Case Study: Canadian Dam Association’s Conference in NF

The Canadian Dam Association Annual Conference is a heavily volunteer-led initiative. Most of the 14-person Conference Planning Committee were based in the conference destination, St. John’s, making for wonderful “on the ground” volunteers. They were a hands-on committee that could get you whatever you needed from venues and musicians, to transportation, gift suppliers, and even what dams would be good for post-conference technical tours.

The planning committee was excited to bring in new staff to help with their upcoming in-person conference. However, the new staff had never planned a CDA conference before, so they were all looking for a fresh perspective. The committee wanted to create an innovative program that would attract colleagues from the dam industry across Canada and beyond to the convention centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland, despite the ongoing pandemic.

The 2.5-day conference format included:
• 6 Pre-Conference Workshops

• Speed Networking
• Sunday Welcome Reception
• Monday Keynote
• 52 Technical sessions presented in 3 breakout rooms
• Reception on the Trade Show Floor
• 25th Anniversary celebration off-site
• Awards Luncheon
• Closing Panel
• 2 off-site Post-Conference Technical tours to local dams

Financial (mandated by the Board of Directors to help ease a deficit due to the pandemic): 

Attendance Goal: 325 attendees 

Membership Committee Goal: Increase Membership by 10%.

Programming Goals: (based on feedback):
• Switch up the sit-down awards dinner banquet.
• As Exhibitor surveys complained about a lack of delegate face-time, the new goal was to create more dedicated delegate time on the trade show floor and greater added value.
• Continue offering a Women in Engineering element
• Offer more exhibit spaces – always sells out early (based on committee/Board):
• Incorporate a major celebration for the 25th Anniversary of CDA
• Feature Newfoundland food, entertainment, and venues in every conference element.


Pre-Conference Workshops
Six pre-conference workshops with approximately 25 attendees each, held at the host hotel, kicked off the conference on Sunday. To elevate anticipated lineups at the conference registration desk opening later that day at the convention centre, CDA Staff hauled and handed out conference registration packages to give workshop attendees.

Welcome Gift

To feature everything Newfoundland, the committee decided each delegate would receive a customized Newfoundland Chocolate Bar branded with the welcome gift sponsor logo, Tetra Tech, as well as a rock slate coaster with the CDA 25th Anniversary logo. Production for the rock coaster took 2 – 3 weeks. This was important to note as more were ordered 3 weeks before the conference when registrations exceeded expectations. The shipment arrived just in time and there ended up only being 2 left over!

Speed Networking – Engagement
Although during the registration process over 200 attendees marked “Yes” that they would attend the first-ever offered Speed Networking and set the room for 180, only 60 registrants attended the session on Sunday. Attendees were encouraged to find and follow up with people they had met to connect further by using the Mobile App Attendee list. Those attendees raved about the experience and hope to have it offered again.

Sunday “In-House” Welcome Reception
For previous CDA conferences, the Welcome Reception was traditionally held off-site. To keep the budget in line and for the mere convenience of attendees travelling to Newfoundland, the committee decided to hold the reception in the main Convention Centre registration area foyer. With the size of the CDA program, there were no other competing events happening at the convention centre. CDA had all of the space. This reception garnered the highest attendance ever, increasing the “badge pick up” rate before the official start of the conference, easing anticipated lineups.

The Convention Centre however wasn’t prepared for the influx of attendees and the bartenders were at capacity right from the start without any further staff available in the venue. The committee had made their best estimate with historical stats, but nothing could beat the craving to be in-person and 80 more people attended the reception than thought! Although the bar line-ups were long, delegates passed the time catching up with old friends. Knowing there was another reception the next night on the trade show floor, CDA scheduled a quick meeting with the venue during the Sunday reception. CDA was able to increase the number of bars and bartenders, as well as reception food, to improve flow for the following night, complete with a fresh idea of featuring a local craft brew.

St. John’s Convention Centre – Private Building
The St. John’s Convention Centre was not like many other centres. Being a private building with no public access, no shipments were allowed to be delivered to the venue, not even couriers, so they had to be shipped to the Show Services office which was a 10-minute drive away. Knowing that, CDA staff worked with the committee to determine a printer, PrintThree steps away from the venue for any last-minute requirements as well as having any last-minute shipments sent to the host hotel or committee member’s homes.

Creative and Innovative – Monday Kick-off
Scripting for the Monday Kick-off was a chance to address the whole delegation and thank them for making it to the conference. The Conference Co-chairs took this opportunity to set the tone for the conference by injecting humour into the script teaching the audience Newfie sayings and when to day them. The Co-chairs came up with a very unique and creative idea. Instead of thanking the sponsors with a PowerPoint and verbal recognition, the co-chairs wrote a customized song!

50+ Technical Sessions
Two break-out rooms and the general session room were used to host the 12 sessions of 52 presentations over two days. To help with speaker management, a technical sub-committee was formed to help select from paper reviews. Onsite local engineering student volunteers were used as room monitors to help greet speakers, check presentations and be time-keepers. To give banquets time to set up and clear the Tuesday plated Awards lunch happening in the general session room, the schedule was diligent to remove technical sessions happening in that room immediately before and after lunch.

Entertainment on the Trade Show Floor
New! The reception on the trade show floor had never featured entertainment. The Dolly Rogers was an up-and-coming St. John’s female duo recommended by a boat captain, who was also in a band. Dolly Rogers performed fabulously and set the tone for networking in a casual pub environment on the trade show floor. Once again, the exhibitors loved the trade show traffic!

Awards Luncheon
New! Hosted by the Honours and Awards Committee of CDA and working in conjunction with the conference planning committee and banquets, the first-ever awards luncheon was a success as the banquet team delivered the plated meal elements in perfect cue with the scripting. The 420-person audience was an attendance record for the awards and they were engaged and still with enough time for tables to network.

25th Anniversary Celebration
New! The planning committee chose the venue, The Rooms, a glass building museum on the top of a hill in St. John’s with views of the sunset from the large windows. This venue encompassed all Newfoundland history in its exhibits and built-in door. The committee sourced local talent from a dinner theatre travelling production cast (Spirit of Newfoundland) to a Celtic band (a cousin of the committee member) and a Celtic trio (a local staple).

The committee scheduled the celebration evening to fit in all three types of entertainment in the venue as vignettes including a screech-in area. Using the local DMC for bussing transportation from the host hotel, and Newfoundland dogs outside The Rooms as greeters, as soon as delegates got off the bus, they could feel the warm hospitality of what the night would hold. Inside a Celtic trio, played on the first level of this open-concept building. The 2nd floor hosted a screech-in. From the fourth floor level where quieter seating and the seafood station were, one could look over the glass railing and see all of the action of the levels. The third level has the most action with the stage for band and singing performances as well as most of the food stations and bars. 

With the screech-in on one level and the Celtic band on another, the noise level was a perfect level not to interfere with each activity. The band kept the audience engaged and set the vibe of the night. Following the band was the headliner, Spirit of Newfoundland production cast performance of top songs and skits from their dinner show. It was a humorous way to get a bit of Newfoundland history and hear the classic regional songs, a perfect way to end the night.

Attendees roamed, grazed and enjoyed the music and museum exhibits. CDA volunteers and staff received so many comments like this: “Thank you for having this reception and not making them sit through boring speeches at a banquet!”

Being a 4-hour reception, The Rooms banquet staff were quick to let staff know on the 2nd hour of the event, that there were big eaters onsite and already we’re seeing signs of food running out (especially seafood). The venue and committee were able to quickly coordinate getting pizzas delivered for the last hour of the event to appease any hunger cravings. It ended up being a perfect amount as many attendees had made their way to bars on George Street, which was accounted for.

The Last Day
The last half-day consisted of the Annual General Meeting, Industry Panel session and the 2023 Conference location reveal. The attendees left rejuvenated with new knowledge and new connections from all over the world!