Conference organiser’s handbook
Finding locations is usually the first step you take. You need to know how much the venue costs before you can set a ticket price.
You must find four locations:
Venue and hotel must be booked about nine months before the conference. Pubs and restaurants can be booked significantly later; up to two weeks before the conference.
Venue and party pub must be at most a 10 minutes walk from each other; and preferably 5 minutes. The same goes for the hotel. The reason is that not everybody will be as familiar with the city as you.
In general you can expect about one quarter to one third of the attendees, and possibly a few speakers, to come from your city. Most of the rest, including most of the speakers, has no clue where they are and kind of follow anyone around who appears to be knowing what he’s doing. (Sometimes this is a drunk speaker who thinks he knows where to go but is very, very wrong.)
It’s far easier on everyone if everything’s five minutes away from everything else. It’s even better if there’s a map available in the conference booklet and volunteers guide the attendee stream to the party zone.
Choosing a venue is the most important decision you’ll make. Once you’ve signed up for a venue it’s very hard to change it; after all, you communicate dates and place, and if you suddenly decide to switch venues you have to hope that another one is available for the same dates. This is usually not the case from about three months before your conference.
Venues deliver the facilities for the sessions, including equipment, and catering. Everything that’s needed during the conference days, in other words.
The problem with venues is that you won’t know how it will work out until the actual day of the conference itself, when it’s too late to change anything. That cannot be helped and it’s the largest single source of conference organiser’s stress syndrom.
On the plus side, venues actually know how to put on a conference because that’s what they do for a living, so in general everything will go tolerably well.
Except wifi, of course. Venues have no clue how much wifi traffic that a web developers’ conference can generate, and this is something you have to discuss in detail. They will not listen to you, so you have to build in some safeguards.
Typically, there are three kinds of venues available in your city:
A first-time conference cannot afford a hotel. Besides, many hotels are bland and not the way to show off your city to foreign visitors. (There are exceptions, but they’re way outside your budget.)
The problem with university buildings is that they tend to be even more bland than hotels, and that there’s usually something wrong. The lifts are too slow, the equipment doesn’t work well, the place is a bloody maze, or the food is lousy.
If at all possible on your budget I advise you to go for an independent venue, especially if you can find a distinctive one. Here in Amsterdam I found a wonderful 18th-century building with a rich history on one of the canals, and it’s my favourite venue, except that it can’t hold more than about 300 people.
But if you’re on a really tight budget and it’s either a university venue or no conference at all, go for the university.
Many venues want some sort of deposit. Ask during negotiations.
The conference auditorium must be able to hold the number of attendees you want. In fact, the number of attendees is likely dictated by the auditorium capacity.
It must allow the speakers to stand on some kind of stage, show their slides on a projector, and have their talk amplified by the PA.
All this is pretty standard for all venues. From their perspective web conferences are not very challenging. With the exception of wifi. Expect problems there.
What you need from a good auditorium is the following:
We’ll get back to the details of setting up the auditorium later, but these are the most important requirements. Fortunately venues understand them and will deliver them — except for the wifi.
Tell the venue well beforehand that the speakers will want to plug in their own laptops. Sometimes technical people have weird ideas about transferring the presentations to a computer of their own — tell them No politely but firmly.
If you want a two-track conference, you need two auditoriums that have all this. The venue will charge for a technician and equipment for every separate auditorium, so the costs double if you want two.
You need some kind of foyer just next to the auditorium. It’s here that lunch will be served and that attendees who decide to skip a session will gather in order to talk to each other. From a certain perspective, the foyer is more important than the auditorium because more business will be done there.
Make sure that the foyer has some space to sit. You don’t need to be able to seat all attendees (that’s what the auditorium is for), but you can expect about 2-5% of your attendees to be in the foyer at any time, and they should have at least some seats available.
Venues generally require you to buy their catering. This, and not the formal rent, is what they make most money on.
Catering is generally the largest single entry in your budget, but it’s also the single entry that’s entirely dependent on the number of attendees. If you don’t sell 20 tickets, you don’t buy 20 lunches. Thus, the catering price is the only one that you can directly tie to every ticket sold.
Don’t skimp on lunches. People expect decent food (though not great food; this isn’t a restaurant), and spending a few euros more per day per head will give them a better conference experience.
Make sure there are some vegetarian courses.
Ask the caterer to provide signs in English as well as the local language that identifies all dishes. It makes lunch run smoother, since people don’t have to ask the catering personnel to identify all dishes.
Try to taste the food beforehand, if you can. If it’s lousy, consider switching to another venue. It’s really, really important.
You can also decide not to provide lunch but ask attendees to walk into town and get one at a restaurant. This is only possible if there are many restaurants within 5 minutes of the venue. Besides, you have to make lunch break 90 minutes instead of 60 because attendees will have to walk to a restaurant and order. That means that you have a maximum of 6 speaker slots per day instead of 7.
Even if you don’t provide lunch you must still provide coffee and tea for the short breaks.
All topics we discussed so far have been the standard fare of conference organising for the past hundred years or so. Venues are deeply acquainted with them, and they understand your attendees want a lunch, and your speakers a microphone.
That is not the case with wifi. It’s too new; many conference venues have little experience with it, and the experience they do have comes from hosting other types of conferences. They are totally unprepared for the voracious bandwidth appetites of 250 geeks forced into one or two rooms for two days.
Venues wax eloquently about the thickness of their cables and the speed of their downloads. But that’s generally not the issue. Actually connecting to a wifi station is.
The technical problem is in DHCP, the process that gives every device connecting to the wifi a temporary IP address. For security reasons a wifi station will have only a limited number of connections available, so that most devices who want a connection do not get one. Instead, DHCP should be handled by a central server. This usually solves the problem.
Ask the venue whether its wifi network can permanently sustain a number of connections equal to your number of delegates. Even put it in the contract if you can; that’ll give the venue an incentive to cooperate to the fullest on the day of the conference, when the wifi turns out not to work.
Of course you also might have too few wifi stations. For Fronteers we generally make sure we have some extra stations that we can plug into the network at will. Just in case.
Even if the venue understands your problem, wifi access may still be spotty. Judicious amounts of shouting may help here; sometimes the venue discovers it has a solution to your problem after all.
For instance, at Fronteers 2010 the venue originally said it had no Internet access at all, and the organisation hired a UMTS solution that turned out not to work. Fortunately the venue relented and allowed us to plug in our wifi stations at their network, and from then on wifi worked.
Don’t count on this, though. We were all very surprised that the venue allowed it. In general, a thorough preparation will help you best.
The funny thing about hotels is that they don’t like conferences too much. Or maybe they do, but they sure have a weird way of showing their love.
Hotels don’t like to sell large numbers of rooms too far in advance. They all have their regular guests or other clients such as tour operators, and they dislike being forced to refuse a regular because you booked a lot of their rooms for your speakers. In general they’ll give you 20% of their capacity without too many problems, but start to have second thoughts if you want more.
Don’t be surprised if they actually charge you more if you come to them to order twelve rooms in nine months’ time than if you’d order them a month or so in advance. Still, booking a good hotel close to the venue is of paramount importance, so you’ll have to pay up.
Many hotels want some sort of deposit. Ask during negotiations.
Most of your attendees will need a hotel, too. Although you’re not required to provide a reservation service, it is customary to give a short list of recommended hotels on the conference website. These hotels should range from fairly expensive to budget.
Maybe you can get a hotel booking site to help you here; we do at Fronteers. In exchange for you linking to their site on your hotel page, such a service should deliver a list of hotels close to the venue. Maybe they can even arrange a slight discount.
Although it could take some time to find a hotel booking site that’s willing to help you, it beats finding five or six hotels on your own.
At the end of day 1 there should be an official conference party where at least part of the drinks are on your tab, and that you can only enter with a conference badge. You should rent a complete party venue, such as a pub: this party should be exclusively for the conference attendees.
This is not very time-critical: you can make the reservations two to four weeks before the conference.
The purpose of the conference party is to get people talking to each other, and to give the attendees a chance to talk to the speakers in a social setting. These are very important conference features; in fact, attendees will encounter most useful contacts during the parties, and not during the conference itself.
Thus there are two Holy Rules for conference parties:
Not everybody will come to the party. The general pattern at Fronteers is that about one third to one half of the Dutch attendees come; the rest has to go home for dinner or something. However, about 80 to 90% of the foreigners will attend: they have little else to do.
Some of the drinks will be paid by you. At the Fronteers conference we usually put quite a bit of money on the tab in order to make the party completely free for attendees. As a very rough guideline, a free tab will cost you about one litre of beer per attendee. (Count all attendees here; not just the ones that come to the party.)
A very easy way of getting a sponsor involved is to get them to pay for the party in exchange for a mention in the conference booklet and during the conference and party itself. “Well, day 1 is finished, and now we’ll go to the party where company X sponsors the beer.”
Even if your budget is tight you should at the very least make the first keg of beer or so free. That gives people an incentive to come to the party early.
Many conferences also announce parties for the night before the conference and at the end of day 2. You don’t have to pay for these parties; your only job is to pick a place to go. Usually it’ll be a pub, where your attendees mix with regular clients.
It’s customary to have a speakers’ dinner the night before the conference. At Fronteers we also invite the conference volunteers, the sponsors, and a few special guests, but that’s unusual. Most speakers’ dinners have only the speakers and the core organisers attending.
Try to give the speakers an experience that’s typical for your city. In Amsterdam that’s very easy: we just rent a boat with catering and sail through the canals for an hour or three. Try to do something similar in your city: it makes the dinner (and thus the conference) more memorable to the speakers.
With locations found and a date set, it’s time to go to the conference’s content.