Behind the scenes at a Writers Conference

- by Vonna Harper

This year’s Willamette Writers Conference will be held in Portland Or. Aug 6-8.  It offers something different from most conferences–the opportunity for writers to rub shoulders with Hollywood film producers, managers, and agents. 

Yes, WW offers the usual fare for both published and unpublished writers.  The extra added attraction came about in part thanks to longtime president Cynthia Whitcomb, professional screenwriter.

I’ve attended twice & recommend WW or those interested in Hollywood, but that isn’t the only reason for this blog. Getting to the industry guest part, I’d like to introduce Bill Johnson, WW office manager.  Long in the trenches, he has agreed to blog about the conference’s evolution over the years.  

Bill. “I came on the scene in 1997 as office manager. Attendance was 350 paid attendees, 100 agents, editors, board members, speakers, and volunteers. I inherited a Mac with a 100 meg hard drive and a Mac data base program for registration; all registrations were mailed to the office. Consult schedules were created as docs. The conference had workshop tracks for fiction, non-fiction, children/young adult, genres, business of writing, and screenwriting. We invited 15 agents and editors and 5 film people.

 

The conference was run by a committee with a conference chair who was also hotel liaison, program chair (speakers), and an agent/editor chair. Cynthia Whitcomb invited five film people.

I had one volunteer to help me with registrations.

My first conference was a consult disaster. The data base I used didn’t have a save function, and because the hard drive was almost full, it wasn’t saving changes to the consult schedules. After a few years, we replaced the Mac and went to a PC system, using Access for a registration data base, but we still had a system where consults were set up in Access but were recreated on Excel spread sheets.

During these years, I would bring in a volunteer whose only function was to make sure the Access consult schedules matched the Excel spread sheets. No matter what I did, we had a 10% failure rate, with consults double-booked or booked on the wrong days. I couldn’t find a way to stop people from changing the Excel spread sheets but not the Access data base; or my just losing track when we’d lose up to five film people, agents, and editors the week of the conference. Some years I worked straight through Thursday night to try and make the consult schedules accurate.

During this time, I suggested inviting more film people, and I also took on the role of inviting agents and editors, so I was now part of the conference committee. Around this time we also added a PR position to the committee to provide copy for the brochure and program, a very time consuming job. Some agents and editors are adverse to providing head shots.

Around five years ago we contracted for an online registration system, combining registration and consult schedules, hoping to eliminate having two separate systems to track schedules. It worked great, until the Thursday night the conference started. Then the consult system failed. Completely. We had to rebuild the system from scratch from printouts before we could start doing consults.

Hellish chaos.

Next year, same online registration/consults system, but this time with safeguards to prevent a system crash.

Again the consult system failed completely on Thursday night.

We then contracted for someone to build an integrated on-line registration/consult/badge printing system. Printing (and reprinting) badges is a huge job. The new system came in weeks late and wasn’t what we expected.

So two years ago we hired a new contractor who built a custom system. It worked well, and reduced the problems with double bookings and consult schedules not matching registration badges. That system cost $10,000, but it was worth it. It was created by Brian Batson of Co-Creative Engineering.

My twelve to fifteen hour days at the office the week of the conference became eight hour days.

During these years, my position of handling registrations became part of the conference committee.

We also brought in someone to schedule consults and manage the consult area, since I couldn’t keep full control over the consult schedules and all the changes created by cancellations the week of the conference.

We also did a survey of our volunteers to find out what positions they wanted to work. Because we knew nothing about the skill sets of our volunteers, we’d send people over to the consult area to a Pit Boss, Herbert Piekow, who had the authority to send away volunteers who didn’t have computer/math/people skills to work in such an intense environment. As many as half the volunteers assigned to the area were sent away; a handful of generous volunteers ended up working all weekend.

In 2009 we created a position for one person to manage consult volunteers and someone else to manage room monitors and other positions. And the volunteer coordinators were changed to a non-board position, so they answered to the conference chair, unlike board members who could ignore requests from the chair.

I use up to ten volunteers in the office.

How did we grow from a membership of 650 and paid attendance of 350 in 1997 to 1,550 and 550 in 2009? Ninety per cent of our attendees come from the Willamette Valley and Clark County. Five per cent came from Northern California around to Boise and up through Seattle. The other five per cent come from the rest of the country. So expensive ads in national magazines really didn’t do much for us. I discovered a bulletin board ad in the Willamette Week (an alternative paper) got us more hits on our website that a $400 ad in the Oregonian. And I could do ten Willamette Week ads for the same price. So we found better ways to reach writers in Oregon.

Adding chapters in Eugene, Newport, Salem and Medford helped spread the word to new members, and since members are always the largest group of our attendees, more members meant more conference attendees.

Going from five film people to fifteen to take pitches brought in more screenwriters.

I also gave credit for our growth to our email lists. Before these lists, members outside of Portland got one newsletter a month. With the lists, members had a stronger connection to the group and an ability to get publishing announcements to other members, adding value to membership.

With the email lists, I could keep conference attendees fully informed about changes to program schedules, agent cancellations and additions, and information about where to park (a problem some years), eat, how consults would be managed, etc.

The growth of the conference has meant that some workshops overflow, and the children’s/YA track is squeezed into a small area. We’ve looked at other hotels, but no one really liked eating lunch in a huge tent in a parking lot on a hot summer day. Going to a hotel downtown would add significant expenses for AV equipment and would require more volunteers to get agents and editors and film people around. Also, with all our tracks, we have very specific space needs that the Sheraton (mostly) meets. Plus, after so many years, we have a great working relationship with the staff.

Some of my best conference memories? The year Angela Rinaldi got five of our members published. Being told by Blue Heron they would publish my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise. Having literary agent Deborah Herman tell me my spiritual eye was out of alignment while I was working in registration and her doing something that made it ‘click’ back into place.

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I have visions of helping create a conference that is a perfect experience for everyone. I just keep working at it.

Bill Johnson is author of a Story is a Promise and Deep Characterization, a writing workbook, and webmaster of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing!, at http://www.storyispromise.com The 2010 Willamette Writers conference is August 6-8th. For more information about the conference, visit http://www.willamettewriters.com/wwc/3/.

One comments

  1. I went to the 2002 conference, and it was one of my best writing experiences ever–great workshops and really generous people. If I were local, I’d go every year. Good luck with creating a perfect conference, though I think you’ve already done it :)