Story of a failed conference — iOS Conf Budapest postmortem

Nagy Farkas Gábor
Apr 2 · 5 min read

tl;dr: Not enough tickets were sold to fund the conference, so I had to cancel it to avoid funding it all out of pocket. Instead there will be a free event, you can find the details here.

Background story

My name is Gabor Nagy Farkas, and I’m the organizer of a failed conference. How could that be?

I’m an iOS developer at Supercharge and the organizer of NSBudapest, which is a local meetup for iOS developers in Budapest. Last year I visited a couple of conferences around Europe, and realized that this isn’t that hard to do. I already had experience in organizing events in Budapest, so why not create something on a bigger scale? It was only December, so if I wanted to hold an event in April, I still had four months to get things ready, right?

The beginning

I started out by mapping out the expenses. For the venue, catering, merchandise and the traveling expenses for the speakers, the total cost was going to be around $13-15 000. I didn’t want to rely on sponsors for funding, so I planned that the whole cost could be covered by the sale of 100 tickets. Since I was the one making the deposits, I made sure that they would be refundable as long as I canceled by the end of February. I decided on the venue by the end of December and was ready to give it a go.

As an iOS developer, I work with a lot of very talented designers and my colleague Erika was kind enough to design the website and marketing materials for the conference. Once they were ready, I started to look for sponsors. I aimed high and reached out to a few top-tier companies like Sketch, Reveal, Tower, STRV and O’Reilly. They were really open to the possibility of working together. In my discussions with local companies, I also had a lot of positive feedback and it seemed there were a lot of possibilities to collaborate. In return for their support, I committed to bringing at least a hundred people to the event, and making sure they had all the materials they would need to represent their company.

I had already confirmed a few speakers who would present at the conference, and had a pretty good idea who else I would invite, when I decided it was time to start selling tickets. In no more than a few days, all twenty early bird tickets were already sold out. I was pleasantly surprised, as it seemed people were really interested in attending. After selling twenty tickets, with more than three months to go until the conference, what could go wrong?

What went wrong

If you think about a great conference, what are the three most important things? Diverse line-up of speakers, delicious food and fast internet. That’s when I realized we had a problem. While I had picked a venue that had a central location, I didn’t take into consideration its wifi connection, which turned out to be very poor. The cheapest option for improving it would be if I bought some 4G routers and SIM cards, but this would be a lot of work and would still cost close to $1000.

That wasn’t the only extra expense. I realized that I would have to provide booths for the sponsors to promote their company. The sponsorship packages that I was selling would cover the cost, but I hadn’t counted on how expensive these booths could be. Especially when I found out that for some reason they weren’t available to rent, and I would have to buy them.

Meanwhile the ticket sales were slowing down. While I had been optimistic after the first 20 tickets sold in the first few days, a month later the total was still less than 50. Although I was promoting the conference on social media, people didn’t seem to respond.

The financial burden was only part of my problem. By the end of January, the sheer amount of work that I had to do became overwhelming. This included: meeting with potential sponsors, exchanging emails with speakers, managing the online profiles, dealing with the above-mentioned problems with the infrastructure not to mention the basics like reserving the restaurant, accommodation, venue. This was all done in addition to my day job, as time went on I found it harder and harder to manage all the work.

What I would do differently now

First and foremost, if I were to organize a conference again, I wouldn’t take on all that work alone. I would find a partner to work on it with. Doing an international conference is so much more demanding than a local meetup.

Preparation is key. I should have had a thorough checklist of the things I needed from a venue. I remembered to ask about the projector, chairs, drinks, but forgot to ask about the quality of the internet connection. There are so many little things that are easy to forget: location of power outlets, audio system, number of bathrooms, accessibility, etc. These are often taken for granted, but they can spoil the event if they aren’t taken into consideration.

Also, I would give myself more time to prepare everything. Two months before the conference I was still confirming the speakers. This should’ve been done much earlier, before I ever started to sell tickets. This made it harder to get sponsors, because I was in a rush. I could have started all of this work at least six months before the conference date.

Conclusion

Since I was able to get most of my deposits back, it wasn’t a total disaster, but I was still stuck with the bill for some things. Because of that, I’ve decided to turn this into a free event and not let my money go to waste. On April 12th I hope you’ll join us at our local meetup with international speakers.

Thanks for reading! If you have any comments, questions do it below or hit me up on Twitter!

Thanks to Máté Safranka

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