This is everything we know about how to put on CascadiaJS or a conference like it. This information is not canonical and YMMV. But these practices have worked for us and we hope that by documenting them more people will take the leap and organize a conference for their community.
- Organizing Team
- Picking a Venue
- Picking a Date
- Dealing with Money
- Ticket Sales
- Day-Of Event Running
Building the team is the single most important thing that you will do. We have found it useful to break the roles down into 3 main types.
We believe that in order to maximize the success of an event that someone MUST be in charge. This person is the "curator" of the event and is ultimately accountable for everything that happens. The curator is often the same person who is financially on the hook for the event.
Time commitment: Roughly 2-5 hours/week when the conference is 4+ months away and ramps up to 10 hours/week leading up to the conference. The week before the conference is essentially full-time (40+ hours).
Organizers are are responsible for distinct components of the conference, which include but are not limited to:
Time commitment: for organizers can vary by the responsibility, but 50% of the time commitment of the curator is a good proxy.
And finally, vounteers make up the life blood of the live event. These people assist during the conference itself, including the set-up and tear-down.
Time commitment: Volunteers should expect to work the duration of the conference plus 1 day on either end for set-up and tear-down.
You want to begin planning for your conference at least 6 months out. Here is a sample timeline:
- T - 6 months: Pull together a core group of conference organizers.
- T - 5 months: Lock down venue and complete the sponsorship brochure.
- T - 4 months: Lock down top-tier sponsors.
- T - 3 months: Batch #1 tickets go on sale.
- T - 2 months: Batch #2 and #3 tickets go on sale.
- T - 1 month: Batch #4 (last chance) tickets go on sale.
- T + 1 day: Thank you email to attendees and survey.
- T + 1 week: Personal thank you emails to speakers and sponsors.
- T + 2 weeks: Post-mortem with organizing team, photos, videos, etc.
Picking a Venue
Your budget will dictate what you can do here. Don't think that you need a fancy venue to have a successful conference. Ulimately your venue simply needs to provide the following things:
- Seating for your attendees.
- A/V for your speakers.
- Good (preferably great) Wi-Fi and bandwidth.
- Pour through all types of sights--places that were used for art events, warehouses, studios, past tech events, conferences.
- Build a list containing details that are relevant to whittling this down.
- Build contacts and confirm that the capacity and requirements of the conf are met by an email/phone call.
- Go tour!
TEMPLATE TO TOUR:
Some things to look for:
- Broadband: what does their pipe look like?
- Wi-Fi: how many connected devices can it support?
- Plugs: what's the plug / power strip situation?
- Power: do we have to pay any surcharge for above average power usage?
- Is there any vendor lock-in regarding internet or WiFi?
- Seating: Can they comfortably accommodate 300 seated individuals with laptops?
- What's the line of sight like for the stage area? Any obstructions?
- Is the seating elevated/stadium?
- Are the chairs comfortable?
- A/V: What kind of projector(if provided)
- A/V: What kind of screen?
- Are there additional monitors/feeds in the event space or in breakout areas?
- What about sound / mics? Is there a system already provided on-site?
- Who will be running the A/V for us? Is there a vendor lock-in for A/V?
- Is there space to chill out?
- Is there space for workshops? For casual breakouts?
- Where will the sponsors set-up their booths?(if applicable)
- Can we choose our own food vendors?
- Is there a fee for going outside of preferred vendors?
- Can we provide alcohol to our attendees?
- Are we required to carry insurance for our event?
- Is parking provided? Where?
- Are we required to provide a security team?
- Cost: What is included in the cost?
- What's not included? (set-up, tear-down, A/V, etc)
- How much is the deposit? When is it due?
For managing lodging(destination conference):
- Is there any on-site event management offered? What does this include? What's the cost?
- What is the process for selling rooms? Is this managed by the lodging company or us?
- What are the hours for check-in and check-out? Can this budge at all for our event?
- How would we manage conference events mixing with others staying at the resort? Will there be friction with non-confers?
- Is WiFi provided in every room at no additional cost?
These questions may seem tedious, but each one of these can make for a very poor attendee experience and increase expenses for the conference dramatically.
Picking a Date
Build a list of every conference that is similar to the one you're trying to organize. Make note of the "heavy hitters" like JSConf, JSConf EU, NodeConf, etc. Make sure you pick a date that conflicts as little as possible. Date conflicts will not only affect your ability to attract attendees but it will also may block potential speakers.
Here's a crowdsourced list of conferences that might be helpful.
First, how many attendees do you expect?
- 0-100 people: 1 track, 1 day conference.
- 101-300 people: 1 track, 2 day conference.
- 300-600 people: 2 track, 2 day conference.
- 600+ people: too many people.
Dealing with Money
Please see the How-to Conf Spreadsheet.
This spreadsheet will be your lifeline for keeping everything on track for your conference. Many people don't aim to make money off the conference they are excited to run. Great! Protect the hard work you're doing. If budget isn't top-of-mind, it might very well come out of your own bank account at the end of the run(or leave you saddled with debt). If you can't stay in the black, it's unsustainable.
Sponsorship dollars alone will funnel through quite a bit of money, even if only to be passed on for venue, food, and logistics. You'll need some sort of entity(hopefully not your own checking account) to operate this conference. You don't need to necessarily start your own LLC. There are foundations and groups in your town that are often willing to help make this happen.
Taxes are a thing. Someone will need to assist you if you aren't already versed in this. No worries! That's what professionals are for.
A basic list of expenses you can anticipate are listed in the accompanying How to Conf master spreadsheet under 'Expenses'.
We choose to release tickets in 3-4 batches where the price of the ticket increases with each batch. This strategy has several nice benefits:
- Selling "early bird" tickets at a discount rewards your most passionate and enthusiastic community members.
- You give your team a more achievable goal (sell 30 tickets as opposed to 300).
- Affords multiple opportunities to promote your conference over time.
- You can be more agile and react to feedback on pricing (too expensive, too cheap, need a bigger venue, etc).
Build a target list of potential sponsors. Use other similar conferences as a guide for companies that might be interested in sponsoring your event. Have at least 50 companies in your target list.
Consider 3-4 tiers of sponsorship. Let's use an example to see how you might calculate these tiers:
Imagine that your conference budget is $100k. Sponsorships should account for roughly 50% of your budget, so that would be $50k in sponsorships. If you had 3 tiers of sponsorship, this would be a reasonable set of prices for each tier:
- Tier 1 - $8k (3 companies)
- Tier 2 - $4k (6 companies)
- Tier 3 - $1k (2 companies)
You might also consider a $0 "community" tier for companies that cannot afford a sponsorship but can contribute in other ways such as labor, services, promotion, etc.
The call for presentations helps communicate how you build your content and community for the conference. There are many options for submissions to your call that include Github Issues or pull requests, a Google form, or email. These different formats can be chosen for ease-of-execution or minimizing barriers to entry. Past calls have been a hybrid approach--GitHub submission with a template provided to include necessary information. This was for those comfortable with an open source workflow and having their abstract published publicly. To respect privacy and allow encouragement for submitters intimidated by that process, we also created a private email submission.
Check out the CascadiaJS 2014 CFP process.
Building your most diverse, knowledgable community takes work. You want awesome speakers and attendees? Reach out to your local meetups, codeschools, universities, and conferences and share your Call for Speakers. The more inclusive you are in your process to share, the better result you'll see in the community you've built. Reach out to people you see doing awesome work. If you don't know them? It's a compliment you even asked! Better to ask and see a 'no thanks' to the submission process than to not ask and lose the chance at lifting up someone that didn't know you were interested in what they had to say.
It is recommended that budget is allocated for speaker travel and accomodations. This allows for increasing access to conferences for speakers that might not have the luxury of a good paycheck(this is a reality). It's also a treat and a huge appreciation to those who have spent time creating awesome content for the conference.
Assuming your conference isn't a destination event (i.e. far away from where the majority of your attendees live) then accommodations need to be arrange for 3 groups of people:
- Organizers who are coming in from out of town
- Speakers who are coming in from out of town
- Attendees who are coming in from out of town
A reasonable-sized hotel (50+ rooms) should be able to handle your needs. Make sure to set aside budget to pay for the hotel stays of groups (1) and (2). Work with the hotel to create a discounted rate for group (3). This rate will probably be for $10-20 off per night and the hotel will likely set a deadline by which the rooms need to be booked before they get released back in to the general pool. Make sure your attendees are clear on what the discount code is and when the deadline is.
Assuming that you start planning your conference 6 months out, here is a timeline for thinking about how to communicate this event both to attendees and potential speakers. The important thing to remember is that everything that you say is a promise. So start small: make few promises and sell tickets at a discount to account for this. This rewards people who "make a bet" on you and your organizers.
As you lock-down more details, you can increase the scope and specifics of your promise and charge more. A regular cadence of these bits of news will help keep your conference top-of-mind and will help you as you solicit speakers, talk to sponsors and sell tickets.
Assuming you begin organizing your conference 6 months out, here is a sample timeline for promotion:
T - 5 months
Put up a basic website with the following information:
- Name of event
- Link to early bird tickets
- Link to CFP
- Link to sponsorship brochure
T - 4 months
Close down CFP and review talks. Release next tier of tickets. Start to announce sponsors.
T - 3 months
Release next tier of tickets. Continue to announce sponsors. Start announcing speakers.
T - 2 months
Release last tier of tickets. Finish announcing sponsors. Continue announcing speakers.
T - 1 month
Final announcements, which can include:
- Last minute sponsors
- Details about social events and special activities
- Keynote or special speakers
The website (especially for a web development conference) can be a fun opportunity to create something fun that uses some bleeding edge tech. But don't let that keep you from focusing on what really matter: the content. As we noted above, there should be a regular cadence at which you are sharing more and more information about the conference. But at the end of the day (i.e. the week before the event at the latest) your website should include at a minimum:
- Name of conference
- Location of conference (including name of venue, map and directions)
- Location of accommodations (including map and directions)
- Agendas for each day (including registration, meals, talks and evening events)
- List of speakers (with photo and talk titles)
- List of sponsors
- List of organizers (with photo and social handles)
These are tools that we've used:
- Twitter - conference promotion.
- MailChimp - mailing lists.
- Google Analytics - website analytics.
- Github - create a new organization for your conference.
- ti.to - ticket sales.
- the How to Conf master spreadsheet, of course!
Day-Of Event Running
The final game plan of the events you will be running should be laid out in a detailed schedule for all staff/volunteers. Volunteer schedules(see Tools above for this) that make sure volunteers and staff know when/where they need to be leading up to/during the event will help keep things chugging along smoothly. Reviewing this ahead at a staff meeting allows for a playbook to be laid out for everyone involved and will make sure those organizing are confident in making decisions on the fly when problems arise. Keep a cool head, and you'll have a great time along with everyone else already enjoying what you've worked so hard to provide!