10 Foolproof Tips to Launch a Regional Writing Conference

No writers conferences in your area? No worries. Follow these 10 foolproof tips to launch your own regional writing conference.
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Writing conferences can be a great way for beginning wordsmiths to learn the ropes and for established writers to further their careers. Large national conferences tend to get the most buzz, but smaller regional conferences can also have much to offer. In fact, maybe your writing group should host one.

Mine does, and it’s proven to be an amazing endeavor.

In 2003, Triangle Area Freelancers (triangleareafreelancers.org) was formed in Raleigh, N.C. Today, it has more than 60 active members. Early on we talked about hosting a one-day symposium for nonfiction freelancers, and in 2008 we made that dream a reality. Write Now! has been an annual spring event ever since.

Why host your own writing conference? The most obvious reason is a dearth of literary events in your area. TAF started Write Now! to meet the underserved needs of North Carolina’s nonfiction writing community. We saw a group eager for information and networking, and decided to reach out.

Hosting a writing conference of any size is hard work, but the benefits can be tremendous: greater regional awareness of your organization, the opportunity to learn from industry professionals and the satisfaction that comes from helping other writers.

If you think it’s time for your organization to take the next big step, consider these 10 tips:

1. Establish a dedicated steering committee. Give yourselves at least six to eight months from first discussion to the day of the event. In fact, the more time, the better. Plan, plan, plan.

2. Make sure you have sufficient seed money. Depending on the size and scope of your event, I’d suggest having $500–1,000 in the bank to start. To get an accurate figure, tabulate your anticipated pre-conference expenses, and then add 15 to 20 percent for the unexpected.

TAF raised seed money for its first conference by charging its members annual dues. Additional funding sources include possible sponsorships, regional arts grants and philanthropic benefactors.

3. Select an appropriate venue. TAF’s conferences have been held in association with Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, which offers a convenient central location, ample parking and a relationship that provides statewide credibility. Other options include hotel meeting rooms, local conference centers and regional libraries.

4. Promote! Promote! Promote! Because TAF doesn’t have deep pockets, we concentrate on free promotion. We blanket the region with brochures, use social media and place announcements in community calendars.

Opportunities for inexpensive conference promotion abound. The North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference (ncrwc.org) in Crescent City, Calif., draws attendees with a comprehensive website, promotional mailings and a listing with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Writers’ Conferences & Centers directory, among other efforts, says Ken Letko, a member of the event’s steering committee.

Meanwhile, the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference (hollins.edu/roanokewriters) in Roanoke, Va., has had success tapping traditional media and social media, especially the blogosphere, reports founder Dan Smith.

5. Get the strongest presenters you can afford. For Write Now! 2011, TAF brought in veteran New York literary agent Rita Rosenkranz, who presented a session on the author-agent relationship and hosted a workshop on writing an irresistible nonfiction book proposal. She was a huge draw who helped us sell out for the first time, and was worth every penny we paid for her appearance.

Presenters’ fees can vary widely, with the bigger names charging more. We learned this the hard way when we approached a nationally known, locally based writer to be our keynote, only to be told that she charged $2,000 for a speaking gig and wasn’t willing to negotiate.

Fortunately, many presenters are more than happy to work within your budget, so don’t hesitate to ask. But expect to pay at least several hundred dollars, plus hotel and airfare.

6. Give attendees a choice. TAF has found that two concurrent tracks of programming—one aimed at novice writers, the other at experienced professionals—provide a satisfying mix. Tracks can also be divided into fiction and nonfiction, craft and business, or by genres. TAF provides handouts for every session so attendees have something to take home from presentations they can’t attend.

7. Make your conference affordable. TAF set the fee for Write Now! at $59, with a $10 discount for seniors and students. The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference charges $55 for 24 classes over two days.

8. Don’t forget the amenities. TAF’s registration fee includes a continental breakfast, box lunch and beverages. Registration for the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference includes a wine reception and lunch. At the very least, your conference should provide coffee and bottled water.

“Big box” discount stores such as Costco, BJ’s and Sam’s Club may be your best bet for affordable food. As for equipment, it’s often cheaper to purchase certain items outright to save the annual cost of renting them.

9. Enlist plenty of volunteers. They’re the lifeblood of a successful conference because they ensure that everything runs smoothly. You may choose to recruit volunteers from your writing group, or solicit them through an online posting.

Assign volunteers specific tasks, such as manning the registration desk, making coffee or introducing presenters. And try to reward them in some way. Volunteers for Write Now!—all of whom are TAF members—receive free conference admission and are encouraged to attend sessions between duties.

10. Provide an evaluation form and act on the feedback you receive. The form doesn’t need to be lengthy, but it should ask attendees how they learned about the conference, which sessions they liked the most and the least, and what topics they’d like to see at future conferences.

To that end, Letko advises first-time conference organizers: “Make sure everyone leaves the conference with new ideas, new connections and new excitement about writing.”

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