The Other Thing About Organizing Conferences

I wrote a little while ago about organizing conferences. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it, and it is fun - though there are a lot of moving parts and the work is real. In this post, I’ll outline some of the things you might need and how to get them.

For the first step you need to do some reading. Find out if the thing you want to have a conference about is something people actually want to go to a conference to hear about. Chances are, if people aren’t tweeting about Visual FoxPro or discussing it on Hacker News, no one probably cares. If you see something is awesome that you think is awesome, figure out how many people you think will come. Maybe start with 100 as a good assumption.

Once you realize people are going to want to show up, it’s time to build a site. My personal preference is to use Jekyll or some other single page application builder. Keep it simple, there’s no need to go all out and build a huge application that does it all. Just give it a look and feel that speaks to the conference and what it’s about.

Start shouting about it! Tweet about it, mention it on Facebook, do whatever you can to bring it up in conversation. The more people know about it, the more they are likely to get involved.

Once people know about it, they’ll (hopefully) want to buy tickets. For most conferences I’ve done, we’ve gone with Tito. It’s a great way to deal with ticket sales, check in, tracking to see how sales are going…basically the entire ticket system start to finish. This solution does cost a little bit, but on day one when the big first group comes to check-in, you’ll be glad you used it.

Next comes the CFP. Again, why build your own or use some crappy form generator that is imperfect at best and totally shit at the worst. For our recent ElixirDaze conference, we went with PaperCall. It was great, allowed us to get things setup before opening and released things as we needed them. We were able to choose a blind CFP review and set a closing time that worked with our timeline.

To get the word out, services like the CFP Report are great, though it’s an opt-in situation. Tweeting about your open CFP, both from personal accounts and the conference twitter. This will get you quite a few people asking about the CFP. If it’s a blind CFP, make sure people asking questions don’t go too in depth and cloud your ability to judge the CFP.

Making sure you have a diverse and inclusive line-up can be tough. Make it easier on yourself by first establishing a Code of Conduct. This is literally the LEAST you can do to create a safe space that speakers who might be marginalized otherwise. Next, look to awesome organizations like Callback Women who can get the word out to speakers a little off the path. If necessary, reach out to other organizers to see how they got the awesome speaker line-up they had.

Once it’s open, let the CFP take its course. Don’t touch it or look at it until it closes. Once that happens, have a team member who will not be selecting speakers to go over everything and ensure no identifying characteristics remain (names, identifiers, titles, company names). After it’s 100% cleansed, review and find the speakers that fit. This may take a few rounds of review, but it will be worth it to create a program people will want to see.

Once you select your speakers and they are confirmed, ANNOUNCE THEM!! It sounds simple, but the sooner you announce your speakers the sooner you’ll see a boost in ticket sales. And you want butts in seats…that’s kinda the point.

All through out this process, someone should be lining up sponsors. Some might reach out to you, though this is rare and don’t count on it. Getting sponsors is the simplest thing - JUST ASK! You should have an idea on budget from adding your venue and food costs along with anything else (stickers, shirts, speaker gifts, etc.) and now how many you need.

A prospectus is a great document to put together, though it might be tough if this is your first time. You want to go with reasonable amounts based on your budget. I like to use levels laid out as such:

  • Platinum - 1/3 of conference budget (make 2 available)
  • Gold - about 1/2 of the Platinum sponsorship
  • Silver - about 1/2 of the Gold sponsorship
  • Community - anything less than Silver

Alternately, you can have sponsors pay for specific parts of the conference, like a Badge/Lanyard sponsor or a coffee sponsor. This can be easier as they can pay for things directly, taking you out of the responsibility for payment circle, but it can also mean a little more work, getting paying parties hooked up with those needing to be paid.

As soon as a sponsor promises to get involved, get their logo and put it on the site. This shows goodwill to the sponsor and let’s potential attendees see there is interest.

Once you have your speakers, your tickets are sold, sponsors are lined up, it’s time for the big day. For small conferences, you can probably handle registration or check-in with the organizing team, but a volunteer staff team is always nice. Judge the size of your conf and make the right decision. You don’t want volunteers bored and standing around. Students are great for this as they get a free ticket and it’s a great way to help them become part of the community.

At the start of the conference, take a deep breath. Something will go wrong, but you will be okay. Just relax and fix things as they come up.

I’m always open for questions. Reach out. Let me know if this helps.

And of course…have a great conference!

Check out Part 1 and Part 3 of this series on my conference obsession


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