Last week’s Fine Chocolate Industry Association’s Elevate Chocolate event held in New York has gotten the buzzosphere churning with Tweets, posts and blog updates.  Just ask Megan Giller of Chocolate Noise, Estelle Tracy of 37 Chocolates or Sharon Terenzi of The Chocolate Journalist.

I love seeing how this event is viewed from the outside looking in. But wouldn’t you like to know what it looks like from an insider’s point of view? The boiling pot of divergent opinions, the joy of averted mayhem, the nerves of steel it takes to pull off a major chocolate event in New York for an international membership of fine chocolate professionals?

Now let’s see, who do we know who could give us that perspective?   ME!

Karen in car

In addition to tooling around the US in my cocoa-hued Honda Civic for Red, White & Chocolate, I’m also the Executive Director of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA).

One of my responsibilities is to produce our two annual events. Now, you have to know that I swore off planning major events about 25 years ago because events make me nuts!  So many details, so many problems and everyone has an opinion.

But who can resist Pam Williams’ smile? She asked and I said yes.

So, here’s my one woman’s insider story of planning a major chocolate event. Spoiler alert – this isn’t going to be Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  It’ll be more like Jane Eyre’s the mad woman in the attic, but with a clipboard.

My friends drool seeing me off to New York and San Francisco every year to immerse myself in all things chocolate.  They think I spend my days at the events tasting chocolate and rubbing shoulders with famous chocolate makers and chocolatiers.

I certainly do that. But just like an iceberg, what lurks beneath tells a more complete and compelling story.

FIND THE PERFECT VENUE

This location made it super easy for me to run to the TKTS for half-price theater tickets.
This location made it super easy for me to run out to TKTS for half-price theater tickets.

Don’t get me started on this. As soon as we find a place that meets our needs, then bam, attendance grows and we need a new place. A good problem, but problem none the less.

We need just enough space for the growing list of exhibitors and enough seats for everyone for the program, but not too big that we can’t afford it.

And this year we need a separate room for each Table Talk since these sessions have become so popular.

We should have our hotel secured a year in advance. But there we were five months out and still looking. Yikes! But in the nick of time, we found the perfect place – the Crowne Plaza Times Square Hotel.

 

CREATE A COMPELLING PROGRAM

Even before the Summer event is over, the FCIA Education Committee and I are busy reviewing previous event surveys to figure out what attendees might want to see at the Winter event.

First, we develop a theme that will serve as an umbrella for all of our educational offerings at the event. I love chocolate people and am drawn to the big personalities. So you can imagine how this conversation goes. Lots of ideas, lots of strong feelings and often they don’t all match up.  But, somehow it all works out.

We selected Focus on the Consumer: From Perception to Satisfied Customer for Summer 2016. Everyone needs satisfied customers. I’m excited.  I can work with this.

Then, we develop six Table Talk topics that will resonate with our wide range of attendees from many segments of the industry and industry leaders who will be a draw in guiding these up-close-and-personal Table Talk discussions.

Emily Stone and Maya Granit of Uncommon Cacao talking about how cacao flavor is influenced before the chocolate maker.
Emily Stone and Maya Granit of Uncommon Cacao. Their Table Talk was about how cacao flavor is influenced before the chocolate maker.

Of course, that’s all on paper. Now we have to reach out, invite, cajole and often convince presenters. We line them up, hold our breath and then weird things happen. This year, one of our presenters had to drop out because of the crisis in Venezuela, reminding us how chocolate insinuates itself into every corner of the globe and colors the political spectrum.

The keynote speaker is a really big deal to get right. We need one person who will resonate with chocolate makers, chocolatiers, farmers, bean traders, etc. And, I’m discovering it’s always those with the most fascinating stories who fear they might not have anything of interest to share.

Fran Bigelow with moderator Curtis Vreeland.
Fran Bigelow with moderator Curtis Vreeland.

Like FCIA member and chocolatier trailblazer Fran Bigelow of Fran’s Chocolates. When she said no to serving as the keynote, I wouldn’t let her off the hook. We re-imagined her presentation as a conversation and paired her with gentle industry expert Curtis Vreeland of Vreeland & Associates. She said yes, hesitantly, and I’m so glad she did.

Carla Martin, Ph.D., Founder of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, commented to me that it was so inspiring to hear Fran talk about building a business 30 years ago when women just weren’t doing that. (Estelle Tracy wrote a great recap of Fran’s presentation that will be published on the FCIA website next week.)

When I think of Fran’s initial hesitation and then her spellbinding presentation at the event and the smiles on the faces in the audience and on her when it was over, I feel my tenaciousness paid off for everyone, this time.

AND, WHO IS GOING TO PAY FOR THIS PARTY?  

This year, because of the larger venue, we had a real challenge on our hands.  How are we going to pay for the added cost? We had outgrown our old space but we hadn’t yet grown into the new one. Raising the ticket price might hamper attendance.

So, we took an interesting gamble.  We lowered the price for FCIA members and raised the price for non-members. We hoped that non-members would decide to join to get the $80 discount.

If you build it, they will come. And they did!
If you build it, they will come. And they did!

The New York crowd is so different from San Francisco.  They tend to wait until the week before to register. It was a nail-bitter right up until about two days before the event.  But, guess what? It worked! We had about the same record-breaking attendance as last year, but this time the majority were members, many of whom joined right before the event, totally changing the ratio of member vs. non-member attendance from last year.

SPONSORS AND EXHIBITORS – WHAT’S THE VALUE PROPOSITION?  

We also knew we needed to raise more sponsorship funds and attract more exhibitors. A challenge the FCIA Board took seriously.

Here’s what I’ve learned in my many years of doing events – there’s got to be a quid pro quo in getting companies to sponsor and exhibit. Instead of hemming and hawing and acting like I’m asking for the moon, I have to show the value in being an event sponsor or exhibiting in our Gallery Showcase.  And the value proposition is on the rise!

With our growing attendance and membership, FCIA is THE conduit into the fine chocolate industry. We have to believe that before we pick up the phone or send out an email.  And we do! I’ll bottom-line you here: we secured five event sponsors (broke all-time record), 24 exhibitors (another record broken) and multiple event segment sponsors.

Celebration dance for 30 seconds!

Then, let’s figure out how to make them happy.

Here are a few of our exhibitors. For a complete lineup of sponsors and exhibitors, check out the event page at FCIA’s website.

NETWORKING, NETWORKING, NETWORKING!

One of the most valuable things our event provides the fine chocolate community is an opportunity to network with others in the industry. When I see so many from our community laughing, sharing and making plans, I feel like a proud mama.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

I’m not the Lone Ranger in pulling this event off. I’m more like an orchestra conductor cuing exquisite talent – the FCIA Education Committee and Board of Directors, our Association Manager, Stephanie Bechel and a small army of volunteers.

WHAT’S THE WEIRDEST THING THAT HAPPEN?

At every event I produce, there’s always one thing that jumps out and makes me say, “That never happened before.”  And here’s this year’s.  During the event, not once, but twice, I was offered chocolate with a special ingredient – marijuana. (Will not name names!) Is that a sign of the times?  A new trend the industry needs to grapple with? Or was my chartreuse jacket sending out some strange vibe?

TAKING OFF MY MAD CHOCOLATE EVENT PLANNER CAP – UNTIL JANUARY!

OK, now that I’m recapping here, I see that the event really wasn’t filled with all that mad-woman-in-the-antic stuff. It just felt like it in the midst of it all.

It was really filled with new friends and old, a lot of people with compelling ideas and contacts, a great team of volunteers, generous presenters and a great hotel staff ready to re-position tables, add more chairs or fix the fuzzy sound system on the spot.

Gee, it almost makes me want to do this again some time.