Organizing and Running a Conference

For the last three years, I've been fortunate enough to work with a great team of people to run a successful and profitable technical conference called RubyNation. This conference is an annual event, part education and part entertainment, that promotes the Ruby programming language. As you might expect, I've learned a few things about how to organize and run a conference over the last three years.

RubyNation 2009I'm going to share some practical tips and suggestions about how to organize and run a relatively large-scale public event like a conference. Some of the tips may be useful across a wide range of event types, but my focus here is primarily on the kind of technical event with a series of educational talks and a small group of speakers.

Let's start off with the basics. I divide conference-related activities into two basic categories:

  • The Prerequisites: These are the activities you need to accomplish to make your event possible.

  • The Timeline: This is the schedule of supporting activities you need to accomplish to make your event a reality.

It's easy to talk about running an event. People do it all the time. How many times have you heard someone say something like:

"Dude, we should run a conference."

Or:

"We could run a better event than this one."

Talk is cheap. Putting on an event takes time and effort. It takes planning.

Prerequisites

  1. Know Your Auidence: Before you even think about putting on a conference, you should know your audience. For RubyNation, the primary founders were already organizers and members of the Northern Virginia Ruby User's Group, usually referred to as the NOVARUG. We had experience attending other technical conferences, including Ruby-oriented ones, and therefore had some idea of what a successful local event would look like. We also knew when the major national events (RailsConf and RubyConf) were held, so we knew when not to do our conference.

  2. Draw: If you're going to put on an event, you need a draw. You need something to attract people to your event. For RubyNation, we were fortunate that there were some prominent members of the Ruby community that either lived in the Washington DC area or were here so frequently on business that attending a local conference wouldn't be a problem. We asked several of these prominent Rubyists if they'd speak at our conference. When they said "Yes," we then had the legitimacy of having secured some top-notch speakers that our audience would recognize.

  3. Venue: Your choice of venue can make or break your event. If it's the first time you've run the event, you should be conservative. Hotels are expensive venues, and therefore a risky bet for your first-time event. For RubyNation, we held our first event in an auditorium that we rented from the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), an organization whose mission was to promote technology in our area.

    Deciding on a venue also crystallizes a bunch of other decisions that you have to make about your event. Like, when are you going to hold your event? You should probably schedule it nine months to a year in advance, especially if it's your first time running this type of event.

    What format will your event have? Is it going to be a one-day event or a two-day event? Single-track or double-track? For RubyNation in its first year, our venue was relatively cheap, but it only had a single auditorium; clearly, then, we were a single-track event. We also opted for a two-day conference, emulating other similar conferences that had been successful. We chose to schedule our conference for a Friday and a Saturday.

    How may attendees should you plan for? We knew that there were two major local user groups for Ruby, the NOVARUG and the DCRUG. Plus nearby groups in the Shenandoah region, Richmond and Baltimore. We had also witnessed NOVARUG meetings where a single celebrity speaker had pulled in over a 100 people. So, we planned conservatively for a first-year event that would accommodate 135 people. If you plan too low, your event sells out, which is great advertising for next year's edition of the event. If you plan too high, you're increasing your risk and costs. Be conservative.

    How much should tickets to your event cost? With the venue and catered lunches, we defined a ticket price in our first year that put break-even at 100 tickets. We purposefully didn't plan on money from sponsors, so any sponsorship money we received just reduced our risk by effectively lowering our break-even target.

If you've gotten the prerequisites figured out, you're well on your way toward putting on a successful event. There's still a lot to be done, but it's a major accomplishment to be able to talk to people about your event and give them information like the date of the event, the expected number of attendees, the estimated ticket price, etc.

Timeline

Once you've got the prerequisites handled, the train is starting to roll down the tracks. Well, the "tracks" are your timeline. You've got a lot of things that need to be accomplished to make your event successful. From experience, I can also tell you that the train speeds up as the conference gets closer, so there's a lot of activities you'll want to accomplish as soon as you reasonably can.

Here's a list of activities that should be on your timeline:

  • Web Site: You've got a venue, a date and some well-known speakers to serve as a draw. You need a web site, and it needs to up as soon as possible. You need to make your web site as professional as possible, because you'll be using it to: 1) convince your audience to buy tickets, 2) convince other potential speakers that they should speak at your event, and 3) convince sponsors that they need help support your event by giving you money. You can't accomplish these tasks with a site that looks like it was designed by a high school student.
    When: As soon as possible.

  • Promotion: As soon as your web site is up, you need to begin promoting your conference. Announce it on the bulletin boards for any nearby user groups that you might reasonably draw your audience from. Send out emails to people who might be interested in it. If there are general web sites that cover your conference's topic area, contact them about promoting your event with a banner or listing. Make sure your web site also features banners that your audience members and speakers can use to promote the conference on their blogs and web sites. Check out the badges from RubyNation for an example. Promotion is an ongoing task that really kicks into high gear when the tickets go on sale.
    When: As soon as possible.

  • Sponsors: You don't have to have sponsors, but each sponsor who provides you with cash or services decreases the risk of your event failing. Sponsors want to know what they'll get in return for their support, so you'll have to create a polished Sponsorship Prospectus. See Rubynation's 2010 prospectus as an example.
    When: After the web site is up.

  • Ticket Sales Capability: You need to be able to sell tickets for your event, preferably allowing people to use their credit cards. You'd also like to sell as many tickets as you can as early as you can, because every ticket sale reduces your risk and brings you closer to that magical break-even mark. You could implement online e-commerce features yourself, but you're much better off hiring a service like EventBright to handle your ticket sales for you. They'll take a small service charge from each ticket sale, but it's well worth it.
    When: At least 4 months before the event.

  • Call for Papers: You've secured several speakers to serve as a draw for the conference, but you don't have a full roster yet. For RubyNation, our first year roster consisted of 11 speakers over the course of two days. You'll need to put out a Call for Papers to solicit additional speakers. A typical Call for Papers simply asks prospective speakers to provide the title of their proposed talk, an abstract and their contact information. I recommend a Call for Papers lasting from 4 to 6 weeks, supported by marketing to get information about the event out to potential speakers. You can always extend the interval if you're not getting enough proposals.
    When: 128 - 140 days before the event.

  • Proposal Evaluation: The Call for Papers has ended, and you've got a bunch of proposals. They need to be evaluated, and then you'll need to create a schedule for the conference. Allow two weeks for the evaluation, it's harder than you think. It's best if the organizers can meet in person to discuss the proposals. You'll need to get the final schedule up on the web site as soon as you can.

    Remember to choose one or two backup speakers in case any of the speakers have to cancel (backup speakers should get free conference passes just like the chosen speakers). Also, remember to put a disclaimer on the final schedule, i.e. — "Schedule may change without notice." This covers you for changes; even one of your draws could conceivably cancel.
    When: 100 days before the event.

  • Selling Tickets: I recommend starting to sell tickets as soon as the conference schedule is finalized and available on the web site. Start with an "earlybird" price to encourage customers to buy tickets. Raise the price one month before the conference and one week before the conference. For RubyNation, we allowed 65 days for ticket sales and sold out in 60. Give yourself a little more time to sell tickets (it's easier on the nerves).
    When: 75 - 100 days before the event.

  • Conference Program: Many conferences hand out a Conference Program, generally a professionally printed publication that provides information about the conference, the schedule and advertisements from sponsors. The hardest task is to get high-quality, usable advertising copy from the sponsors. Start early when asking for their artwork, ask them often if necessary and give them a HARD deadline after which they WILL NOT have an ad in the program. It's the only way to train them. Print the conference program 30 days before the event if you can.
    When: 30 days before the event.

  • Swag: Swag refers to the items that you hand out at the conference, such as T-shirts, polo shirts, conference badges, toys, paper hand-outs, technical books, etc. If you're getting swag from sponsors, try to make sure you receive it 30 - 45 days before the conference. For items that need to be designed, such as shirts and badges, try to get the designs finalized in the same timeframe, even if the final orders have to go in later.
    When: 30 - 45 days before the event.

  • Pre-Conference Review: This is a face-to-face meeting of the organizers about two weeks to a month before the conference. The purpose of this meeting is to make sure that everything is ready for the conference: audio/visual equipment, room setups at the venue, speaker guidelines, policies/procedures, catering details, etc.
    When: 14 - 30 days before the event.

  • Venue Walk-Through: One or more of the organizers should visit the venue one more time in advance of the event. This is a last double-check to make sure everybody, including the venue staff, is in sync on what's about to happen. The walk-through should confirm how the rooms will be set up, where lights will be, how the stage will be set up, where attendees will be fed lunch, where the registration booth will be, etc.
    When: 7 - 14 days before the event.

  • Retrospective: After the event, the organizers should get together at a nice restaurant for a Retrospective (at the expense of the conference). With egos checked at the door, the organizers should discuss the things that worked well for the conference, and the things that didn't work so well. If the event is held again, the goal is to improve it by repeating the activities that worked, and improving on the imperfections. This has been a key factor in improving RubyNation each year.
    When: 7 - 21 days after the event.

There's no doubt about it, putting on a conference is hard work with, at best, a modest income. But the rewards can be immense. Professionally, conferences are excellent for knowledge acquisition and networking; as an organizer you're especially well-positioned for networking. You also gain the satisfaction of doing something nice for your community, be it a group of programmers specializing in Ruby or an audience of dentists trying to improve their skills. If you follow these tips, you'll be well on your way towards putting on a high-quality event.



Comments

David Keener By dkeener on Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 10:05 PM EST

This is an expanded version of a short talk that I did for the Ashburn Toastmasters group, which meets in the Broadlands Community Center twice a month.


David Keener By dkeener on Monday, October 18, 2010 at 01:52 PM EST

Here's a great link to another article where an organizer actually talks about what it's like to run a conference:

http://java.dzone.com/articles/inside-track-running-your-own




David Keener By dkeener on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 01:00 AM EST

Here's a nice article called "Event Organizing 101" from Marty Haught.

http://martyhaught.com/articles/2011/11/02/event-organizing-101/


David Keener By dkeener on Tuesday, April 03, 2012 at 12:28 AM EST

Marty Haught has followed up with an interesting and graphical MindMeister map illustrating the organization of a conference.

http://www.mindmeister.com/50799582/tech-conference


David Keener By dkeener on Tuesday, April 03, 2012 at 12:36 AM EST

A very nice article from Josh Susser providing some excellent tips for conference speakers.

http://blog.hasmanythrough.com/2011/7/18/fifteen-protips-for-conference-speakers

Hmmm. This blog entry seems to be evolving into a pseudo-gist where I collect things of interest related to running and organizing conferences...




David Keener By dkeener on Monday, July 16, 2012 at 07:11 PM EST

This is a real nice gist on the topic of conferences. I agree with it in principle, but some parts of it can be impractical. Sorry, most speakers don't get paid (and neither do most organizers). https://gist.github.com/3098860


David Keener By dkeener on Monday, July 16, 2012 at 07:12 PM EST

This is a real nice gist on the topic of conferences. I agree with it in principle, but some parts of it can be impractical. Sorry, most speakers don't get paid (and neither do most organizers). https://gist.github.com/3098860


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