Conference organising in times of chaos

To the surprise of exactly no one, we cancelled CSS Day 2020, originally slated for 11th and 12th of June. In this post I’d like to explain our reasoning, and call for a gesture of solidarity and support to small, independent conference organisers.

All CSS Day attendees received a mail with details about the reimbursement process. If you did not receive it we do not have your correct email address on file, and you should contact us.

Being a good attendee

If you want the independent web conference community to continue to exist in the future, there are a few things you can do for your friendly local conference organiser.

  1. Make sure they can reach you. Check your email address in their sales system.
  2. If the conference offers the option, and if you can afford it at all, allow them to move your ticket forward to the next edition. This will give them some financial breathing room. See it as an interest-free loan aimed at preserving the ecosystem all of us built.
  3. Be understanding of delays and uncertainties. All conference organisers must chart their own course, and some will be taking a wait-and-see approach, especially if their conferences are scheduled for late June or beyond.
  4. If conferences do run, be accepting of a sharply diminished experience. It is very likely that conferences sell way fewer tickets than usual, and the most obvious way of saving money is removing luxury items such as nice extra catering options, afterparties with free drinks, diversity tickets, captioning, possbily even wifi. Speakers may be asked to waive their speaking fee. The entire conference might be moved online. Be accepting of such occurrences, and remember that they’re aimed at allowing the organisers to support themselves and their families.

A good example of the last point is the perfmatters conference over in the US. It switched to an online conference, but offered no refunds for the sharp decline in experience because the money was already spent. As a partial recompense, all attendees were allowed to invite someone else to the online conference.

I fully support Estelle in this difficult decision, but at the same time I’m glad I don’t have to do the same.

More in general, the question is whether we want the independent web conference community to survive. (I do, but I’m biased.) If we stick together, and attendees are accepting of cancellations, sharp service level declines, and possibly even loss of money, we might survive.

If we don’t, in a few years we’ll only have corporate conferences with a corporate agenda to attend.

Your choice.

Being a good sponsor

As a sponsor, there are also a few things you can do:

  1. If you can afford it, and the sum is not too large, allow cancelled conferences to retain your sponsorship money, possibly as a down payment for a sponsorship next year.
  2. Be accepting of point 4 above. If you had earmarked your sponsorship for a specific purpose, be prepared to waive that purpose.
  3. That last point will likely remain true for the next year. Please do not earmark future sponsorships, but allow the organiser to spend it as they see fit — and that includes avoiding personal bankruptcy.

Conference finances

Just so you understand my perspective: with one stroke I lost 1/3rd of my annual income. The situation is dire, though fortunately not hopeless. Other conference organisers are hit even harder.

The real question for me personally is whether performance.now(2020), 12th anf 13th of November, will run. Right now we think it will, but if it doesn’t I lose another third of my annual income and I have a real problem.

CSS Day was still far removed from the break-even point. That was completely expected at this time of the year, and even ten days ago we didn’t worry about it. Now, however, we must work with a scenario where we will not sell any more tickets, and where some current ticket holders will ask for a reimbursement. Thus, the financial risk of running the conference has gone from fairly low to enormous. This informs all decisions we took.

A small, independent web conference of our type breaks even when about 60-75% of the tickets are sold. Any number below 60% means that the organisers will have to pay money out of their own pocket.

We try to keep prices relatively restrained, that’s why the break-even point is so high. Huge corporate IT conferences have quite different break-even points, especially if they use the sponsor money to actually pay for the conference and put the complete proceedings of the ticket sales in their own pockets.

June cancelled

It is possible that the de-facto travel ban will be rescinded by early June. The big question is when exactly that will happen. Even if we are absurdly positive and say that we’ll be out of the woods by late April or early May, people will still be understandably concerned about their health, and will not be amenable to booking a trip for the next month.

That means that, in practice, even in a fairy-tale positve scenario we will sell way fewer tickets than last year. It is quite likely we will stay below the magical 65% line that breaks us even. Remember: every single cent we’d pay would come from our own pocket, since we’re going to reimburse the tickets and lose that money. The risk is simply too big, and we decline to run it. The organisers of the XOXO festival explain this problem more clearly than I can.

An added benefit is that we have not yet made any large payments to the venue and the hotel, and if we cancel now we won’t have to. Our suppliers are understanding of the situation, and it appears that the only costs we have to pay is a single speaker flight. That’s manageable.

Online conference? Nope

So: no physical conference in June. But what about an online conference or a postponed one?

Moving conferences online is frequently suggested on Twitter — mostly by people who have no experience in organising conferences. Sure we could try to do that, but there are considerable downsides:

  1. Will our audience buy tickets for an online-only conference? Our mailing lists and past audience have self-selected for a desire to attend a physical conference, where not only the talks, but also the social gatherings in the hallways are very important. Some people don’t like that, but our audience very much does.
  2. The ticket price would have to be significantly lower than for a physical conference. Of course, the costs would also be significantly lower, but a much lower ticket price still means much less profit per ticket. Financially, it might work. Then again, it might not. We just don’t know.
  3. What about our current ticekt holders? Our ticketing system allows us to reimburse them (and we will do so), but it has no option to partially reimburse the tickets of those attendees who’d like to switch to the online conference. We’d have to go through a manual process of invoicing and reimbursing that is likely to take a LOT of time.
  4. Then we’d have to find suitable software for online conferences. No doubt there are quite a few good options, but since we have no experience it would take us a long time to pick one.
  5. The biggest problem with online conferencing software is that we cannot test it. If something goes wrong on the conference day itself, we essentially do not know what to do, attendees become dissatisfied, and our brand suffers. People might even ask for a reimbursement — and we can’t even tell them they’re wrong.
  6. The massive uncertainty that comes with the software will have caused us to live in a state of ultra-stress for weeks, and that is not conducive to reasoning and clarity of thought.
  7. Finally, all of this would take a lot of extra time that we cannot spend on other jobs. Although it’s possible we would make some money, it’s also possible that we won’t. The risk is too high.

So our huge time investment and stress load might not actually pay out, and I personally might still be left with a gaping hole of about 1/3rd of my annual income after spending way too many weeks on a solution that didn’t work, left everyone dissatisfied, and precluded me from doing other work while stressing me out so much that I have to take a few weeks’ break without having any money.

I will not go that route. The risk is too high.

Postponing? Nah

Postponing the conference is a more realistic approach. But to which dates? The venue was kind enough to offer us early September dates, but we doubt those are going to work.

Same problem as always: will people buy tickets? They might, but they might not. The risk is too high.

There are additional risks, as Niels Leenheer, who was recently forced to cancel the Fronteers 2020 conference, outlines in a recent article. If many conferences move to fall dates, they will compete not only with one another, but also with the regularly-scheduled conferences that would take place in fall anyway. It’s a lose-lose scenario for everyone.

Part of conference organising is the careful planning of the date. You do not want to be too close to similar conferences, and you’re bound to conference season anyway, which stretches from early March to late June and then from mid September to early December — at least in Europe.

Moreover, once you have a time slot that you have used for several years in a row, your attendees — and your competitors — adjust to that. Changing it is something not to be considered lightly, and will affect not only your own conference, but also other ones planned around the new dates. Solidarity requires us to stay away from the time slots of other independent web conferences.

Also, speakers may have other obligations by that time, or they might still decline to come due to health concerns. All this is entirely understandable, and while we have built up a great network of supportive former speakers who would probably be willing to help us out, it wouldn’t be the conference our attendees bought a ticket for. Besides, it would mean repeating speakers year over year, something we generally try to avoid.

Finally, this would cost us some extra time, though not nearly as much as moving the conference online. Is it the wisest course of action to spend that extra time on postponing the conference instead of looking for other jobs? I don’t think so.

The risk is too high. It’s far better to write off CSS Day 2020 entirely and use the freed-up time to make money in other ways.

***

So that’ where we stand right now. The independent web conference community is taking a severe hit, and we are no exception. Still, we aim to return.

There’s one silver lining: when all this is over there will be pent-up demand for conferences. Plenty of people enjoy going to them, and while skipping one is not a great hardship, skipping an entire conference season might be. So with a little bit of luck our conferences might return to normal in 2021.

If we stick together and show some solidarity we can survive this.

Stay healthy,

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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