Conference Planning Playbook
(I have been dishing out advice to other conferences in Singapore and around the region too, so hope this helps!)
RedDotRubyConf (RDRC) started in 2011 and is held annually in Singapore. It is South East Asia's biggest Ruby conference. Every year, RDRC brings about 350 Rubyists of all levels together for an intimate sharing of the latest technical knowledge.
Past speakers of RDRC includes Matz, Koichi Sasada, Jim Weirich, Aaron Patterson, Linda Liukas, Laurent Sansonetti and many more:
- RDRC 2013 Website
- RDRC 2014 Website, Videos by Confreaks
- RDRC 2015 Website, Videos by Confreaks
- RDRC 2016 Website, Videos by Engineers.sg
You might also be interested to read @winstonyw's retrospectives:
This is still a WIP. Pull Requests are very welcomed too!
On to the Playbook!
Personally, I believe that it's important to abide by consistency and integrity when planning the conference as you will probably have to respond to a lot of different requests with regards to ticketing, sponsorships etc.
- "We have 4 attendees coming to RDRC. Do you have a discount for us?"
- "I missed the Early Bird discount. Can I still get the same discount?"
- "I can only attend RDRC on Day 1. Can I buy a one-day ticket?"
- "I graduated earlier this year. Can I still buy a Student ticket?"
- "We can sponsor, but we would also like to have a speaker slot. Ok?"
- "We can sponsor, but we would like to have 10 free tickets. Ok?"
The point is: Have identical responses to avoid situations where fairness becomes an issue.
In fact, it's not only about the conference. You should be consistent and have integrity in life too.
6 Months Before Conference
Gather Your Team
You want folks who are meticulous, motivated, can't stop thinking about the community and get things done on your team.
Decide on the conference format:
How many days? Will you have enough speakers/audience?
If it's a new conference, it might be prudent to do a one-day conference for the first year.
RDRC Pick: Two Days.
How many tracks? Will you have enough speakers/audience? Is the audience getting value from the different tracks?
RDRC Pick: Single Track.
How many keynote speakers and when's their slot in the schedule?
How much time for each keynote?
RDRC Pick: 4-6 keynote speakers. Opening, Closing and after Lunches. 45min - 1hr for each.
4. Call-for-Proposal (CFP)
How many CFP speakers and when's their slot in the schedule?
How much time for each CFP talk?
RDRC Pick: About five 30min talks and five 5min-7min (lightning) talks per day.
Decide the conference dates:
1. Days of Week
RDRC started as a Friday, Saturday event, but was eventually moved to Thursday and Friday.
Any considerations for weather? Singapore is a tropic country and generally hot throughout.
In Singapore, December/January has its fair share of rain, and August/September is susceptible to haze..
Any major events in your country? Is it complementary to have the conference around the dates or better to avoid them?
Any other local or international conferences around the same dates? Check rubyconferences.org.
RDRC Pick: Thursday and Friday in June.
Developers should be given TIME OFF to upgrade themselves during office hours too.
In some years, the dates were right in the fasting period for our Muslim friends. Avoid if possible.
Source for a venue. Considerations include:
Venues can easily take up a huge chunk of your budget.
Some venues provides catering as well which explains the higher cost. Going ala-carte might help bring the cost down.
Is it accessible? Preferably near a MRT station.
How are the seats? Attendees have to sit for 5-6 hours, so hopefully they are comfortable.
Is it possible to have charging points for laptops and phones?
Is there enough space outside the auditorium for meals and serendipitous mingling?
That's really debatable. Pick a side:
- "This is a conference for developers and we all need internet".
- "This is a conference. You should listen to the speakers".
Do what's within your budget. Setting up wifi can sometimes be quite costly too.
RDRC Pick: Biopolis.
- Venue rental is about SGD5,000 for 2.5 days (0.5 days for rehearsal + venue setup, the day before the conference).
- Near to Buona Vista MRT
- 420+ seats, with eletrical points available under every seat
- No Wifi la.. But rented a few portable routers in 2016 from Rentafi.
What can you sponsor for your keynote speakers, or CFP speakers:
Any restrictions on Flights Class (Economy, Business)? Any cap on total cost?
How many nights?
3. Mode of Reimbursement
How will the $ be transferred?
RDRC Pick: For keynote speakers, return economy flights + 4 nights of hotel stay, reimbursed via cash.
Contact Keynote Speakers
Good/Popular speakers are booked way in advance. Seriously.
You might even want to ping them 7-8 months in advance.
You should know the keynote speakers' expertise and what they are likely to talk about.
So, plan for diversity and avoid repeats/similars in topics.
You'll need a designer to help you with a number of things, for example:
- Programs / Posters / Banners
Tell the community! Tweet it! Facebook it! Email!
Who's paying? Who's absorbing the loss if turnout is bad?
5 Months Before Conference
Setup a CFP website. Google Doc/Forms is fine.
Things that I usually put up at this stage:
- Dates and Location
- Ticketing Link
- CFP Link
- Keynote Speakers
- Code of Conduct (RDRC Pick: http://confcodeofconduct.com/)
- Sponsorship Details
- Links like Facebook, Twitter etc.
You'll want to have your sponsor kit ready too that list details for each sponsorship.
To organise a conference with high quality content, DO NOT give away speaking slots in sponsorships.
Things to consider:
In 2013, we hand-rolled our own. In 2014, Peatix. In 2015, EventBrite. In 2016, Ticketbase.
Ideally, the platform should have/be able to:
- Register one or multiple attendees with a single account (Peatix can't do that)
- Flexible pricing options
- Discounts (Early Bird / Percentage / Bundles)
- Closes ticketing by Time or Number
- Easy registration on the day of the event
Platforms to consider:
Also, consider the pricing for the payment gateway:
- Stripe SG Pricing:
- 3.4% + $0.50 per successful charge
- PayPal SG Pricing:
- 3.9% + $0.50 per successful charge
How much are you pricing the ticket? Early Bird? Percentage off via Discount Codes?
Prices should be tiered according to time.
Early Birds should have the biggest discount, and not those who buy tickets 1-2 weeks before the conference.
What is the schedule of selling tickets? Tickets are available till the event? Flash sale?
What is the schedule of releasing the discounts?
RDRC Pick: If I have to choose again.. I would just pick EventBrite.
At least it's stats which you can use to promote to sponsors for the following year.
4, 3 Months Before Conference
CFP should be (almost?) done and you can start to review and reach out to the speakers to plan the conference schedule!
Consider getting the local community to help rate the talks. Then do final curation based on content and diversity.
Please send a Thank You note to all CFP participants for their submissions, whether they are selected or not.
Reserve Super Early Bird pricing for all CFP participants.
Will there be fringe activities around the conference? Meetups? Workshops?
These are additional avenues to mingle and network with folks visiting from overseas.
RDRC Pick: Usually, I plan a workshop for the day before the conference, i.e. RubyMotion (2015) and React (2016), and other community events on the day after the conference, i.e. RailsGirls or Open Source Breakfast Hack.
In 2016, I even organised a 1/2 Day tour for speakers and friends, with a real tour guide!
Update your website with speaker and sponsors information.
Ping your friends and user groups again to buy tickets before any discounts expire.
Will the conference have Before/After Parties? Time to figure out where those would be.
Cater for 50-60% of the attendance. Free-flow beer would be nice.
Get the T-shirt design ready! Get T-Shirt sizings from the vendors and make sure they are the correct ones!
Think about other swag for your attendees.
Logistics that you should also look into in these two months:
- Venue Setup
- Banners / Posters?
- Sponsors Table?
- Jobs Board?
- Site Recce
- Food (Breakfast/Lunch/Tea), Coffee/Tea, Bottled Water
- Swag providers
RDRC Pick: Food SHOULD BE Halal. Prepare vegetarian bentos too.
2, 1 Months Before Conference
Accommodation for Speakers
Speakers should be confirmed by this time, and flights mostly booked.
Now you can book accommodation for speakers whose accommodation is sponsored.
I also have transport arranged from conference hotel to conference venue in the mornings.
Plan Speakers Dinner
Plan for a nice dinner to thank the speakers!
RDRC Pick: I try and plan it near to the conference venue or hotel, so that it's easy to go there or back to rest.
Be mindful of the different diet requirements!
Start printing your T-shirts, programs, posters and stickers.
Pack Goodie Bag
Get help to pack the Goodie Bags. Cater for extras. Pack them in luggage for easy transport.
Companies like GoGoVan could be a great help in transporting bulk items.
Plan Actual Day Logistics
Someone who knows the speakers (and what they are talking about).
The mess that 350 people generate can be pretty crazy. It's worth paying for it.
3. Venue Setup
How's the venue going to look like?
- Plan the venue layout for Registration, Sponsors and Buffet Line/s.
- Plan standing/seating areas for attendees during meal times.
- Prepare at least 10 power strips.
- Banners / Posters?
Who's doing the registrations? You need to take care of laggards too.
RDRC Pick: My preference leans towards hiring part-timers for registration, because anyone in the community should be in the auditorium listening and learning from all the great talks, and not be stuck at the registration table.
Send Reminder Emails
Send reminder emails to speakers and include your contact number:
- Have you booked your flight?
- Have you received the conference hotel's booking details? Do you need help with hotels?
- Have you seen the schedule and decided on your topic?
- Have you RSVP-ed to the Speakers Dinner?
Send reminder emails to attendees:
- What time will breakfast/registration start? What do they need for registration?
- What time will the first keynote start?
- How to get to the conference venue?
- How to get to the party?
Think about everything and anything. Every small detail counts. Do it with your heart.
Hopefully then you'll have an event that's comfortable, fun and insightful for everyone!
This is as much as I could write down for now.
Just to reiterate, it's a lot of work (especially in terms of coordination), but definitely worthwhile when you see how much of an impact such an event can have on the community, be it local or in neighbouring countries.
Have FUN and Good Luck! :