How to organize your community conference — Part 2 — The Environment

In the first part of this series we saw where all the organization starts from: the idea. If you haven’t done it yet, you should go read the first part of the series to make sure you know our story. Here we will see why having a good environment is the starting point for a successful conference


Media

Have a website. A good website.

The header of our DevFest Pisa Website (https://devfest.gdgpisa.it/)

A good website plays a fundamental role in the whole organization of a conference. Attendees should be able to find basic information quickly (such as the agenda, the venue, the tickets, etc.). Speakers should be able to find the conference theme and understand if their talk proposal may fit your agenda. Sponsors should be able to understand size and scope of your conference to decide either to support your conference or not.

The website will play a fundamental role also during your conference. The agenda should be easily accessible. Attendees usually check the upcoming talks few days/hours before the conference. Make sure that your website is up and running at any time. Having also a responsive conference website is definitely a must nowadays.

Don’t re-invent the wheel. You can find a lot of really good conference website templates online. Crafting a new website can take you a lot of time that you probably want to invest on something different. For our DevFest website we used hoverboard, an open source DevFest template (credits to Oleh Zasadnyy and GDG Lviv). Here you can find our website repo:

Define your logo

Once you start working on your website, you probably also want to think about your conference logo. Find something simple and effective, ask a designer to help you if you struggle with this. Finding a good logo could be really hard especially if you don’t have experience.

If you have a community behind you can still run a contest to design the conference logo. This is a simple way to engage your community and have a lot of ideas to start with.

Furthermore, make sure your theme is clearly visible across your website and your logo. If you’re organizing a Python conference, any sort of snake in the logo would be fine. If you’re organizing a game development conference, probably a 8-bit logo or website could be a good fit.

Our logo was pretty simple and similar to our community logo (with the GDG chevron). Since the theme was all about Google tech, we thought it was a good fit to have the Google colors and to have it connected to the GDG community. And if you get stuck, image search to the rescue.

Define your media plan

That means, just create a spreadsheet, dates in the rows, social media channels in the columns and start defining what you’ll post when and where.

Social media management will take you a lot of time as well, prepare upfront. You can use tools like Buffer or Hootsuite to manage your social channel. You will probably tweet all of your speakers/sponsors the weeks before the conference, you can prepare those posts and schedule them to be posted when you want. Don’t forget to define an official hashtag, this will make easier to aggregate your tweets/post during your event.

Planning to have a blog? Make sure to have content to plan regularly. There is nothing worse than that lonely Introducing our awesome conference post dated 6 months ago.

Make sure to pick the right channels to reach your potential audience. Usually you can reach a lot of tech speakers and potential attendees on Twitter. But this might not be the case for your audience. Planning to organize a photographer conference: thought about Instagram?

In our case we opened a new twitter account @devFestPisa especially for english tweets and we mirrored our tweets in Italian on our community account @gdgPisa.

Make sure to have photos to share. Find a photographer or someone that will take care of taking pictures during the conference. You’ll probably be too busy to take care of this as well. Make sure to include headline graphics or photos in your blogposts and try to add pictures to your tweets, you’ll definitely have a higher engagement.

Logistic

Once you book your location you’re halfway of the whole organization

First, define a date. If you you’re organizing a paid conference you probably want to do it on Thursday/Friday or on Monday/Tuesday, to don’t break a working week in the middle. I’m honestly a fan of the Thursday/Friday formula since you can use the following weekend to relax and enjoy the city (in our case, we have a tower to offer 😉).

Also, go for more than one day only if you have good and structured content. The more the better doesn’t work here. Keep it simple, streamlined and focused on your theme. You don’t need to have a day 2 if you don’t have enough talks or contents.

Check the calendar and avoid holidays, vacation periods or other special event. You don’t want to organize your conference the same day of the Italian election right? Usually a good period for a conference is the mid-season February-May or September-November, weather is good are people are not on vacation.

In our case we opted for a single day event on a Saturday. This because our target were also undergraduate with lectures during the week. We thought two days was too much effort for us and we weren’t sure to have enough budget.

Location

Finding a good location is probably the hardest part of the whole conference organization. The venue is your conference’s frame, everything will happen around it. First, look for location with good stages: make sure you have working projects (without exhausted lamps) or screens, a proper audio system and comfortable/enough seats. Make sure everything is working smoothly and try every stage upfront. The last thing you want is attendees with headaches due to flickering projectors or, even worse, speakers that has to shout because your microphone is out of juice.

The DevFest Pisa 0.1 badge

Furthermore, if you want to build a networking environment, you need to provide some networking spaces. A coffee machine and a water cooler are good starting points to create some networking. But you can also setup a dedicated area for networking, with local communities, meetups, sponsors and supporters. Make sure to provide badges for everyone (attendees, speakers, sponsors, volunteers, superheroes, etc.). By having their name on badges, attendees will be less shy are more open to interact each other. (Also you should probably think about printing double sided badges or using double clip lanyard to avoid badges flipping around).

Then, Wifi. Not a must from my point of view, but a nice to have. Wireless connection tend to be really bad during conferences and not really useful. Attendees usually rely on their mobile data connection and can use their GBs to check the schedule or to tweet. If you have a limited connection, use it for internal purposes (social media, ticketing, etc.). Wifi is instead a must for speakers: make sure to update them on your connectivity status, some speakers may rely on internet to run their slides. Furthermore, if you have workshops, make sure your connectivity doesn’t become your bottleneck when attendees are downloading SDKs or libraries.

Still struggling with finding a good location? Ask your network. Someone in your network probably has already organized events, meetings or conferences in your area. Ask for suggestions and collect some feedbacks on how was the location and if attendees/speakers enjoyed the venue.

If you’re looking for something affordable, Universities are probably a good choice. They can offer good stages usually equipped with audio/video at an accessible price, and they can easily accommodate hundreds of attendees.

If you’re organizing a smaller conference, Co-working spaces could work as well. They can usually offer several meeting rooms for workshops and some small/medium stage for talks. Plus usually co-working space owner can offer you a special deal for visibility on your social channels.

Hotels might be an option as well. They are pretty handy if you’re planning a multi-day event with an international audience. Make sure they have enough space for networking and a proper stage setup.

Finally, Conference centers are probably the best option. They usually offer all you need to run your conference as smoothly as possible. Unfortunately, they’re also usually the most expensive option, making them unsuitable for a free/low-budget conference.

Our location was an old fabric factory. The furnace was left in the mail hall as a memorial.

Luckily we managed to get one of the main building of the University of Pisa, a central location with 3 stages, a lot of space for networking, able to accommodate several hundreds attendees. I think the location was one of the key point for the DevFest success and I have to say, we got luck🍀 in finding a location that was fitting our needs.

Last suggestion, don’t skip the on-site inspection. Don’t assume anything and check every detail. Make a TODO list (Trello to the rescue) with all the things that you need to check and another TODO list with all the things you need to buy. During the inspection, we realized our wardrobe was pretty big but with basically no coat hangers. Would have been really embarrassing to realize that the morning of the conference.

Food

Good food translates into good networking.

If you’re event is more than 3/4 hours, you need to provide some sort of food. Food is the best occasion to create some networking opportunities. Make sure you reserve enough time in your agenda to let people enjoy their breaks. For every day of your event you should provide at least lunch and 1/2 coffee breaks.

Water and coffee are mandatory. Lacking of caffeine will definitely impact negative on your event. Luckily several venues offer automated vending machine, but I think a water/coffee should be inside the basic package you offer to all of your attendees. If you’re event is free, you probably can’t afford a full breakfast, lunch and several coffee breaks for everyone. But at least coffee and water should be provided by the conference for free, and they usually don’t impact significantly on your budget.

If you have enough budget, look for a good catering company. They usually customize their offer based on your needs. Make sure to have enough food for everyone and please, don’t forget to ask for enough alternatives (vegatarian, vegan, halal, gluten-free, just to mention some).

If you’re organizing a free event instead, hiring a catering couldn’t be affordable. Try to ask some local catering company if they’re open to sponsor your event. In our case, the University kiosk is run by a local catering that was happy to support us with a discounted price.

Don’t worry. There will always be someone complaining about the food. Just do your best and people will notice it.

Out networking party

If you’re event is one full day or more, you should definitely consider organizing a networking party after the first day of the conference. Find a nice bar next to your venue and advertise your party before and during the conference. The party is another excellent networking opportunity for your attendees/speakers that you don’t want to miss. You don’t necessarily need to offer unlimited free drinks to everyone, but you can giveaway some free drinks as an impulse to join the party. Usually only 20/30% of your attendees will show up at your party, so you don’t need to offer thousands of beers. We organized a small networking party after the DevFest at a local brewery. We payed several drinks in advance and we gave tokens to attendees to claim their free drink.

Sponsors

Both for free and paid events, you probably need some sponsors to support the whole organization. Finding sponsors could be a tough task and can also be pretty frustrating if you’re not experienced.

Try to connect with your sponsors way earlier than your conference. If your community is organizing regular events like meetups and talks during the year, invite your sponsors to give a talk or ask them if they want to host your meetup. You can’t just knock the door of some IT companies and hope they will give you a sponsorship without knowing your background.

Define a set of levels and write a document where you write down:

  • What’s your conference about?
  • When and Where will it happen?
  • Who’s organizing it? A bit of background/history.
  • Some stats from the previous years or events.
  • Sponsorship levels with amount and what do you offer.

Be simple, clear and direct. You don’t need to create a fancy brochure, but a document where every information is easy accessible by your potential sponsors (you want to reduce any back-and-forth due to missing information).

Be open to a special/custom sponsors level. Several companies would prefer to give you services or swags instead of cash money. Make sure the swags you’re receiving fit to your audience (e.g. conference about Android development? An keychain with a bitten apple might not fit perfectly).

Furthermore, don’t restrict yourself to IT only companies. A lot of other kind of companies (marketing, social media, advertisement, job placement) might be interested in reaching your audience. In our case, StickerMule, a sticker printing company, sponsored our DevFest with several high-quality stickers.

Also sponsors don’t like to be forgotten. Make sure to:

  • Don’t forget to put your sponsors’ logo on your website.
  • Don’t forget to mention your sponsors during the opening session.
  • Don’t forget to put your sponsors’ logo on your swags if you agreed on that.
  • Don’t forget to give your sponsors’ swags if you agreed on that.

Those might sound obvious, but those are mistakes you definitely want to avoid to do not lose sponsors the following years.

Volunteers

You can’t do everything on your own. Open a call for helpers and ask for support during your conference. Just create a form where you ask for basic data, availability and preferences for the role (the DevFest Pisa CFH is here).

Make sure to reach all the members of your community. If people understand that your event is getting bigger, with several speakers and sponsors, they would probably be more than happy to jump on the organization train. As a plus, you can still provide some special swags to your volunteers. And if you’re organizing a paid event, you can offer them a free ticket.

Define simple and precise roles. Write down a little runbook for every role (a page is usually enough) with do/don’t for every role and what they need to have the day of the event. I highly recommend to do a briefing the day before where you go through all the roles and answer all the volunteers questions.

The volunteers briefing

Finally, make sure volunteers are easy to distinguish from the attendees. First this is good for team building, you want your volunteers to feel part of your staff and to work well each other. Furthermore, attendees will immediately recognize a volunteers and consider them as point of contact for any kind of support. In our case volunteers had red t-shirts rather then blue (for attendees).