Running Great Technical Conferences

What makes a great technical conference? I share my thoughts.

As some readers may know, for five years I ran a small (about 350 people) conference here in Boston. Originally called Flex Camp Boston (and obviously focused on Flex), it was renamed RIA Unleashed and subsequently Web Unleashed. The event still exists, run by FITC and occurring this September in Toronto.

I loved running this event, and generally enjoy running events overall. This is why I was interested in reading How To Plan And Run A Great Conference Experience by Zach Inglis. It’s a very good article and you should definitely read it if you have interest in the topic. However, I had several points I thought needed adding and one I disagreed with. Much of this was mentioned in my comment there but not I’ve edited it and amended it a bit.

  1. On paying speakers - One complication I came across (at least for US based conferences) was paying international speakers. There may be legal/tax laws that complicate paying international speakers (especially over certain dollar amounts), and this may vary from country to country, depending on where you are running your event. I don’t know the specifics but it’s worth noting.

  2. Promotion - In my experience, getting the word out was the hardest part of running any event. It’s common for first time organizers to think they can rely on high profile speakers to get out and promote your event, but they are usually mistaken (nothing against the speakers as I’ve been one many times). Promoting the event required a lot of research on things like relevant user groups or mailing lists and the use of targeted discounts (I used codes) to figure out which avenues worked best and double-down on them.

  3. WiFi, WiFi, WiFi - It’s so hard to get this right (because you are often at the mercy of the venue or vendors) but so important for a technical conference. Complaining about WiFi at tech conferences is like complaining about the weather, everyone does it from time to time. It never seems to be perfect, but pay close attention to this as it can really ruin the experience if your WiFi is unusable by a large portion of your audience.

  4. Expect to lose money? - The author states that you should and it is the one area I disagree with. I nailed down sponsors to cover the guaranteed costs from day one - before the conference was even announced. I learned quickly (an;d through trial and error) where you can cut costs and minimize risk. Things like find out what the minimum guarantees are to secure your preferred venue and only guarantee that (they can always up food or other expenses but they will never lower them once you sign); and plan on a range of 10-20% no shows (regardless of how much you charge - for free events this is much higher) and plan food and swag accordingly (you’ll learn your percentage range over time and this can be useful even to carefully oversell seats, which can really improve profitability).

    The point is, with careful planning, this doesn’t have to be a money loser. I always had the expectation that I would not make money but I also was not going to lose money (not including time spent, obviously). Organizers who lose money are less likely to run the event again, which, in and of itself, does a disservice to their attendees.

  5. Be prepared to be scared - My first year I sold out quickly. However, this is not necessarily the norm (and wasn’t in subsequent years). In fact, a majority of tickets will be sold during the last 2-3 weeks. A month before, you may be scared out of your mind that the event will be a failure only to find that you sold out or hit your targets in the end. This became a pattern every year after the first and is something I have confirmed with many conference organizers.

    However, you cannot be reactive, relying on last minute promotions to salvage things. Start any big promotional push early enough that it can have an impact in those final two weeks because, most likely, any promotion you start in the last two weeks doesn’t have enough time to get the traction it needs to succeed. (A side note on this topic, it seems that many people make the decision to attend early but wait until the last minute to make purchases - I’ve done this many times myself, and can explain why last minute promotions don’t have a great impact).

If you’ve run an event and have tips and opinions to share, I encourage you to comment on the article.