Once upon a time, back in 1996 (yes, that is a long time ago), I had the distinction of being the volunteer coordinator for the American Bus Association convention that came to Portland, Oregon.
As this was on one of the largest (at the time) industry conferences to land here in the City of Roses, we wanted to make sure we created the best welcome ever. And that meant volunteers. Lots of them. Try 500 of them. And yes, you did read that number right.
Anyone who has worked on a meeting/tourism industry event knows what I am talking about. I jokingly say that this is creating an event for the nitpickiest of the nitpickers since everyone attending KNOWS event planning inside and out. Any little detail out of line is immediately noticed.
So it had to be right the first time. And fortunately, it was.
This massive volunteer effort had volunteers stationed as airport welcomers, bus tour guides, hotel resource desks, onsite conference volunteers inside the convention center, dine-around guides, sightseeing guides and extra bodies helping out for the opening reception.
Logistically, it could have been a nightmare. But it wasn’t. It did take a lot of super detailed planning, though.
Here are some tips for site staff and volunteer orientation:
- Before you even get started with assigning volunteers, know what you are asking the volunteers/staff to do. Having a clear job description with tasks, hours, dates and location to be worked, and a team lead is critical. That way, people know what they are signing up for and you are setting expectations.
- Create then send the staff/volunteers a confirmation packet that includes resources, maps, locations of other volunteers and team leads (with radios), emergency processes, on-site contacts, volunteer/staff orientation date/time/location and overall schedule/timelines.
- Confirm, Confirm, Confirm. Email, phone, text…you name it. You cannot confirm enough times. Provide a number or email to report cancellations—they can and do happen. Make sure you have additional backup volunteers.
- In the volunteer orientation, go over the key purpose of the event. Then review the timelines and flow so everyone is on the same path. Describe job functions and positions, and answer questions to make everyone feel comfortable.
- Discuss emergency procedures should the unthinkable happen. You are not there to make everyone scared but they should be informed as the event contacts who may need to direct out-of-town attendees to safety.
- Ribbons make volunteers and staff stand out and feel important to the event.
- Provide swag if possible in the budget. People LOVE t-shirts or some other kind of memorabilia connected to their volunteer experience. Plus, it creates an immediate identifier (i.e. “Look for the person in the yellow t-shirt.”)
- Don’t overburden your volunteers. Long stretches without breaks or during critical commute times make for grumpy personnel. Be reasonable. Yes, it might mean adding another volunteer shift, but keeping everyone fresh and peppy can make a huge impact on positive attendee interaction with them.
- Make sure you have a communications and crisis response infrastructure in place. Figure out what key personnel have radios and ensure all radios are charged at all times.
- Thank them. During a short down time onsite, I was able to crank out 500 volunteer certificates of appreciation plus have 500 personalized letters produced and signed. Those went out into the mail prior to the conference ending, so by the time everyone who volunteered got home, there was an acknowledgement waiting for them.
Taking these steps to have a clear orientation process for both staff and volunteers will enable onsite events to be successful, no matter the size!