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What I’ve Learned from Planning the Healthy Living Summit

by Meghann on August 22, 2011

In February 2009 I was cc-ed on an email chain that would change my life.

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That e-mail led to this e-mail…

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and, as they say, the rest is history.

Tina, Caitlin, Kath, Heather, Jenna, and I had no idea what we were doing that first year. We pulled together all of our event planning knowledge and calculated a rough estimate of what we thought an event like this would cost. We threw some figures on paper and began approaching sponsors we thought would be interested.

We found one. A great one. Stonyfield.

I had very limited experience working with Stonyfield before planning the first Healthy Living Summit, but knew I loved their yogurt. Sarah – and the rest of the Stonyfield team – were amazing. They took our humble idea of wanting to plan a conference and ran with it. There were countless e-mails, conference calls, and just words of encouragement as they personally helped us shape the first conference.

At Stonyfield’s request we selected Boston as our first location and announced tickets sales just a month and a half before the big day. For just $30, 100 attendees could attend the Friday night cocktail party and Saturday conference. We planned a few extra events for those unable to get tickets and left everything pretty open.

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Registration opened on June 25, 2009 at 8:00pm. At 8:05pm all 6 of us jumped on the phone to discuss what was happening. Turns out tickets for the first annual Healthy Living Summit were a little more popular than we originally assumed. Due to heavy traffic, our PayPal link crashed minutes after registration opened. People trying to register were confused and started sending money directly to all of our personal PayPal accounts. Tickets were selling like hot cakes and we could not keep up.

Not even 20 minutes after 8:00pm I had to shut the registration page down. Registration was closed. We had sold out. Insanity.

I think that’s when we knew this was going to be something big. :)

Tina worked on finding the hotel and cocktail party location, Kath worked with catering and money, Caitlin coordinated the sponsors, Heather was our swag bag queen, Jenna ran the website, and I was in charge of registration. We all had our roles and over the course of three months we all must have cced each other on hundreds of e-mails regarding the big event. A strong bond of friendship formed and – to this day – I am thankful to have everyone of these girls in my life.

By the time August came I almost cried tears of joy, finally meeting most of them for the very first time.

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The first summit was a whirlwind of activities and making new friends. It was a weekend I will always treasure with friends I still follow on twitter and Facebook to this day.

Boston – August 2009 – Healthy Living Summit

We learned a lot from Boston. A LOT. Anyone who attended the first summit knew we had a lot of room to grow. We were kids planning a big party and all we wanted was to have fun too!

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The post-conference surveys went out and came back. I’m not going to lie, it was my first time dealing with any sort of post-event survey for something that I had poured my heart and soul in and it was a lot to take at once. Luckily, the 6 of us had each other and we were all there to support one another as we combed through the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a very eye-opening experience on what to improve on if we ever decided to do this again.

At that point we took a break. The fall came and went and we sort of pushed a 2010 Healthy Living Summit to the back of our minds.

Funny enough, it was a similar email (to our original one) that got the ball rolling again for 2010. By the time January came around we were back to full planning mode. This time we knew what had to be done and knew what we could do to make it better. We wanted more sponsors, more events, and more of a reason for people to come.

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Caitlin was our ringleader in 2010. She took charge getting everything organized and passed off what ever needed to be done to all of us. Unfortunately we lost a founding member at the beginning. Jenna was going through several life changes at once and needed to back down from her position on the planning committee. We wished her well as our group of 6 quickly became 5.

We also relied on the help from others for the first time in 2010. Sabrina came through as our swag bag goddess and Jenn was our eyes and ears for scouting Chicago locations when we couldn’t be there. The two of them saved our butts multiple times!

Again, we put our heart and soul into planning the summit and made some great changes based off of the survey results from the year prior.

  • We upped the headcount form 100 to 200 bloggers/ readers and charged $75 per ticket.
  • We switched to Eventbrite for registration (still sold out in an hour, but at least it was controlled chaos :) )
  • The Friday night cocktail hour was moved to a larger space. Free drinks were distributed and and a photobooth was added.
  • We dismissed the one room format and opted for multiple sessions and multiple speakers.
  • The conference became less about the founding members and more about the community we were a part of.
  • Sunday brunch was officially sponsored and other sponsored activities for Friday and Saturday evening were added.
  • Thanks to Kath, our food was taken up a notch.

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Our budget for the event quadrupled. It was insane to think of the pennies we were able to pull together the first summit for, compared to the mass amount of money we were pouring into the second. If you have a successful first event, companies tend to be more interested in the second.

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If you ask me, the Chicago Healthy Living Summit blew the first one out of the water. The event had grown so much in a year, I was excited to not only attend in 2010, but to say that I was a part of what made it what it was!

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Chicago – August 2010 – Healthy Living Summit

I left the conference on a blog love high. The theme of the conference seemed to be ‘one big happy blog family’ and I couldn’t stop grinning ear-to-ear about it. :)

Then Marie Claire happened.

We had agreed to let the freelance writer attend Healthy Living Summit because we had a feeling she might be writing some negative things about us and we thought letting her experience how great of an event it was, she might spin the other way. Obviously we were young and naive on that one.

When the article came out we were all so numbed with shock, we weren’t sure what to do. Anyone who had attended the event knew all of the things she had written were wrong or twisted views of what had happened through the weekend. Our sponsors were just as shock as we were. A few of them had immediately emailed us letting us know they too were hurt by her words and that they had our backs. They were taking our side – not Marie Claire’s.

Luckily, the article didn’t stop us from setting our goals on planning the next Healthy Living Summit in 2011.

By then the event had grown larger than any of us could have imagined. The Chicago Summit was stressful, to say the least. From stuffing over 200 bags to dealing with catering emergencies to budget emergencies to losing name badges to unexpected shipping charges to hotel strikes and to just about anything in between – we were all high on stress out mode the entire time. We knew planning the 2011 event would be hard. Very hard.

The only way it seemed a 2011 event was going to happen, was going to be if we found someone else to take it over. The five of us spoke to a couple of girls we trusted to see if they would be willing to take on the responsibility, but it didn’t work out. It was around the same time as we were having these discussions, that I was thinking about leaving my job in Orlando to move to Tampa and pursue blogging full time. I didn’t want HLS (something we had all worked so hard on!) to just die out, so I decided to take on the responsibility of planning the 2011 Healthy Living Summit solo.

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At the time it seemed easy enough. I had been a part of planning the two previous years and sort of knew what had to be done. I would start going full force in January and doing everything that needed to be done. No worries. Piece of cake.

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Boy, I didn’t know how wrong I was!

I knew what I wanted for all of the easy stuff (location, agenda, shirts, bags, registration, actual event coordination, etc), but the hard stuff (SPONSORS!) was really hard. Let me tell you, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE every sponsor we’ve ever had for Healthy Living Summit, but the majority of them move as slow as molasses. It took MONTHS to finally get enough movement going to start making real announcements.

Finally, in April, I decided enough was enough – I was going to move forward with logistic planning and hoped the sponsors would follow. Luckily, they did. :)

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From April to August I worked like a mad woman on any possible HLS related detail I could think of. I made a BIG mistake at first by pushing away a lot of volunteered help (I didn’t feel like putting anyone out of their way), but eventually broke down and actively sought it. I pulled together a separate planning committee for the Friday night cocktail party, I did an open call for speakers, I place someone else in charge of the swag bags, I asked a friend to help design an updated logo, and I opened registration with every finger and toe crossed.

I was afraid people would have forgotten about us. I feared if they had attended last year, they wouldn’t want to return. I knew we couldn’t live up to the incredible sell out streak we had been so lucky to have.

I knew nothing.

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In less than 12 hours all 200 tickets were sold. I had just enough time to breathe a sigh of relief, before diving back into work.

Planning the event solo was a lot different than planning it with a group. With a group I felt we all had each other’s backs and an equal piece of the pie in case something went wrong. Solo, I felt the pressure was all on me. It was scary and led to a lot of freak outs on my part.

As is true with any event, too many things were left until the last minute. I had only signed the final contract for Reading Terminal Market a couple of weeks prior. Allison was a complete rockstar and took over almost every aspect of the cocktail party planning. I had originally envisioned some sort of ‘Philly Taste’ for attendees to explore, but eventually we decided a Philly themed party would be easier to plan. Allison secured the Reading Terminal Market and made history as the BEST volunteer ever.

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Julie came through as the lead swag bag master. She kept track of everything meant for the bags and giveaways. Without her my head probably would have busted from all the extra work.

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My family. Oh, lord, my family.

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I told them I was going to put them to work, but they probably didn’t know what was coming. They never left my side the entire weekend and I will never forget them for that. They flew in Thursday and were there for all of the bag stuffing, bag moving, registrations, and mini-freak out sessions over budget, hotel, and help. I could NOT have done this without them. They were my rocks the entire weekend. Seriously.

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Things did go wrong (missing velcro twitter handles, late checks, handheld mikes instead of tabletops, etc), but I doubt anyone really noticed. ;) In the end all of the sponsors were FANTASTIC to work with! Major shout out to Quaker for coming through as our wonderful gold sponsor. :)

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This year’s conference was less about me having fun and more about making sure everyone else is having fun. I missed out on networking as much as I wanted or going to as many extra-curricular activities as I was hoping to, BUT all I have to do is read all the recaps from everyone else’s posts and know it was all worth it. I was the girl behind the scenes this year and I’m ok with that. :)

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Philadelphia – August 2011 – Healthy Living Summit

What’s in store for 2012?! I have no idea! But, I do know one thing – there WILL be one. Even if I have to plan it all by myself again. ;)

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