Monday, June 29, 2015

Conference Organizer Interview: Donna Talarico on HippoCamp2015, A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers

I would like to say that a few years ago, I was first drawn to Hippocampus Magazine because it presented so many wonderful pieces of creative nonfiction. Truth is, as a former rider and equestrian journalist, I simply wanted to know why their logo was a seahorse. Quickly, I came to love the journal for their essays, memoir, and narratives, and discovered many new-to-me writers there. Hippocampus is presenting its first conference this August, three days of  CNF-centric celebration and education. Donna Talarico, founder and publisher, has been busy putting everything in place, but agreed to answer my nosy questions.

Q:  How far in advance did you start planning? Was it something you always wanted to do and were waiting for the right time? Why this summer?

A: Preparation began in August 2014. I’ve always wanted to extend the Hippocampus community into what we on the Internet call “IRL” – in real life! But I didn’t want to rush to do it. A conference was in the long-term plans, and I wanted to wait until we had a solid following and reputation to take on something of this caliber. 2015 is our fifth year, so it made sense to do it this year, and I gave us a year lead time to plan.

Q:  When you've attended other conferences, were you quietly taking in intel for when it was your turn? Any great examples you want to emulate?

A: I’ve been active on the speaker circuit in the web/content marketing world for about seven years or so, first in eCommerce and then in higher education. I absolutely LOVE conferences; they were always the highlight of my career. Being inspired as an attendee, being the inspiration as a presenter.

 The conference I’ve modeled HippoCamp after is HighEdWeb. I have not been energized more than when I am at these conferences, with brilliant, dynamic people. The programming is filled with variety and information and fun, and that’s exactly what I wanted to capture, only with writers instead of web geeks. (But a lot of web geeks also are writers! Like me.) I guess you could say I was taking in intel without realizing I was doing so… so I was taking notes on paper about the content, but taking mental notes about all the “what ifs” if I were to do this myself.

Q: What was the response to the call for presentation proposals? [Disclosure from Lisa: I submitted two proposals, one was accepted.]  How did you make choices? Was it a committee? What swayed, or dissuaded?

A: For the first year, I believe we had a great response to proposals. People are still, to this day, asking if they can present (now that the conference has really gained some traction), so I know next year will bring a lot more proposal submissions from the get-go. Unfortunately, proposals are closed, but I am loving the interest and want to remind these enthusiastic folks to look out for our 2016 call for submissions, which will go out in mid to late August 2015.

We have a programming committee, and just like with magazine submissions, the proposals were vetted by a diverse group of people and voted on – yes, no, comments. I like to think of the audience first, so we chose sessions that would be of value to the attendees and tried to have variety or ones that would have more “mass” appeal that also fit the three tracks as well as the style we’re looking for in the conference--engaging, interactive. Some proposal topics overlapped with others, and some were a little too narrow of a focus for a small conference – so basically, it was a balancing act. And just like an editor never likes to turn away a great story, we couldn’t pick everything submitted.

Q:  To me, conferences held where a journal or organization is headquartered offer not just local flavor, but something more -- conference personnel are welcoming attendees to their home. Did you ever consider holding HippoCamp anywhere other than Lancaster, PA?  What does the location offer writers?

A: No. Lancaster it was! Being an online magazine means you really don’t have a true physical presence, but literary citizenship is important to me, so it made sense for me—and HippoCamp—to be part of the community I call home. Plus, Lancaster is a really vibrant city and I like giving small towns love—I do love traveling to larger cities to conferences but the pitstops I  make along the way always prove to be really eye-opening (example: I drove from PA to Minneapolis for AWP and hit all these cool places along the way).

I think there should be more exploration of these gems of cities, like Lancaster, for gatherings. Not just in the writing world, but in general. On our conference blog, Erin Dorney and Tyler Barton from a local literary group, The Triangle, have written a few blog posts that talk about why Lancaster is a great town for writers. So, to me, HippoCamp is both sharing information and sharing a slice of life.

Q: In an article in The Writer, about first-time conference organizers, you are quoted, “I want it to be affordable and a good value, and make back the money. We’ll break even, or if there is extra money, it will go to next year’s conference.”  How are you approaching meeting that goal?

A: I was so honored to be included in Melissa Hart’s article in The Writer. To explain that comment a little more, I wanted to make sure I priced it right for attendees, and then I also set an attendance goal, based on that rate, that would meet the financial commitment to the convention center. We’re just a small conference committee, and we didn’t hire anyone externally. I did talk to other conference organizers, and I do sit on a conference committee for an industry organization, so that’s been a world of help.

Q:  I noticed you're planning on an open mic, and other ways for attendees to extend their participation. Can you talk about some of that?

A: I love love love when there is excitement in the air during the whole conference. I can’t imagine a conference ending when the last session of the day is over. So I made sure that there was built in time to converse and engage in a more laid back setting—so much of the conference magic doesn’t happen in the lecture hall. No, it happens in the nooks and crannies of the hotel, or out on the town as new connections become what seems like old friends. These more informal opportunities to get together allow that to happen; and sometimes it’s not even the organized social events, but the spontaneous stuff that happens, like, “Hey, let’s go grab coffee before the readings...” moments.

Of course an open mic night is a little more structured than those organic moments I just mentioned, but this also lets others from the conference—those who didn’t give a session or sit on a panel—to have a moment to share, and shine.

Two other social activities are breakfast topic tables, which allow attendees to grab breakfast and then look for a table with a topic card – social media, editing, POV, etc. – and then sit there and spark conversation around that. (Don’t worry; not every breakfast table will have a topic because I know that there are those that just need coffee before they can form sentences, haha.)

It’s important to have ways for people to connect. While we’re in a session, learning, we’re giving our attention to the speaker and we’re quiet, strangers in a room. There needs to be space and time to open people up!

Q:  When I look at the line-up, I'm awed by some star power (Lee Gutkind, Jane Friedman), and intrigued by names that are unfamiliar, but whose topic is so interesting, I'm eager to sit in their sessions. (I'm sure I fall squarely into the 'who is she?' category myself.) How did you approach putting together the mix?

A: I don’t want to use the term underdog here, but I root for anyone that has passion and is maybe brilliant in his or her circles, but never had the chance to strut their stuff in front of others. Giving someone that first shot boosts confidence and could help propel someone into their platform. Just as it’s important to have new voices in a lit mag or on book shelves, we need fresh faces at conferences like this.

Everyone has successes (or failures) to share, so balancing experienced speakers with new voices just makes sense to me. To be honest, it’s really the topics and caliber of the proposal that sells it for me, not the name of the presenter, although when you’re a new conference like we are, it does make sense to have names some might know—especially when it comes to the keynotes.

Q:  I notice it's mostly individuals and not panels presenting, as is the case at so many writing conferences. Any special reason why?

A: Oh yes. I’m SO glad you asked this, Lisa. First of all, “as is the case at so many…” means a lot to me. When I take on a project, I try to find gaps to fill and ways to be different enough to stand out, yet familiar enough to be comfortable. As I answered in another question earlier, I modeled HippoCamp after the conference format that’s most exhilarating for me.

There is something so special about being in a room with one person standing in the front igniting the audience with his or her passion. I love TedTalks, for example. The classroom-style session, to me, is so engaging. It allows the presenter to illustrate (as in with visual aids) that expertise – to show, not just tell. I love when a speaker works the room and when a speaker walks us through a case study or something they’ve worked on; it’s energizing.

I prefer that type of learning to a group of people sitting and taking turns talking, although there is merit in that as well. So I varied up the format. I balanced all-conference panels featuring larger, overarching topics with break-out sessions on more specific topics. I think this format prevents conference fatigue and gives people a chance to be in a room that just lights up.

Q: You're about seven or so weeks out from the conference. Are you excited? Worried? Both?

A:  There is such a vibe and energy about the conference, and I’m hoping that it continues to be contagious among the writing community. I'm mostly excited, but we’re still a little shy of our attendance goal so I’d be lying if I said there weren’t nerves too. There is still room. (I’m talking to YOU, dear reader. And you. And you.) The actual capacity of our reserved space exceeds our conference goal, so even if we did hit that magic number, there would be room left. We want a packed house. (Note: see below for discount.)

Q:  Hippocampus Magazine has a wonderful following and reputation online among creative nonfiction writers as a place to read CNF, and a destination goal to publish work. How does the conference and the journal interact?

A: Thank you for that! We’re thrilled with our following. Our three-fold mission is to entertain, educate, and engage readers and writers of creative nonfiction. The conference fulfills all three of those points, but, really, I think of “educate” the most.

Many of the conference volunteers and several of the presenters are on the Hippocampus staff and/or were published in our magazine, so HippoCamp is an extension of the relationships we’ve built over the years, but also it has introduced us to new friends and partners. The momentum of the magazine certainly helps fuel the energy of the conference, but, at the same time, people are learning about our journal for the first time by way of the conference. It’s neat to see these connections form.
I already have ideas for next year about how the conference and magazine can play off one another even more!
Q: What else have you done to differentiate the conference and deliver additional options for conference goers?

A:  We're offering pre- and post-conference workshops as add-ons; people can start their HippoCamp experience early with an editing or a writing and movement workshop (the collage essays one is already sold out), or extend it with a query-writing workshop. These intensive, interactive classes can complement the rest of the conference, but I made them optional add-ons because I wanted to squeeze in as much amazing content as I could during the regular programming.

Again, I borrowed this idea from HighEdWeb where I always add on an extra workshop (and I’m giving one this year!), and it was SO valuable to get access to an expert in his or her field for a few hours and to work on something practical.

Note from Lisa:  Donna would like to offer my blog readers a $20 discount on HippoCamp2015 conference registration. Use code: ROMEOWRITES at the conference registration page.

Images: Amish sign- DavidJones/Flickr Creative Commons; Hotel - Lancaster Convention Center; 
Others courtesy Hippocampus.


Carla Birnberg said...

And thank you for sharing because I'm always looking for excuses to bring my daughter to visit my in-laws in Pennsylvania…

Andrea Bates said...

What a thorough interview! Great information.

Conference planning is such hard work - but fulfilling - no doubt. Love this peek inside the ins and outs of decision making!

Rena McDaniel said...

Sounds like a great conference!

Middle-aged Diva (Carol) said...

This sounds great. I wish I'd known about it sooner. Well, maybe I can go--where's the date and place? Going to find them now!
Carol Cassara

Lisa Romeo said...

Carol, it's Aug. 7-9, Lancaster PA. (I'm getting in on Fri eve, staying to Sun a.m.).