What I’ve learned organising EuroIA 2016, Amsterdam

The EuroIA 2016, Amsterdam crowd at the end of the opening day.

In the late summer of 2015, a few weeks before EuroIA 2015 in Madrid, I was asked to be one of the three co-chairs for EuroIA 2016, Amsterdam. EuroIA is a leading information architecture and User Experience design conference, taking place in a different European city every year, organised by volunteers and supported financially by ASIS&T.

At first I was hesitant to accept. Having been a consultant for 15 years, I could easily guess what monstrous size this volunteer “side project” could turn into. Fortunately, I was teamed up with two fellow IA and UX practitioners, Sylvie Daumal and Konstantin Weiss. I didn’t know them well at all at the time, but it was exactly their enthusiasm and openness that convinced me to step in. And the prospect of doing a project not with a tedious client but with these two very smart and talented colleague practitioners. They’ve become good friends of mine.

EuroIA 2016, Amsterdam took place at the Renaissance hotel, from 22 till 24 September 2016. We kept the conference format unchanged: each of the three conference days started with half-day workshops in the morning (choose 1 session out of 4), continued with keynotes and talks in the afternoon, and ended with an informal networking activity in the evening.

Snapshots taken during the conference by our photographer in residence.

It turned out to be a successful edition. We had over 300 attendants, which is a high record for EuroIA. Overall, feedback was positive, and besides a few hiccoughs during the conference itself, mainly due to the high number of attendants (e.g. long queues for signing up and for lunch, crowded workshops, etc.), the conference ran smoothly. The keynotes, workshops and talks were received well overall and the evening activities much appreciated. And there are other indicators that the Amsterdam session was a success: between the 2015 and 2016 edition, the number of followers on our social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) increased significantly. For instance, in the course of the year, we managed to get almost 40% of new Twitter followers, from an initial 775 end of September 2015 to a total of over 1.100 right after Amsterdam.

So why was this a successful edition? How can you make a conference successful? Is there a secret recipe for organising conferences?

Well… nope. It is all about hard work, a lot of hard work! There is no way around this. However, there are a few things we’ve learned along the way, things that helped us make EuroIA 2016 an edition to remember, or at least for us to remember. I will share them here with you.

Note: these tips are mainly from my point of view as a project manager in the team. This was my role in the division of tasks between the three co-chairs. The tips also focus on the preparation phase of the conference.

Timeline

Timing is everything. Conferences are no different in this respect. A timeline is a crucial tool in making your conference successful. Organising a yearly conference like EuroIA is no rocket science. It is a cycle of one year repeating itself. If you are aware of the steps and phases in this cycle, then you shouldn’t run into any big surprises. You pretty much know in advance what is going to happen and when it will (or should) happen. So, at the start of a new cycle, set up a timeline for the coming 12 months, including a number of milestones. And stick to this timeline.

The milestones for EuroIA were, in chronological order: announce the theme (1); open the call for proposals and close it again (2); set out the programme, publish it and open the ticket sales (3); promote the conference in the months leading to the conference, to get as many attendees as possible (4); communicate in the weeks and days running up to the conference about all practical stuff and networking possibilities (5); finally there is some follow-up to be done after the conference (6).

With a timeline in place, you know when to do these things and you can anticipate. For instance, the milestone for opening the call for proposals goes along with the following things you need to do:

  • An update of the website, with explanation about the call for proposals;
  • A web form to gather the submissions;
  • Communication via different social media to make this known to your followers;
  • A mailing to all previous attendees and speakers, inviting them to submit a proposal and a mailing to the country ambassadors to spread the word.

You know this months ahead. If these things are not ready together, or worse, you are caught by surprise, that means that you are not doing your job well.

We did a Skype call almost weekly — a tip that came from the 3 previous co-chairs — and this recurring moment of discussion and project status tracking turned out to be essential in keeping up with all milestones and little deadlines.

By the way, you will have noticed that there is one important milestone missing in my little list above: the milestone of moderating the conference itself. In all our preparedness, it is the one thing we overlooked and underestimated. Having been in “preparation mode” for a whole year, the fast-approaching conference itself with its sudden switch to the live aspect took us by surprise: moderating the conference, introducing the presentations, coordinating the giveaways (sponsor goodies, books & licenses), we managed to do all these things, but we could have been better prepared and we had to improvise on several occasions.

Location and venue

Our venue, the 17th century Koepelkerk, part of the Renaissance hotel in Amsterdam.

Organise your conference in a central, easy to reach host city in an attractive venue. A well-chosen location and venue will boost your conference attendance.

The location/host city for an international conference like EuroIA needs to be easily accessible by train or plane from most European cities, but it also needs to be an attractive destination in itself. For some people, this is a determining factor. Especially when you want to attract people from overseas (US, Australia), they will need more incentives than just an excellent conference programme. And travel to the city should be affordable. As for the conference venue, it should have some prestige or stick out in some way. Preferably not an anonymous hotel far away from the city centre.

Claire Rowland delivering the opening keynote in an impressive venue.

With Amsterdam and the Renaissance hotel, with its 17th century Koepelkerk, we had both the attractive city and the prestigious venue we needed to attract a large audience, in spite of the fact that Amsterdam is a rather expensive city to stay overnight.

Theme

We decided to give the 2016 edition an — according to EuroIA standards — unusually outspoken theme: “Connected things amongst us” (some previous EuroIA editions didn’t even have an explicit theme). It was a bit of a gamble, as we were not sure whether it was going to touch a string within the IA and UX community we were targeting. Having this attractive, relevant and up-to-date theme turned out to be vital to the success of the conference. Many people told us they liked it (or even stronger, they came because of it). Also, it clearly opened up a conference that is usually only attended by IA and UX professionals to a broader public including engineers, product designers and web developers. We found out that a theme, if chosen well, can give a clear, outspoken profile to your conference. It can make your conference stick out. And it can attract attendees, speakers and potential sponsors. It did in our case.

Snapshot from the theme-related workshop “Connecting Conversation” by Alastair Somerville.

All credits for the choice and elaboration of the EuroIA 2016 theme go to my two fellow co-chairs, by the way. They came up with it. I just tried to make sure there were still enough IA and UX topics in the programme to keep our traditional audience on board.

Team

To organise a conference, you need a good team.

First, this means having a good core team. In our case, the core team consisted of 3 volunteering co-chairs and solid financial and administrative support from ASIS&T. The division of tasks and responsibilities between these two was clearly set out from the start:

  • ASIS&T is taking care of all financial stuff, the ticket sales, the speaker contracts and the negotiations with the venue/hotel. They also provide software to manage submissions and write bulk e-mails. Vanessa Foss is the person at ASIS&T responsible for EuroIA. She has been doing this for many years now and we could always count on her.
  • The three co-chairs create the conference programme, choose the theme, do all the communication about the conference, including website and social media, and set out networking events in the evenings, outside the regular programme. They moderate the conference itself and choose the next co-chairs and conference location/venue.

In this kind of set-up, the choice of co-chairs will make or break the conference, so it’s crucial to get the right persons in the driving seat. Obviously, a minimum of experience with the conference is welcome, either as attendee or as part of the conference committee. But I don’t think they need to know each other well before hand. Also, no strong ties with previous organisers/co-chairs are needed. It will allow the co-chairs to start with a “clean sheet”.

Ideally, they bring together the following skills or character traits:

  • Strong ideas: a leading thinker in the field of practice;
  • Network: someone with a large network, many contacts; knowing many fellow practitioners in the field of practice;
  • Project management: a good PM who can get things organised and make the team stick to deadlines;
  • Writing skills: a good technical writer, preferably a native English speaker, for a coherent writing style and tone of voice. Communication skills in general come in handy;
  • Technical skills: someone with some technical knowledge of websites, front-end coding etc. to make sure the website runs smoothly;
  • Graphic design skills to make sure there is a coherent style/visual identity in all the conference communication;
  • Team players: the co-chairs should be good team players.

The EuroIA 2016 co-chairs were not only a good mix of these skills and character traits. We were also a good match. Because most crucially, co-chairs should get along well.

The EuroIA 2016 co-chairs: Sylvie Daumal, Konstantin Weiss and myself.

Secondly, besides a core team, you will need a conference committee and supporting team. Now if the core team is doing well, this will reflect on the rest of the team. How can the co-chairs make sure they get optimal support from their team?

  • As co-chairs, delegate! You will not be able to do everything yourself. Certain tasks are better done by a supporting team. For instance, finding sponsors for EuroIA 2016 was done by a team of three and they did an excellent job. When gathering a team around you, put your best people on the crucial tasks. Reserve less crucial tasks for people that are enthusiastic about the conference, but you suspect they will not always be able to keep their promises.
  • As co-chairs, motivate the supporting team when needed, but let them organise their own work. Give them enough space to do their job well.
  • Make sure you have a “local guy”, someone living and working in the city where the conference will take place. This person will be indispensable for organising the evening activities and for practical matters (like printing stuff last minute). Our local guy did an excellent job.
  • Stimulate the committee and supporting team to promote the conference as much as possible. EuroIA has a tradition of working with country ambassadors (one per European country). Their task is exactly this, to promote the conference within their network/country, to spread the news and be present during local events to get people interested in EuroIA. We paid special attention to the country ambassadors and did a close follow-up of their work. And we organised a committee and country ambassador dinner in Amsterdam during the conference itself, to show appreciation for their work.

For EuroIA 2016, we were lucky to have an excellent supporting team. Without any doubt, the excellent teamwork was a major factor in the success of the conference.

Communication

Solid, timely communication via the right channels and with a consistent tone of voice will enhance the reputation of your conference and attract speakers, attendants and sponsors. What are the fundamentals of good communication for a conference?

  • Timely communication: timely communication via social media, and regular, timely mailings. The timely aspect is indeed crucial. If you say you will open ticket sales in a month, make sure you stick to that promise. If you name your first mailing as “mailing number 1”, make sure there will be a number 2… This seems self-evident and easy at first, but for a group of volunteers already having full time jobs and doing this conference as a hobby on the side, it is the most difficult thing to maintain throughout the year.
  • A consistent tone of voice in all communications. Preferably a lightweight, cheeky tone with some humour, but still professional. It will give your conference a clear voice that stands out. We were lucky to have a person in charge of social media who was excellent at this and established exactly the tone of voice we needed.
  • A fresh, modern look & feel and identity that is consistent throughout all communication channels (website, social media, mailings, name badges, printed material, signage at the venue…). It was missing for EuroIA, so we made it a top priority to establish a new identity and style, with a new EuroIA logo and a new look & feel for the website.
The banner of the EuroIA 2016 website, with the new identity and new EuroIA logo.
  • A clean, solid website with content evolving over time. If your site looks good and professional and is consistently up to date, it’s the first big step in getting people interested in the conference and signing up. My next write-up will explain more in detail how we managed the website, using the container model.
  • An editorial team, for conducting interviews with speakers and writing teaser articles in the months leading up to the conference. We used Medium as communication channel for these articles and interviews. Once the programme is published and the ticket sales opened, the core content of the website is established and doesn’t change much anymore. The articles and interviews however allow you to publish new content in the “dead” months leading up to the conference.

Leave a legacy

Document the conference extensively to leave a legacy. A well-documented conference is ideal for promoting future editions of the conference. For EuroIA 2016, legacy was ensured in the following two ways.

  • Have a team of reporters at the conference: we had a sketch noter in residence, a photographer in residence (who also made daily highlight videos), a journalist for daily write-ups and a person in charge of social media orchestrating all communications. They did a terrific job! Have these reporters capture as much as possible, and have a workflow in place to make sure all the material they produce, is published quickly. We used the homepage of the conference website to showcase video summaries and to point to all the social media channels where we published the freshly produced material: Twitter, Medium, Storify, Facebook, Google Photo stream and a Vimeo channel.
Our sketch noter in residence at work, making “EuroIA-branded” sketch notes throughout the three days.
  • Make sure the website can live on after the conference. When you have added all materials afterwards (photos, sketch notes, links to the slide decks of speakers etc…), archive the website so it remains accessible, also when the site for next year’s edition is launched. In the coming years, people will look at the archived websites when they are deciding to come to your conference or not. When we started our job as co-chairs end of September 2015, the website of the EuroIA Madrid edition that had just taken place, was the only site available online. The websites of all previous editions were gone, and the only thing that was left were some references on Lanyrd.com. We made it one of our top priorities to have an archiving strategy in place. The site of an upcoming edition would always use the widely-known www.euroia.org domain and the archived editions could live on via the url’s 2015.euroia.org, 2016.euroia.org, etc.

The one thing we didn’t do, was videotaping talks. It would have required a lot of organisation: making sure a dedicated video team was in place to register at the conference and do the editing and publishing afterwards, but also make agreements with the speakers beforehand to allow us to videotape them. In hindsight, this is unfortunate, especially for the keynotes, but it was a battle we chose not to fight. Exactly my next point.

Choose your battles

As co-chairs, part of rotating system, you may be tempted to change a lot of things about a conference, because you want to make a difference in that one year. This is a big risk. Nothing worse than making many plans but hardly bringing any of these to a good end. This will inevitably reflect on the overall impression of the quality of the conference.

Therefore, make sure to choose your battles in the beginning of the yearly cycle: where do you want to make a difference? What will you change? And what will you leave unchanged, as it is? It is impossible to change everything.

Our battles for EuroIA 2016 were:

  • Getting a larger crowd to a conference, to show the conference is still relevant and to have its future ensured (the previous editions had shown a decline in number of attendants);
  • A strong, attractive programme, but I guess this is a priority for every conference organiser;
  • An improved website, and an archiving strategy to ensure the legacy of the conference;
  • Identity and visual design: a new improved logo, and an improved overall look & feel for the website, sponsor brochure, printed materials etc.;
  • A communication plan throughout the year (mailings, social media, interviews with some of the speakers…) and during the conference itself (a plan for live updates on the website and social media during the conference);
  • An editorial team and reporters in residence, to have the conference documented in a professional way, in this way ensuring the legacy of the conference.
Alistair Duff delivering the closing keynote on building the good information society.

On the other hand, we left a number of things unchanged. We could have done, but didn’t do the following:

  • A thorough improvement of the curation process: the workflow of establishing a review team, reviewing the submissions and choosing the programme. More about this later on in this article.
  • More extensive guidance of speakers in the months and weeks leading up to the conference: for instance, talking with them beforehand about the subject they will present, and guiding them in how to improve their talk. The IA Summit has been doing this for many years, and even has a dedicated room at the conference venue to allow speakers to try out their talk and get feedback from professionals.
  • Guidance for first attendees, for instance speed dates or bringing first-timers together via dinners with speakers and regular attendees.
  • Usability of the conference venue itself: do visits to the hotel beforehand, provide well-designed signalisation in the hotel and have a dedicated team working on this in the months leading up to the conference.

Indeed, one of the things we didn’t explicitly try to improve, turned out to be a challenge: the curation and review process of the submissions. EuroIA has a tradition of open submissions that undergo a double or even triple blind review. Even though we had written out explicit guidelines and criteria for the reviewers of submissions, the review process was far from perfect: we didn’t have enough reviewers, so each reviewer had to review a lot of submissions. Also, the small group of reviewers had very different profiles, leading to extreme differences in the scores and comments. The criteria we had set forward were interpreted differently. Finally, there was a lack of curation of the reviewer’s comments. Some of these are private (only visible to other reviewers), but some are also visible to the submitter when he receives the verdict by email. We were focusing so much on handling the submissions with good scores (i.e. talks we wanted to have at the conference) and communicating mainly with these speakers, that we didn’t pay enough attention to the submissions with lower scores. Sporadically, the feedback to submitters was inappropriate, leading to a few negative comments in social media.

Let’s wait and see if future co-chairs make this subject one of their battlegrounds…

Wrap-up

To conclude, let me summarise the tips that may help you organise an excellent conference:

  • Have a timeline so you can plan and anticipate. Stick to the milestones on your timeline;
  • Have an attractive venue, that can easily be reached and is situated in an attractive city;
  • Consider having a strong theme that attracts a broad audience ánd sponsors;
  • Have a good team, with the right mix of qualities, characters and personalities. Take responsibility when needed, but delegate when possible;
  • Have a good conference website as central communication tool, and well monitored social media channels in support;
  • Communicate in time, with a consistent tone of voice, in a consistent visual style, via multiple channels;
  • Choose your battles carefully. Don’t overplay your hand by trying to change too much;
  • Make sure you leave a legacy, via pictures, articles, sketch notes on an archived website. It ensures the future of the conference.

Finally, have fun while doing all these things! Without the fun, you will probably not hang on till the end. And make friends. Friends you make in a joint roller coaster ride like this one, are friends to stay.


This story was written by Koen Peters, Information architect and systemic designer at Namahn and co-chair for EuroIA 2016, Amsterdam. Most pictures are taken by Peter.

The EuroIA summit is Europe’s leading Information Architecture (IA) and User Experience (UX) conference. It is a unique event that brings together veteran Information Architects, experts from diverse fields practising IA, and newcomers to the practice of IA and UX design. It showcases best practices and real-world results, along with the methods used to get there. It is organised every year in September, in a different European city. EuroIA 2017, in Stockholm, will be the 13th edition.