Organizing A Conference

By John Hopkins


.NET developers can't get enough technical conferences and get-togethers. A quick survey of user group events across the country reveals a trend that is literally sweeping the nation: local and regional Code Camps, Deep Dives and Days of .NET are being organized in great numbers. But these conferences don't just materialize out of thin air; someone has to make the decision and take action to hold one. That 'someone' is usually a user group leader.

So, what's behind the decision to hold a user conference? The motivation to organize an event for developers usually comes out of some frustration over a lack of similar events in a geographic area. Developers love to get together and talk shop, network and update their knowledge with a few live technical presentations. It is also expensive and time consuming to attend some of the larger, national conferences, such as Tech-Ed or VS Live. These events tend to be rather infrequent too. If your state or region is lacking in developer events, then it just may be ripe for a one-day, home-grown user conference.

Before we get into the details of planning such an event, let's look at a brief overview of what is required to successfully pull-off one of these events. The first step to take is to pick a date and secure a venue. This is really one step, as choosing a date for your event and deciding on a place to hold it go hand in hand. You'll need a location that is conducive to learning and gathering. College and university campuses are usually great locations. Many academic institutions have modern classrooms with data projectors installed. Parking is generally in abundance and large gathering areas, for announcements, vendor booths and displays, and networking are plentiful. These places are also very, very active, so you'll have to be extremely flexible in choosing a date for your event.

Once you've set a date and secured a venue, you'll need some content for your conference, so a 'call for speakers' should be issued as soon as possible. This is an open invitation for potential speakers to submit abstracts for sessions that they would like to present. These sessions will be a big part of the reason people will attend your conference, so be sure to cast your net far and wide to pull together sessions that cover a variety of technical areas and skill levels.

The overwhelming majority of these types of developer events are free of charge, and you are highly encouraged to continue that trend with your own event. However, a conference, no matter how small, is not free to plan and execute. There are the costs of the venue, food & drinks, and marketing, among other expenses. This is a great opportunity for .NET tool vendors, recruiters, and consulting & training companies to get the attention of some highly motivated software developers. With the right pitch, you can generate plenty of funds to pay for your event. Many book publishers will also gladly donate books to give away at the event, and software vendors, particularly if they offer developer tools, can be persuaded to donate product licenses.

Your sessions and sponsors in place, it's now time to get the word out to your developer community. User groups are usually the best way to pass the word about developer events, but don't discount local colleges and universities, technical recruiters, and general word of mouth passed on by colleagues and coworkers. You'll need a way to keep track of who wants to attend, so a website with an on-line registration application is definitely a must-have.

When the big day arrives you'll want plenty of help running the show. Ask for volunteers to help coordinate things at the conference itself, such as check-in and registration, room setup, food handling, speaker coordination, and clean-up. You can never have too many volunteers. You'll also need people to help out after the event is over. You'll want to collect slide decks and sample code from your speakers, and make those available to your attendees by uploading them to the event website.

Structuring Your Event

One of the first things you're going to have to decide is how your event will be structured. By 'structure', I'm referring to details such as when to hold the event, how long the event will be, how many sessions, how long each session will run, etc. If you have a large developer community in your geographic area and are anticipating a good turn out, you may want to consider planning multiple 'tracks', or groupings of sessions around a particular subject area (i.e. web development, smart client, security, etc) You can accommodate a large number of people at all levels of expertise by setting up your event with multiple tracks. You'll also need to consider a few characteristics of your intended audience to come up with a structure that fills everyone's needs. Does your local community consist of professional developers or students? Are they experienced .NET developers? Are they interested in a particular area of .NET (i.e. ASP.NET, Smart Client, etc)? These factors will play a part in your decisions on when to hold the event and on the content of the event.

An all day (8:00 am to 5:00 pm) event held on a Saturday that doesn't conflict with holidays, summer vacations or other regional or national developer events seems to be a common event structure. If you're planning on holding the event at a local college or university, you'll also need to take the academic calendar of the school into account. Sessions should run an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes in length. This would give you room for 5 - 7 sessions throughout the day. Don't forget to add short breaks in between time slots to accommodate sessions that run over their allotted time. A lunch break of 45 minutes to an hour for an all day event also needs to figure into the day's schedule. The agenda for a day- long event might look something like this:

Registration/Check-in 8:00 - 9:00
Session 1 9:00 - 10:15
Session 2 11:00 - 12:15
Lunch 12:15 - 1:00
Session 3 1:00 - 2:15
Session 4 2:30 - 3:45
Session 5 4:00 - 5:15
Wrap-up 5:15 - 5:30

The location you select for the event may also have some impact on the structure. If you're holding the event at a small community college, the classrooms may be small and you may be limited in the number of attendees you can handle. Bearing in mind that you'll also undoubtedly have some drop-off in attendance due to 'no-shows', you may want to impose a cap on the number of registrations you'll accept. A cap on registrations will also help you to budget for expenses.

Assembling Your Team

You're going to need a lot of help pulling off your event, so the recruiting of volunteers to carry out the multitude of tasks you'll be facing needs to happen as soon as you make the decision to hold your event. While you may not need an army of volunteers, an ideal event team would include, at a minimum, coordinators to handle speakers, sponsors, registration, and finances.

As mentioned earlier, a call for speakers should be announced as soon as the date and location are chosen. The call for speakers can initially be an email to a few select people. Look at your user group's roster of speakers for the last couple of years. This list of potential speakers will undoubtedly include some locals who will be glad to speak at your conference. The speaker coordinator should handle the publication of the call for speakers, and ask for session 'abstracts' that consist of a title, brief description, and intended audience (i.e. level 100, 200, 300, or novice, intermediate or expert). The speaker coordinator should also be tasked with evaluating the submitted abstracts (with help from the rest of the event team) and arranging of the selected session into tracks and time slots. Finally the speaker coordinator should take responsibility of notifying speakers, who were selected for the conference, as well as communicating when and where to show up, and gathering slide decks and sample code to provide to your attendees after the event is over.

If you're planning on having sponsors help defray the costs for your event, you'll need someone dedicated to recruiting sponsors. The sponsor coordinator should be responsible for soliciting and securing sponsorships, following up with sponsors to make sure they fulfill their commitment to your event and, in the event that you offer your sponsors some exhibit space at the event itself, making sure that the sponsor's booth gets set up and the sponsor has everything they need.

You'll need a treasurer to handle the inflow and outflow of funds related to your event. The treasurer will be responsible for depositing checks from sponsors and paying vendors, and reporting financial status to the rest of the team. The treasurer should also play a role in budgeting for the event.

You will also want a registration coordinator, who will take responsibility for putting together a method of allowing your attendees to register for the event. The registration coordinator will also be responsible for handling the on-site check-in of attendees on the day of the event.

You may want to consider adding a communications coordinator to your team as well, to handle tasks such as setup and maintenance of the event website and email blasts to attendees. On the day of the event you'll want plenty of hands to help out with attendee check-in, food, setting up vendor displays, directions, and general information among other things. It's safe to say you can never have enough volunteers to help with the running of the event.

Selecting A Venue

Once your event structure is defined and your team is in place, it is time to shop around for a location. As discussed in last month's article, college and university campuses are ideal locations for developer events. The costs for renting rooms and facilities are usually very reasonable and the classroom environment is very well suited to technical presentations. You may also want to consider a more formal conference facility, such as a hotel conference center, that may allow for a larger number of attendees. However, be aware that a hotel or conference center will charge significantly higher rates. You may also be restricted to using the conference facility's own catering operation, which can be expensive and may require you to purchase a minimum amount of food. And what about fees and deposits for audio/visual services? These may be prohibitive if this is your first conference - especially if you have not received any up-front funding from sponsors.

Let's talk about location; after all, it is crucial to the success of your event. You don't want to hold your event outside the geographic center of your developer community or you'll risk having a poor turnout. Furthermore, if you're locked in on a specific date, the perfect venue may not be available. Be sure that the venue has plenty of room for non-presentation activities, such as registration, vendor displays and eating. Additionally, make certain that the venue's facilities are all adjacent to one another, so you don't have your attendees spread out over a large area.

The best place to make the initial contact with a venue is the front office, or in the case of a college or university, the Computer Science or Engineering department. If these folks can't help you, they will, more than likely, get you to people who can. Make sure you have a good estimate of the number of attendees you'll have, how many rooms you'll need, and what other facilities you're looking for (i.e. dining areas, space for vendor displays, etc.) Give them your list of potential dates, along with the other details we've just outlined, and ask if they can accommodate your event. Be patient, especially when dealing with a college or university CS or Engineering department. Planning conferences is not the primary job responsibility of these folks, so they may have to consult with other departments to get an answer to your request. Definitely have 2 or more potential venues selected as backups, as your preferred venue may be booked on all of the dates you desire. Once you have secured a venue for your event, make sure you have a single contact at the venue to communicate with. You may also want to appoint a venue coordinator for your event team to handle all of the arrangements for the event.

Recruiting Sponsors

As discussed previously, many developer and user conferences tend to be free of charge for attendees. Free of charge, however, does not necessarily mean free to plan. You will have expenses for food, the venue, logo'd items and printed materials. This is where sponsors come in. A quality stable of sponsors is key to running a first-class event.

The first step in recruiting sponsors is to decide what you want from them. Do you need cash, giveaway items, or exposure? Whatever you decide, you'll need to communicate this to potential sponsors in the form of a prospectus. Your prospectus will give potential sponsors all the information they need to make an informed decision. You should include such information as date, time, place, maybe some statistics on your audience. You'll also include details on what your sponsors can expect in return for their donation. It is best to offer several 'levels' of sponsorship to accommodate varying degrees of commitment including a level that only requires donation of goods or services such as software licenses, books or other non-cash items.

So what will entice a sponsor to support your event? You'll have to put yourself in the shoes of a marketing person. Generally, a sponsor will be interested in one of two outcomes: sell more of something or make contact with new people. Tool vendors, publishers and recruiting firms are probably your best bet.

Make sure you provide your sponsor with some documentation of their sponsorship. An invoice done with Word or Excel will do. Also make sure you follow up with them if they don't fulfill their commitment to your event. You'll need cash-in-hand as soon as possible to make sure you can pay for your event. You'll also need to make sure you have the items you need for giveaways well in advance.

Depending on what you negotiated with your sponsor, you may have to make accommodations for them on the day of your event. You may need to set aside space for their marketing materials, or you may need to provide them with physical space for tradeshow-style booths (access to power will be a must). Make sure you position your sponsors where the traffic flow will allow them the greatest exposure. It would also be helpful to make sure they have access to power. Also don't forget to include your on-site sponsors in your headcounts for food, t-shirts and handouts. This is a great way to encourage your sponsors to come back to your next event.

After the event, make sure that you thank your sponsors for supporting your event, publicly and privately. A wrap-up blog entry or news item on your event site, along with an email to your sponsor contact will make a positive impression. Make sure you keep them posted on your next event.