Most ASCE Student Chapters attend student conferences and participate in events like the Concrete Canoe Competition, Steel Bridge Competition, and various other locally developed design challenges. There are 18 different conferences across the United States and Student Chapters are required to host these events. Hosting a student conference is a lot of work and can be a daunting task. As someone who has been on the hosting committee of four different student conferences, I have summarized some unforeseen problems and offered suggestions to address these issues. These are especially helpful for students who have never planned a conference before.
1. The student chair should not be a manager for one of your competition teams
As soon as you know you’re hosting a student conference, you should identify a conference chair. This person should not, I repeat, should not be someone acting as a chair or project manager of any of your competition teams. We all know you’re a procrastinator. And realistically, the bulk of the work associated with hosting occurs the two weeks before the conference. Unless you don’t want to sleep for two weeks, I really don’t recommend this.
2. If your school or chapter is small, consider co-hosting
Now if you just don’t have enough resources to avoid #1, consider co-hosting the conference with another school. This should be discussed at the business meeting up to two years prior to the year you host. Also, identify another school that’s close enough to co-host ad ask if they would be on board. If you’re in a remote location, it is possible to co-host with another university remotely, but you must have constant interaction via phone calls, email, and file sharing applications.
3. While fundraising, develop a useful list of benefits for potential sponsors
Fundraising is one of the most difficult parts of hosting. No one really wants to ask people for money and it’s a little awkward when you get rejected. But realistically, the worst thing that can happen is that someone tells you no…which is entirely inconsequential. The keys to fundraising are (1) don’t stop asking, (2) follow up consistently, and (3) offer your sponsors benefits that provide value to them. I have included a link to the sponsor benefit summary we used when we hosted the National Concrete Cane Competition in 2012 and the Mid-Pacific Conference in 2016. One thing we didn’t think of in 2016 (until it was too late) is to offer a career fair. Companies could pay a set price ($500, $750, $1,000) to set up a table and recruit new hires for the summer!
4. Don’t be afraid to increase registration prices
No one wants to be that school to raise those appealing $50 registration prices. But the reality is that $50 per person doesn’t even come close to paying the expenses to host a person for three days. As a host, you need to provide each registrant with meals, registration materials (name badges, programs, etc), a shirt, and any other swag material. One strategy is to charge a separate fee for the banquet meal. As the most expensive meal of the competition, this is a reasonable ask. People may grumble about it, but trust me they will come.
5. Recruit some alumni to help with the organization
So technically, I think ASCE frowns upon this. But in reality, I think this the best option for hosting a successful conference. Students generally don’t have the time, knowledge, and resources available to put on a stellar conference. Picking the brains of alumni who have attended many conferences and even recruiting them to help with certain tasks can help you identify venues, new ideas, and potential risks. And trust me, they will have a ton of stories of “what not to do” as a host school.
6. Don’t start any event before 7:00 am. Just…don’t.
Though I think this is pretty self-explanatory, it deserves a mention. Because there’s always someone who thinks it’s best to get to the lake at 5:30 or 6:00 am. Depending on your proximity to the venue, this may mean the teams have to leave the hotel at 5:00 am. Let’s be real…these are college students. They don’t go to bed early. And every time I’ve had to arrive at 6:00 am, we sit around for at least two hours before anything happens. Instead, let everyone arrive a little later and be prepared to start once everyone arrives.
7. Make your venue reservations early
This is the first things that should happen in the planning process. It can be difficult to secure venues that can accommodate your needs, so set your schedule around what works for you. That may mean adjusting the dates of the conference or rearranging the competition schedule. If a venue can’t be reserved a year in advance, see if you can talk to a manager and find out what they can do. They’re usually pretty accommodating for events this size. If necessary, put a reminder in your phone to remind you the day you can submit your reservation request.
8. Check with your university to find out how contracts and payments work
This one hit us hard in 2016. Students moved forward with the planning process by signing contracts with the race facility, hotel, and steel bridge venue. This was not allowed per university policies. The purchasing department needed to review and sign all contracts in order to assume liability in case of an incident. If students sign these contracts then they could technically be left with a $20,000 hotel bill or held personally accountable if someone is injured at one of the facilities. Be sure to check with your department to find out who on the university campus should sign these documents.
9. Be organized with your volunteers
Your volunteers are the key to hosting a successful conference. They are spending their free time to help with the conference, so be sure you know exactly what you want them to do. No one wants to show up and stand around for an hour nor do they want to be thrown into a job they don’t understand. We developed a spreadsheet about three weeks before the competition that detailed how many students we needed, during what hours, where they would be located, and what job they would be doing. We also had people sign up using an online form that specified what hours they were available. Then we placed volunteers into the slots and made volunteers attend a mandatory meeting the week of the conference. At the meeting, we gave the students all of the details so they had an opportunity to ask questions prior to showing up to the competition.
10. If you are struggling, contact the Committee on Student Members
No matter what issue you are having, send an email to the Committee on Student Members (CSM) if you need help. They are an ASCE committee whose main function is to provide support to student groups. If they don’t know the answer, they can find it for you or at least make a recommendation. If all else fails, contact Beth Wiley, the Manager of Student and Younger Member Programs at ASCE.
Have other questions about my experiences? Leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them!