Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) Conference Kick-Off

Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) Conference Kick-Off

Venue: Hilton Minneapolis
Attendees: 600 consultants
Rental company: Budget Car and Truck Rental
Lighting: Avex
Event planner: Pete Nelson, designer for Event Lab


The Independent Educational Consultants Association, a Fairfax, Virginia–based organization for school counselors, wanted a Minnesota theme for its annual event at the Hilton Minneapolis. “Each year, wherever they go to, they try to theme [the conference social events] around that city,” says Pete Nelson, designer for Minneapolis-based Event Lab. Nelson says his challenge was to make the Minnesota theme upscale and not too kitschy.

The kick-off welcome event on a Thursday evening, dubbed IECA Lodge, gave attendees that leisurely up-north feeling with ample time to network and catch up in a cozy cabin setting. Nelson decided to split the networking area for the event into two parts: a cozy lodge-themed room complete with a 12-foot double-sided fireplace, and an outdoor scene set with an 80-foot muslin mural depicting a view of northern Minnesota. To allow attendees the best chance to talk, the client requested that no entertainment detract from this time. “This is the one time of year that these people get to see each other. It’s really just about networking and catching up,” Nelson says.

Attendees passed through a framed wooden entrance surrounded by several faux–pine trees into the ballroom. Lounge furniture was placed around the fireplaces. Wool throw blankets and cabin pillows with fishing and other outdoor sports themes accented the couches.

Ten-person round tables as well as four-person low cocktail tables were placed nearby. Nelson used wool throws for table linens. Pinecone lamps adorned the small tables while the large tables had galvanized metal buckets filled with native Minnesota wildflowers as their centerpieces. Pinecone lanterns with battery operated tea lights hung from the ceiling.

In the second half of the ballroom, Nelson achieved the outdoor look with a backyard tailgate picnic scene. Eight-foot buffet tables were dressed in red-and-white and blue-and-white checkered linens, and buckets of Minnesota wildflowers served as centerpieces.

The tailgates of three pickup trucks served as food stations where guests could dine on traditional picnic fare. This posed a challenge as the trucks had to be almost completely drained of gas, squeezed onto the freight elevator, and rolled into the ballroom on wood boards so the carpet wasn’t damaged. With a modest budget, Nelson says he chose a few high-impact upscale décor items.