The Conference Is Over: Long Live The Conference

As a frequent tech conference attendee, speaker, and co-organizer if there’s one thing that is true it’s that the conference doesn’t end after 5pm. Afterparties and how you structure your post-conference activities can make or break the experience.

Recently an age-old cycle re-emerged in the PHP community. The classic tales of “beer as currency” and the problems that can sometimes arise was recently written about by Pablo Godel. And the one refrain I heard from the discussion that ensued on Twitter is that there is a lot of discussion about the problem but little advice on solutions.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with me, I love beer. So do my co-organizers. And I also love the tech community and conferences. So naturally I enjoy being able to link up with old and new friends and share beers and comraderie.

However there are those in the community that for a multitude of reasons don’t drink, and I really want to have fun with them too and as an organizer I want to be inclusive and inviting to them.

Decisions Are Like Water

The decisions we make as humans are like water: they tend to follow the path of least resistance. If the only social activity of your conference is an open bar in a big empty room with a sponsor slideshow in the corner, the easiest decision to make is to drink. And for most of us that’s not an issue, but for those of us that don’t drink it can feel exclusionary due to the difficulty of finding non-alcoholic alternatives, and it can be dangerous for the silent members of the community who struggle with alcohol.

At Lone Star PHP we love both our beer and our friends and have made it an internal goal to try what we could to make our after parties and social events as inclusive non-drinkers and drinkers alike while keeping it safe for those who struggle. To do this we make having fun WITHOUT alcohol the path of least resistance.

  1. Keep your social event on-site. While sometimes this is not possible due to venue restrictions, we keep our after party on-site and not in a bar. This helps out-of-towners feel less isolated as well since they don’t have to navigate an unfamiliar city and gives them the option to control their own schedule.
  2. Start the social immediately after the closing talk. “We’re going to give people time to drop their stuff off and give ourselves time to set up” was a great rationalization our first year of Lone Star at our current venue but it utterly destroyed our social event: the only attendees were the speakers and a handfull of locals. The rest? Left to go to bars, leaving the non-drinkers feeling isolated.
  3. Non-alcoholic drinks as a first class citizen. We actually prided ourselves on making sure that our open bar’s non-alcoholic options were top-tier and potentially more inviting than the alcoholic option. Jake, Chris, and I actually had a lot of fun selecting high-quality sodas and lemonades like Virgils, Dublin Dr. Pepper, Mexican Coke, and Hubert’s Lemonade. The bartenders were expressly told to use the crappy 2-liter bottles for cocktails, the nice stuff was on display and for non-drinkers only.
  4. Provide actual activities and games. We filled our main room with board games, an Xbox with a Kinect, and Cornhole to provide things to do. The last thing we wanted was an empty ballroom whos only decoration are open-bar carts. What we wanted were as many options as possible so those who don’t drink can have fun with everyone else without feeling singled out or conspicuous.
  5. Keep the alcohol to the side/out of the activity spaces. This was, for us, dictated by the layout of our event space but it ended up working out really well. The bar carts were in the hallways outside of the main room so those playing boardgames and socialize could do so withotu the constant distraction of the bar carts. It was such a minor thing to make a quick trip to the hallway to grab a beer, but it helps those who struggle with alcohol to feel integrated without constant temptations.
  6. Provide food. You want to keep as many of your attendees at your afterparty for as long as possible. If there is no food they’re going to leave in groups to go eat, and usually that trip is to a local bar. While this is fine, again, the non-drinkers and out-of-towners aren’t inclined to leave and go to a strange bar. The more people that stay at the afterparty the more fun it is for everyone.
  7. Ensure the bar tenders are empowered and responsible enough to cut off excessive drinking. This is something that is hard to keep track of and is something we constantly struggle with. Some years there are 0 problems, and some years someone comes along and throws a wrench in everything. Sometimes the best you can do is just repeat it out-loud to yourself so you feel okay helping a friend by cutting them off.

These aren’t hard-and-fast rules certainly. With the above #5 we actually had an exception in that we had Dean Brundage of New Republic Brewing move his tap station to the main room one year so he and his lovely wife could socialize with the rest of the party while serving his beer. It massively helped, however, that the person serving the beer was familiar with the tech community and could interact and socialize. Which was a mistake we made in a later year having one person manning the hombrew beer station who was unfamiliar with the community and caused some uncomfortable friction.

And sometimes you can’t follow #1 because of limitations with where your event is held and the costs of your event space. EmpireJS was held in New York City, an area famous for expensive venues, and had severe restrictions but still had an excellent after party in which they rented a boat for a cruise around the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. An amazing experience for out-of-towners and fun whether you were drinking wine or grape juice.

Conferences Can Still Have Their Beer And Drink It Too

The goal is not to get rid of alcohol all together, or hide it away shamefully. The goal is to provide options and be active and responsible as organizers knowing the after-party is as important as the primary conference experience.

The homebrewers and beer aficionados among us (namely, the entire Lone Star PHP organizing team) can still sit around drink Omni’s creations and discuss our favorite beers, and the last thing we would want to do is get rid of that. But we also still want to hang out with our friends who just want a rootbeer and a round of Munchkin. Or a vodka-soda and Dance Revolution. Or a glass of wine and Cornhole.

And people will still have fun. And there will still be after-after-parties at a bar down the street. Bottles of beer will be traded, homebrews will be tasted, and your attendees will be none the wiser to your plans and machinations.

A Note On “Promoting” Drinking

Before I close out, I want to spend a few sentences on the phrase “Promoting Drinking” in regards to conferences. Whether intentional through marketing materials or unintentional by lack of options, if your only afterparty is at a bar, or in an empty room with bar carts, you are promoting drinking purely by virtue of not promoting anything else.

As conference organizers we need to be aware that people read into everything we do, and everything we don’t do, and work hard to craft the whole experience. Conference experiences have been ruined more often in the evenings than they have during the day and we must be aware that our responsibilities start when the first plane touches down and don’t end at 5pm.

While it’s not our responsibility to nanny our attendees (they are adults after all) it is our responsibility to make sure good decisions are as easy as possible to make. And that means more effort on our parts providing a relaxed and inclusive atmosphere and letting gravity take its course.

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