US Southeast Judge Conference Report

Written by Bryan Prillaman
L3, Florida (USA)

Written by Bryan Prillaman
L3, Florida (USA)

This is the story of how the last Southeast Judge Conference came to be. By all quantifiable measurements, it was a huge success, and I am grateful for having the opportunity to be one of the coordinators for it. While this is not a primer on how to organize your conference, it is an account of how we organized this conference. Hopefully you can learn from our successes and failures and incorporate them into your next conference or if you don’t do that, stick around, hopefully you can take something away.

In the Beginning

I would like to say that planning the conference began gradually, with each step clearly planned. In reality planning began with a sudden realization: If we don’t start planning this moment, it would be too close to our second conference this year.

Each Region is allowed 2 conferences per year. They can have standalone conferences or conferences associated to events, but there are some hard time constraints for whichever you do. Wizards wants at least full 4 weeks to pull together the Judge foils and send them out. This means that registration needs to be closed, and final counts of presenters and attendees sent off a month before the conference. Now we need time to solicit presenters and get attendees. You want *at least* 3-4 weeks for registration. This means that you are looking at about 2 months minimum, and that’s assuming you have a location right now!

In order to have a reasonable amount of time between the conferences, we needed a location right now! Fortunately, if there is one thing the Southeast Region is good at, it’s spontaneous mobilization.

Home Is Where The Conference Is

Location is probably the single most important factor for a conference; can it handle a crowd, can judges get to it, can it be free? One reason why conferences tied to events are popular is because you can easily convince the TO to allow floor space for the conference. Additionally, you know a large number of judges will already be there. However, there are also negatives tied to event based conferences and the SE region tends to prefer standalone conferences. A whole article could be written comparing the two options, and exploring the pros and cons between the two, but (un)fortunately, that isn’t this article.

In the Southeast, we have a great location, Gamescape in Tallahassee, that is :

  • Central to the entire region
  • (Virtually) Free
  • Large enough to hold 100+ judges. Seriously. This place used to be an Old Navy
  • Has a PA system and an overhead projector.
  • A mall food court right next door.

Once we had a place, we began looking at dates. When having a conference tied to an event, you already have judges capable of presenting coming to you. But when you have a standalone conference, you have to worry about those same judges doing something else that weekend. We looked at the schedule of GPs, PTQs, and SCG Opens in the region, and tried to avoid those dates. Additionally, we opted to avoid hometown football games in Tallahassee as it increases hotel cost for those that want to stay overnight. Plug all those constraints into the Computron-5000, and we get a single date.

What does Sherlock Holmes say? Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, the only date that remains is August 16th? I might be paraphrasing. Someone look that up for me.

If You Post It, They Will Come

We have a location, and a date, but if we want people to show up, we need to tell them.

We created the event in JudgeApps using the tried and true method of “Copy the previous one and make any changes needed”. Things you want to tell people: When, Where, How long it will be, and remind them of the foil policy.

Typically a conference is four 1-hour long sessions. Larger conferences may split this, but based on last year’s size we don’t have to worry about this.

Last time we did an “L3 Panel” and a Jeopardy game that were well received, and we want to repeat them again.

In the application, ask questions to those attending. The best question you can ask is “What do you want to see presented”. If 20 people want to hear about the new USC policy, that’s a strong sign you should have a seminar on that.

Give people a minimum of 3-4 weeks to sign up, and then give yourself a few days to collect counts before you have to send the data to Wizards. Don’t forget to announce the conference in your region’s local channels. Maybe make a Facebook group. I hear all the kids are using Facebook these days.

At this point, you should prepare yourself for some complaining. There will always be some people who aren’t happy with your date, or your time or your location. Be sure you can defend your decisions, if you can’t, you made wrong ones. But if a valid complaint is made, you need to be prepared to listen.

Rally the Horde

Now we need to determine how many presenters we want. I wanted to keep the “class size” small, as the acoustics in any venue are never good. My going in position was 4 simultaneous seminars. We were expecting about 120 judges and that would allow classes in the 25-35 person range. Some quick math and we get 16 total Seminars (4 seminars per hour x 4 hours). That is the target number. If you don’t get enough volunteers, you can plan on repeating a seminar or two.

Solicitation was relatively easy. Remember what I said about spontaneous mobilization? We had 10 volunteers lined up by the end of day 1. The rest came in via email solicitation of the L2s already applied a week into the application process.

You need to work with the presenters to find a topic they can both present on, and doesn’t step on other presentations. For example, we originally had 3 volunteers wanting to present a variation on “How to get to L2”. You also want to make sure that the volunteer is qualified (or can become qualified) to present the suggested topic, or that the topic is relevant. Do not be afraid to say “No”.

After we got all the presenters lined up, we needed to find out what their technology requirements were. This is an iterative process, as what they need changes what you try to provide, and what you provide changes how they will present. If you can’t meet those needs, the presenters need enough time to adapt.

When I say “needs”, I really mean “projectors”. When the presenters submitted their seminar description, I also had them state if a projector was required/desired/unneeded. In this case, Adam Hubble came through with 2 additional projectors, screens and cables so we were able to meet all the requests. Screens are important, don’t forget them, else you are just shining your pretty pictures on whatever wall is blank enough.

Once we had all the needs of the presenters, and all the seminar topics, we start scheduling them. In a lot of ways, this is just like planning staff lists for large events. You have to take into account who is presenting, what topics, what are the needs. For example, Michael Lopez‘ seminar on “How to get to L2” was expected to be big so he needed to be in the larger area. Michael was also the L1 Testing coordinator, so we had to get him done presenting early. Also, whether it’s fair or not, L3s tend to draw larger crowds than L2s when presenting and their presentations were staggered. You also want to arrange the seminars so that there is something for everyone each hour. If I took the 3 most request seminar topics and put them all against each other, the 4th seminar would be pretty meager.

Peer Reviews

Now comes an important part of the cycle, one that is frequently overlooked due to time: Peer Reviews. If you are creating a seminar from scratch, get someone else to look at your seminar. Please. Having your slides up on the screen and having someone call you out on a factual error is embarrassing and preventable. A second set of eyes will find things you missed. The only down side is you need to have your presentation done earlier than the night before. I’ve seen some conference organizers make a review a requirement, but enforcement of it is inconsistent. If you cut presenters that don’t submit their presentation for peer review, you will be cutting half of your presenters. For this conference, I just asked those that had never presented before to send me their material. It’s also a good forcing function to ensure they don’t wait till the last minute, as I suspect some of the more experienced presenters did.

Extra, Extra, Read All About It

While all this was going on, we made arrangements for the L3 Panel and the Jeopardy game. Brian Guess, L2 from Alabama, volunteered to be the moderator. We solicited questions for the panel from the attendees, and shockingly, no one submitted any questions in advance, so I created a list of about 20 questions I felt an L1 or L2 might ask a group of L3s and gave it to Brian to fill the time if needed.

Then on to the Jeopardy game. The last iteration of this game had two issues. The contestants were chosen at random, and the overall difficulty of the questions were too hard. At a conference where 80% of the attendees were L1s, random contestants are going to skew towards the low end of experience, and if the questions skew towards the high end, you are going to run into problems. For this conference, I decided to get the leader from each Non-Florida state in the region (sorry South Carolina) and brand it as a battle for state pride. Adam Hubble representing Mississippi, Brian Guess representing Alabama, and CJ Shrader representing Georgia. I obtained the Jeopardy template from the Jason Flatford, and started making my questions. Abe Corson provided the peer review. I can follow my own advice!

I talked with Ben Bloodworth a few times, and made sure he was setting up his store similar to last time. We iterated over the layout from the previous conference, and Ben made some improvements to the layout; formalized the station locations, move tables out of the way, determined where chairs were going to be.

Oh, and I had my own seminar to create. No surprise I was one of those waiting till the night before to finish up. Maybe I’m not so good at following my own advice.

Today Is The Greatest…

The day of the conference I got on-site about an hour before hand. The conference areas were built. Schedules were posted all around the store. We had laptops, projectors, cables, and screens. We set up the projectors, tested out the screen size. All the presenters for the first round of seminars were present with their materials. Everything was happening according to the plan. The only snafu was we had not printed enough surveys. Wait…what?

Ah surveys. Building on something CJ Crooks put into place last conference, we had surveys. These served as replacements for sign-in sheets. We asked the attendees for some questions about how prepared/useful the topic was, and then provided them an area for free form comments. These surveys were turned in in order to get your conference foils. The results were later sent to each presenter.

We got started promptly at 2:00 pm.

Several seminars in the first round ran a little long, which compressed the second set but everything else went fine. Clockwork. I had a technical issue with my own seminar, with the lesson there being: Don’t focus so much on fixing others people’s problems that you forget to deal with your own. Acoustics were repeatedly a problem, but there is only so much you can do on a budget of $0.

After the last seminar, we set up in the center of the store for the L3 panel. Judges were very willing to help re-arrange the room. While judges weren’t in the mood to submit questions in advance, they definitely were willing to ask questions during the panel. The questions ranged from “Why did L2 change?” to “How can I get my TO to comp me for FNM” to “How much does your social media presence play into your role as a judge” to “WTF Kaijudo?!”. Originally we scheduled 30 minutes for this. We ended up cutting after at 45 min, and we probably could have gone another half hour.

We reset for Jeopardy. For me, this was the highlight of the conference. The spirit was playful and we allowed jokes and light heckling from the audience. CJ Shrader got cocky in final Jeopardy and wagered it all, despite having double both the other contestants. In fact, all the contestants did. And they were all wrong. Paving the way for audience member, Todd Palmer, L2 from Tampa, to claim victory, as we allowed him to answer a question in round 1 that none of the contestants could answer. Florida Wins even when they aren’t playing. There is a moral here, but what it is escapes me.

After the foils were distributed, and the surveys collected, it was off to judge dinner. Ben Bloodworth had made reservations at a local place for 60 of us. The food was good despite the service being slow. Then back to the hotel room for drinking and games, or if you are me, old man sleepy-time.

The day was over.

Lessons Learned

The week after the conference, I pulled together all the survey results and sent them to my RC, and then sent the individual results to each presenter.

The big lessons learned from the surveys were:

  • Acoustics are always going to be an issue. Do the best you can with the tools you have.
  • Have the presenter repeat questions from the audience.
  • If you have slides, don’t read from them. Use them to summarize what you are saying.
  • Practice your seminar. Make sure it’s not too short/too long.
  • The more interactive a seminar is, the higher it was rated. People like being involved. And they respond favorably when they are able to ask questions.
  • A visual aid that is too small to see is neither visual, nor an aid.

Additionally, things I learned:

  • Don’t bite off too much. Planning the conference, reviewing seminars, creating one, creating the Jeopardy game, the panel. There are a lot of competent people in this program, let them help you. Don’t feel that you have to do it all.
  • Im not too happy with the survey questions. I think they can be re-worked to draw more useful information out.
  • Better planning on the end time. 30 min for both the L3 panel and the Jeopardy game was not enough for either.
  • When providing the numbers of foils to WOTC, remember that judges who created the event aren’t included in that count, and double check the L0s to make sure none of them are actually L1s that just haven’t had Judge Apps updated yet.
  • Roughly a billion judges try to register after the deadline, but many lose interest when they learn there is no foil support. Go ahead and prepare a canned statement to cut/paste into emails.

Whelp, I hope you enjoyed this insight into the planning and execution of the Southeast Summer Conference. It was a blast. And come out and say hello at the Southeast Winter Conference in Atlanta Georgia; I’ll be presenting on ‘How to Prepare a Seminar Presentation’. So Meta!