Setup a CfP, select a few talks, publish a schedule, book a venue, sell a few
tickets - have fun: Essentially all it takes to organise a conference, isn't it?
In theory maybe - in practice - not so much. Without scaring you away from
running your own here's my experience with setting up Berlin Buzzwords (after
two years of running the Berlin Hadoop Get Together, putting up a NoSQL half day
: Though there's a ton of long-ish posts in my blog, this one
is going to be exceptionally long. It's years since I wanted to write all this
up for others to learn from and in order to point others to it - never got
around to it though.
Lets start with the most risky part: Booking a venue. If you are a student -
great - talk to your university to get your event hosted. As much hassle this
may entail when it comes to bureaucracy this is by far the largest monetary risk
factor in your calculation, so if there is any way to get rid of this factor use
it. FOSDEM, FrOSCon, Linux Tage Chemnitz and several other events have handled
this really well.
If this is not an option for you depending on the number of targeted attendees
you are faced with a smaller (some 500 Euro for 100 people per day and track)
or larger (some 20.000 Euros for 300 people, two days and two tracks including
chairs, tables, microphones, screens, projectors, lighting, security and
technicians) sum that you will have to pay up front, potentially even before
your attendees purchased any tickets (here's one reason why there is such a
thing as an early bird ticket: The earlier money flows in the less risk there
is around payments).
In Germany there's three ways to limit this risk: You create a so-called e.V.,
essentially a foundation that will cover the risk. You create a GmbH,
essentially a company that assumes limited risk, namely only up to the 25.000
Euros you had to put into the company when founding it. The third way is to find
a producing event agency that assumes all or part of the risk. After talking to
several people (those behind Chaos Communication Congress, those setting up the
Berlin Django Con back in 2010, those working on JSConf, those backing Hadoop
World) for me it was
logical to go for the third way: I had no idea how to handle ticket sales, taxes
etc. and I was lucky enough to find an agency that would assume all risk in turn
for receiving all profit made from the event.
One final piece of advise when selecting your venue: Having a place that is
flexible when it comes to planning goes a long way to a relaxed conference
experience. As much as it is desirable you won't be able to anticipate all
needs in advance. It also helps a lot to keep the event on your home turf
: One of the
secrets of Berlin Buzzwords is having a lot of local knowledge in the organising
team and lots of contacts to local people that can help, support and provide
By now at Berlin Buzzwords we have a tradition of having an after conference
event on Monday evening. The way the tradition started relied heavily on local
friends: What we did was to ask friends to take out up to 20 attendees to their
favourite bar or restaurant close to the venue in turn for a drastically
reduced ticket price. This approach was highly appreciated by all attendees not
familiar with Berlin - several asked for a similar setup for Tuesday evening
even. Starting from the second edition we were able to recruit sponsors to pay
for beers and food for Monday evening. Pro-Tipp: Don't ship your attendees to
the BBQ by bus - otherwise the BBQ cook will hate you.
Something similar was done for our traditional Sunday evening barcamp: In the
first two years it took place at the famous Newthinking Store - a location that
used to be available for rent for regular events and free for community events.
Essentially a subsidary of our producer. In the second year the Barcamp moved
to one of the first hacker spaces world - c-base. Doing that essentially was
possible only because some of the organisers had close contacts among the
owners of this space.
The same is true for the Hackathons and meetups on Wednesday after the main
conference: Knowing local (potential) meetup organisers helps recruiting
meetups. Knowing local startups helps recruiting space for those people
organising a meetup though themselves travelling e.g. from the UK.
Another risk factor is providing catering: If catering is included in your
ticket price, the caterer will probably want to know at least one week before
door open roughly how many people will attend (+/-10 people usually is fine,
+/- 100 people not really). When dealing with geeks this is particularly tricky:
These guys and gals tend to buy their tickets Saturday/Sunday before Berlin
Buzzwords Monday morning. In the first two years that meant lots of sleepless
nights and lots of effort spent advertising the conference. In the third night I
decided that it's time for some geek education: I suggested to introduce a last
minute ticket that is expensive enough to motivate the majority of attendees to
buy their tickets at least two weeks in advance. Guess what: Ever since we the
problem of "OMG everyone is buying their ticket last minute" went away - and at
least I got my sleep back.
The second special thing about catering: As much as I would like to change that
Berlin Buzzwords has an extremely skewed gender distribution. When dealing with
caterers what they usually only want to know is how many people will attend. If
you forget to tell them that all your attendees are relatively young and male
they will assume a regular gender distribution - which often leads to you
running out of food before everyone is fed.
Except for tickets - are there any other options to acquire money apart from
tickets? Sure: convince companies to support your event as sponsors. The most
obvious perk is to include said company's logo on your web page. You can also
sell booth space (remember to rent additional space for that at your venue).
There's plenty of other creative ways to sell visibility. For package sizing I
got lots of support from our producer (after all they were responsible for
budgeting). Convincing companies to give us money that was mostly on Simon,
Jan and myself. Designing the contracts and retrieving the money again was left
to the producer. Without a decent social network on our side finding this kind
of financial support would not have been possible. In retrospect I'm extremely
glad the actual contract handling was not on me - guess what, there are sponsors
who just simply forget to pay the sum promised though there is a signed
So, what makes people pay for tickets? A convincing speaker line-up of course.
In our case we had decided to go for two invitation only keynote speakers and
two days with two tracks of CfP based talks. Keynote speaker slots are still
filled by Simon and myself. In early years where CfP ratings,
schedule grid (when and how long are breaks? how many talks will fit?) and
scheduling itself were on Simon, Jan and myself. As submission numbers went up
we decided to share the review load with people whose judgement we trust -
ensuring that each submission gets three reviews. All after that is fairly
an earlier blog post for details
A note on review feedback: As much as we would like to give detailed feedback to
those who didn't make it: We usually get three times as many
submissions as there are open slots. So far I haven't seen a single submission
(except for very clear product pitches lacking technical details) that wasn't
great. So in the end, most feedback would boil down to "It was really close, but
we only have a limited number of slots to fill. Sorry."
Back in 2011 we tried an experiment to fit more talks into the schedule than
usual: Submissions ranked low that were supposed to be long talks were accepted
as short versions forcing speakers to focus. Unfortunately this experiment
failed: Seems like people rather get a reject mail than getting accepted as a
short version. Also you need really good speakers who prepare exceptionally well
for the event - in our case many shortened talks would still include all
introductory slides even though the speaker just one slot earlier had covered
Next step is to tell people that there is going to be an event. In the case
of Berlin Buzzwords this meant telling people all over the world and convincing
them to not only buy a conference ticket, but also a hotel room and a flight to
the venue (we started with only half of all attendees coming from Germany and
pretty much kept this profile until today). As a first step this meant writing a
press release and convincing local tech publishers (t3n, heise, Golem, Software
und Support, Open Source Press and many more) to actually publish on the event.
For some of these I am an author myself, so I knew which people to talk to, for
some of these newthinking as the producing event agency could help. It was only
years later that I participated in a media training at Apache Con by Sally
Khudairi to really learn how to do press releases.
From that day on, a lot of time went into convincing potential speakers to
submit talks, potential sponsors to donate money, potential attendees to make it
to the event. With a lot of event organising experience on their back (they are
running a multiple thousand attendees new media conference called re:publica
each year - in addition to many "smaller" events)
newthinking told me upfront that they would need half of my time to cover those
marketing activities, essentially as I was the only one who knew the community.
The offer was to re-imburse 20h per week from the conference budget. I was lucky
enough to be able to convince my manager at neofonie (the company I was working
for back then) though that sponsoring the event with my time in turn for a
silver sponsorship would be a great opportunity. One of the reasons for
doing that on their side was that they were themselves providing services in the
big data and search space. Without this arrangement though Berlin Buzzwords 2010
would have been a whole lot harder to do.
Now how do you reach people for a tech conference? You talk to the press, you
create and promote a twitter account. I still have the credentials for
@berlinbuzzwords - by now though it is fully managed by our social media expert,
back until 2011 I was the face behind it. Ever since my twitter client is set to
follow anything that contains bbuzz, berlinbuzzwords or "berlin buzzwords" - so
I can still follow any conversation relating the conference. You create and maintain LinkedIn and
Xing as well as Facebook groups for people to follow. You use whatever channels
your target audience are reading - in our case several Apache mailing lists, a
NoSQL mailing list, sourceforge hosted lists - remember to sign up for these
before posting, otherwise your mail won't get through. Also make sure that
people at least roughly know your name, trust you and you provide enough context
in your mail for others to not view your invitation as plain spam.
go through your personal address book and talk to people you know would be
interested personally. As a result you will wake up to 20 new mails each morning
and answer another 20 new mails every evening. For me this got better after
having shaped all contacts into a format that I could hand over to newthinking.
However even today, every single mail you send to [target]@berlinbuzzwords.de, every
comment you submit through the contact form, every talk wish you submit through
our wishlist still ends up in my personal inbox - as well as the inbox of Simon
and everyone involved with the conference at newthinking.
Essentially you need this kind of visibility once for announcing the event, once
for filling the CfP with proposals, once the schedule in published, once to
convince sponsors to support the event and finally once to convince people to
As for the website - the most frustrating part is being a technical person but
lacking the time to "just do things right". Drupal, I'm sorry, but I have
learnt to hate your blogging functionality - in particular the WYSIWYG editor.
Your administrative backend could be much simpler (I gave those rights away I
believe in 2012). I learnt to hate comment spam more than anything else - in
particular given the fact that I pretty much would have loved to get everyone
involved and able to contribute content. The only thing that helped accepting
the deficiencies here was to force myself to hand of any and all content
handling to the capable event managers at newthinking.
Videos: Great way to get the word out (and follow the talks yourself, though
organisers may find time to go to talks they'll never remember the actual
content due to information overload). Make them free - people pay for tickets to
take part in the live event. If you fear selling less tickets as a result, make
them available only a little while after the event is over.
Pictures: Get someone with a good camera - can be a volunteer, can be a
professional or anything in between. I've had it many times that it took half a
year for me to go over the pictures again and suddenly realise how many nice
people attended Buzzwords without me knowing them when they did - except they
remembered my face when we met again (sorry if you are one of those people I
should have remembered once :( )
Inbox: Your's will never be empty again. Especially if as in our case your mail
address was used as primary point of contact and reference in the first few
years. It took two editions to train people to use email@example.com
instead of my personal mail address. Trust me - this mail address actually does
get attention: Mails sent there end up in my private inbox, they end up in
Simon's private inbox and most importantly they end up in those event managers'
inboxes involved with Buzzwords at newthinking. Answers typically don't take
much longer than half a day even during holidays. Today there is no reason left
to contact neither Simon or myself privately - using info@ is way faster. If
you still aren't convinced: Even I'm using that same address for general
inquiries and proposals.
Incentives: Think early about which behaviour you would like to see. On site
behave accordingly. Pre-conference set incentives: Two weeks before doors open
our ticket prices go up drastically to motivate people to buy tickets before our
catering deadline bites us. Speakers get travel support and hotel room paid for.
However it costs us nothing to list their employer as travel sponsor should they
decide to pay for the speaker - and it provides an incentive for the speaker to
get their employer to pay for travel costs.
Ticket prices: You will get people arguing that ticket prices are too high.
Know where you stand in comparison to other conferences of the same type.
Clearly you want students if the main focus of your sponsors is to recruit -
provide drastically reduced student tickets to anyone with a student id, that
includes PhD. students. For everyone else: Buying early should be rewarded. Also
you'll need help on site (people moderating sessions, keeping full rooms closed,
people helping with video taping, networking etc.) - hand out free tickets to
helpers - if those complaining aren't willing to help their need for a cheap
ticket probably isn't large enough.
The "they are stealing our attendees syndrome": Unless there is a clear
trademark infringement there's no way to stop other people from running events
that on first sight look similar to yours. First of all start by making it hard
to beat your offering - not in terms of prices but in terms of content and
experience. After you've done that follow the "keep your friends close but your
enemies closer" principle by embracing those who you believe are running
competing events. What we had in the past was events close in topic to ours but
not quite overlapping. Where there was enough overlap but still enough
distinction we would go out and ask for partnering. This usually involved
cross-raffling tickets. It also meant getting better visibility for our event
though different channels. Usually the end result was one of two: A) The competing
event was a one-of or otherwise short-lived. B) The seemingly competing event
targeted an audience that was much more different from ours than we first
On being special
What makes people coming back? I have been told Berlin Buzzwords has a certain
magic to it that makes people want to come back. I'm not sure about the magical
part - however involving people, providing space and time for networking,
choosing a venue that is not a conference hotel, always at least trying to
deliver the best experience possible goes a long way to make attendees feel
As a last note: If you ever once organised a meetup or conference you will never
attend other events without at least checking what others do - you will suddenly
see all the little glitches that otherwise slip from your attention (overly full
trash bins anyone?). On the other hand each event brings at least one story that
when it happened looked horrible but turns out to be hilarious and told over and
over again later ;)