Every year, my staff and I host a conference at our university. This year we invited Bryan Mann (University of Missouri), Mary Beth George (University of Pittsburgh), Gary Boros (University of Denver), Bob Lemieux (Kent State), Nate Harvey (elitefts), Craig Buckley (Bryant University), and Rick Canter (Longwood University).

This list doesn't come by happenstance. I invite coaches who I respect immensely and want to learn from, and then I reach out to them to see if they're interested in speaking. This year was a little different though, as I've been trying to get Bryan Mann to speak for years. Last year, he texted me while watching our clinic online and said, “Let’s set a date now for next year.”

This month's article will be about our conference, but I'm going to take it in a different direction. One question I often get asked is, should I set up a conference at my college/university? Then I'm asked how to go about doing that. I hope to answer those questions here.

steve diel conference hamer

Should you set up a conference?

The short answer is a resounding yes! But then, as with anything in our profession, the answer gets cloudier and falls into a gray area. Yes, you should host a conference, but here are some questions to consider as well as my answers.

Do you have a good location? For me, this answer is yes. We are 20 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and five miles from the airport, and we have more hotels nearby then we will ever need.

Who will my audience be? This depends and will be controlled by many things outside of your control. If you're at a large, land-grant university, the odds are that more high schools will want to come see your conference because we all know that larger schools always do the best jobs with strength and conditioning. I say this in jest, but many believe this. If you're at a small, private college/university (as I am), the odds of the local high schools caring are slim. I reach out to the local private training facilities, although I don't open up to all of them because I've been taken advantage of too many times by these places and their salespeople. I also reach out to colleges/universities within a day’s drive of my university.

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Do you need to network? Yes. There isn't any gray area here. We all need to network. We know the adage, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” This is a fact, and it’s OK to just go meet more people. So why not have people come to you. Remember the tipping point? Become a connector!

Is your employer OK with you doing this and will they support your efforts? This is an easy one for me. My supervisors have made it clear that they don't have any problem with me hosting a yearly conference. Some colleges/universities may have issues with it though. If yours does, make sure that you follow all the rules. Remember, we're just the people holding the keys, and if we break the rules, they will find someone else to hold the keys.

jl holdsworth conference hamer

How do you go about setting up a conference?

Well, first, do you have speakers? I've been very lucky because my speakers all come and speak for very low fees. I have to call in some favors, and I also have to return some favors. I know that we won't make money, so I just try to make the experience as great as I possibly can for them.

So first, go find four to seven speakers (this is where all that networking you've done in the past comes into play). Start local to save costs. If there are other colleges/universities near you, reach out to them. Reach out to private sector coaches as well (again, make sure you can trust them). If you have to fly speakers in, figure out how you will pay for their flights.

How do you advertise? This has become much easier to do then it was 13 years ago when I hosted my first conference. Social media is amazing for disseminating information, so use it. I'm going to go off on a tangent for a few sentences. I get annoyed when people say that social media is bad. Social media isn't bad. Reacting to things on social media and the poor use of social media are bad. Social media isn’t the devil or Jesus. It's just a form of communication. It is what you make of it.

So, back to the point...take fliers to local gyms, CrossFit boxes, performance coaches, physical therapy clinics, and high schools. Email it to everyone and anyone who may be interested. You could do all of that and still have only ten attendees. But so what? Ten is ten more than zero. Enjoy that you created something and keep your expectations realistic for your first go-around.

Where will you host the conference? These are simple but complex questions. First, you need to approach your administration and figure out if your college/university will allow you to hold the conference on campus and whether or not they support your efforts. If they do support you and you're allowed to host it on campus, work with them and anyone else to secure a space that will meet your needs somewhere on campus. There usually aren't any fees associated with this but check with your college/university to work that out. You will also need to make sure you have the proper equipment ready to go including a laptop, projector, smart cart, etc.

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If your college/university does not support your efforts and will not allow you to use a space on campus, reach out to local gyms or high schools to see if you can use or rent their space. There will most likely be fees associated with this though, so you'll need to decide if that cost is worth the effort. Also, consider putting those networking skills to good use and calling in a favor if someone you know owns a space you can use.

When should you have your conference? Make sure that the date you choose isn't overlapping with any other conference. Don't pick a date when there's an NSCA event happening, as you'll likely lose out to that.  Attendance at your event may then be poor and that won’t help anyone. Aside from that, just pick a weekend and go.

How do you take care of your speakers and attendees? We keep our costs low so that we can open our conference to anyone who wants to come. We also don’t care if we make money on it (we don’t). Take the little money you do make and buy a nice dinner for all the speakers. This year we used one of our assistant’s farms to buy a quarter of a cow, and we lifted and grilled the night before the clinic. If your college/university has a place that allows you to have a get together with alcohol, it's nice to throw speakers and attendees a beer or two if permitted. This year we had about 20 people come Friday night to train, eat, and have a libation or two.

We don't provide lunch for attendees, but we try to make getting lunch easy by writing up a list of local places to go. Elitefts was nice enough to send some T-shirts for our attendees this year. Reach out to people and ask if they’ll sponsor your conference and provide you with some giveaway stuff.

On conference day, I purchase some boxes of coffee from Starbucks for everyone. We all drink coffee while we learn, and I make sure everyone is having a good time. You could also consider buying a few boxes of bagels or doughnuts for speakers and attendees.

Setting up a conference takes some work, but if done right, the knowledge and networking that you, your speakers, and your attendees will gain are worth it. If you're doing it to make money, please stop because you’ll go broke. Much like coaching, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons (to pay it forward) and you'll be successful. If all else fails, call me and I’ll tell you all the other big secrets that I didn't want to share in this article!