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ILA 2019: Behind the Scenes

By Kelly Bothum
 | Aug 30, 2019
ila2019-behind-the-scenesWhen attendees arrive in New Orleans, LA, for the International Literacy Association
(ILA) 2019 Conference, they won’t have to worry about navigating the convention center, accessing Wi-Fi, looking for water refill stations, or even finding the nearest bathrooms.

All of that—and much more—will have already been done by the ILA staff handling the behind-the-scenes logistics of a dynamic conference that draws 5,000 educators from around the globe each year. From constructing the conference Exhibit Hall and deciding on room placements for speakers, to helping with dietary needs and mapping out shuttle routes for attendees, ILA staffers work hard to make the conference the benchmark of educational professional development.

Their attention to detail allows attendees to focus on what matters—listening to internationally renowned speakers, networking with fellow educators, and getting inspired by other literacy leaders.

“This conference is meant to be a one-stop shop for anyone in the literacy realm,” says Becky Fetterolf, professional learning manager for ILA. “If you are a classroom teacher, an administrator, a reading specialist, or librarian, we want to make sure you can take something back to your school.”

By the time attendees head into the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans this fall—October 10–13, to be exact—ILA staff will already not only have been on-site for several days, ensuring finishing touches are perfect, but also be deeply entrenched in the planning for the 2020 conference and beyond.

“It’s like creating a strategic plan every year,” says Valerie Sumner, ILA’s director of meetings and events. “We look at the conference through the eyes of those who are attending. We focus on what you see when you arrive at the airport, when you get to the hotel, when you look at the app to see the speakers. All those little pieces are strategically discussed and planned so that it all comes together. It seems like it naturally happened, and that’s the goal.”

Bringing the vision to life

The ILA conference lasts four days, bookended by Institute Day and Children’s Literature Day, but the prep work starts long before the first speaker takes the podium.

ILA teams begin mapping out the logistical pieces of the conference puzzle more than a year in advance. ILA carefully considers a range of criteria when selecting a city and securing agreements for a convention center to host the conference (often solidified anywhere from three to five years in advance). A typical convention center will have 30 to 40 rooms of varying sizes that can handle the 300 sessions that take place over the four-day span.

High on the list of conference must-haves is a city with good access to an airport and flight options. It also needs about 2,500 hotel rooms for the estimated 5,000 attendees and exhibitors. Walkability is tricky. The city needs to be accessible on foot, but hotels and conference sessions should be in relative proximity or be on a shuttle route to keep attendees from growing tired.

Once a city is selected, Sumner says, the meetings and events team is dispatched to the host city to prepare for the marketing, professional development, and other critical needs of the conference. Even while latestage conference planning is going on in New Orleans, several teams from ILA will already have been visiting Columbus, OH, the site of the ILA 2020 Conference.

Michele Jester, program implementation manager for ILA, was part of the team from ILA that visited local education and library officials earlier this year to learn more about Columbus’s educational and literacy environment. The team also helped to identify opportunities for interaction, partnership, and sponsorship.

“It’s about getting people in the city excited about us coming,” Jester says.

Crafting the theme

The theme of this year’s conference is “Creating a Culture of Literacy.” Fetterolf says programming began more than a year ago with brainstorming about potential keynote speakers and presenters who embody the theme. The process includes soliciting abstracts a year in advance from people who hope to present. Approximately 800 proposals are received, but only about one third are accepted due to a combination of space availability and the desire to craft a manageable conference experience that offers something for everyone without being overwhelming.

Over the course of four days, the conference will include hundreds of sessions, featuring speakers with different topics and formats and in front of audiences of varying sizes. The General Session is the largest, and that’s where the biggest names—and audiences—can be found. This year, the lineup features Chelsea Clinton, Pedro Noguera, Renée Watson, and Hamish Brewer. Previous years have seen Octavia Spencer, Laurie Halse Anderson, Kwame Alexander, and LeVar Burton.

In addition to one-hour speaking sessions, there are smaller, two-hour, roundtable-style workshops where attendees can experience a more hands-on approach. Poster sessions round out the offerings, allowing people to individually present their own research in literacy in an informal, conversation-friendly format.

Given the number of presenters needed, the ILA team has more than their share of work just selecting speakers. It’s a tricky process that sounds a bit like a fantasy football draft, only featuring literacy superstars instead of athletes.

To help simplify the process, each year, Lara Deloza, ILA senior communications manager, and the team create their own classification system using sticky notes, index cards, and spreadsheets, color-coding potential speakers on the basis of a number of factors including topic, availability, and diversity of background, thought, profession, and location.

“It’s really a numbers game,” Deloza says. “It’s a math equation.” Availability during the conference matters, but it’s just one factor to consider. A mix of voices—authors, researchers, and scholars—is also sought. Diversity is a major driver, Deloza adds, but the goal is to recognize diversity in ways beyond race, age, gender, and ethnicity to include experience and educational background, among other considerations.

A final criterion for consideration, for presenters other than General Session and featured speakers, is peer review. At least three people are asked to score each prospective speaker on a scale of 1 to 10. The higher the overall peer score, the better that person’s chances of being asked to present. “If you get a 30, you’re going to get on the program,” Fetterolf says.

Unlike some conferences, most speakers aren’t compensated by ILA for their participation. The majority of General Session speakers, for example, come courtesy of a publishing company—such as Clinton for this year.

Room to grow—or a no-show

Fetterolf says one of the most frequent questions attendees and speakers ask regards the size of the room that is assigned to a speaker. Room assignments can vary from small spaces for under 100 people to larger areas that can accommodate 600 people for featured speaker sessions. It takes a bit of prediction—and sometimes luck—to determine the best size room for a speaker, Sumner says. Considerations include professional interest in the topic and the speaker’s own past crowd draw.

There have been times where a speaker’s popularity has meant a fully packed room with people standing outside the door and additional people allowed in only when someone else leaves, per the restrictions of the local fire marshal. Conversely, there also have been times when a speaker was expected to be a big draw but attendance was lower than expected.

“We do collect data of room attendance. We do data crunching,” Jester says. “We guess as best as we can.”

Ready for long days—and anything else

During the four-day conference stretch, it’s not unusual for staff to literally be on their feet for 14 or more hours each day. Thanks to the popularity of fitness trackers among ILA staff, we know that works out to about 25,000 steps a day each day of the conference, on average. (The unofficial daily record is 31,000 steps for one weary-footed staffer.)

Veteran conference staff know there is little downtime during these days, but they like the opportunity to interact with attendees. ILA staff are not hard to find. All staff attend conference events in their signature Meyer lemon yellow conference shirts and gold name badges.

“You’re hands-on the whole weekend,” Jester says. “We’re the first ones to get there and the last ones to leave.”

Like any good team, they can hustle on the fly. When bad weather caused a power loss at the ILA 2017 Conference in Orlando, FL, the staff continued registering attendees by hand. They quickly reconfigured meeting spaces in San Antonio, TX, in 2013 when conference organizers discovered they were missing two previously scheduled rooms. Security and safety plans previously put in place meant there was a protocol when a pregnant woman became overheated and fainted during one of the sessions.

“You just have to be ready for anything,” Jester says.

Many of the last-minute challenges come from helping attendees locate missing cell phones, purses, or personal items. As much as the staff tries to anticipate attendee needs, there can be a few surprises, like realizing that conference-goers are walking in a different direction in the convention center than organizers expected.

“As you are there walking around, you see it’s not what we thought,” says Amy Taylor, meetings and events coordinator, of the conference center layout and signage. “Then you need to go ahead and make that adjustment on-site.”

The preponderance of women in education often means a quick reconfiguring of bathrooms to accommodate the disparity. This year, that also includes greater accessibility to gender neutral bathrooms.

A personalized experience

Over the years, the ILA conference has changed to better represent the needs of its attendees. Jester says gone is the one-size-fits-all approach, replaced by a more personalized experience that’s built upon the goal of connecting and enriching the experience of those attending the conference.

Sumner says a good example is the conference program, which used to be a cumbersome, 400-page book that weighed attendees down. About four years ago, ILA switched to a mobile app that provides a continuous update of the day’s events. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has helped cut down on printing expenses.

The program is still available in a smaller printed form—only about half the number of pages—but most users opt for the app, Sumner says. Even the most well-planned events usually have a hiccup or two, and the ILA conference is no exception. Fetterolf says attendees sometimes get frustrated by the room sizes, issues with lighting, or unexpected programmatic changes.

But it’s their passion for education that overshadows any issues that may arise during the conference. ILA staff witness firsthand how attendees feel so strongly about the work they do. That perspective helps when trying to smooth over any logistical problems.

“They’re really invested,” says Wes Ford, ILA digital communications associate. “It makes sense they get so passionate about it.”

For example, at last year’s Equity in Education program during the ILA 2018 Conference in Austin, TX, Ford says one attendee wept in appreciation for the panel on LGBTQ equity in the educational space.

“He said, ‘Thank you for making me feel seen,’” Ford says, adding that the educator often saw work being done to ensure students felt seen, but he never felt seen as a teacher. That man’s reaction, Ford says, validated the work done by the team during the conference.

“It matters to us. We don’t want them to feel like we are ignoring them. We are as passionate about their education as they are.”

Witness it for yourself

At the time of publication, there are just 13 weeks until ILA 2019. That’s about 90 days until showtime. And yet, the behind-the-scenes work doesn’t end when the conference begins. You wouldn’t know it—and that’s by design. Part of the job is making sure you get not only a seamless conference experience but also a sense of how valued you are for the work you do every day.

“This is the one time of year when we get face-to-face time with our members,” Deloza says. “It reminds us of why we do what we do and why it matters. It’s all for them.”

Kelly Bothum is a former newspaper reporter who now works as a communications specialist for the University of Delaware.

This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of 
Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
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