coverage next year. I don’t see why this couldn’t happen. At least on the financial networks.

  17. Thanks for the financial summary, PT.  I really enjoy the details, and it lets us all appreciate how many moving parts you have to bring together!  You have a tiger by the tail here…

  18. Denver was an awesome location. I don’t think most people would be at all disappointed if Denver was the regular host. Or Dallas, for that matter.

    1. Avatar Philip Taylor says:

       @KyleAAA I agree, Kyle. Some folks did complain about the altitude and sickness though. I’m looking into Dallas some more. Price would be right, but I don’t want to drag people here in August or Sept. Might get pushed back to Nov.

      1. Avatar InvestorJunkie says:

         @Philip Taylor  @KyleAAA Austin? Would be an excuse for me to check ou that area with the family.

        1. Avatar Philip Taylor says:

           @InvestorJunkie  @KyleAAA I like Austin. Flights can be expensive into there though. It’s definitely on the table.

        2.  @Philip Taylor  @InvestorJunkie  @KyleAAA  Yeah, Austin has a smaller airport so it can be more expensive to get to. GREAT city, though. Atlanta is pretty easy. Just sayin’…

        3. Avatar InvestorJunkie says:

           @KyleAAA  @Philip Taylor Hotlanta is nice at well.

  19. Thanks for sharing the details! It’s certainly eye-opening. Thanks for all that you did to make this conference a great success!

  20. Avatar Sustainlifeblog says:

    @ptmoney you may want to check into one of your pictures – I think one of the pictures had a no photo person in it 🙁

    1. @Sustainlifeblog Joe?

      1. Avatar Sustainlifeblog says:

        @ptmoney yes – Im pretty sure he was in chicago, but I cant remember if he was for this year too.

        1. @Sustainlifeblog I’ll change it out. Thanks.

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