Produced, hosted and even partially taught by Cheryl Strickland, the conference is an extension of her efforts to increase workroom education, professionalism and success. Strickland's commitment to these goals and to sharing knowledge is well established through her Professional Drapery School, SewWhat? Newsletter and columns in Draperies & Window Coverings magazine (see D&WC, March 1998).
Like most robust four-year-olds, the workroom conference is experiencing growing pains. An increase of more than 100 attendees from last year, and nearly double the number of vendors, doesn't happen without a lot of hard work or some problems. Strickland and her staff exert every effort to produce a valuable educational conference for the attendees that remains convenient, cost-effective and beneficial to vendors as well.
The end result clearly was a success, but it came with an understanding that at its current rate of growth the conference likely will be seeking new facilities soon.
The heart of the Workroom Educational Conference is the seminar program. The schedule of 63 sessions held over a four-day period is what draws 400 workroom owners and employees to a mountain retreat in western North Carolina. Only nine of the classes were repeated from the 1999 schedule, the remaining were new for this year's conference.
The class schedule meant some attendees had to make a few hard choices. Slated between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. on Monday, the class schedule offered multiple sessions in many time slots without repeats. The classrooms at the Ridgecrest Conference Center were centered in one building and were large enough to hold up to 100 students—which in some cases was necessary.
The class topics were wide-ranging and many featured hands-on participation. The faculty of some 30 instructors engaged attendees in subjects covering solutions to challenging windows, laminating roller shades, iron-on equipment and techniques, light upholstery, decorative trimmings and interlining. Several other classes addressed important business and marketing topics such as photography and digital imaging, building the business, designing a Web site, personal and business finances, professional guides to pricing and client psychology.
Each session contained plenty of tips and tricks to make fabricating and running a workroom easier and more profitable.
At the end of each day, open forums were scheduled for attendees to bring up topics of importance.
With the class schedule held to between breakfast and lunch, afternoons during two of the conference days were open for attendees to visit the vendor exhibit areas. And it's quite possible that every, single attendee walked through to check out the displays of this year's 50 vendors. Extra hours were tagged onto the Saturday schedule by a majority vote of vendors prior to the conference to allow attendees even more time to browse the displays.
Originally planned for one exhibit hall, a second hall in a separate building had to be added to accommodate the number of companies wanting to display workroom-related products from batting to trimmings. Still, Strickland regrets that some companies had to be turned down because exhibit space this year sold out so quickly.
In addition to the product display area vendor demonstrations were schedule in an adjacent room every 30 minutes during the product display hours. Here attendees could meet with vendor representatives to learn in more detail how their products or services can help in their workrooms.
The growth spurt experienced by the conference since last year required finding a new location this year. Once held at Strickland's school in nearby Swannanoa, the conference was moved to a hotel/meeting facility, which it outgrew last year. The Ridgecrest Conference Center, a short distance from Asheville, was the site selected.
Befitting its location at "the buckle of the Bible Belt," the center is a religious retreat facility with a long history stretching to the turn of the century. As such, its Spartan accommodations didn't please everybody. The rooms in the main building were reminiscent of college dormitory rooms, and some others reportedly didn't have air conditioning. None of the rooms had televisions.
It wasn't all bad. The Ridgecrest Center provided a panoramic view of the mountains and plenty of rocking chairs to take it in. More appropriately it also provided ample classroom space, twice the amount of vendor display area as last year's conference and a cafeteria large enough to handle the number of attendees in a short time frame. It may have taken a bit to get reacquainted with self-serve cafeteria-style food (and high school flashbacks), but the large open space provided for some of the best networking opportunities. It was not unusual to see several conference attendees huddled together drawing on napkins or folding them into patterns demonstrating something they had learned earlier that day.
The workroom conference is poised to outgrown the Ridgecrest Center in the very, near future. For now, scheduling requires next year's conference to return to Ridgecrest, but it likely will move to larger accommodations for its sixth annual event.
In 2001, the conference is scheduled for August 23 to 27. For more information call (888) 4SewWhat; www.sewwhatnews.com.