So you're considering planning a conference or retreat OR you've already committed to do so, and you are wondering what questions to ask of potential venues? After I wrote this post, I came back up to this top paragraph to tell you not to panic at what is below. This is my mind palace of venue planning information! :) I hope it doesn't overwhelm you with information but instead equips you with the questions you need to decide if a location is right for your conference or retreat. I have heard tales of (and experienced!) many beautiful and life-giving locations where groups returned again and again because of the pleasant and welcome atmosphere. You have already taken the first step to share your passion for Charlotte Mason Education with strangers, aka friends you haven't met yet. You don't have to ask all of these questions at your first meeting either! Just read through this and keep the points that apply to your retreat or conference in mind as you visit venues. Here are some things I suggest you consider...
If you are planning a local event that will attract a local audience, accessibility isn't as important an issue unless you live in a location that has limited or costly parking space. This often occurs in a large city, and sometimes a good option is to start your event in the evening when parking is more available and less costly. Depending on the location, weekend parking can also be more available and less costly. Many downtown community centers and churches have agreements with their local authorities to allow reduced cost or free parking for event participants. It would be nice to avoid a situation where your attendees have to pay extra for parking, even if that means incorporating it into your registration cost so that you can provide guaranteed space when your attendees arrive.
If you are planning a regional or national event, you will want to add airport accessibility to your list of considerations. It is often less expensive for attendees to fly into hubs of major airlines. Discount airlines such as Frontier and Allegiant fly into smaller airports, but their flights are usually restricted to certain days of the week. Does your venue have a shuttle? How will flyers get to your venue? Before booking a venue, consider how your participants will get there, and when there, where they will park and where they will stay.
Demand is so high for CM educational retreats and conferences right now that it is likely you will draw from a far greater geographical area than you are expecting. When I planned a regional event in Lexington, KY several years ago, we had participants from 7 surrounding states. I was expecting about 45 registrants; we had 70 registrants, and that was before CM education really exploded in the last few years.
You will want to research lodging options for your attendees and include these your conference website or event page. Suggest local B&Bs, hotels, and airbnb options. If your event is at or near a university, college or school that offers boarding, contact that location and request lodging cost information. At these venues, ask about linens. Are they provided or is it an additional fee? You'll want to let your attendees know how to prepare.
Unless you are planning such a large event that lodging is a required part of the contract, let your participants make their own lodging plans. In the event that you are planning a large event, ask your venue if there is a discount on facility or other fees if you fill a certain percentage of their rooms. At one national event that I planned, we received a 70% discount on meeting space if we booked over 75% of their rooms. This allowed us to keep our registration price very reasonable because we knew we could easily fill those rooms. One last question when you are coordinating lodging at a site - ask about local or state room fees and taxes. There's nothing like being quoted a room rate and basing your price on that and then learning after the event that the room rate didn't include taxes and fees. :(
There are numerous caterers that will deliver food to a venue that doesn't have its own kitchen service. Food trucks may also be an interesting option if their variety is wide enough that they can serve most of your guests. Note that food trucks often have a dollar or customer minimum. Ask about gluten free, sugar free and dairy free options.
If you are planning to meet in a space that has its own meals, it is helpful to know if you are dealing with employees of the venue or a third party caterer. Either way, you will likely need to meet with the person in charge of meals. Venue owned catering can often be more flexible on menu, price and meal times. Third party caterers often have strict rates established by their corporate office that cannot be negotiated as part of the overall price. They may not allow attendees to bring in outside food either, which can be frustrating for attendees who have dietary needs that are not accommodated by that caterer's offerings. Depending on how many people they serve concurrently (if other events are hosted in the same timeframe), they may be able/unable to modify their menu to meet your group's needs. If there is anything that attendees remember when they go home, it seems to be bad food. I think food should be a major factor in your decision on venue.
Does the venue have a person who handles meetings on a regular basis? It is a real blessing when this is the case! They usually have a meetings packet or brochure that spells out what they can provide. Document your conversations and send your notes to the venue's event coordinator for confirmation of your understanding. This will minimize misunderstandings because you will have followed up oral conversations with mutual agreement on what was discussed. When planning an event, I try to have most of my conversations with the venue's event coordinator and/or the caterer in person. I suggest you follow up with a small token of appreciation to that individual or individuals after the event is over.
Also at the top of your consideration list is the actual meeting space. Do you need a very large room for main sessions? If so, how is the lighting for your speaker and attendees? Are the chairs comfortable to sit in for several hours? What about the technology your speaker needs to give a successful presentation? Is there a stage or raised area so that he/she is visible from the back? How are the acoustics? Do you need microphones and speakers, and is there a separate charge for this? (See A/V section)
If you allow babies and young children at your event, will you be able to hear every cry from the back of the room? Are there enough doors so that a mama could slip out with an upset child? Is there somewhere she can go and nurse? These are things that attendees really appreciate knowing about a venue when they arrive.
Most likely you will use a number of breakout rooms for chats or workshops. The most important question to ask about these rooms is if they have the A/V needed for your speakers to give a presentation. They may not need a microphone, but they may need to show a presentation on a screen.
This may seem a strange thing to note, but if you settle on a venue, one thing to note on your walk through is how to change the temperature of the room, and if that is allowed. I once attended a conference where the main session room was about 10 degrees cooler than outside. Attendees literally brought blankets from their rooms because it was frigid!
How are rooms set up? If you want to change the set up of tables, chairs or sofas, etc., is this allowed? Do you do this, or does the venue do this? Is there a cleanup fee for the room? Can people stay late and talk? Is there a time when the facility will be locked and everyone needs to go home?
Will your venue allow signage? These may be directional signs (they look like yard signs) or simply colored paper taped to a door. Some venues require pre-approval for signage.
Audio/Visual and Technology Needs
I mentioned technology needs for speakers, but I'd like to break it down in more detail here. Speakers can need a variety of tools to present, including:
Printing and Copying
I once spoke at a conference on a university campus and had more workshop participants than they had estimated. I needed to make additional copies of my handout, but every copier on campus required a university card. It didn't accept real money! I finally found a professor who was willing to let me pay him to use his card! No matter the size of your venue, it is very nice to tell your volunteers and speakers where they can print out or copy documents, so you'll want to ask the venue how to make that happen (and how to pay for it) if it's needed in the middle of your event.
One thing that many new event planners don't think about is insurance. You should be insured. Let me repeat, you should be insured. Many venues require that you carry a separate liability policy to theirs. The venue will most likely have contacts for purchasing short-term insurance event policies, but you can ask your insurance agent and even HSLDA's insurance group for assistance.
Get everything in writing, and when you do, go over it carefully before signing the agreement. Note your deadlines and do your best to meet them. Sometimes there is a penalty if you don't send a list of attendees or a number of meal plans to the venue. Some venues are stricter on this than others, but I don't like to take chances. :) Is there a cancellation policy at the venue? Do they charge tax and/or a service fee on their services? These affect your budget and how you set your registration price. If you happen to be a 501(c)(3) organization, ask for tax-free billing.
Some venues want you to guarantee a certain number of attendees. They can offer a lower facility usage fee, for instance, if you book a certain number of meals and rooms. Be careful though, because if you don't meet a minimum number of attendees, you can end up paying the balance. Even if you negotiate to a lower attendee count, your facility usage fee could increase because they won't be making the lodging and meal money so they need to make it up by increasing the facility cost.
Are there places on the grounds where retreat attendees can walk, journal, do a nature study or just sit and chat? Will you want to have an outdoor workshop or perhaps an outdoor retreat bonfire or singalong? Retreats are even more memorable when there are opportunities for attendees to escape to the outdoors for a while.
I hope these suggestions have been helpful to you! Happy Retreat Planning, and remember, all this hard work on the front end will pay wonderful dividends when you see how your attention to detail has ensured a smooth and lovely time for your attendees.
When planning a CM conference or retreat, there are many free and low-cost tools you can use to advertise your event. Effective marketing is important to recovering the costs you will incur (often before the event) so that you can pay your speakers, rent the facility, order catering if needed, and provide materials.
When considering how to spread the word about your conference or retreat, social media is a platform that reaches the masses very quickly and efficiently.
Email Subscriber List
If you already manage a blog or website, the site most likely offers a tool for you to add subscribers to a mailing list. If you are not using this functionality, you should. The CMIC site has a few forms that collect email addresses of CM community leaders. The platform I use (Weebly) allows me to drop this information into a spreadsheet and import it into a site like MailChimp (see below) and create a regular subscriber list.
WordPress, Weebly, Blogger and other website development platforms provide an easy way to get your site online fast. Some of these platforms are easier to use than others, especially if you have not developed a website before. If you don't want to go to the expense of paying someone to set up a website, I would suggest that Weebly has a great user interface for people who are new to creating websites. Weebly allows you to set up a free domain (as long as weebly.com is the suffix), or you can pay a relatively nominal amount of money to purchase your own named domain for one year. Weebly is a drag or drop interface that is very intuitive, and if you get turned around, there are tutorials and help pages with plenty of advice. Weebly can be upgraded (at a really reasonable price, imo) to host a store so that you can sell registrations directly from your website. Weebly seamlessly integrates with Paypal or Stripe. You can also set up forms to collect information such as name, address, etc. for your attendees. Weebly allows you to export your orders or form information to a spreadsheet file so you can view or sort your registration information.
MailChimp is a free platform that allows the user to email a large number of people at one time without falling into most spam filters (though nothing is perfect, sometimes MailChimp emails do make it into a junk file). MailChimp only costs money when you get to a certain number of users, which is unlikely for most retreats and conferences unless they are national events. You can create attendee lists in MailChimp that are re-usable for future mail-outs. You can customize your emails with beautiful graphics and fonts and include links to new event information on your website or Facebook page.
I hope some of these tips will get you on your way to planning a conference or retreat that blesses others while not ruining your bottom line. It's no fun to lose your personal funds on an event, and I've heard about that happening far too many times. Planning far in advance will pay dividends.
Question: Are homeschool families or co-ops eligible to participate in the Box Tops for Education program?
The Official Rules state:
The Box Tops for Education program is also open to Internal Revenue Service recognized 501(c)(3) home school associations in the United States, organized and operated primarily for educational purposes and containing a class of 15 or more students in one or more grades from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Homeschool families are not eligible to clip/earn BTFE funds unless they participate in a qualified 501(c)(3) home school association as described above. If your cooperative is a 501(c)(3), you absolutely should pursue membership in the BTFE program.
The BTFE program can only accept a request to participate in Box Tops for Education from a School Administrator. The School Administrator should call customer service at 1-888-799-2444 and ask for information on joining the program.
If your co-op enrolls in the program, you are asked to identify a Coordinator who will submit the Box Tops two times a year (usually March 1 and November 1). Often co-ops will ask parents to take on a volunteer role during the year as part of the cooperative effort. This is an excellent job for a volunteer.
Our co-op has written up a handy reminder for your families when it gets near the time to submit Box Tops. It includes some tips on maximizing the money your co-op can make.
BOX TOPS SUBMISSION INSTRUCTIONS:
Our co-op applies BTFE money toward books or co-op/class supplies each year. We do not return cash to the family as it is a program made available and managed by the co-op, so the funds raised are targeted to co-op operations.
Question: How do you handle teacher absence or tardiness?
What is your attendance policy? How do you handle tardiness? I'm in a tough situation with a friend who has missed the maximum number of meetings allowed by our attendance policy. She and her children have also been tardy several times. This is awkward because we're actually very good friends. This has put me in a tough situation.
This is one of the most difficult situations to face as a co-op leader. In fact, this is the situation that often necessitates the change from a free co-op to one that charges a nominal tuition. Co-op leaders find that families who don't have any "skin in the game" can take co-op for granted, often arriving late or not arriving at all, with little to no notice. Other parents then must pick up the slack for the absent parents, which is frustrating because they have no time to prepare and feel rushed and forced. It is not good when this causes resentment between friends, and co-ops are full of good friends! Steps should be taken early on to help people create and enforce boundaries and feel a sense of obligation to their commitments. This is why gyms, even church gyms, charge membership fees, so that people will feel - at least in their wallets - that there is an obligation to attend.
We charge a nominal amount of tuition to attend co-op. There is a base price per child and then each additional child adds a small amount. The average per hour is around $1, which is very doable even for large families. The value of the feast the children receive in exchange is much greater than the cost. We also charge an annual registration fee to cover overhead and a facility fee to give an honorarium to our host church (we do not pay rent).
To make it even more affordable and show appreciation to those who take on leadership roles, those who teach in the co-op gets a tuition break. They are NOT paid. In exchange for the number of classes they teach, they get a reduction in tuition. In many, many cases, this means that a parent is not paying anything at all (other than registration) for her child(ren) to attend. She is doing the planning, preparation and laying out of the feast, so for her time and effort, she pays less or not at all. Other parents who do not teach but do volunteer also get a break but a smaller break than teachers. Those parents who are not able to help teach or volunteer pay full price. Falling in that latter group are mothers of 0-3 year olds for whom we have no classes; they prize the time they have at home with their littles. This has worked out very well for four years.
When we experienced some teachers not showing up to co-op, we had to have some measures in place to "encourage" them to form or maintain good habits. Natural consequences if you will. We have a teacher absence policy that allows absences in case of emergency or sickness, two per term. If they are out, they have to send all class prep to the class volunteer or another teacher, who fills in. If there are additional absences, this affects their tuition discount. Here is the excerpt of that policy:
"Currently, teachers and volunteers are recompensed for the time and effort it requires to plan and provide a class by a tuition credit on each monthly invoice. When a teacher or volunteer is unable to attend to their class, substitutes must be arranged and there is often an associated impact on curriculum content or classroom management. When at all possible, it is helpful to arrange doctor's appointments, vacation or other appointments on non-school days. Emergencies are understood. The Board believes that two absences, planned or unplanned, is a reasonable accommodation. However, if a teacher or volunteer misses more than 2 sessions out of a term, 1/3 of the tuition credit for that term will be removed from the next invoice. If the absences occur in the last month of school, the teacher or volunteer will be sent an invoice for the 1/3 term credit."
See our Parent Handbook for more details: http://www.charlottemasonincommunity.com/parent-handbook.html
This brings up a related subject - a Board. You as leaders may be suffering personally because you are making all the decisions, responsible for all the hard discussions with your friends, and bearing the brunt of frustration from other parents. You need protection. Protection comes from having a smaller group of people within the community who make the decisions so that it doesn't all rest on your shoulders. Hands down, the best thing we ever did was form a Board. Now I don't say, "I decided...." I say, "The Board decided...." If people want to get upset, they take their issues to the Board, not me. This will preserve friendships.
The most challenging part of a CM co-op is that CM is a RELATIONAL education. So by definition, we feel that we should be in right relationship all the time. That is so difficult when we are dealing with fallen humans in a fallen world. We should ask co-op members to pray for leadership and the community, and those in leadership should in turn pray for wisdom, pray for the families involved, and pray for every day and detail that goes in to spreading the feast.
Question: If we start charging for co-op membership or classes, how should we handle the money?
Money management in a cooperative can be a sensitive subject, but it's one that's absolutely necessary to address. If your co-op has decided to charge for tuition, supplies, registration, facility fees, etc., then you need to consider how that may affect your group's standing with the IRS. Unless you're an expert (and I'm not!), you need expert advice.
In my opinion, Homeschool CPA Carol Topp is the best source of co-op money management advice out there. She has been a CPA and tax professional specializing in non-profits and homeschool organizations for years. She homeschooled her own children and acted as treasurer in her co-op. She knows what she's talking about. I recommend that you use some funds to schedule a consulting session with her when starting a co-op and once a year after that. Her fee is peanuts compared to the peace of mind you will have from knowing you are doing it right.
Here are some of Carol's posts that you should read:
What Homeschool Leaders Don't Know About Tax Exempt Status
What Homeschool Leaders Don't Know About Non Profit Status
Questions on Taxes, Incorporation and Leaving a Group
I was recently asked what we do with money left over after all of our expenses have been paid. At first, we decided to start a small living books library at our host facility (a church) for the benefit of the co-op and church children. We put the profit into buying living books, and now we have more than 800 living books in the library. As time went by, we were also able to purchase supplies like Bausch & Lomb handheld magnifiers for nature walks, rulers and scissors (for sloyd), circular weaving looms for handcrafts, Expo markers and erasers, and other office supplies that made it easier for teachers when they found they had left a stapler or tape at home! And of course, we bought a coffee maker. Need I say more?
I live with my husband and three children in the beautiful bluegrass region of Kentucky. I am passionate about my faith, home educating my children, and seeing as much of God’s creation as possible! I grew up in a home that encouraged self-education, so Charlotte Mason’s philosophy was a natural fit for our family. After moving to Kentucky and struggling to find an established CM community, I decided to host information sessions on Mason’s philosophy of education. Those sessions led to a book study, which led to a summer cottage school, which led to the 2012 establishment of Overstone School, a Charlotte Mason cooperative school. Today, there are over 300 CM home educators and many support groups and book studies in the Bluegrass region, connected through the Bluegrass CM Community Facebook page.