Crafting community events that leave them wanting s’more

Our very first Offline Camp brought together 30 campers (and one adorable 7-year-old) in the Catskills for a weekend of discussion and community building around the growing Offline First movement. As an event planner with plenty of experience building conferences for developers and designers, I thought I knew more or less what I was in for, anticipating the effects of a few tweaks to event format and a unique venue choice by our awesome organizing team. However, as the weekend progressed, I was absolutely floored by the difference that the camp structure made in our campers’ emotional connection to the content and to each other. It was far and away the most impactful tech event I’ve ever attended or organized, and many of my fellow organizers and our campers shared the same reaction. But why? And how? What’s the secret to creating such a compelling experience?

Our campers share what makes the Offline Camp experience unique. (Video credit: Aaron Ross)

The usual

Many of today’s tech events employ a standard conference format, where 100 or 20,000 folks gather for keynotes, breakout sessions, panel discussions, and expo hours. Event organizers work hard to include networking time through birds-of-a-feather sessions, receptions, or other activities. And yet, despite those efforts, attendees still may only manage to meet each other over a brief drink after sessions before tromping back to their respective hotels surrounding a giant convention center. Even when the session content is spot on, it can be easy for people to get lost in the shuffle at these conferences, and hard for many to speak up and make new connections, particularly with the rockstar speakers who seem removed from the rest of the crowd.

Offline Camp took a different approach.

The setting

We hosted the event at a gorgeous rental property in the Catskills, complete with two cabins, a pool, a pond with boating options, a fire pit, and a hammock. The trek to camp was long for most, and involved carpooling for many, but at the end of the day we found ourselves completely removed from our normal environs and living side-by-side with our fellow campers.

Image courtesy of Nick Colley

As organizers, there’s important work to be done when gathering a small group of attendees in a cozy space. We took great care to make attendees comfortable in a shared housing environment, such as by accommodating requests to share bedrooms with those of the same gender, and our Code of Conduct was the first order of business as our organizing team introduced ourselves for the first time.

Dinner and announcements on the first night led quickly to relaxed time around the campfire, making s’mores and enjoying the guitar and vocal stylings of fellow campers. Before we had even made official introductions or kicked off our content discussions, we were relaxing together in a fabulous setting, making fast friends.

Image courtesy of Jason Pelletier
“I normally keep quiet around people I don’t know, but I immediately felt like I was around old friends and I think that really set the tone for the whole weekend.” — A Happy Camper

The structure

Many tech events take a traditional “learn from the experts” approach, offering inspiring and educational keynotes and breakout sessions which can be right on target and yet still fail to foster a sense of community. Given our subject matter, we chose instead to flip that format on its head and put community first. The goal of Offline Camp was to gather a small group of motivated developers, designers, and decision makers who could work together to further the discussion and push forward the movement around Offline First. With that in mind, we chose a “learn from each other” approach, acknowledging that our fellow campers all had unique expertise and experience to share with us, and that the campers we gathered for the event would define the shape of our discussion.

After a brief standup each morning, we voted on a list of discussion topics submitted by campers and laid out the day’s unconference session options accordingly. After splitting for an hour of self-led discussion on each topic, campers gathered as a group to report back on their conclusions and lingering questions, so everyone was caught up on chats that they missed.

We also gave campers the opportunity to present Passion Talks on — you guessed it — stuff they were passionate about, from third-world healthcare apps to collaborative poetry to low-cost smart meters. The diversity of our participants shined in this piece of the program, which sparked further conversations both by the pool and in later sessions.

One of the most important parts of our schedule was free time. Over casual dinners, pool time, boat rides, hikes, and campfires, our campers continued their conversations, both about Offline First and about each other. From structured discussions to late night chats, our content shaped itself to fit the needs of our campers, honing in on common struggles and common goals.

Image courtesy of Teri Chadbourne
“You guys did a great job making everyone feel not like we were attending an event, but putting on the event ourselves. I think everyone felt some level of ownership and responsibility, like we were a part of the Offline First team.” — A Happy Camper

The future

Leaving a typical tech event is a pretty painless process. Leaving this one was not. Exchanging hugs and anticipating post-camp blues as they pitched in to pack up on the final day, our fabulous campers started planning how to keep connections alive.

“I have a Facebook group that goes on adventures together. You should all join!”
“I have office space in New York if you ever want to work from there.”
“Let’s go to the Meetup on Tuesday in New Jersey.”
“Tell me what I can blog about for you.”
“I’m going to start a Meetup Group in the UK.”
“I know my team would love to contribute content to the offlinefirst.org website. Just tell me how we can help.”

Yes, like every other conference organizing team, we sent out the post-event survey shortly after the event ended, and we’re still expectantly waiting for the final results to roll in. Did everyone love everything about camp? Nope. But you know what response we’re most excited about so far? This one:

And you know what we sent the next day? An email titled “How you can help today.”

During our camp sessions we started compiling a long list of steps we can take to grow the community and provide resources for those looking to learn more about Offline First. Those will include business cases, case studies, tools, Meetups, and more amazing Offline Camps. And in the long run, we even hope one of those resources will be a more traditional conference where we can offer inspiration and education to a larger crowd. There is absolutely a place for that, and we will find ways to make that format feel as warm and inviting as possible when the time comes. But today? Today we are right where we want to be, with a small group of friends that has bonded over s’mores, smells of woodsmoke and bug spray, and is passionate about shaping the conversation on where to head next.

Video & image courtesy of Gregor Martynus

Editor’s Note: Our next camp has been scheduled! Sign up for Offline Camp Oregon (November 10–13, 2017) to join the fun.