Planning a Conference
From: Leaven, Vol. 45 No. 2-3, 2009, pp. 28-33
"Isn't this fantastic? I wish we could do something like this in Hong Kong," said Rhonda Jacques as we were having lunch together on the second day of the LLLI Conference in 2007. And the idea of our very own Area Conference was born.
We spent the rest of the conference trying to decide which one of the hundreds of great speakers was giving the message we wanted the mothers and medical professionals in our Area to hear. As I sat and listened to Nancy Mohrbacher telling us about seven natural laws to make breastfeeding easy, I knew I'd found the message. So, without thinking twice or losing my nerve, immediately after the lecture finished, I asked Nancy if she'd consider coming to speak at a conference in Hong Kong. I was delighted that she was interested. So with one speaker interested we were ready to begin!
With so many great LLL minds together at the LLLI Conference, we took every opportunity to discuss how to organize a conference. The Leaders from New Zealand swapped a copy of their Conference Handbook for a set of our Chinese language breastfeeding posters, and we then had a plan we could follow.
Once back home we invited all the other Leaders in the Area to join a Yahoo group dedicated to planning the conference. I should mention here that our Area is the largest geographical area within LLL. It ranges from Mongolia in the north to Papua New Guinea in the south and from Egypt in the west to Japan in the east. Hong Kong is the city with the most Leaders; there were six active Leaders at that time. We immediately realized we would need more local help and opened the Yahoo group to all the mothers in the Hong Kong Groups.
The first decisions we needed to make were time of year, date, time frame and venue. We looked at all the other breastfeeding conferences, both LLL and non-LLL events, taking place in and around our Area. We could see that spring of 2009 would be an ideal time, as it wouldn't clash with any other conferences.
Although Hong Kong is a very compact city, we still needed to consider the best location. We conducted a survey at each meeting over the next month and asked all the mothers attending for their preferred location. Typically each Group wanted its own local location but as a second choice almost all were in favour of Tsim Sha Tsiu, which is often called the heart and soul of Hong Kong. It is situated at the very tip of the Kowloon Peninsula and offers nonstop shopping opportunities and a myriad of bars and restaurants of every kind. Because it is such an excellent tourist area, there are many hotels, and the public transport access is brilliant. One of the mothers in our Group is a wedding planner and volunteered to negotiate with the hotels. Soon our venue was arranged.
We held our first real committee meeting in a coffee shop above Kowloon Station (this was to become our regular conference planning meeting place) in March 2008 -- yes that's right, only 11 months before the conference took place in February 2009 -- but there is no better place in the world to do things at short notice than Hong Kong. We had a long agenda with the first item being the title. For the next hour and a half we threw various ideas out, finally agreeing on "Breastfeeding: Traditional Food the Natural Way." One mother still wasn't sure and thought we should open the discussion to more people to get more ideas. Then most of the mothers had to leave! Rhonda and I sat there in shock: nothing had been decided and we still had the rest of our agenda to get through. This was when we decided that to move things forward in our time frame we needed to make quick decisions. Immediately we agreed on the title of the conference, the date, the hotel and the theme of breastfeeding for the first day and mothering for the second day. We also decided that the early morning and late afternoon sessions would be general sessions and the rest would be concurrent sessions (the venue had one large room that could be split into smaller rooms). It might not have been very democratic, but it was efficient.
Next we had to decide on speakers. One topic which comes up at almost every meeting is that of sleep issues. Hong Kong is a melting pot of many cultures, and we seem to be bombarded with books on sleep training and how to get your baby on a routine. We had the idea of asking Elizabeth Pantley to speak on the topic of "No Cry Sleep Solution." I was very happy when she replied to my invitation that she'd love to speak at our conference and that her usual fees were negotiable because we were LLL and because she'd never been to Hong Kong! All the other speakers were LLL Leaders and breastfeeding-friendly professionals from within the Area.
We looked at various grants and donation funds. The most hopeful one was the Professional Services Development Assistance Scheme (PSDAS) of the Hong Kong Government. They have HK$100 million (about US$12.8 million) to provide financial support for projects which aim at increasing the competitiveness of Hong Kong's professional services or enhancing the standard of professional services. One of their target sectors is the medical profession. A regional breastfeeding conference aimed at educating the medical professionals fit the bill.
Unfortunately we had just missed a deadline when we learned of this potential funding. The next one was two and a half months away on June 30. Rhonda and I started work on the funding proposal. This was actually a huge amount of work -- we needed full details of timelines, personnel allocation, costs (each with a quote), cash flow, etc. All this detailed planning was to reap benefits later on: absolutely everything had been mapped out, and all we had to do was follow it.
I was told that it was important to get support from various medical professional bodies for the conference, as this would enhance our application with the government. I wrote and received supporting letters from all the lactation consultant associations in the region and also from ILCA (International Lactation Consultant Association), WABA (World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action) and BFHI (Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative). A big coup was getting a support letter from the Hong Kong Government's Department of Health.
Rhonda and I had commitments other than planning the conference. I had two extended trips to England planned for the summer of 2008, and Rhonda's fourth child, Teoni Lee Jacques, arrived on July 11, 2008. But somehow we managed to fit in planning meetings around these events. The most memorable was a nine hour meeting we had the day after Rhonda and Teoni left the hospital to finalize our budget proposal and answer questions from PSDAS. Rhonda, with Teoni in her arms, sat next to me as I typed and moved figures around to make the budget balance.
We spent the summer answering questions from the PSDAS people, applying for medical education points and working on the layout conference brochure. Our plan was to move straight into production as soon as we had word on the funding.
Finally, on September 28, 2008 the PSDAS contacted me and told me that we would receive HK$239,000 (just over US$30,000). Within a week we contacted all the speakers and started to arrange air tickets and hotel rooms; we finalized the registration brochure, applied for the medical points within Hong Kong and applied to LLLI for CERPS for the lactation consultants.
There was only one problem: in the small print of the contract was a clause saying we needed half the income in our bank account in order to get the funding. This meant we needed to find HK$150,250 (US$19,250). The Area had HK$46,500 (US$6,000); the Hong Kong Groups had HK$30,000 (US$3,850); the Tokyo Groups had HK$39,000 (US$5,000); and a supporter in Hong Kong was willing to lend us the remaining HK$34,750 (US$4,400). Getting the money from the Area which is kept in the USA by the International Division Treasurer was easy -- a simple TT* bank transfer [*a telegraphic transfer or wire/swift transfer is a common way to transfer money from one bank to another, especially when they are in different countries]. Getting the money from Tokyo was harder. Iona, the Leader in Tokyo, went to the bank and was told it wasn't possible. Even when she produced the conference registration brochure and showed them the LLL-HK Web site with all the conference information, she was told it wasn't possible. Apparently there was a concern that we were laundering drug money! A generous supporter told us that he would lend the extra money. And finally in late October we could start to pay the bills that had accumulated.
One of the last things we added to the budget, almost as an afterthought, was fees for an events management online service. We looked at various other conferences to find out whom they had used. I was able to get quite a good deal because the firm we used wanted to get into the Asian market.
We had hoped to get registration started by October 1, 2008, but things took longer than we had hoped -- there were lots of little details that we had not anticipated. For example, we needed to get every publication checked by the PSDAS before we could publish; this meant an extra week's delay. Finally online registrations started October 26, and we sent out thousands of flyers, posters and registration brochures the first week in November. One thing we found was that a stroller is almost as good as a trolley for transporting conference materials!
During November and December Rhonda turned her attention to keeping track of all the registrations, and I, with the able help of Maggie, Janedy and all the Leaders in Taiwan, organized the translations. We had budgeted to get all the conference syllabi professionally translated into Chinese; and once translated, everything needed reviewing. All through December and January we worked on translations, reviewing and adding the in translations in the speakers' PowerPoint files. We even managed to accommodate one speaker who changed five slides in his lecture just one week before the conference!
During January we had our final meeting with the hotel to sort out the seating plan. All was simple to arrange until we discussed the location of the translation booths. I had no idea they would be so big. The technical support man from the hotel told us that the layout of the booths just wouldn't work. I was close to tears; but after about 30 long minutes, he came up with a solution. He then called his boss and asked to be the technical support for our event so that everything would run smoothly.
At our first conference planning meeting we had discussed a staged pay structure with an early bird and a late registration fee. One of the mothers was vehemently against a late registration fee, so we decided to have a flat fee for everyone. This in hindsight was a poor idea. It made the accounting simpler but seemed to encourage everyone to register late. At the end of November and December we only had 21 and 76 people registered respectively. We needed 125 to break even. (We ended up with 151 participants, but there were some very worrisome times along the way.)
The end of January was full of deadlines for us. We seemed to run from getting one piece of work finished to getting the next one ready. One week before the conference was Chinese New Year, and everything needed to be ready before this holiday. Of course that didn't happen. We were still working on the PowerPoint files during the break!
Rhonda's home was used to collect everything and sort out all the conference bags. The printer told us he couldn't meet our deadline for binding the conference syllabi, so we took all the printed pages, borrowed three binding machines from Group members and recruited helpers to spend two days at Rhonda's home binding and filling conference bags.
Organizing a conference is a huge amount of work, especially when it is the first time. Despite this I would encourage every Area to run its own conference. Apart from the conference being very special because it was ours, we actually made money! Officially any project making a profit with PSDAS funding has to pay that profit back; so we were not unhappy to show a loss of around HK$20,000 (US$2,500). However, LLL-HK received donations of HK$77,000 (just under US$10,000) -- exactly the amount paid for many of the speakers' fees -- which they kindly donated to us.
Because the funding for the medical professionals came from the government, much of our marketing was aimed there. Our final head count was 151 participants -- 26 Leaders, 19 mothers, and 106 medical professionals. A comment from a nurse sums up why LLL conferences have more to offer: "I liked to see the mothers and babies attending a conference together. In fact the people who were organizing the conference had their babies with them too -- we thought it was amazing how much they could do with their babies still in their arms!"