I caught up with Lisa Block, Vice President, Meetings and Conferences for the Society for Human Resource Management. Lisa and her team are responsible for producing the SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition each year. A daunting task to say the least.
Lisa, you have been involved with SHRM for over a quarter century, how did that all start, and what keeps you at SHRM?
It all started in 1990 which seems like a lifetime ago. I had a friend who had worked at ASPA (the previous name of SHRM) and suggested I apply. My first trip was to Atlanta before I was on the payroll and it was to do planning for my first Annual Conference which was a couple of months later. It was a little insane, but I really liked the members and related strongly to the mission. I’ve stayed because the organization has grown significantly in influence and scope and because the profession is both dynamic and so important. My job has changed dramatically and every year there are fresh challenges and opportunities for innovation and to incorporate new ideas.
Let’s talk about the planning cycle for conferences, how far in advance do you start planning, who are the key players, and what are the biggest challenges?
Due to the complexity of the event, we must book at least five years out. But the hands-on planning process is a 20-month cycle. Key players on the SHRM staff are my team of 15 including meeting planners, exhibit sales and logistics team, and programmers who create the content for the event. But we can’t do it all and enjoy great partnerships with the leaders and staff members in many SHRM departments from Member Care, Marketing, Communications, Technology and beyond. The SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition really is the physical manifestation of the SHRM brand and as such the entire organization is dedicated to coming together to support the event and its implementation. We also work with amazing vendors who support the event.
How does your team involve the state and local HR chapters in the process?
Our “secret sauce” is the local SHRM members who help us execute the event. A local host chapter works within its state and sometimes region to recruit, train and deploy a temporary onsite workforce of HR pros. We could not do it without their support. And that’s one of my favorite things about the event. Our members are truly amazing and go above and beyond for us every year.
Who was your single favorite speaker over the years and why?
The one who stands out the most is Christopher Reeve. He happened to be shooting a movie in New Orleans at the time of our conference there in 2004. Our Monday morning keynoter cancelled three days out from the event and we were able to secure Christopher Reeve about six hours later. There were lots of issues that had to be worked out, but all the angst disappeared when he came on stage that morning. The audience was riveted, and he delivered a memorable speech in what turned out to be his last major public appearance. I still get goose bumps when I think about it. A former SHRM leader used to say, “God is an HR person.” and that was never truer than during that conference.
How do you keep such a large event fresh each year?
We are totally focused on innovating the conference experience each year. We work hard to ensure new topics and formats are incorporated into the event and that we can provide some just-in-time content in both the concurrent sessions, from the general session stage and at the Smart Stage or other venues.
What keeps you up at night?
Mostly the things we can’t control. While we run a pretty tight ship the key to managing the event on site is being flexible to deal with the things you can’t anticipate or control. I start having conference dreams in January and continue to have them off and on thru July. And I’m not alone.
What advice would you offer a first-time attendee?
Participate in the online conference community. This is a great way to connect with other HR pros before the event and to get their tips on how to make the experience most rewarding. Other than that, stay hydrated and wear comfortable shoes, my advice is to put down your phone and to engage with others around you. Try to go outside your comfort zone and go to a session that challenges you. Also, to be sure to spend time in the Exposition and look for companies that have resources to help you be more successful. Finally, have fun, this is an opportunity to get refreshed, make new contacts and enjoy Chicago as well as SHRM18.
# # #
I will be back soon with another behind the scenes look at #SHRM18.
Thank you, Lisa, and hope to see you and your team In Chicago!