IFBC Confidential: Behind the scenes at the International Food Blogger Conference

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.

I also got to see and hear from Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me,” fame, “Saveur” magazine editor-in-chief James Oseland and other famous food folk.

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.


Filed under Events

24 responses to “IFBC Confidential: Behind the scenes at the International Food Blogger Conference

  1. Definitely great to read your side of the story. Thanks for working so hard throughout the weekend. Maybe I’m one of those annoying people wearing pink glasses but apart from one slight disappointement when I once wanted to fill my coffee cup and the distributors were empty (I probably had enough caffeine in my veins already), the weekend was all fun for me. I did notice the volunteers working their butts off and I hope Foodista will read your great suggestions to improve next year’s edition of IFBC.

  2. Wow, I think these are right-on and would be great improvements for next year. Wish I would have met you in person! πŸ™‚

    • mrsmoy

      Adrienne: You probably saw me running past you in a hairnet many times at IFBC. πŸ™‚ Since we’re both in the Puget Sound area, I’m sure our paths will cross again.

  3. Thank you. Very, very well written. Nice perspective coming from a volunteer as well!

  4. Great suggestions… I have a few more, which I’ll post on my blog this weekend πŸ™‚ Thanks for volunteering at the event!

  5. I must have missed the snide remarks aimed at other bloggers, but I did let a few fly about being starved. I agree with all your suggestions and comments and felt there was a point where things really fell apart on Saturday afternoon. While all your points would make it a stronger event, I felt that all involved were always cheerfully trying to pull off a great event and with the tweaks you suggest, it will be much more successful. When it worked, it really worked and there were such wonderful speakers and bloggers present. I’d say “A” for effort and vision and C- or a B+ for execution. It really did boil down to not being able to handle that many people. Absolutely agree on the goodie bag and wished I had seen your charity box.

  6. 1. Thank you very much for volunteering. 2. And thanks for this accurate and insightful post. 3. Not only did the beverage situation come up short (not everyone drinks alcohol), the Sat. lunch and dinners were rather scant. Lastly, 4. do note that the price of the conference was rediculously low compared to other professional gatherings and the quality of the presenters, so all said and done, I’m extremely glad I went and most appreciative of all the effort that went into it.

    • mrsmoy

      Sean, it is amazing that Foodista and Zephyr were able to pull off such a good event despite a desperate lack of staff and resources.

  7. Eric

    I offered to volunteer when my wife bought her ticket and never heard anything back from IFBC.

    • mrsmoy

      When I e-mailed Foodista offering to volunteer, I got one e-mail from someone saying, “Great, we’ll sign you up!” And then minutes later, I got another e-mail from another Foodista staffer saying they didn’t need any more people. Foodista is a small organization and they probably don’t have a lot of experience in volunteer management.

  8. kelly

    Excellent post.

    I attended the conference and was aghast when the coffee ran out! Hey, it’s 7:45 in the morning after 250 people partied most of the night!

    Yes, please do hire a caterer. Now that I know that food was put together by volunteers, I wonder if they all had their legally required food handler’s permits. ????

    As for those swag bags – obscene and useless. Before the conference a friend told me they’d be full of junk and I said “No, last years bag was supposedly wonderful”. I’ve been through my bag, and frankly, most of it is going to charity. Or my hated sister-in-law. Next year, if there is a swag bag, please make it just a few really good items. I don’t need a silicone strawberry huller, or a weak smiley-faced spatula, or medical-looking decorating tool.

  9. Thank you for your candid assessment of the event.
    From the lack of black tea (and half and half) at breakfast to the utter lack of protein that made the morning session break into a twit fest of where is lunch? the conference was just overwhelmed.

    I loved the event overall but your are so right that they needed a good caterer. How did they expect us to balance 5 different plates and a wine glass to carry in from the parking lot?

    My biggest concern was of there being any kind of fire or catastrophe.
    My brother teaches fire science, impressing upon me that fires can happen anywhere. And the first thing I do when I enter a room is figure out the ways out. So I am well prepared but not frightened.

    The spider web of extension cords, the crammed together tables made me a bit scared. How they got that many people allowed in that venue makes me think the fire marshal hadn’t been by in a while. Was I the only one who noticed that the extension cord across the doorway to the portapotties was getting cut by each door swing?

    Perhaps next year the event can be held in just one location, whatever hotel is the main place. It would have been lovely to be able to escape occasionally to quiet.

  10. Ha! Thanks so much for quoting me. Your post was way more positive and productive than my random bitching πŸ™‚

    IFBC is only in its second year and I hope that this was a learning process for Foodista and Zephyr.

    And yes, I didn’t want to sound ungrateful for all that free stuff, but I am VERY anti one-use tools and cheap plastic things, and the swag bag had both. After hearing of Shun knives and Kyocera ceramic mandolines, I was disappointed. I think that at this point it is safe to say that most food bloggers already own 99% of all useless kitchen items they are ever going to need. Want a cool swag item? Give me 1 year of Saveur.

    • mrsmoy

      I was laughing so hard when I read the phrase “shat rainbows.” It was definitely quote-worthy.

      Foodista and Zephyr aren’t event planners. A professional needs to be hired for next year’s conference.

      Subscription to Saveur–what a great idea for a swag bag! I would also assume that most food bloggers have tons of gadget and in general, who needs more random stuff? But a lot of people were just dying to get their freebies.

  11. I wish I had known that you were taking items for charity. I had to leave several things behind in my hotel room because they didn’t fit in my luggage. I definitely agree–10 quality items (like Theo Chocolate bars!) over 50 plastic ones.

    • mrsmoy

      All conferences that have huge swag bags should have an option to donate items back to charity. But only if the stuff is good. Because nonprofits don’t want junk either. πŸ™‚

  12. Also the registration was a little difficult to find on Saturday morning due to it being hidden behind a line of people waiting to get to the food.

    I only attended for one day and didn’t get the swag bag but my preference would be to get a couple high quality items rather than a bunch of low quality ones.

  13. Hi all,

    I’d like to respond as the owner of Zephyr Adventures, co-organizer of this year’s conference. I think many of the statements above are accurate. However, it is important to point out a couple of things. First and foremost, the reason so many people were glowing about the conference is that from most participants’ perspectives, it was a very positive experience. While we the staff and the so-necessary volunteers did work our butts off, that just made for a great experience for attendees.

    Second, the major reason for the difficulties was not that we were in over our heads with 265 attendees. Zephyr Adventures just ran a Wine Bloggers Conference, in Walla Walla no less, with 305 people. No difficulties. The bigger reason for this year’s trials (for staff and volunteers) was that Foodista and Zephyr were working together for the first time. Foodista is a food company, Zephyr is an events company, and the 2011 conference will reflect that each of us will be focusing on what we do best. We frankly didn’t know each other well enough this time around to make that division of labor work.

    Allan Wright
    Zephyr Adventures

    • mrsmoy

      Allan: I agree that the majority of participants had a positive experience. But I wasn’t writing from a participant’s perspective–I was writing from the perspective of someone working the event.

      I think you were fortunate that the content of the conference was so good that people could overlook logistical issues. You and Reno are very capable people. (Reno’s got so much energy he could probably make an event happen all on his own.) But you’re not professional event planners. I even asked you if Zephyr is an events company, and you said no!

      Coordinating with another company always makes things difficult. Who knows–maybe if you produced the conference without Foodista’s involvement, it would have gone off without a hitch. But that wasn’t the situation this year, so that’s not the situation I described.

      • We at Zephyr Adventures have been running tours for 13 years – events by any other name. We have been running large events for three years now. We are completely capable of running a food bloggers conference on our own but have no plans to do so. Foodista is a great partner who provides incredible benefits on the food and content side. That is why the partnership will work once we get our roles assigned.

        I realize you were writing as a volunteer. But since you wrote this on the web, I thought it was worth reiterating that the overall feedback has been excellent.

  14. As one of 300+ in attendance at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference (WBC) I can attest to Zephyr Adventures’ ability as effective event planners. In fact, some of my best memories are from WBC. They had us going on field trips all over Walla Walla, visiting vineyards and meeting winemakers. That required much more planning and logistics than having all the seminars in one location. Let’s hope everyone provided good feedback on the surveys to help make next year’s event even better.

  15. Pingback: Giving Recipes Away a Big Subject at IFBC

  16. I think the volunteers did the best they could with the situation and I appreciate the time everyone put into this event. But let me say this, I didn’t hear anyone I spoke with say that IFBC was the best event they could recall attending. In my opinion as a paid attendee, there were issues in planning and execution.

    How was Zephyr able to coordinate side trips during the wine blogger event but wasn’t able to provide IFBC attendees regularly scheduled transportation between the hotel and conference site during the day? It is not acceptable for attendees to have to pay a cab if they want or need to get back to the hotel before the end of the 13 hour day.

    The biggest thing I learned from my IFBC experience is that the money I spent on registration, hotel, and airfare would have been better spent elsewhere. Maybe this just wasn’t the event for me. I totally accept that I played an active part in whether I enjoyed the event. But when I am spending a combined total of nearly $1,000 to attend a function, I expect a certain level of accountability and attention to detail that IFBC lacked.

    I hope that Foodista/Zephyr will listen to ALL of the feedback (not just the parts where people say they had an overall positive experience) and take the opportunity to make IFBC the premier food blogger event in the future.

    Allan’s comments above strike me as saying the challenges I witnessed weren’t really their fault. Really? As co-sponsor with Foodista, and co-recipient of the positive reviews, they are also jointly responsible for all aspects of the event – good and bad…that to me is the bottom line. I would have had more respect for Zephyr’s response if Allan had limited his remarks to recognizing there were opportunities to improve and commit to working towards those goals.

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