The ELT Freelancers’ Awayday

Still buzzing from the success of the second ELT Freelancers’ Awayday last week, I thought I’d better get something down before I forget just how great it was. I don’t usually blow my own trumpet this loudly, but I’m going to allow myself this one post to do just that, and perhaps give you some ideas about how you could do something similar. Here we go …

In 2008 I left my in-house job at Macmillan Education in Oxford. The time was right for a house move, making the daily commute more than I was willing to take on. I’d seen lots of others make the move to freelancing and didn’t think much of it. Of course I’d get work. Of course I’d earn enough. Of course I’d have the perfect work-life balance. Of course I wouldn’t be lonely in a cottage in a rural Wiltshire village where literally no one walks past the front door all day.

On the whole, I do have plenty of work and income, and I’m not lonely. I couldn’t be happier actually. But the one thing I hadn’t realised was how much I valued my friends and colleagues, for everything from unravelling a challenging grammar activity in a student’s book, to having a gossip over coffee. So, a few months after I’d settled in to my new way of life, I contacted a few other Oxford-based ELT freelancers and suggested getting together for lunch, a date was arranged, and a table booked. We talked about clients (candidly, of course), former colleagues and office politics, and I drove home feeling pleased that I’d taken the time to make the 2.5-hour round trip and get my ELT publishing batteries recharged, even though it had meant writing off half a day’s work. I’ve blogged before about the benefits of building and maintaining a network and I’m a great believer in it.

I think I organised similar lunches a couple of times a year for the next two or three years and on one occasion my friend Helen offered to help out. Word had spread and numbers had grown to such an extent that organising a fixed-price set menu was a sensible thing to do, so I was grateful for some support. At one lunch we had 50 people and were starting to hear comments about the restaurant being too loud, it being a shame that you only really got to talk to the people you were sitting next to, and wouldn’t it be great to have some opportunity to get some training on PDF markup, which was big news for all of us at that time. Helen and I had a chat.

What happened next is a bit of a blur, but within a matter of months, we’d sent out a questionnaire to ask people if they’d be interested in something more than just a lunch, and if so, what they’d like to find out about. We found a venue just outside Oxford that offered everything we needed – plenty of space, full catering, wifi, parking – at a price we thought was reasonable, and booked it for their low-season at the end of January, meaning we could negotiate the best possible rate. We looked at the comments we’d had back on the questionnaire, spoke to some contacts, and came up with a programme for the day. Then we sat back and waited nervously for the day to arrive. You can read more about it in a post that Helen wrote for the ELTjam blog, but suffice to say it seemed to go pretty well.

The feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive. We’d had a hunch that getting a lot of freelancers – mostly editors, but we had some media researchers, designers, authors and an audio producer – together in one room would go well, and it had just taken a relatively small amount of effort to organise it. So we planned another one!

Here’s what we did this year in bullet-point form, giving you a checklist of things to consider if you think you could organise something similar for your network. Start small with a coffee or lunch meet-up, and take it from there.

This year we …

  • responded to feedback. We changed the four presenter-led sessions to two workshops and two presented sessions. We had longer lunch and coffee breaks to allow more time for networking.
  • went back to the same venue. We’d had great service and all our requirements were met, so we didn’t see a need to change. Costs had gone up slightly but sticking with the low-season date kept them down as far as possible.
  • invited guests who are directly relevant to our industry. The first presenters were from eMC Design, who do a lot of ELT work. The second presenters were from OUP, one of the leading ELT publishers. PAH Accounting offered free 15-minute consultations, and Posturite had a stand with equipment designed to ease aching hands, wrists and backs. The SfEP were represented during a coffee break (and have since offered participants a great joining offer and have set up a members’ forum for ELT. Yay!).
  • got some sponsorship. OUP kindly sponsored a drinks reception at the end of the day and more of their editors joined us for a further networking opportunity.
  • opened a bank account. To make the financial side as straightforward as possible.
  • made use of free tools like Mailchimp for organising our mailing list and making emails look as professional as possible. We used Google docs for collaborative work during the workshops, and we set up a new website on Wix to give all our information a home. We sold tickets via Billetto, which is free to use but takes a percentage of each sale.
  • put the ticket price up. Enough to cover additional costs. We do this because it gives us satisfaction, not because we’re setting up an events business.
  • hosted a pre-event dinner in the pub next to the venue to give anyone who’d travelled down the night before, or who wanted a further opportunity to network, to join us to say hi. (Keep it straightforward – get a fixed-price menu and take pre-orders so there are no surprises on the night.)
  • set up a Google map to get as many people car-sharing as possible.
  • promoted the event via the White Ink Facebook page, LinkedIn and Twitter (#FreeELT). That reached enough people to make the event a sell-out a couple of weeks before the day itself, and attracted participants from as far afield as Canada, Poland and Spain.

Feedback is starting to come in and we can already see that there is demand for another event in 2017. Things we’ll discuss as we plan that will include live streaming, tweaks to the workshop format and new guests and presentation topics. (Note, I said we’ll discuss these things. I’m not promising anything here!) Plenty of scope for another blog post anyway.

If you came to the Awayday, what were the key benefits for you? If you can see scope for setting up a similar event, do you have any questions? Any other comments very welcome.