LuaConf organisation — Why run a conference in Brazil

Etiene Dalcol
Feb 2, 2018 · 11 min read

Last June I went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to run an event that’s very close to my heart: LuaConf. LuaConf is an international conference on the Lua programming language. Considering I’m based in London, it would have perhaps been way easier to organise the event here. Also, the adoption of Lua in the UK is probably wider than in Brazil, so what prompted me to organise the event there? Well, besides the awful sacrifice of travelling to a tropical paradise, just the fact that the challenge is bigger is a thrill in itself. But what’s most special about this is giving back to the community.

the awful sacrifice of organisers and speakers going so far away for a tech event in one picture

Lua was created inside Tecgraf, within the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, where I started my studies and had classes with one of its main architects, Roberto Ierusalimschy. However, for a number of reasons, Lua continues to be more adopted in other countries compared to its country of origin. Brazil is also an emerging market in constant need of qualified people in the IT sector.

I probably don’t need to go into many details about how the dev scene in the UK and in Brazil are quite different, but one thing that caught my attention is the difference in availability of tech events. In the UK, they are plentiful. Networking is easy, opportunities are thrown in your face. You can attend tech events and learn new things as often as you want because there is always something happening. Simply put, London doesn’t need a Lua community event as much as Rio does. I still cannot unfold into multiple people doing things simultaneously, so if I was going to organise only one big event, I decided it had to be in Rio.

Logistics

Organising an event comes with multiple challenges. Some of them are similar among events, such as providing food to attendees, whereas others will be particular to your event. I figured there’s already a ton of material such as “37 tips for organising a tech event” that will talk about the common things. So, I want to cover learnings that were more particular to LuaConf.

It is important to remember that although this was my personal experience in running an event in Brazil, you can use this information and apply it if:

Remote organisation

Even though I flew to Rio some days before the conference and solved some last minute things and was present during the conference day, 95% of my organisation work took place remotely. The key is having a team of organisers and volunteers I could trust. While this is true in all events, I needed some team members based in the same city where the event was happening.

They were crucial for solving emergencies that required physical presence, and for helping to resolve other issues more quickly. Also, since they currently live in Rio, they knew more than me about the current tech scene, the communities that are thriving today etc. which is essential for a good word-of-mouth marketing of the conference. Tasks were shared based on where we were geographically. For example: I worked on the online presence, getting in contact with potential speakers, preparing sponsorship pamphlets. Volunteers worked on tasks like researching local catering services, putting up banners in universities, murals, setting up and testing Wi-Fi in the venue.

Securing sponsorships

There is no big secret to this. If you’ve ever had to ask for sponsors for an event, you’ll know that it is a tough process with lots of rejections from companies that are not interested. However, this is especially true in countries in development. Most companies won’t understand the value of sponsoring a technical conference, the benefits of exposure and the recruiting potential and they’ll shrug it off as “useless waste of money”. What needs to be done is an additional work to explain all that and put way more effort into convincing people that sponsoring technical events is a good idea, in addition to already convincing them to sponsor your event specifically. This step is something you can probably skip when running events in Europe, because this value is already known, but it is essential in Brazil.

A different issue is trying to get attention of international companies that use the technology involved in your event and see if they’re interested. This might be trickier because for most companies it is not particularly interesting to have recruiting efforts in countries where they aren’t based. Although some companies were successful at recruiting at LuaConf, when approaching them, I had to spin it differently. The key here is trying to value things like good PR, support for the open source communities, support for peripheral areas of software development and breaking into emerging economies. Many companies use open source, but few contribute back to it. So this was a space to remind companies on a privileged situation that giving back is awesome.

I cannot stress this enough, but every company is different and they might be looking for a different thing that your event can offer. So do not just copy paste emails asking for money, because that’s just asking to be unsuccessful. Take things like business model, location, product, target, and everything else you can into consideration. Then you can make individual proposals that value what’s in the best interest of the company you’re contacting.

Running events with little funding

The good news about running events in peripheral areas is that it is not eventful enough for all that competition to kick in, so attendees expectations are generally low. Do not give up making your event just because you can’t serve champagne to thousands of people, open it with a firework show and have Elon Musk walking around. Go for the MVP and attendees will still be happy, trust me on that one.

One thing to consider is not putting too much hope that funding will come from ticket sales. In conferences in Europe, it is already common for the bulk of the funding to come from sponsors, but this is even more true in countries like Brazil. In Europe it is very common for conferences to have exorbitant prices because very often the attendees are not paying for the ticket themselves. Instead, their employers are paying it from them. However, in Brazil, just like it is complicated for companies to understand investing into sponsoring events, it is complicated for companies to understand investing into their own employees.

When I used to work in Brazil and wanted to attend a technical event, very often the money had to come from my own pocket and the time from my vacations. Slowly this mentality is changing, but it is still a common challenge, especially when salaries are low. This is another reason why quicker, smaller and free events such as meetups and user groups do run nicely over there, but attendance for bigger events might be more challenging. It also explains why BrazilJS sells their tickets at around the equivalent of 85£ and a huge events like Campus Party are still successful: it is cheap (~50£), it includes accommodation and it is highly targeted to students (who generally have more time flexibility). So what I recommend is putting the ticket price as low as possible and try to gather funding from other sources.

In case you are wondering what’s the MVP for a tech event, here it is:

*The website can be optional depending of the scale of the event: a meetup might not need one, but a conference will. Apart from this and the other items, I guarantee, nothing more is needed.

Lunch catering is usually way more expensive than buying a meal at a nearby restaurant, so instead of absorbing it into the ticket, you can just set people free to go out, giving a bigger lunch break. Research about some places in the area and recommend people to go there so they go together and network. If you have enough money to offer lunch from sponsorships, then do that, because it’s nice for them to stay around, but it is optional. In LuaConf we didn’t offer lunch, but we offered a substantial coffee break, from BreakBox. They were ideal for us because in our small venue the area for catering was practically non-existent. We had a coffee table that the volunteers prepared, and snacks were offered in boxes that attendees could grab and eat in a green area outside. Everyone was very happy with the snacks.

Things like nice swag, shiny graphic materials etc. make your event nice, but they don’t make your event good. What makes your event special is great talks and the networking. So make sure you got those right and make all your possible to improve that at little cost. For example, you can invest into networking with simple things like having bigger breaks between talks. Get creative and tune it as hard as you can. If sponsors didn’t come up with activities for people to go to them, do this yourself. Talk to your sponsors and engage with your attendees.

You’ll also have to put extra effort on convincing local speakers to apply, so you don’t have to fly all of the speakers from across the globe, which is very expensive. In my case, this was the most expensive part of LuaConf. One thing that I highly suggest is to offer sponsorship status to companies who are happy to cover the costs for their employees to come speak at your conference and save your budget for speakers who wouldn’t be able to come otherwise.

If you also want your event to be nice, invest your time into nice things that are cheap or free. Make sure to prioritise things considering the cost and the value they add to your event.

Having a code of conduct is one example, costs nothing but it is great to have since it makes minorities feel safer. Get discounts or sponsorships for students, attendees of low income or who belong to minority groups, they’ll be the happiest people around.

If you have no money to run a post-conf party, book tables at a bar nearby and let people pay for themselves. If you have some money but not a lot, have a bar tab that accommodates your budget. Especially in Brazil, for most people it is preferable to have inexpensive tickets and still be able to be there instead of having “free” cocktails at a party. Of course, that means extra work to convince people to stay around and join the post-conf activity. So it is important to communicate this in the best persuasive way. You can also offer stickers, they’re cheap and everyone loves them. All of this will require more efforts into organisation, but such is life with little money.

Attendees and speakers gathering for the most traditional carioca foods and drinks

Reaching people

Gathering people to attend your event can be a difficult task and requires a bunch of research. Some of the things that helped me were:

Delegating this task to multiple volunteers

Unless you have a professional in this, delegating a bit of outreach to multiple people is way better than having one person responsible for all the outreach. The more people involved in this, the merrier. Chances are the different volunteers are interested in different technologies, study in different universities, work at different companies, participate in different communities and will be able to reach more people.

Contacting universities

If students are part of your target audience, make sure to contact those responsible for mailing lists within local universities. By doing that, your event is announced to most of computer science students in town. This is even more important in countries in development because it is often the case that students in the IT sector are working already, and while there is not a single point of contact for workers, contacting students is easy and they are able to make the bridge with local companies.

Looking for local related communities that are already organised

There are no Lua user groups in Rio. So for me this meant getting in contact with the Lua user group in Ceará, open source groups in Rio and the Lua research lab. Find a person who is active in local communities and ask them to share information about your event. Sometimes, if you already have a good relationship or a certain status level within a certain community, it might also be worth it to market your event there even if it’s not too closely related. In our case, one of our volunteers was an active member of the local PyLadies group and many of our attendees came from this group. Even if Python is not Lua, some people are interested in multiple technologies. A good tip is to make the invitation seem especial to that group, or come from a respected member, especially if your event is only tangentially relevant. Sharing the same post in different closed groups with no additional information is just rude.

Conclusion

Organising tech events for small and far away communities can be tough, but it is totally doable and very rewarding. LuaConf in Rio had an attendance similar to the last Lua Workshop (the main Lua conference, that has been running over 10 years), which was hosted in San Francisco, so it means it was a big success. It was also very rewarding to offer great talks to an audience that does not have access to those very often. Other successes we had were concerning diversity, our team including the volunteers is composed of mostly women. Although the gender diversity of the speakers was not very good, the diversity of attendees was pretty great. We had roughly 25% female participation which is way above the average of women studying CS and related courses in university in Brazil. I consider that our biggest win. It feels great to make an impact and I certainly recommend getting involved with organising tech events for communities that need it most. The whole response to the event was great, from the university, the Lua team, the Lua community and the attendees, and I’m incredibly proud to have participated in it with such a key role. None of that would be possible, of course, without Evandro, the co-organiser, and our volunteers Ana Carolina, Ana da Hora, Kaury and Thaíssa.

The organisation team and professors Ana Lúcia and Roberto

etiene

Software Engineering, Feminism, Politics and Language