Engagement.

It’s a big buzzword in the meetings industry, but for the organizers of the Simply Youth Ministry Conference, it’s more than an abstract concept—it’s incorporated throughout the conference. And beyond.

“Events are not the end—they are a means to a greater end,” says Jason Ostrander, director for SYMC, a conference for people who work with youth ministry groups across all denominations. His goal is to have all 2,900 attendees leave the conference inspired, educated, connected, and engaged in ways that will enrich themselves and their organizations.

The Simply Youth Ministry Conference, owned by Group Publishing, Loveland, Colo., is in its seventh year, but the 2013 event, held March 1–4 in Indianapolis, was a bit of a reboot. It was the conference’s first year under new direction after having been led for the previous six years by its two founders.

The reboot was an exciting but rather daunting task for Ostrander, author of the book 99 Questions Jesus Asked, who was hired last August and had just a few months to plan the conference. A former youth worker who had attended the conference every year, Ostrander chose to build in even more interaction and engagement than usual. Call it SYMC 2.0. Here are its rules of engagement.

1. Interactive Sessions

The heart of the conference is 300-plus hours of workshops and breakouts, which are all about learner-based teaching and experiential learning. “At SYMC, you will not go to a workshop where a person stands up in front at a lectern with a PowerPoint presentation and talks for an hour solid,” says Ostrander. “As a matter of fact, if that happens, they don’t get asked back again. It’s all about experiential learning.”

Ostrander will monitor this by asking attendees on the post-conference evaluation how much time the presenter spent lecturing and how much time was spent interacting. “We are looking for at least a 75/25 or 65/35 split on that,” he says.

One of the presenters, Mark Novelli, owner, Imago Event Design and Media Production, Elgin, Ill., ran a session called “Experiential Learning in Youth Ministry” that exemplified this commitment to learner-based teaching. “Seventy percent of what we did was interactive,” says Novelli.
He set up four learning stations based on the different types of learners—auditory, literary, kinesthetic, and visual—and had attendees participate and interact in each. He encouraged attendees to instruct their youth workers in the modes that best suit their individual learning styles. “Some were specific activities they could take home and use in their groups; some were hopefully sparking bigger ideas,” Novelli explains.

2. Attendee Feedback

After each year’s conference, the staff invites about 75 attendees—youth workers in the trenches—to the Group Publishing office to provide feedback on the conference. “We pump them full of questions—we want the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he says. The goal is to come out of it with ideas on how to improve the next year’s conference.

“We don’t want to lose our moorings, if you will. That’s where other conferences, no matter what their specialty is, can go awry because the audience becomes further removed from the planning,” says Ostrander. “We try to keep that audience right in our back pocket as much as we possibly can.” The team deliberates over the post-conference evaluations for several days, even asking youth worker attendees to call in during those sessions to voice their input.

3. Affinity Groups/Relationship Building

“I have gone to a lot of conferences where I’ll see a person once and never see them again,” says Ostrander. “We try to make it so that you will bump into any given person at least two or three times within the course of the conference.”

Building relationships is a critical component of SYMC, so Ostrander and his team attempt to foster connections by design. It starts with the venue, where they keep everything in close proximity so that sessions, and people, stay together. The JW Marriott in Indianapolis, site of the 2013 event, fit the bill.

Ostrander had just returned from doing some research at the South By Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin. While the two events are vastly different in size and content, one of the most impressive things about SXSW, he says, is how integrated the city is into the conference. “The integration between hotels and restaurants and venues is unbelievable—every restaurant has a SXSW menu.”

Also, SYMC has created affinity-based groups called Connect Groups, which bring people together by areas of interest. At registration, people are asked what Connect Group they want to join. They include groups for attendees who work with middle-school students, one for those who work with high-school students, and one for spouses of youth pastors. These groups meet two or three times on their own over the course of the conference.

4. Exhibitor Engagement

One of the major changes Ostrander and his staff made when they came to SYMC concerned exhibitors. “We had to completely revamp the way we engaged with them,” he says. It was no longer enough to stick them in 10x10 booths.

They started by referring to them as ministry partners rather than exhibitors. The new term better reflects their role as collaborators, according to Ostrander. Beyond that, SYMC sought to engage them with the organization all year long, not just during the conference. Partners now get not just a booth, but ads in the organization’s magazine, newsletter, or Web site. “We have the ability to really extend that partnership,” he says. It may cost the ministry partner more, but the benefit is much greater.

The result was tremendous demand from ministry partners, to the point where they had to turn some away because they didn’t have enough booth space.

5. Social Media

The SYMC landed on the top-trending-on-Twitter list twice during the conference, a first. That achievement reflects the conference’s commitment to social media. “We have a giant blogger community so we are constantly piping them information to send out into their blog world,” Ostrander says. Also, SYMC developed an app for the conference, which drew more people to their smartphones and facilitated more tweeting. “The team here works hard through social media to keep people connected throughout the year.” The attendees, in turn, discuss the conference in their own communities to extend it even further.

6. Entertain and Inspire

“All of the learning and the practical takeaways come in the smaller settings,” says Ostrander—the workshops, the seminars, and even the hallways or coffee shops. But there is definitely still a place for large general sessions. SYMC books a variety of musical performers, comedians, and inspirational speakers for the 3,000-person general sessions, but the goal of the mainstage performers is strictly to entertain and inspire. Ostrander does not use the general sessions for strategic or detailed educational presentations because those types of presentations are better served in a smaller group setting, he believes.  

For Ostrander, the conference is about creating brand loyalty, where people are so engaged and inspired that they want to attend before they even know who is going to be speaking. They register because they know the conference will deliver. With attendance up about 200 from the previous year, he’s well on his way to accomplishing his goals. “At the end of the day, all the marketing in the world really doesn’t help if people don’t believe in your brand.”