My guest today is Vanessa Foss. Vanessa has been planning and managing conferences for twenty-five years. She’s the founder and president of Kunverj, an event planning and management company. Vanessa and her team run one of my favorite events of the year, the Information Architecture Conference. In this episode, we discuss what it takes to manage such an event.Listen to the full conversation
Jorge: So Vanessa, welcome to the show.
Vanessa: Thank you, Jorge.
Jorge: For folks who don’t know you, please can you tell us about yourself?
Vanessa: Okay, my name is Vanessa Foss. I run a company called Kunverj; it’s an event planning organization. I started it about two and a half years ago, but I’ve been running conferences for over 25 years.
I worked at ASIS&T for that time. And so I ran the IA Conference and the ASIS&T Conference and two others. So I was there from their inception, and you know, I was just able to do something that I really love doing, which is organizing things and also getting to meet different people. And that was very important and is still very important to who I am.
I started running conferences, and how I got involved in all of this was that I went to University of Maryland, and I was studying engineering. And on my first internship, I was like; I cannot do this. This is not for me. And so I drifted, and I ended up at ASIS&T. And when I was there, I was very fortunate to have a great boss who allowed me to do, you know, just look around and basically do what I was interested in. And you know, I was fascinated by event planning. And he just said, okay if you are, then just basically showed me the tools and I was able to do it. And so I was very fortunate to have had someone to mentor me like that into something that I really enjoy doing.
And the great thing was, a few years ago, I thought back on it, and I was like, wait just a minute, you’ve always loved doing this. I’ve organized a lot of family functions when I was in my teens. I did one of my older cousin’s wedding. I organized the whole thing before I turned 18, before I went to college. So I realized that this was something that was a part of me, but I didn’t realize it was there because in the days when I was go was growing up if you were good at math, people said okay, you be an engineer, and so that’s where my mind… You know, that’s where the culture and everything was pushing me. But my mind is was not there. And then now that I’m older, I was able to realize you know, this is something that I always wanted to do.
Jorge: You and I met at the IA Conference. You said that that you love organizing things and meeting people, and we met through the conference, right? So I can definitely see that I see you and your team every year working so hard, and you’ve talked about event planning, and I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes with the stuff that you all are doing and I’m wondering if you can unpack a little bit what event planning is and what goes into it.
Vanessa: Okay, there are different aspects of it. At least for my company, we also select venues for the conferences. So there’s that end of it, where we use a software called Cvent, and so I will basically go in and say, “I want to go to this area or this part of the world.” Because I do European IA [Conference] also. And it will give me all the venues that it has available based on the criteria that I put in. So once I have that, then I sent out an RFP that describes the conference, in an RFP and then send it out to the venues, and then they respond to me.
The biggest aspect about the event planning is the getting the logistics behind it. And so I have software that was designed for event planning that was designed by ISS. And basically they will take all of the information that I want and then spit it back out to me in a unified way. So when people register for the conference, you know, it takes registrations in, it takes what they’ve registered for, and then it spits it back out to me. When I have the venue information, I enter it into that system, and then I’d say, “well, this room I would like it to be set up this way, and this is the AV I would like in this room.” And that’s so all of that information comes together from that system and it tells me and the hotel and all of the other players what goes where and how it’s done.
So it’s it’s a great system. It was designed by Russell Evans, and it’s proprietary, so he basically will design it for your needs. So if I wanted to tweak it in any way, it would just get updated. So there’s that aspect of it. And so when we get the attendees’ information, we get the hotel information, and speakers’ information, it all comes together in a big package. And so we just basically run reports on what information you would like for that day.
Jorge: Well, that’s fascinating. I wasn’t aware of the fact that it was all managed together in a single platform. Does that include things like submissions for talks?
Vanessa: No, submissions… On that end, that’s another aspect. I am very fortunate because I work with a lot of volunteers. And for each conference that I do, their set of volunteers that I work with, and we basically have been using one submission system call SoftConf. And so its solicits, you know, we would solicit to come the submissions, and people were just basically go in and put their talk in, and it helps us with peer review, with getting… We have to enter all the reviewers in there. And so it’s a process where it helps us to send out to reviewers different papers, different submissions, and then they give us their reviews. But you know, that’s basically handled by the volunteers, for the program, like the chairs of each event that I run, they are usually responsible for that. So it’s really not that much on me; I just know that aspect of it.
Jorge: So the part that you and your team are managing has to do with the infrastructure; the place where the conference will happen, the registrations, all that stuff. Not the content per se.
Vanessa: No, no, we don’t get involved with the content.
We just… We do everything. All the logistics is basically making sure that people have the right badges, and like I said, all of that is generated from the software, the event planning software. So either… It keeps track of the accounting, it keeps track of every aspect on that end, you know, basically churning information out. They send whatever criteria, you know, put in at what you know what you need at that time.
Jorge: I’ve had a little bit of experience in the content side of this equation. I was program chair for a conference once, and have organized a couple of events — much smaller events — myself, and one aspect of event organizing and management that I’m aware of is that the needs of the team that’s organizing the event change over time. There’s a period of time where you’re gathering the content and planning for the event, and there’s a period of time where you have to do very intense marketing and getting the word out, and there’s a period of time when you’re gathering registrations, and then there’s the event itself. And I’m just aware that it goes through stages, and I’m wondering if your information needs vary over time and if you can talk a little bit to that.
Vanessa: Oh, yes, you know at the beginning like I said right now we work with volunteers in terms of getting the program itself, but there’s so many different aspects, and it depends on what’s going on at the time. And after the program is set, we do have to work on promotion, like you said. The timeline varies. At one point speed your work… You’re always working on the badges and making sure that people, when they registered, they get confirmations and that end of it. But then there’s the end of making sure that the event not only happens, but it happens in a way where the user experience is good.
You know, if you’ve booked a large room and you somehow don’t get the registrations that you thought you were going to get for that room, you do have to change the basic setup of the room. And so it’s amazing how people’s perception it’s really… You have to work with what they’re seeing, so if you have more registrations, you set the room up in one way, if you have less, you set up in another way so when people walk in the room always looks full. And that’s a very important thing because that builds on the energy of the conference, where people feel, “there’s a lot of people here, but you know, it’s still great that I can still talk to people.” So that part of the conference is very human-related, and you have to make a lot of judgment calls in terms of, “Would it be better if I did this?”
Jorge: Where does the buck stop for that sort of decision? Because I know that when working with teams of volunteers, it can often be hard to coordinate and make sure that everyone is aligned in the same direction for things like these decisions that you’re talking about. The figuring out the layout of the room, and who gets to speak where, and at what time… Who has the ultimate decision-making authority for an event like the IA Conference?
Vanessa: No, the chairs decide who speaks and when. I just decide where and how. So, like I said, you know, I do five conferences, and all five are volunteers. And you know, they all have chairs. And those chairs are very important, because they work very hard. And so it’s very important to me that they get the type of conference that they want. So we do spend a lot of time getting to know each other and understanding that when someone says… Like if a chair says to me, “Vanessa, I would like this,” you know, and I feel like I can’t do it, I will say to them, “You know, this can’t happen because we don’t have the budget for it or this cannot happen because this is how it’s going to be viewed, and here are my reasons why.” And so we talked about it, and we work out a compromise where they can still get what they want, it’s just that going to be maybe at the time that they want it and how.
Jorge: That coordination with the team of volunteers, the chairs, and the other folks who are working on the conference… I would imagine that communication between the teams changes over time, right? Like I would expect that before the event, a lot of communication would happen over email, whereas during the event itself, folks must be communicating more in person. How do those communication needs change as time goes by before and during and after the conference?
Vanessa: Okay, before the conference, at six months before the conference, there is a monthly or bimonthly phone call. There’s a lot of Slack activity. We use Slack a lot. And the great thing about Slack is that we can speak to each other and it just can be for like a few minutes. It’s just like texting, but texting in a forum where others can see it. So it’s… There’s a lot of that. And at the event itself, we use Slack. Basically say, you know, there’s something going on that someone needs to know, we’ll send them a notification. They get it, you know just like that. So there’s a lot of that. We do a lot of phone calls. There’s a lot of room conversations that happens over the period with each team. So, you know, you meet with the user experience team, you meet with the sponsorship team, and we discuss what the chairs would like to see happen because it’s basically about the chairs of the conference.
Jorge: You also talked about the promotion of the conference. Is that something that is on the chairs and their team, or is this something that Kunverj helps them with as well?
Vanessa: It is the chairs in their team. I will go in Twitter, I go to LinkedIn, I go to Facebook, and if I don’t see a lot of activity I will say, “Well, you know, there should be more of this.” But they drive to conversation. I’m a passenger that’s aware of what’s going on. So if I see that they should be making a right turn at this point, you know, I’ll just interject that, you know, this should be happening at this time. But they’re basically driving the car. And I think that that’s very important because every year for all the conferences that I do, every year you get different chairs coming in and they have a right to bring their own slant on something. And so it’s very important that we don’t keep things at the same every year. You know, there are standard things that we do every year, but how we do it, it should be the chairs’ vision and how it should be done.
Jorge: In a conference like the IA Conference, or the Euro IA Conference — and I speak from experience here, having been to both of those — those are conferences that are long-running and have developed a set of traditions. And for the most part, the chairs are people who come from within the community that has already participated in previous events.
Jorge: But to your point, for many of them — perhaps for most of them — this will be the first time they’ve ever been responsible for organizing a conference. It sounds like Kunverj is also providing a structure for where you can tell them, “You know, by this time, you should be getting this many registrations.” Is that fair?
Vanessa: Oh, yes. And that that goes back to the system, the software that is designed for me. I will print out weekly registrations, and it will say, “This is where we were last year.” We can go back for at least from the beginning of any of the conferences. It’ll say, “This is where they were at this time, and this is where you are.”
So basically gives you an idea of whether doing better or whether you’re doing worse. So if you’re doing better, you know you continue to do what you’re doing. If you’re doing worse, then you will say, “Well, what can we do?” And this is probably where Kunverj comes in and says, “Okay, well, let’s let look at where we are, and let’s try to see why we are where we are. And what can we do to make these numbers go up. What can we do to promote this more?” And so we do have that conversation. It happens at a weekly basis probably, at that time. Because before that, we watch, and we put our promo codes or we do different mailings just to make sure that it happens.
But if none of that is working then we have to re-evaluate where we are and say, “Okay, let’s let’s do more of this. So let’s do less of this.”
Jorge: Are the mailings something that Kunverj takes care of, or is that something that the program chairs have to look for a system to send things out like emails?
Vanessa: Well, we use Mailchimp. You know, we have Kunverj’s account, and so it’s used for that. I said it depends, there are times when Kunverj has done it, and there are times when the chairs are done it. And so it depends on the chairs. It’s a very fluid thing.
And this is one thing with event planning: you run into a problem and you become very rigid. You have to work with personalities, and you have to understand that if you have someone who wants to do this, then you just basically guide them. And then you have people who are like, “Well, I don’t really care to do it.” And then you have to do it. So it just depends on the chairs and the different years, but you know, we have we have Zoom, we have Mailchimp. We provide it to the events and say, “Okay, you know, you can use this for your communications, or if you want us to do something, we will do it.” But it’s all driven by their need.
Jorge: I’m hearing you describe this and thinking how much of a people business this is and how much experience comes into play. Because what you’re talking about requires a lot of very subtle gauging of people’s abilities and capabilities and bandwidth and being able to be there to help the thing happen, but also picking up the pieces that they might not be ready to provide for.
Vanessa: Yeah. You know, most people don’t know their limitations, or sometimes they don’t know themselves. And so we have to gauge what’s going on and what’s you know what that person’s about and in a gentle way do certain things for them. You know, “Let me help you do this. This is what we should be doing right now, and it’s not happening. Do you need help, or should we do this?” And not necessarily make them feel like they’re not doing a good job. Because the one thing with work with volunteers is that when you volunteer for something, your schedule might be clear at that time, but life happens. And so, it’s just basically understanding that life happens. And so at this time, this chair might have a problem, and they’re responsible for social media. Are they responsible for the other communications? And if they’re having a problem… There’s no… You know, family comes before volunteering. Your job, your paying job comes before that. So you’re having a hard week. It’s just basically understanding that you can count on us to do this. I know that you signed up for it, but you can count on us to take care of this for you.
Jorge: This is so fascinating, what you’re describing here. This idea that you have to be able to gauge people’s ability to do the things that they need to do in order for the event to be successful, and to be able to fill in the gaps where they might not be able to perform to the level that is required of them. And what strikes me is that being able to gauge that sort of thing is something that for a lot of folks — myself included — takes time. Like, it takes time for me to know whether someone is able to come through with their commitments.
But when you’re working in an environment where you have a date that you have to meet for that conference, you’re working under time pressure. So you don’t have a lot of time to get a sense for people’s abilities and the degree to which they meet commitments. And I’m wondering if you’ve found and — I don’t know if to call it tricks or shortcuts — to finding out that aspect of people’s personalities, you know? Whether they can, whether they’re biting off too much or taking on more than they can chew at any moment?
Vanessa: Well, you know the good thing about the IA Conference and also the Euro IA Conference, I speak to the chairs at least a year before the event. So within the first two to three months, when the timelines and demands are not great, you get a feel for how people work. Because you know, you have small little deadlines, and so you get an idea of well, did they reach this deadline? And some people are very truthful, you know, some people know themselves, and they’ll say well this is my flaw, and this is something that I want to work on, that I want to get better.
The thing about being a chair for a meeting… And this is my feeling, I think that people, when they volunteer, they should leave with a skill they didn’t have before. They should be… If they’re not good with timelines, when they’re finished they should leave with that skill, you know. They should leave the conference with not just putting on a great conference, but they should have gained something from it. Personal achievement.
And so, when we speak the first three or four months before we really kick everything into gear, because nothing… You know, at the beginning all you’re working on is basically getting a theme and choosing your team, choosing different volunteers to work with you. And you get to observe that whole process. By three months you get an idea of, “Well, this person’s going to be the type of person who’s going to be on top of everything or this person is going to need a lot of help to do what they’re trying to do.” So, you know Jorge, it’s about relationships a lot. It’s a lot less about relationships where you learn a lot about personality types and understand if the main thing is everyone’s trying to do the best job that they can. And so as an organization Kunverj, we have to get the best we can out of them.
Jorge: I love this idea of, it’s not just that you’re going to be putting on a good show, it’s that you’re going to grow as a person because you’ve done it. And being on the lookout for that is really admirable.
You touched on the IA Conference, and I was hoping that we would speak a little bit about that event in particular. I consider to be my home conference in the sense that it’s one that I try to go to every year and where I have ongoing conversations, where I find the greatest alignment with my own professional interests. And I was hoping that you would tell us a little bit about the upcoming IA Conference.
Vanessa: Right. We are going to be in New Orleans, and we have three wonderful chairs that are working on this conference.
The IA Conference is… And I’m going to push a little bit about it because I think it’s a great event. But it’s not only an event. It’s like coming home. And I’m not an IA, and I’m an organizer. But I just… Sometimes I sit at the registration desk, and I watch their interactions between the attendees, and it’s always amazing to me, always amazing to me to see people who are considered like the rock stars of the IA community, and they are so approachable. That people have their first meeting, they can approach them, and everyone is always reaching out to each other and whether it’s exchanging ideas, you know, it’s just a great event in that way. You know, no one’s new. No one’s in there because if you are, you know, they’ll pull you in. I constantly hear this all the time:** “I found my tribe.”
So it’s a great event where you learn a lot, and you also get to meet great people. People that you might have read their books and you know, you can talk to them about it. Everyone’s always approachable. So it’s a fairly large event, but it’s still like a family then, because it’s coming home. And you probably have experienced Jorge, every time you’ve gone. You know, it’s like, “Oh, I haven’t seen this person in a year, but I can still talk to them like I’ve just talked to him yesterday.”
Jorge: Well, I for one, want to thank you in particular for enabling the infrastructure that allows this tribe to gather, and that allows this conference and this learning to happen.
Like I said, I see you there every year. Usually super busy, making sure that everything is running on time and that things are working well and that every need is provided for. And it’s an invaluable service, and I am very thankful that you do that and that you’ve been doing it year after year.
Vanessa: You know, Jorge the bottom line with all of this is that I have a great love for people. And so every time… It’s like having a dinner party, but it’s just bigger. What these people, you know, they’re coming to your home, and you want to make sure that they have… You know, that everything is just right for them.
And so with all of the conferences — and it’s not just the IA Conference — all the conferences, that’s the type of participation that I like to have, where I feel like this is my home, and I’m trying to prepare the best meal and the best experience for everyone coming into my home. And you know, with the IA Conference, the Euro IA Conference, and the RDAP conference that I do, these are all people that I’ve been working with for a long time. And so there’s a sense of family there. There’s a sense of… I’m not an IA, but I have learned so much from this community, the IA community, especially from the IA Conference. I see people that are so great, and they show so much empathy towards each other, and you know, the want to mentor and to help is always there. It’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding when you get to see the better side of human beings.
Jorge: Hear, hear. And folks can experience this at the IA conference. You mentioned it’s going to be in New Orleans, and it’s in the middle of April, right?
Vanessa: April 14th-18th. We have wonderful workshops, and it’s going to be at the New Orleans Sheraton, and it’s going to be an amazing conference.
Jorge: Do you have a sense for when registration opens?
Vanessa: Yeah, we’re hoping to have registration open at the end of November. Just so did we can make sure that everyone gets a chance to register this year or next year, depending on your company’s budget. But we will be opening right after Thanksgiving.
Jorge: Well, Vanessa, where can folks follow up with you if they want to find out more about what you’re doing?
Vanessa: Okay, I have my website at kunverj.com/events, and it will list all of my upcoming events.
Jorge: I look forward to seeing you in New Orleans in April. Thank you so much for being on the show, Vanessa.
Vanessa: Thank you, Jorge.