Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Interview with RNA conference organisers, Jan Jones and Roger Sanderson

The RNA’s conferences are well known for being great fun, informative, a place to meet old friends and make new ones. This year’s conference at Caerleon was no exception. Today’s interviewees, Jan Jones and Roger Sanderson, are the two amazing organisers who make it all possible. They are already working towards next year’s conference.

When and how did you become an RNA conference organiser?

Roger: I started helping when Marina Oliver organised the first residential conference in Stonyhurst in 1998. I have co-organised each one since (with Marina, then Jenny Haddon, then Jan), learning a bit every time.

Jan: I ran away to my first conference in 2000 and enjoyed it so much that I’ve booked for every one since. Between 2004 and 2005 I naively asked Jenny Haddon if she would like any help with pre-conference paperwork - and nearly had my hand bitten off. The rest is history...

This year’s conference has just taken place, when will you start organising next years?

Jan: We’ve already started! Running the annual conference is pretty much a year-round job. For a start we have a rolling programme of site visits because we need to size up places two or three years in advance in order to get the dates we want at the right price.

Roger: Yes, for any conference, the first thing is to decide on a venue this means combining accessibility, suitability and PRICE. We like to move around the country so no region feels left out and all RNA members have a sporting chance of getting to at least one conference relatively easily. Before making a decision we might visit four or five promising sites to look at what is on offer and to work out exactly what it would cost. Costing can be quite complicated.

Jan: Costing is extremely complicated! Some places charge per person per 24hours and include the seminar rooms. Some places we have to pay separately for the conference centre and for the accommodation. Some places we have to add up every single item individually. It’s important to get the finances right because writers in general don’t have much spare money, so we have to keep the cost to our members as low as possible whilst still breaking even. We've already booked Penrith for 2012 and Sheffield for 2013. We are currently looking at options for 2014 and 2015. Once decided, we'll visit each site at least twice more before the Conference to make detailed plans and to make sure that the team on the campus know what to expect from 150 or so romantic novelists.

Roger: that’s one part of the conference groundwork, the other is the programme. We don’t work quite as far ahead there, but already have two or three talks booked for next year’s conference.

Tell us what goes on behind the scenes how do you go about organising a conference so it runs as smoothly as Caerleon's?

Jan: For me, it’s attention to detail. We’ve been running the conferences together for several years now, so we can remind each other of previous snags. No site is perfect, but we work with the venues and compensate for any peculiarities they might have that could prove awkward.

Roger: Solving potential difficulties before they occur, in other words. But even then, there’s always some last minute problem that needs prompt action. Speakers fall ill, the rooms we have been faithfully promised can't be used, members find at the last moment that yes, they can make it to the Conference and are there any places left? We do what we can. As the conference date draws nearer we'll be exchanging 10/20 emails a day.

Jan: So yes, in the main it is preparation, but the main reason why things flow nicely during the conference itself is that we have a fabulous mix of delegates who enjoy the company just as much as they enjoy the business side of things. Problems aren’t nearly so insurmountable if people are having a good time.

Right - A well organised Goody bag filling line at Caerleon.

How do you choose the speakers and

Jan: We like to keep the programme fluid until the last minute. We pick up or are offered speakers throughout the year, so we know the majority of the items, but often we don’t decide the actual timetable until just before sending the packs out at the end of May. This means we can pick up on trends and new topics and slot speakers in quite easily, for example Freda Lightfoot on ‘kindling’ this year.

Roger: We like to have different subjects from year to year, we also ask interesting speakers when we come across them - that can be quite late on. This year we met - and propositioned - Simon Petherick of Beautiful Books at the shortlist breakfast in February. In 2010, we asked Joanna Trollope to be out headline speaker just after she’d been awarded her Lifetime Star at the Awards ceremony in March.

Jan: As a general rule, we aim to have talks across all genres and for all levels of the membership. When we lay all the sessions out we can spot what is missing from the mix and hopefully rectify it (eg we turned out not to have so much on research this year, so prevailed on Louise Allen to talk about what historic prints can tell the writer).

Where's your favourite conference venue?

Roger: My favourite venue is Penrith. The staff have always been great, the site is compact, the food good. Of course the setting and the programme and the weather at Greenwich were all superb (not the accommodation). But we can only afford that once every fifty years.

Jan: Penrith, without a doubt. It’s compact, reasonably priced, the staff are incredibly friendly and helpful. The accommodation has seen better days, but you can park right next to it and the kitchens are a brilliant size for socialising.

What do you most enjoy about the job?

Roger: I'm tempted to say that what I enjoy most is the first glass of wine at the end of the day. If you have a successful start, a good second and third day, a good last day then that is a relief and is very satisfying. Other than that I like meeting people (usually when shooting from one job to the next|) and I always learn something.

Jan: I really enjoy the planning, and I get a huge buzz of satisfaction when things go well. I’ve got such a lot from the RNA and it pleases me greatly to be able to give something back that I know I can do well. And then, of course, I really enjoy being able to get back to writing when it’s all over for another year!

Thank you Jan and Roger for all the hard work you put in to make the RNA’s conferences so wonderful. It is greatly appreciated by everyone who attends. We're looking forward to next year's conference in Penrith.

Look out for Jan’s serial ‘An ordinary gift’ currently running in Woman’s Weekly magazine. For more details see Jan's blog


The Time Sculptor said...

This was a fascinating look into all the hard work that goes into organising the conferences. I don't know where you get your boundless energy from... it sounds like a full time job plus overtime! Well done, both of you.
Jane Gray

Chris Stovell said...

As a first-time full attendee at Caerleon this year, I applaud Jan and Roger for their terrific organisational skills which meant I had a wonderful time. Huge thanks to them both!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

I couldn't make the conference this year, but I'm always so impressed by your organisational skills and the smooth running of it all. Thanks to both of you.

Lesley Cookman said...

Great interview. Having organised one - and only one! - conference, I know how difficult it is, and I'm in awe of your expertise. And I was very happy to have been able to contribute this year by appearing (!) on a panel.

My first residential conference was also York, and Jan sent me a photo of us all in the lecture hall. (Through the post; unbelievably, you couldn't send pictures via email then. Only 11 years ago. Golly.)

Roll on, Penrith. I'm saving already.

Louise Allen said...

Another fabulous conference, as always. It is so easy to see the swan gliding along the surface without remembering the feet paddling furiously below!
Thanks, Jan and Roger!