Since May of this year, I have been part of the program committee for the upcoming NIRSA Annual Conference, which takes place in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 16-19. In 2016, I was the co-chair of the program committee for the NIRSA Region II Conference. This role also allowed me to serve on the host committee with chair Walter Kolis, who is also the chair for the 2019 conference. Given his experience, I reached out to Kolis to gain a better perspective of his experiences and share the specifics that go into programming a NIRSA conference.
The NIRSA Annual Conference has transformed since I first attended it in 2009. One of the main innovations for the upcoming NIRSA Annual Conference is an extended workshop style training. Master diversity trainer Le Mun Wah will lead a three-hour session emphasizing NIRSA’s core competencies. In particular, the training will be aligned with a targeted topic of diversity and inclusion. This will be the first time NIRSA has offered a workshop of this length and magnitude as part of the general conference. “This will be an exciting opportunity to look out for and attend,” said Kolis.
The program committee’s main point of emphasis for the conference program is to be intentional with focused topics. This year’s focused topics are integrated approaches to health and well-being, diversity and inclusion, career advancement, and telling the story of campus recreation to your campus stakeholders. “The targeted areas allows attendees to look at the field of campus recreation through these four lenses,” said Kolis. He explained the concept further: “The focused topics shape the content for the entire program, from keynote speaker to the selected educational sessions.” This was a successful initiative accomplished by the 2018 program headlined by the conference theme, “Elevate Your Path.” As Kolis concluded on this point: “The targeted areas help focus the conversation on the industry trends.”
Along with the targeted areas, the conference program will align with the NIRSA 2018-2021 strategic plan. This matches up well, as the strategic plan themes have overlap with the focus areas. “The integration of these ideas is the main concept guiding the conference program,” outlined Kolis. The full description of the NIRSA strategic plan can be found here.
The strategy behind the program is to expose attendees to opportunities aligned with core competencies. In previous years, education sessions have been more selected by area, such as intramural sports. “We looked more at the core competency being outlined in the presentation proposal more than the area,” said Kolis. “The program area is the vehicle for the message … It really comes down to the core competency such as training, not aquatics. Aquatics staff shouldn’t just go to aquatics sessions just because.” To Kolis’ point, the strategy of the conference program is set up attendees to learn and grow from each offered session. The full description of the NIRSA core competencies can be found here.
The effort put into the intentionality of the conference program can be attributed to the restructuring of the program committee appointments. The conference program committee chair is now a three-year commitment, which allows the committee member to build within the role. “The program committee has evolved from operational committee to a strategic committee,” summarized Kolis.
“Previously there were one-year appointments for committee members so there wasn’t much continuity from the conference programs,” explained Kolis. With the revised structure of the committee tenure lengths, the conference programs have become more intentionally aligned with NIRSA initiatives, paired with forward thinking. Kolis further explained: “The first year of the appointment is operational work, and the second year is strategic building. Essentially, it is 18-24 months of building an experience.” The restructuring of the program committee timeline has allowed for more of intentional focus in compiling the conference program which has resulted in a distinct strategy to emphasize specific themes shaping the industry trends.
It was a great opportunity to catch up with Kolis and pick his brain about the conference. I learned quite a bit about the nuances that go into putting together a conference of this magnitude. It gives me a new found appreciation for the subtle details in planning from start to finish. See you in Boston!