600 hours. That’s roughly how much time I spend each year to plan and execute TechOlympics, the largest technology conference for high school students in America. I’m certainly not the only one… there are hundreds of volunteers who spend thousands of dedicated hours to pull off this massive and unique event. I get questions all the time about what the conference is, what it takes to plan it, and how we put it all together, so I figured it’d be fun to write a “behind the scenes” post for TechOlympics planning now that I’ve had a few months to recover (and catch up on sleep) from this year’s event. If you’ve ever been curious what’s involved with coordinating a weekend conference for 1,000 people… or why I disappear every year in January and February… you might find this interesting!
First, what’s the point of TechOlympics? It’s a conference hosted by the INTERalliance of Greater Cincinnati, a non-profit I’ve worked with for 8 years. INTERalliance promotes IT careers in the Greater Cincinnati region to local high school students. TechOlympics is our largest annual event, consisting of keynote presentations, informational breakout sessions, inter-school technology competitions, and a career fair area where students can speak with representatives from local companies.
We start planning “next year’s” TechOlympics before the current year’s event even happens. This includes picking the date, event theme, and maintaining the “ideas for next year” idea-dump. I already had a full page of notes about TechOlympics 2017 before a single student had checked in for TechOlympics 2016.
The event is in February every year and the planning process really kicks off in August. That’s when we finalize our event brand, establish our marketing approach and send out a “save the date” to the schools, and start planning logistics with the hotel. As event chair, I confirm that all 20+ operating committee members are up for another year of craziness, and I meet with vendors to sign contracts and discuss any changes from previous years. (Note: TechOlympics is such an awesome event that most of our operating committee members and vendors have been with us since the very first year, 2010. When someone participates once, they never want to stop!)
Throughout the fall, we work on content and advertising. What breakout sessions will be in the lineup? Each of our 30+ sessions takes hours of planning, recruiting the speaker, putting together the content and associated collateral, and answering all questions. What about our 20+ competitions? We look at hundreds of student feedback surveys from the previous year and revamp each competition so it’s fresh every year. The high school “ILC” (INTERalliance Leadership Council) students own the competitions and bring their originality and creativity to the table.
And the list goes on with questions like who will our keynote speakers be, what is this year’s entertainment, how can we possibly fit all of these things into our event schedule and map them to limited hotel space, and what are the most efficient processes to effectively accommodate 550 students, 300 volunteers, 50 teachers, 30 sponsors, 30 speakers, 10 vendors in 200 hotel rooms for 48 packed hours?
My favorite part is the 6 weeks leading up to the event during which everything really comes together. We get to preview the great work of our creative team, like the lighting, decor, and theme… this is when I start to get giddy. We pick the food menu, plan for new additions like the snack bar (in 2016)… and go through countless iterations on event programming with feedback from tons of people so we get it just right. There are thousands of questions to answer from students, parents, volunteers, etc. and often 200-300+ emails per day.
Actually, just kidding… my real favorite part is the event itself. While students don’t arrive until 3pm Friday, we start setting up on Wednesday morning as items from numerous vendors are carefully installed in order, as you can see from the pictures throughout this post. First the lighting is set up, then the A/V and decor, then the hotel furniture like tables and chairs, then lighting and decor touchup, then recreational items like video games and ping pong tables in the student lounge… It’s always amazing to watch dozens of people run around to completely transform the hotel in a matter of hours. If you leave for lunch for just 2 hours – say, a Chipotle run, which happens consistently – you’ll likely return to a completely different space. Some might call it “magic.” 😀
And then there’s the execution. It’s honestly like theatre. Everyone has a job – and by everyone, I mean 20 senior committee members, 65 ILC high school volunteer, 300 “adult” volunteers/sponsors, 10 vendors – and everything has to start and end exactly on time so that we can run 10-15 concurrent sessions hour after hour without falling behind. Of course there are new surprises every year and many new volunteers, but we have it down to a science. For general assemblies, the stage script is planned and timed to the minute. With the hotel, there’s a detailed plan for meal times, snack refreshing, room setup, etc.
The rest is responding to surprises (and there are ALWAYS surprises) and making small tweaks, like moving a sign 10 feet to the left so more people see it, making PA announcements if it seems people are confused about something, watching spontaneous Cha Cha Slide dances break out before general assemblies, and training people to use the very popular cotton candy machine going through pints upon pints of sugar (seriously).
On Sunday when it’s all over, we pack almost everything up within a few hours, share many heartfelt farewell hugs, and begin a month of dozens of debrief calls/meetings to put notes together for next year. These notes get stored in an organized manner and tucked away until August when it all starts again.
And “that’s it” (ha!) Why volunteer so much time when there’s House of Cards to watch and pasta to eat and other cities to visit? (A quick glimpse into a few of my other interests… especially pasta.) You could ask any of our hundreds of volunteers what makes the event special for them and you’d get a different answer each time. My answer: I’ve seen thousands of students have a positive, even life-changing experience in the last 7 years, and I’m honored to play a small part in that. Everyone gets something out of TechOlympics whether it’s figuring out which career path to pursue, discovering a new passion, landing a dream internship, meeting lifelong friends, or overcoming a fear of public speaking (that would be me). I could also publish a separate post about the top 50 funny TechOlympics stories, but it would be difficult to narrow it down even that much… we have a lot of fun.
I’d love to hear your questions… and whether you’ve attended the event before or not, it’d be great to see you at TechOlympics 2017… Amplify!