8 Lessons Learned from Producing an Event for 3k People

For the last 4 years I’ve been a part of the core team that puts on the World Domination Summit.

We work nearly year round to create an event that lasts just a couple days, but hopefully provides memories that will last a lot longer than that.

Through the course of being involved with WDS there are a lot of lessons I’ve learned about how to put on a giant event.

We routinely aare praised for our attention to detail, and I like to think it’s because we take a different approach to conferences than the average person.

In this post I want to share some stories about the event, and give you a little bit more insight into what goes into it, as well as give you something to think about if you ever decide to do an event of your own.

1) Attendee Experience, Attendee Experience, Attendee Experience

In many ways this is the only thing that matters. I still remember year one when we had just 450 people, and were fumbling our way through the entire event. Everything came back to this.

When deciding between two routes, the question was always asked “which one will provide the attendees with a better experience?”

That’s the one we chose, almost always with no regard to cost.

2) You’ve Gotta Spend Money

I know a lot of people who have done events on the cheap, and those can be great, but if you want to put on a world class experience, it’s important to understand that it is going to cost money!

We’ve stepped up from the art museum in 2011 to taking over the biggest independent theater in Portland for the last two years. Sure the theater is impressive, but you can’t just take a place like that and give the speaker a stool and a microphone. It’s the build out that requires the real significant investment.

Because of the loyalty of our attendees, we’ve had the ability to invest in things like stage design, epic parties, and cool experiences. It’s the moment we stop doing that, that we’ll be in real trouble.

WDS 2011:

WDS 2011

 

WDS 2014:

 

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3) Surprise and Delight

Most people are familiar with the same conference experience. You show up, get your badge, meet a few people, hear some people speak, take some notes, go to a closing event, and drive home.

One phrase we always throw around in our meetings is “surprise and delight”. How can we give people something they aren’t expecting, even if it’s really small?

Things like spending extra money to ensure it’s something people will actually use, having volunteers go around our registration line with sunscreen, or enlisting the help of the unipiper to cruise through the “Portland Experience” with his flaming bag pipes.

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It could also be big things like giving every attendee a $100 bill, like we did in 2012, or this year when Chris knew where every single person was in the audience and gave away a few special experiences to help attendees fulfill a lifelong dream of theirs.

These are all things people remember in one way or another, and this is the difference between an event that was alright, and one that you’ll come back to every year.

4) Your Volunteers are Everything

We have nearly 100 volunteers at WDS, and they are one of the absolute most important parts of the experience.  It takes a lot of organization to bring 3,000 people together, and the volunteers are the face of the conference.

We put them to work all weekend, so it can be long, grueling, and in the case of this year, hot. Each year we try and step it up in terms of making sure they are taking care of. Whether it’s providing them food, making sure they’re able to see at least a few of the things they really want to see, or simply saying thank you all the time, if you want to build a reputation for putting on a good show, you have to have good people associated with it.

Our Volunteers on Stage:

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5) There are Way More Rules and Procedures than You Think

Part of the balance of putting on an epic show, is also doing it in places that are cool and unique. Well often the cool and unique places have rules of their own, or hoops you have to jump through to even get the space.

This year I was in charge of the “Portland Experience” which was one of the bigger changes we made to our programming. We took over a 3 block section of the South Park Blocks in Portland, and created our own mini festival where attendees could meet each other and explore some of the cooler aspects of the city.

Do you have any idea how many hoops you have to jump through to do this? Aside from the cost, you have to work with the OLCC, Department of Transportation, Parks Department, Fire Marshall, Police, and all of the neighboring businesses in order to get the permits you need.

This took over a month. It’s the same deal when working with big vendors who have union labor – it’s unfortunately not as simple as just saying “cool, let’s do this!”

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6) Plan for Everything You Didn’t Plan

Two days before the Portland Experience, I was confident everything was buttoned up. We were ready to rock! All the vendors were in place, the permits were issued, and people were excited.

That’s when I realized that while I’d ordered trash cans, I didn’t have a receptacle to put the trash bags in.

After frantically calling 7 different businesses, who each told me they can’t deliver a dumpster on a weekend, the 9th one finally called me back less than 24 hours before the event, and said they’d be happy to help.

Every year we have things pop up last minute that we didn’t plan for. Make sure you have enough flexibility to address those things as they come up.

7) It’s Not About the Content, It’s About the People 

It’s extremely important that you have great content and polished speakers at your event – that’s what will get people to come in the first place. However in the end, it really isn’t about them.

It’s about all of the other people you meet. Sure a speaker might leave you inspired to take action of some sort, but it’s those people you meet that will actually help you implement it.

With every conference I go to, I meet 1 or 2 people who make the entire event worthwhile. Our three tenets are Community, Adventure, Service – and I truly believe community is the most important. Without that, you’ve got nothing.

8) It Will Be Stressful, But Totally Worth It

This year I had quite a bit more responsibility than in years past – and I was stressed. I can’t imagine what it’s like for Chris who has much more on his plate than me, but the bottom line is, if you care, you’ll be stressed out in the weeks leading up to the event.

However, each year once the weekend arrives, and I see so many friends old and new, I’m quickly reminded of why I do it in the first place. So many people attribute WDS to changing their trajectory in life. So many people are appreciative and thankful for what we do, and to hear that in person, and see the changes people are going through, truly makes the whole thing worth it in the end.

Now with that being said, you know what time it is?

Time to get back to working on my business! We have some BIG stuff coming up in the next couple weeks, and I couldn’t be more excited to share it with you soon.

To everyone who came out for WDS 2014, thank you so much for your continued support, and for making the Summit such a success. Can’t wait to see you in 2015.

Oh, and one last photo of me right before I had to rap on stage in front of 3,000 people. Yeah, that happened:

Sean Ogle WDS

Enzo July 20, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Interesting read sean. Can’t imagine what you went through. Especially speaking to 3000! People. I hope one day I can visit a summit and learn from you and other people!

Can’t wait to see what your plans are.

Cheers,

Enzo

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Chas July 20, 2014 at 7:17 pm

How, when and where may I obtain a ticket for 2015? Better, yet, how may I become a volunteer? Thanks.

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Dan July 20, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Great post Sean! Will be sharing with my team.

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Joel Runyon July 22, 2014 at 12:04 pm

WHERE IS THE RAP VIDEO?

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Scott Asai July 23, 2014 at 9:14 am

Really cool behind the scenes look at what it takes to put together a large event. Most people only see the finished product, but it takes much more prep than people see. Those are great things to look at and focus your efforts on.

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Helena July 30, 2014 at 5:42 am

This was my first time at WDS and I loved it so much! I was looking forward to it for a long time but I never thought the days in Portland would blow my mind away so much. I have met the most amazing people and learnt so much in just a few days whilst also having so much fun! It really was one of the best experiences of my life. And it was great meeting you too Sean! Thanks for all the hard work and for making it happen. I cannot wait to WDS2015!

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Sandi Wheaton July 30, 2014 at 6:53 pm

omg, you were one of the rappers! double bonus – great job on the entire weekend!

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Paul August 1, 2014 at 2:03 pm

This was also my first time at WDS, and I loved it so much that I got my ticket for next year while I was waiting at the airport to head home Monday night. It’s really a special experience!

I have to know, what was the trick with Chris knowing where everyone was seated? Did they know ahead of time that he’d call out their name, or did you have spotters in the crowd? That was some magic trick!

I even heard a few people mumbling that there must have been RFID tags in the name tags (which were awesome, btw)

Anyway, it was amazing, and if anyone has read this comment this far, go to WDS 2015. Just do it. Seriously, don’t even worry about the money – it will change your life, and there is no dollar amount you can put on that!

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Lee August 2, 2014 at 1:20 am

Great read Sean,

It is very useful to get a behind the scenes look at such a popular and inspirational event!

Best Regards,

Lee

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The Wallet Doctor August 2, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Its important to recognize the intimate connection with attendee experience and willingness to spend the money needed. You can however, get a ton done with volunteers. If you treat them well, they can be an awesome source of free labor, ideas, and inspiration.

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Sebastian Aiden Daniels August 8, 2014 at 8:58 pm

I know it would be crazy stressful, but I always imagined how cool it would be to organize a large conference. Maybe, I am glorifying it, but I think it would be amazing to feel that feeling of your hard work coming to fruition and also that people had a good experience.

I agree with number 1. Customer always comes first. Make sure they have an awesome experience. Everything else should follow that.

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Catherine Cavanaugh August 10, 2014 at 2:04 pm

I am SO not a planner, I am a hot mess most days, and all over the place. This post though, has made me think that maybe I need to rethink that and start working out of my comfort zone, and learn a few things that will help me be better organized, and more thoughtful of others! Thank you for helping us see the world a bit differently, it’s nice reading something unique for a change!

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