So, You Want to Organize a Conference

I recently got an email from a friend of a friend who was thinking of organizing a conference in her area. She had never done it before, and had a lot of questions about how to go about doing something like that. She was awesome enough to send me a list of questions, to which I responded with the following novel, and then realized that I would have loved to have just had all of this in one place when I was getting started. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know yet, and getting an idea ahead of time of what it would take probably would have helped me quite a lot. So, with her permission, I am posting an only slightly edited version of our email here. I hope it’s helpful! There’s a lot of information not in this post, and I’m happy to make future posts if anyone else asks me anything that I have any kind of answer to.

So first questions is, where the heck do we start?

Do you have a particular focus for the conference? A tech stack, topic, or anything? Being able to elaborate that will go a long way to writing up your sponsor prospectus and community announcements, as well as appealing to speakers.

The first thing you will want to do is pick a venue and a date. This can be harder than you expect, since you have to take into consideration how many people you expect to show up, how many tracks you want to have, and if you want to provide things like a speaker room, handicapped access, childcare, live captioning, diversity scholarships, speaker travel stipends, speaker gifts, that sort of thing. A note: it is expensive and hard to provide all of those things. I would pick a few that are very important to you and try to add something every year.

Once you pick a venue and a date, don’t sign a contract until you have worked up a comprehensive budget. There is going to be a lot that you don’t plan for, so make sure you leave yourself some room in that budget. Figure out how much you can realistically expect yourself to fundraise from potential sponsors. Make sure you account for merchandise and banners and name tags and whatnot, as well as AV costs and food if you’re providing it (both of which are always unbelievably expensive). That will give you a good picture of what you can sell your tickets at. I usually try something like what the total cost will be (don’t forget the taxes and gratuity your venue might include), minus expected sponsorships (be conservative), and then divide that by 80% of your projected attendance to give you a reasonable ticket price. Design yourself a bare-bones budget, a middle-of-the-road budget, and an ideal budget. This will give you some flexibility when you start panicking about ticket sales or sponsorships. The other thing to take into account is that everyone will think it’s too expensive no matter what, so eventually, you’ll probably need to add enough buffer to include some amount of discount. You’ll also want to provide different tiers of pricing, since everyone waits until the last second to buy their tickets for some reason. Early bird tickets serve to help that a bit – people who know they want to attend and are excited about your conference will buy early bird tickets and get a discount, and you will get some cash flow to help you start making things happen. I usually will do a similar discount in early bird pricing as whatever I buffered for the discount codes, however I make sure early bird tickets are always the cheapest option, since they really help me out in getting things planned and paid for.

Getting started is the hardest part, honestly. And all that stuff above is really hard to get right. Most conference organizers that I have talked to say that in their first few years, they end up paying quite a bit out of pocket. Even Self.conference had this issue this year.

One other thing to note – I have recently started getting some good advice from 10 year conference organizing veterans, and they mentioned that you can ask your venue for rebates on everything from the food to the drinks if you have an after party, to the hotel room block if your venue has a hotel. I have not done this yet, but I plan to for 2016.

Do we have to be non-profit to accept money from sponsors?

You do not have to be a non-profit, but in most states you need to be a licensed business. Lots of other conferences have various advice for doing this; I am not good at the business-y side of stuff, so I just have a partnership LLC in Michigan with another organizer. I know that Strangeloop is an LLC taxed as an S-corp. Codemash is a non-profit of some kind, but I can’t remember which one – I think it’s on their website somewhere. I just used LegalZoom even though it was expensive, because again, I have no idea what I’m doing there.

Eventually, you’ll also have to do your taxes, so quickbooks or freshbooks or xero or something is probably a good idea. That’s all over my head as well; I just put everything in quickbooks and filed for a tax extension until I can raise funds to see an actual CPA about it. Some sponsors will also require you to have a federal EIN that they can file with their accounting department for their taxes and whatnot.

How long does it take to organize one?

I’d give it a bare minimum of 6 months. You will stress about it either way, and there are a lot of ups and downs in organizing, but giving yourself enough time is a good idea. If you give yourself even more time than that, you have a better chance of getting on companies annual sponsorship budgets.

How many organizers are optimal?

I’d say at least 2 to get started, but honestly, the more the better up to a point. If you have a few organizers and they all have different strong points, you can split up the responsibilities which makes life much easier. Having a weekly check in so everyone is on the same page for a timeline is also a good plan. I have found that having a slack instance for self.conf was very beneficial – it was just the organizers at first, and then volunteers, and we ended up with some private groups for marketing with marketing volunteers, and speakers so they can talk to each other and us. It worked out really well.

What have you done that has been successful for you?

It was really beneficial to us to partner up with other diversity organizations to reach out for speakers and attendees. We tweeted every group across the nation that we could think of, as well as partnered with Blacks in Technology, and as a result ended up with about 50/50 male/female submissions/speakers, which was awesome. In terms of other forms of diversity, we did not do as well, but next year we’ll push even harder in finding and reaching out to even more groups.

Another thing that worked well – lots of speakers were very excited that they had their own partitioned off wifi network for their talks and resources, as well as having a speaker room for them to set up in. We also made sure we had enough macbook dongles for each room in case a speaker didn’t have one available – you will lose them accidentally, so get a couple extra.

Having a couple of invited speakers is also a good plan. Selfishly, this means I get to ask my software idols if they will come visit Detroit. Conf-benefit wise, it will make people not only want to attend, but want to apply to speak, as well as give them a picture of what your conference is about. “Oh, Brianna Wu is keynoting at Self.conference, I should apply to speak at that conference so I can go to it!”

One other thing you probably already know: make sure you have a code of conduct. geekfeminism.org has a lot of excellent resources for this. Make sure all staff and volunteers are aware of it and what to do in case something comes up.

What should I avoid doing?

I’m not sure… I guess avoid trying to be too accommodating. It’s easy to try to give everyone what they need or want, but make sure you’re paying attention to how much something will complicate your plans or budget before agreeing.

What is the best way to gain interest from sponsors/presenters/speakers/attendees?

Sponsors: We have not done a good job with this so far. One thing we’re planning for next year is to outline, from a company’s perspective (which means $$ and hiring, not just supporting the community and/or diversity) what things would really entice them to be a part of the conference. What would make it clear to them that they absolutely cannot miss the opportunity to have a booth at your conference. Then design your sponsorship levels with that in mind. Another thing people really like is the opportunity to sponsor a specific thing. Be it coffee, water, snacks, lanyard, diversity scholarships – whatever it is, people love being a thing sponsor.

Speakers: I already outlined some of that above, but other things that help people feel comfortable speaking is to outline your selection process, offer them free tickets to the conference (this should be obvious, but you’d be surprised), offer them a travel stipend or to cover a hotel room if they need one, and if your conference is accepting of first-time speakers, make sure they know that.

Attendees:

  • This is another thing I outlined above a bit, but if your conf has a specific focus, have awesome talks relevant to that focus at various experience levels.
  • An awesome venue will also help people want to attend.
  • Reach out to every user group you can think of to announce your conference.
  • Have a mailing list that you tweet about and have a sign up for right on your website.
  • Of course, discount codes will also help here.
  • Tweeting or blogging about milestones as they come up are also good – even silly stuff like “look at these prizes we are giving away” or “look at this food we’re going to serve you” or whatever it it. If you sell 100 tickets, tweet how awesome it is that you sold your 100th ticket.
  • Have your speakers and sponsors tweet about their involvement with the conference.
  • Another thing I’ve seen work in the past is to occasionally have contests to give away free tickets, because the winners will want their friends to go with them.
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