The NJLA Conference takes the most tremendous kind of event planning . . .
Combining professional development mixed with social interactions, formal and informal networking, food, overnight accommodations, geography and travel considerations, logistics and scheduling and space! And not to mention, just like with wedding and other party planning, always keeping in mind the infinite and wide range of needs, preferences and expectations of all of your guests, speakers and organizers. Add to the pressure that the annual conference is one of only two primary ways that NJLA makes any money with which to operate (the other is individual and institutional membership dues). It certainly takes a team effort to put together a large-scale three-day, statewide event, and we’re pretty lucky to have some of the best team players around.
All of that being said, every year there are a lot of questions about why we do what we do to organize and plan for our annual conference. In light of thinking and moving beyond the box, we want to make sure the process as transparent as possible and answer some of those questions from our membership.
How Do We Do It?
Most conferences start years before the event date. NJLA leadership -- typically Pat Tumulty, the current and/or incoming NJLA President, and one or more chairs of the Conference Committee, working directly with a professional conference contract negotiator -- starts planning for the annual conference with a thorough review of venue options in and around New Jersey. As you may have heard, our venue options are limited! The ideal venue is one that:
Is located in NJ (In the past, we’ve even held a conference in the Poconos!)
Can offer dates that do not conflict with other professional events (like ALA, PLA, especially during a year when they are local to NJ) or with religious or federal holidays
Has substantial enough parking to accommodate attendees, vendors, and guest speakers
Has reasonable options for overnight accommodations, preferably on-site (that meet expectations in terms of quality, quantity, and finances for our members)
Has space that allows for an exhibit hall with 80-100 vendors, luncheons, keynotes that draw larger audiences, the NJLA Store, and at least 8 smaller breakout program rooms -- simultaneously
Has space that allows us to comfortably accommodate attendees at all of the above events, and a layout minimizing the proximity of attendees to vendors and both to event spaces
Meets an affordable price tag for our non-profit association
In the most recent past, the last 10-15 years or so, many NJLA members and conference go-ers experienced some really great events at Ocean Place Resort & Spa in Long Branch. Unfortunately, as we realized that we were outgrowing the exhibit space, program rooms and parking lot, we also recognized that space and room rates were much higher than many other venues across the state. Our conference negotiator conducts research each year about potential venues, and currently there are only a couple left that meet our requirements: all located in Atlantic City, NJ.
In addition to those requests that NJLA has when selecting a conference venue, the venues themselves have requirements for those groups that they allow to use their space. One of the most important things for many venues is something over which NJLA has very little control: we just don’t book enough overnight stays. Most venues make their money not from the price we pay for the space, but for those rooms that get booked and other money spent inside the venue (like food). If we don’t secure enough rooms, by hotel standards, they simply do not approve our request to have them host our event. In addition, those that are willing to host NJLA, like Ocean Place, require that a certain number of overnight stays get reserved or our organization has to pay the difference for unused rooms (this is called attrition). Year after year, we often just don’t book enough hotel rooms to be cost-effective -- for us, or for them.
While planning for the 2016 NJLA Conference, there was one venue that was eager enough for business that they were willing to offer some pretty great concessions. Other venues that may have fit the financial bill rejected our proposal (because of projected low quantity of room reservations). Those one or two willing to host our event were proposing a steep price, or few-to-no additional concessions.
Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City was in the midst of constructing a brand new Conference Center, planning to open a few months before our preferred conference dates, and at that time were looking to book, well, anyone. We were offered a number of various discounts (many of which could be passed onto individual members) AND no attrition for the hotel! And just as good, the space that the new Waterfront Conference Center could offer was hard to beat. With over 50,000 in square footage that was completely customizable, the NJLA Conference was ensured plenty of centralized vendor space, room for sponsors to be visually highlighted, bigger breakout rooms for sessions, luncheon and keynote space, and plenty of room for both formal and informal networking and social engagement. The venue boasts a variety of food options (for food style and price point), newly renovated hotel rooms, plenty of parking -- and an indoor, temperature-controlled pool! Plus, this space provides room to grow our event, allowing us to finally be able to potentially consider collaborations with like-minded organizations. (Professional development and collaboration are both major features of NJLA’s current strategic plan.)
Full Steam Ahead!
Most conferences aren’t perfect. We aim to provide the best possible experience to all of our conference attendees, and sometimes we fall short. However, despite a few flaws at our first year at a new venue in 2016, we learned some valuable things about our members and our ideal space, and we look to build on our success for years to come, no matter what part of the state in which we end up! The 2016 Annual Conference was one of the best financially for our association, particularly since AV costs were down significantly from previous years. Currently, in late 2016 as I write this blog post, we are in the midst of reviewing and approving locations, dates, concessions, and contract terms for 2018, 2019, and 2020, and the NJLA Executive Board has already approved the Conference Committee negotiating a new three-year contract with Harrah's Resort.
The bottom line is that what Harrah’s is able and willing to offer checked off just about everything on NJLA’s list for an ideal conference venue. NJLA truly believes that the opportunities presented at the Waterfront Conference Center contribute to an enjoyable, memorable, and overall high quality conference experience. NJLA will continue to survey potential venues throughout the state, so that we always know that we are getting the best bang for our buck, and the best resources available to accommodate our greatest professional development experience. Now that Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center is seeing great success nationally, they are certainly not begging for business. However, NJLA and librarians pride themselves on good customer relations, and we are excited to continue to work with all NJLA leadership, program planners, and members, as well as to build a relationship with Harrah’s, in order to offer a valuable statewide conference each year.
The best (not to mention, the most fun) way to be aware of or enhance your understanding all of the in’s and out’s of NJLA, especially Conference, is to be an active member of our association through committee work and/or leadership positions. Also, ask questions! The Conference Committee does work hard to share as much information as possible, but we sometimes get so wrapped up in the details that you absolutely *must know* that we forget to share all the backstories. Help us out by sharing any concerns, asking questions, or seeking clarification by communicating with us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The NJLA Office can also answer many questions that you may have. We know we can count on your support, dedication, creativity and hard work to make each year’s conference even better than the next! Thank you for putting your trust in us to lead the way.
Kate Jaggers and the 2016-17 NJLA Conference Committee