How hard can it be - organising a conference

How hard can it be - organising a conference #

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 meetup).

Disclaimer: 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.

Venue booking

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 insight:

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 contract...


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 algorithmic: See 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 those already.


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.

Finally you 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], 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 buy tickets.

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 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 believed.

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 comfortable.

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 ;)