Imagine planning a conference that pairs world-renown artisans with those looking to further their skills. Breakout sessions wouldn’t be the only logistical hurdle as these artists work hands on in workshop sessions. Painters, sculptors, potters—all of these and more need supplies, instructions, and most importantly, space to work in.
These are some of the logistical challenges that Matt Tommey, conference host of the Christian-based Gathering of Artisans in Asheville, North Carolina, faces annually. While many conference centers can hold a large number of attendees, special considerations are kept in mind for this event.
Recently, Gathering of Artisans changed venues. It is now held at Ridgecrest Conference Center, a facility that can accommodate up to 2,000 participants. While there are not yet that many attending Gathering of Artisans—the numbers are closer to 250—space is a big issue. Tommey notes that the event takes up at least five times the amount of room needed at a typical conference. Because of that, choosing the right date is critical.
Even with the excellent accommodations that Ridgecrest makes, Tommey says, some artists simply can’t practice their art in a typical conference room setting. That led him to partner with various artists in the Asheville area, facilitating workshops in their studios. This is especially important for glass artists, potters and the like.
“We’re really the only Christian conference in the world that offers the level of classes that we do,” says Tommey. The four-day conference, held annually in August, has grown significantly since its inception in 2010. “When we first started, we were trying to reach all different types of artists,” he notes—from visual and theatrical artists to dancers and musicians.
Over time though, the conference narrowed its offerings. “We’ve really zoned in on visual artists primarily,” he says. “And that’s really our sweet spot, 2D and 3D artists.” Tommey himself falls into the latter camp as an artist who creates intricate baskets in the form of woven sculptures.
The way that conference registration is set up is key to the event’s success, he believes. “We do it in phases,” he says, beginning with a general notice on social media and via the conference’s email list. “Preregistration says, ‘Register for the conference!’ It doesn’t mean you’re going to come but it will hold your spot.” That happens a week before general registration opens, he says, and it’s been extremely successful. “Once we open preregistration, we typically sell out the whole conference within several hours.”
Communication is key with both participants and the master artists, he says, many of whom travel a great distance to be part of the event. The team communicates mainly through Zoom calls and utilizes Google forms for shared information. There is a core team of five staff and 25-30 teachers involved throughout the process.
In October, potential instructors are invited to share submissions that include a class proposal, headshot, bio, website and a one-minute video. All of these things are submitted via Google forms. His wife is a teacher and keeps it all organized. This keeps everything in one place and helps the team determine which classes will be offered at that year’s event. “It’s been a gamechanger for us over the past few years,” says Tommey.
This year’s event faced a new hurdle: COVID-19. Despite working closely with Ridgecrest and reaching 50% of registration goals, Tommey ultimately was forced to cancel the Gathering of Artisans. “Even if the state of North Carolina continues to slowly open up, based on the governor's orders it is highly likely that we will still be under strict social distancing limitations which would severely impact the spirit of the conference, not to mention the participant experience,” reads a statement on the event’s website.
The goal is for the Gathering to occur Aug. 25-29, 2021.