March 30, 2006

Organizing a FLOSS conference

Author: Daniel Coletti

At CaFeLUG, the local Free Software User Group in Capital Federal, Argentina, we have been putting on different types of installfests, technical meetings, annual conferences, and traditional LUG meetings for several years now. From them we've learned a lot about how to organize a technical conference. This article covers all the things you should think of before putting on an event. By hearing what worked for us and what didn't, maybe you can avoid making some of the mistakes we made.

Your first step should be to define the conference's objective. Is it the general purpose of spreading the word about FLOSS, or is the purpose more specific, such as taking FLOSS to the government (public administration), or about biometric free software used in the Ethiopian region of Tigray?

The objective has to be stated precisely, because you need to share it with sponsors, keynote speakers, organizers, and of course the people you want to attend the conference. With a clear objective, sponsors know where they're putting their money, keynote speakers know how to prepare their speeches, organizers can communicate better, and prospective attendees have a better idea of what they're going to get. Most of the time the objective is defined, but sometimes not everybody knows about it. Everybody should understand the idea behind the conference.

Depending on what you're planning to do (what the objective is) your target participant will vary. Your target audience is the kernel of the conference. With this target in mind, things like where the conference should be advertised, where the conference should be held, and who should be keynote speakers are going to be a lot easier to define.

Finding a good place

Once you know who the conference will serve, you must decide where to serve them. Finding a good place is not an easy task, though if you have enough money to spend, then your options increase. If you don't have much money or if the conference is based on the availability of a certain university where the conference can be held, then you can't really choose a place, but maybe you can choose a specific place inside your limited range.

One of the most important factors in choosing a location is how easy it is for people to get there. Not everybody has a car, and even those who do won't travel for an hour to attend (unless they're used to travel). So, the easier it is to get there, the more people are going to actually be at the conference. (It's easy to stamp your name on a registration Web form, but actually getting up and going? That's something else.) And don't even think about what happens if it rains; people are not likely to go out of their homes if it's raining.

Another factor of lesser importance is that all the rooms where speeches are being given should be at the same level and close by each other. If the rooms must be on different floors, make sure you tell people how to get to all the different rooms. Maybe that information can be on the program that is given to every participant, and you can also put up big signs that say where to go. If you don't do this, you'll have everybody asking the same question over and over, and you'll wish you had been more thoughtful.

Finding a good date

You have why and where -- now you must say when, in the form of a specific date. Set that date before anybody hears anything about the conference. If you start doing things before you can give a specific date, or worse, if you publish an unconfirmed date, then you'll lose half of the participants and half of your speakers. People get confused, and they're not checking the conference's Web site every day. They hear of the conference, get registered, and after putting it into their agendas, they forget it about it until the date comes.

Be aware of any holidays, vacations, or long weekends that come on or near your chosen date.

Inviting keynote speakers

Keynote speakers are among the best attractions for any conference. They should be important to the people who you want to come to the conference -- and you have to treat them as if they were the most important thing that ever happened at all the conferences you put together.

It is not that keynote speakers are eccentric rock stars, it's that they are used to travel, they do not come to a conference as if they are on vacation. They're there to do a job, and that job is to give the speech (or speeches) that make the trouble of traveling for a few days worthwhile. Recognize the fact that they are doing the conference a favor (even though the conference pays for their plane tickets and hotel expenses); it is not the other way around.

Try to get to know what things your guests like, what things they don't like, and be always straight to the point. Keep in mind that you do not know these people -- maybe they're from a different continent or country, of course they're not like you -- so you should be aware that there might be things that are pretty common to you that they see differently, and may take as a lack of respect.

If a keynote speaker has a lot of experience traveling, he'll warn you about things, or probably won't mind about many things, but on the other hand, you might not be that lucky.

The best thing you can do is assign a person to each keynote speaker, let them meet and exchange a few email messages, and after that be precise. Give the speakers the final schedule as early as possible, and make sure they know where they'll have to go several days in advance. If there's a special event (a party, a dinner, or whatever) let them know as soon as it is confirmed and give them all the details you know about it; that way they can decide whether to go to the event or not, and other things, such as how they have to dress.

Give speakers some time on their own to do some work or spend some time taking pictures or enjoying this beautiful new place they've never visited before. Try to get the person you assigned to the keynote speaker to stick to him like glue -- unless the speaker doesn't want to be disturbed, in which case, give him the space he needs. But keep in mind that most speakers' the first concern is to make their travel worth the most they can, which means giving a good speech and doing some work remotely (if they can). It's your job to make their stay as pleasant as possible.

The conference group

A conference is big event with lots of tasks, so it is important that all the different processes' threads be well controlled. In order to do this, a good place to start is by defining every needed task. A wiki is the perfect technology for this.

Common tasks you have to think of:

  • General coordination
  • Web site
  • Press
  • Keynote speakers
  • Speeches and speakers
  • Sponsors
  • Attendees (registration process)

The general coordinator or coordinators are the people who see the conference as a macro thing. They shouldn't get involved in any particular thing very deeply. Their main objective is to know who is doing what, who is in charge of all the other tasks, and of course, to make sure that everything gets done. The general coordinator can be assigned to a specific area also, but he should not have many of these specific tasks. Of course, if there aren't many people working on the conference, then maybe you don't have a choice.

The Web site is important because is what everybody sees before the event, Attendees will feel that the conference will be well organized if the Web site looks professional. Create the site using whatever application you feel comfortable with; wikis are good choices, but content management systems are better.

Whoever is in charge of the press tasks should be someone who can interact with people, not just electronically, but personally. (That's not that common in the geek world.) He will be the person everybody points to when someone from the press wants to know something about the conference, so he needs to know everything about the conference, including who's coming, the tracks that the conference will cover, the public target, and more. Among other things, this person should make all the contacts with the press, and work on getting their attention and spreading the word.

Publicizing an event takes a lot of work, so somebody has to embrace it and get it rolling. The initial work is done electronically via email, but after that you have to pick up the phone and put interviews together. Don't underestimate this task.

Depending on your target audience, you may want to publicize the event in specific places (newspapers, community mailing lists, Web sites, etc.). Sometimes the more people who come to a conference, the better, but sometimes not. Don't think that the press won't want to publicize these types of conferences, because they will. Many newspapers and radio stations have regular computer features. The press needs news, and you're giving it to them.

The press will be interested in writing about what you're going to do at the conference. If you're bringing keynote speakers from other places, try to get journalists to interview them. It's not that hard -- visit the newspaper Web site, look for computer-related interviews, and see who wrote them. Try to get the journalists' email addresses (Google often has them), then contact them, explain who's coming, and seduce them with whatever the keynote speakers did in the past (after all, that's the reason you picked the keynote speakers in the first place).

Radio shows also have mail addresses to contact them. Try to find a Web site that lists them all, or write the addresses down when you hear the radio show. You might get lucky, and they might say something about the conference on their shows. Radio shows give day-to-day news, so there's no use on emailing them weeks before the conference. This job must be done a day or two before the conference's first day.

The better you publicize the conference, the more people will hear about it, and eventually come.

Speeches, speakers, and sponsors

If you have many speakers, someone must be in charge of who will be giving every speech, when, and where, or you'll soon have chaos. Optimally, all the other details (such as the needs of every speaker) can be taken care of by another collaborator. Local speakers are busy people, so once they have confirmed their presence, you have to give them deadlines and make sure they meet them. All speakers should be introduced by someone else at their conference speeches, and that person will be the one who tells the speaker how much time is left for the speech, and does whatever is necessary during the speech.

Getting a sponsor is like selling a product -- it is always better if you have a "demo" so the sponsor can see what he's putting his money into. Since a conference is not a software product, you can't really show a "demo" of the conference, but if this is not the first conference you have put together, show potential sponsors what the group did in the past. A good, brief brochure of the conference is a must-have. This brochure should have the goal of the conference, to whom it is oriented, where it is going to be, and of course, when. The brochure should be electronic and printable.

Don't try to sell sponsors via email; it is always better if you meet them and talk. The chances of closing a sponsorship deal via email is relatively low.

The things you give the sponsors in return for their backing are up to you. Depending on the type of conference you're doing, you may be able to give them a lot or a little, but be specific and have everything written down. Some people even sign contracts before the conference.

Remember that organizations sponsor conferences so they can sell things, so the conference has to have something they can use, something that is valuable to them. Here's a list of some things you can offer them:

  • Place for them to set up a booth
  • Space for speeches (commercial or academic)
  • Special spots to put up flags or banners
  • The attendees database (not for spam purpose, please! Make sure you tell the attendees that you are going to give their email addresses to the sponsors.)
  • The sponsor's logo on the conference Web site
  • The sponsor's name on every press communication

Last words

A conferences is a process that has to be well prepared for, so take your time and don't underestimate the task. It is always better to do a smaller, well-organized conference than a huge, chaotic one. Attendees will remember the quality of the speeches they attend, but mostly the organization.

Good luck!

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