Like just about anything else, a good conference organizer makes it look easy. When I create things, I do so with the understanding that my audience or end user may never appreciate or care about how difficult my job was — they only see the results. While I’ve never organized a conference myself, I’ve been an attendee and speaker many times. Based on my favorite experiences, here’s how you get it right.
Take Care of Your Speakers
I’m leading with this because it seems woefully overlooked. The insight and experience your speakers offer are among the most important reasons an attendee would pick your conference over another. To put on a great presentation requires skill, thought, preparation, and time. This is work. Not just the time spent on stage, but the time spent crafting the message and how it’s delivered. Offering a free conference pass may seem like enough, but if speakers have to cover their own travel expenses, pay for their own hotel, and take time away from paying work, you’re going to have a hard time attracting top speakers.
One More Thing in Melbourne does a fantastic job of this. Not only do they cover flight and hotel, they also provide local prepaid SIM cards, wireless hotspots, transit cards, and a few extra days of accommodation so speakers can explore the city. The entire event feels like an adventure, and you can really feel that energy and enthusiasm in the presentations.
Everyone’s Job is to Serve the Attendees
When I spoke at TheNextWeb in Amsterdam, they had a system that I loved so much I recommend it to every conference organizer who will listen. Immediately after a speaker’s talk is finished they’re committed to spending an hour at the speaker bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than doing a long Q&A session from a stage where I’m elevated above everyone, I got to stand face-to-face and have interesting conversations with attendees while serving them drinks. It reminded me that my position as a speaker is one of service, and led to much more meaningful interactions. It was so much fun I spent the rest of the day there.
Steve “Scotty” Scott and his team at NSConf in England are the gold standard for indie conferences for many reasons, but what strikes me most about them is their positive attitude. Speakers and attendees feel valued, and there’s a genuine air of gratitude in everything they say.
Last year Scotty and company put on a mini NSConf dedicated to design. For the speaker dinner, they booked an Indian restaurant. I’m no fan of Indian food, but I said I’d happily join for the conversation and quietly grab a bite after. That wasn’t good enough for Scotty, who brought the head chef to chat with me shortly before dinner. The chef asked polite questions about what I did or did not like, to see if they could accommodate me. No judgement, no scorn. In fact, nowhere in any of this was I made to feel anything less then welcomed.
Their kindness got me to try new things — not an easy task where food is concerned. The food turned out to be fantastic, and I’d take a bullet for Scotty.
Be a Destination
Almost as important as the speakers and their content is location. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that a huge number of Apple community conference attendees are independent developers, people just starting out, or folks otherwise paying their own way. They’re spending their own money and burning vacation time with the belief that attending this particular event will pay off for them down the road. Some of that is the talks and official events. Some is the social aspect, or networking opportunities. But face it, nobody gets excited to spend their own money to attend a conference in the middle of nowhere.
The city you choose should be a destination. A character that influences the conference itself and informs the attitude. When I was invited to speak at Macworld Hong Kong a few years ago, I was as excited about the destination as I was about getting a chance to work with Macworld. My first real trip outside of the US, Hong Kong scared the hell out of me. Now I very rarely give talks at US conferences, because the appeal to me is reaching new audiences and seeing the world.
I’m fortunate to have been part of a lot of great events, and I always have a good time doing it. But Úll takes a slightly different approach. For this year’s conference I was flown to Dublin a few days early to rehearse with other musicians in the Apple community. The pretense for the audience was that we were going to do a panel (the last event of the evening).
We came out, sat down, introduced ourselves, then stood up. As we strapped on our guitars and whatnot, you could hear realization wash over the audience. People loved it. So much so that — to my amazement — an entire audience of developers and designers and other technology types got on their feet and moved toward the stage to give the whole thing another layer of rock and roll authenticity. Despite considered preparation, the show seemed spontaneous. It felt like magic, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything like it again. I’ll definitely never forget it.
What these events all have in common is that their organizers cared enough to want them to be great. These events are designed to reflect the character and personality of their creators and their home cities. I can watch videos online. I can see speakers at other events. What I can’t duplicate later is the experience; the human element beyond talks and badges. The best conferences are crafted with people at the center, surrounded by an environment that gives them a clear path forward but encouragement to explore. It’s a very tough job and no sane person does it for the money. But when done right, it’s worth the trip.