It was an interesting experience working as an event volunteer last weekend at the International Food Blogger Conference. I stuffed swag bags, alphabetized name badges, registered attendees, prepared platters of food, broke down literally hundreds of cardboard boxes and hauled trash. I even had a flashback to my college days as a barista when I spent two hours doing nothing other than brewing coffee.
The biggest perk of this job was that I got to eat some amazing food: lamp chops with a wasabi crust, mini beef bahn mi sandwiches by Lisa Dupar, steak tartare personally prepared and served by Daisley Gordon of Campagne, geoduck ceviche and all the Theo Chocolate I wanted.
It was fun to see the real faces behind food blogs and Twitter profiles; I always get a kick of seeing the Internet in person. For the most part, people were very positive and into building community. There was cattiness and bitchery that you can expect from any roomful of creative types, but I was shocked that people who regularly blog and tweet–some for a living–were openly making snide remarks about other food bloggers in public spaces. When anything can be posted to the Internet, you really should choose your words carefully.
I’m no stranger to working at large events. Throughout my 12 years in marketing and communications, I’ve organized and staffed scores of them. Planning and running a large event is both a science and an art, and it definitely is not easy. Hats off to Andrea Mitchell and Anneka Gerhardt and the rest of the Foodista crew and Allan Wright and Reno Walsh of Zephyr Adventures took on the huge task of organizing the IFBC.
That being said, they were in over their heads.
The second annual IFBC doubled in size, and the event organizers seemed completely overwhelmed by this fact. There were not enough volunteers and staff to properly work the event. The conference has largely garnered positive reviews, but some people took note of some noticeable flaws.
Jennifer Fisher of FoodBat wrote, “I’m a little disappointed and slightly worried, actually, by the fact that every recap I’ve seen of IFBC talks like it shat rainbows…The truth was, there was a lot of very poor execution on the part of the organizers in the conference, and it seemed like they were unprepared to handle 250 people at pretty much every event.”
Here are some suggestions for the organizers of next year’s conference:
1. Recruit volunteers early and often.
A good rule of thumb is to start recruiting volunteers for an event at least a month in advance. In addition to a general call for volunteers, I recommend advertising the volunteer opportunity to local culinary students. You can also reach out to RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program) if you need volunteers for daytime shifts.
2. Set up a mobile office at the event site.
We were constantly scrambling to find basic office supplies, and I had to make several very ugly handwritten signs. At one point, I had to resort to using the back of a paper plate. Have a printer on site and keep an event kit on hand with pens, markers, paper, tape, scissors and other supplies.
3. Put more people at the registration table.
I worked at the registration table on Friday. There was a team of four of us checking in 250 people. That’s not a ratio for success. We probably needed more like eight to 10 people. One of the people working registration was Colin Saunders, a founder of Foodista and the company’s CTO. While it was completely great that Colin pitched in to help, I’m sure there were more important things Colin could have been doing than tracking down people’s name badges.
4. Never underestimate the amount of coffee people drink.
An hour after the conference started on Saturday, we ran out of coffee (even though the Caffe Vita rep told me he had provided us with enough coffee for the entire day). I should have asked the event leads to call Caffe Vita right away and ask to deliver more coffee. But they were frantic about running out of coffee so instead a very helpful employee from Theo Chocolate (the site of the conference) named Lou and I spent two hours brewing coffee using the tiny brewer in Theo’s employee break room. Lou would brew the coffee and than I would have to carry it outside, walk around the side of the building and then bring it in through the back entrance. Definitely not fun, efficient or effective.
5. When in doubt, hire a caterer.
Volunteers are great, and they can do a lot, but for some things, it’s worth paying for professional help. People are paying good money and then expect a quality experience, especially when it come to the serving and presentation of food and beverages.
EXTRA CREDIT: I know people love free stuff, but are the bloated swag bags really necessary? Wouldn’t it be better to get five quality items instead of 50 useless ones? The amount of time, labor and resources that go into putting together these bags is a little obscene and not at all green or sustainable.
On Friday, I set up a box for people to donate items from their swag bags to charity. Thanks to everyone who made a contribution! The items will go to Pike Market Child Care, where they will be used to help kids learn how to cook.