I would organise it again if needed

By Yadi Dragtsma | On Dec 23, 2011
Next month, a Dutch magazine is goint to run a story on the Plone conference 2011 that was held in San Francisco last november.

Elizabeth Leddy Tom Kapanka Plone Conf 2011

For that, the editor contacted one of the organisers: Elizabeth Leddy. Together with Tom Kapanka (AKA Spanky) and a team of bunnies, she made sure the conference was a succes. We asked all kind of questions regarding preparations and things to take into consideration. In all: what are the parameters for a succesful event?

Since only Dutch Ploners will be able to read the story, we decided to copy the part with Leddy and turn it into a blog. For all you ' would be' organisers out there: Read and learn.

Can you tell us something about the team behind the organisation. Apart from you and Spanky, who else was involved?

Spanky and I were the only coordinators this year. We relied heavily on Trish Ang and Tyler Randles for help with design and just about everything creative. When the conference actually started, our team of bunnies was key to everything working out - they made everything go smooth and sound.

The conference was in November; when did you start the initial preparations?

Our bid was accepted in early March and we started planning the next day.

Can you describe what the roadmap looked like? Website, marketing, location, food, program, speakers etc etc?

The roadmap was really rough. In the beginning we tried to assign certain categories to certain months like "July is going to be swag month". In reality, this milestone type of management that you see in software so much doesn't really work for conferences. The problem is people. Not everyone in the world is addicted to email and highly connected. We dealt with some people that didn't even own computers. That type of communication took a lot of time.

Can you name some things that needed attention during the preparation that you did not expect?

There are some things we did very right that I hope future organizers keep in mind. We did as much as we could to keep our volunteers happy and they made the conference sing. Having a good walkie talkie/radio system helped a lot in that aspect, as well as a room where they could dissapear, regroup, sleep, eat, etc.
In general, just about everything took five times longer to do than we expected. We had to put on a lot of pressure sometimes and do many followups with vendors.
There were a couple of last minute bombs that really put us in a bad position. The person who was slated to do the wifi ended up in the hospital 2 weeks before the conference and we had no real backup plan. We also had an issue where the party vendor couldn't get the fire permit for the party location 3 days before the party and everything had to be moved last minute.

Can you name some important things the next organizing party should not forget to deal with? Things that went wrong or could be better next time.

  • Think a lot about flow, especially for the first day. We had a silly mixup which caused all of the badges to get out of alphabetical order that caused a lot of backup. Little things like that cause bad impressions.
  • Work hand in hand with the previous years organizers and build on what they did. You can't do fun and creative things if you are worried about infrastructure like web sites and mailing lists.
  • Put up a FAQ page. It could potentially cut your email in half.
  • Have group rates. Groups > 6 deserve a discount and will be much more motivated. Also think of how you can push these groups to sponsor as well.
  • We didn't have a good system for integrating tickets and marketing. Because of this, we always had a partial list of emails for attendees which made coordinating last minute schedule changes a little sketchy.
  • We did what we could to raise sponsorship money and handle sponsors but that could have also used a lot more attention. In the future I would find someone who is 100% dedicated to making sponsors feel like they are getting their moneys worth by spoiling them with attention.
  • Recording and streaming of talks could have been handled much better.

What good features should a decent conference location at least have?

A good location should be within walking distance to high price hotels and cheaper homes and hostels. Having lots of food and bar options is a must have. As long as you make decisions with the thought that people are giving up some or all of their vacation time to come to your conference, then the rest will resolve itself.

Would you do it again if someone would ask you?