updated: November 6th, 2015 / Ross Johnson / 5 Comments

Organizing a WordCamp, Lessons Learned After Two Years

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I am writing this a few days after WordCamp Ann Arbor 2015. This was the second WordCamp where I was a lead organizer and the fourth WordCamp to which I provided overall assistance. Based on the feedback we have received thus far, WordCamp was a success.

Attendees learned and networked, sponsors were able to support WordPress and get in front of the community, and speakers shared their knowledge and expertise. Since this is the fourth WordCamp I have helped run, I have a clear idea about the most important factors for the camp’s success and what things could have been done to make the next WordCamp even better.

Rather than keep the lessons learned inside my head, I figured others might find them valuable, thus this blog post. I’ve organized this guide based on the order of importance, meaning the most important lessons appear first. Without further ado…

Start Early

You can pull off a WordCamp in two months, but who wants to attend a rushed camp? If you can’t start early, set a date for next year.

I’m writing this post less than one week after our last WordCamp and we’ve already started scouting locations and begun the application process.

Last year, we waited a few months before starting the process. As a result, we lost momentum, forgot what we learned and lost our preferred venue.

You don’t have to plan the entire event a year in advance but you at least need to apply, find a venue, and complete a basic version of the website. The sooner you get your site online, the sooner attendees and speakers can start putting the event it on their calendar.

Focus on the Core First

As of this writing, 15 additional WordCamps were held this year and more than 20 are in the planning stages. At some point during planning the stage, you might ask yourself: “What will make my camp stand out?” You’re already putting a lot of time and effort into the camp, so wouldn’t it be great to have people talk about how unique it was?

This line of thinking, however, is dangerous. Instead of trying to find a “hook” that people will talk about, focus on executing the core aspects of WordCamp really well. For example, a photobooth is cool, but it won’t make up for uninteresting topics and poorly selected speakers.

Plan all aspects of the schedule, venue, content and speakers before you think about how to the after-party, speaker/sponsor dinner, camp website and swag unique. Then, if you still have time, go ahead and schedule a photobooth, get a bacon bar or plan a paintball outing.

Find the Right Venue

Your venue will shape almost every aspect of the camp and there is a lot to consider. You can have the best speaker lineup, but the event will fall apart if the venue is not suitable for a conference. When evaluating venues think about these:

  • Is it easy to find?
  • Where is the nearest parking? Is there handicap parking?
  • Is it near accommodations?
  • Does the general location give attendees a good representation of your city?
  • How close are the rooms you’re renting?
  • How large are the rooms?
  • Is there a single large room for a keynote?
  • Where will people register?
  • Is there an adequate wireless network?
  • How are the acoustics? Will people in the back be able to hear the speaker?
  • Do they offer catering?
  • What technology (projectors, screens, etc.) do they offer and at what are the costs?

Note that I didn’t put “does it have a cool vibe” on this list. It’s tempting to try and wow attendees with a flashy venue but this isn’t an architecture event. If the ambiance of the venue adds to the event, great… but it should be one of the last things you consider.

Attendees want to learn and talk about WordPress, not spend a day hanging out in a cool building. I learned this the hard way.

In 2011, we held WordCamp Detroit at the Renaissance Center, an iconic building owned by General Motors in one of the nicest areas of downtown Detroit. From the outside, the building looked very impressive, and the lobby equally so. The room we got? Painfully boring. The price? Astronomical. It was expensive that we couldn’t pay for quality wifi or get coffee on the second day.

I’ve been to camps where the venue was so plain that I can barely remember what they looked like; but the conference was still great. The venue should be conducive to holding a conference first and foremost; how memorable or beautiful it is should come second.

What Really Matters

What you really want are easy access, rooms with ample and comfortable seating, good acoustics, strong wifi connection, and an open area for registration.

If possible, get rooms that have more seating space than you need. This past year, we secured one large room that holds 110 people and two medium-sized rooms for 50 people. It was a conscious compromise, but we had to livestream our keynote into the other rooms. We also guessed which sessions were going to be the most popular and thus provided big rooms for those sessions; but we were often wrong. As a result, the smaller rooms were standing room only.

Pay particular attention to the acoustics. If you have any doubt, rent or bring microphones and speakers. Don’t rely on the speakers to deliver loud, booming sounds. They might be accustomed to using a microphone and leave the people in back struggling to hear. As a test: have someone stand outside of the room and talk loudly in order to check how much sound travels in the room.

Assessing a Venue

As you’re considering a venue, walk through the entire day and consider how well the venue will fit.

  • Registration – Where would tables go? Is there space?
  • Is there a lounging area?
  • Where would sponsor tables go?
  • Is there a room for a keynote?
  • What happens if a session room is full?
  • What is it like to walk from room to room?
  • How will you handle lunch?
  • Is there room for a happiness bar?
  • How will you get help from the venue if something is wrong?
  • Where is the after-party in relation to the main venue? Do people have to walk?

Once you have a date and venue picked out, it’s time to make sure you have the right help in place.

Find the Right Team

When I first took on the role of lead organizer, I figured it would be easy. There aren’t that many moving parts, right? Wrong. Each aspect of a camp is a job in itself. There have been a few select organizers that managed to go it alone, but they are few and far between.

I pride myself on being hyper-productive and managing lots of small details all at once. Yet there is no way that I could have done all of the events on my own.

Let’s consider the after-party: all you need to do is pick a location and book it, right? Wrong. Let’s look at what needs to be done:

  • Find a location that is accessible and large enough to fit everyone;
  • Plan food options including how much to get, the type of food and options for vegetarians, vegans or those with allergies;
  • Plan drink options including how many people get;
  • How to handle tickets; and
  • Plan the seating.

To do this right, you should expect to work for at least five hours … and that’s if everything goes smoothly.

Try and find someone for each aspect of the event including speakers, volunteers, sponsors, promotion / communication, venue, parties, design and swag. That means at least eight people.

Also, be upfront with your team about how much help you will need throughout the event. This is your baby and not everyone can commit as much time as you can. Those who have limited time should be assigned roles with lower demands.

While we’re on the subject, I’d like to take this time to thank our team (in alphabetical order):

  • Ben Cool
  • Justin Ferriman
  • Rebecca Gill
  • Lyndsay Johnson
  • Kyle Maurer
  • Mark Montague
  • Declan O’Neill

With a venue and a team in place it’s time to start thinking about content.

Speaker Lineup

Who you select to speak is almost as important as the venue. I only place venue above speakers because you need a good venue for attendees who will access the content delivered by the speakers.

Selecting speakers is difficult. We have been fortunate enough to have an abundance of applications to speak. In the first year, I assumed that good speakers would present interesting subjects so I focused more on the person who applied rather than on what their topic was. As a result, there wasn’t much flow to the day. In hindsight, there were topics that should have been discussed but were not represented. This year, we focused on what topics were needed and then found speakers that matched those topics.

Looking forward, we plan to be hyper-specific about the topics we want covered. You’ll often see camps stating a desire for talks on broad topics like security, responsive design, workflow, etc…” I have now realized that asking for a specific topic is a more effective approach. For example, “We’re looking for someone to present on modern workflows like VVV, CLI, and version control.”

This helps you and the applications out. I can speak from experience — I often submit an application wondering if the organizer will be interested in my specific topic.

You also need to research your applicants. Did they have any past talks on WordCamp.TV that you can review? Ask for their slides ahead of time. Talk to them over Google Hangout or Skype. Due diligence goes a long way because once the speakers are on stage, there is little you can do if they start shamelessly promoting themselves, or they are disorganized, or they really don’t know as much as they had claimed.

Communication

You cannot over-communicate. Communicate early and often with everyone involved including attendees, speakers, volunteers, organizers and sponsors. The e-mail that Kyle Maurer sent out to our speakers was incredibly detailed and our speakers loved it! Before the event, we put together a WordCamp A2 guide and e-mailed it to all attendees so that they could print directions, parking locations and plan their way to the after-party.

Ensuring that people know what to expect goes a long way. Think of the event experience like you would a web user experience. If someone is unsure what to do, where to go or what to expect it leaves a negative impression. Communicating along the way prevents these hiccups.

Not that we didn’t have anything that was unclear or confusing, because we did; but we would have had more, and next year we will have less.

Also, figure out how you plan to communicate with attendees, organizers and volunteers the day of the event. If you have people introducing speakers and they need to make an announcement, how will they know what to say? An “announcements” Google Doc that volunteers check after every session could do the trick.

The day of the event will sneak up on you. It will feel like the event is a long way off until, all of a sudden, it’s just days away. Up to this point, most of your planning will be to ensure the camp will happen; but you need to plan how the day itself will unfold.

Putting Your Mark on It

I realize up until this point I’ve stressed “keep it simple,” but it is important to have some distinguishable aspect of your camp. Some attendees and speakers attend several camps per year. A camp that stands out is more likely to attract their return next year.

In our case our venues have always been historic, 100 year old University buildings which is a memorable aspect to any technology event. We frequently look for creative ways to put a spin on the common camp experience. For example we’ve done small things like put the camp schedule on the back of our T-Shirts, had lightening rounds, panels and took speakers and sponsors on a tour of Ann Arbor rather than a standard dinner. While there are other camps that have done similar things, the mix adds up to a memorable experience.

The “Day Of” and Managing Volunteers

Volunteers will play a huge role in the success of the event. Unless you have a huge organizing team, there will be more tasks to complete than organizers to complete them. As lead organizer, you need to be readily available throughout the day. This means that you shouldn’t be in a room announcing speakers, manning the camera, or helping with registration.

Assign an organizer to be your deputy. This individual will handle any questions or issues that arise that are not critical in nature. This will also prevent you from being bogged down with the details and therefore focus on the big picture.

I would aim for at least 15 volunteers for a three-session camp. Start by creating a volunteer schedule identifying what roles you need. As people volunteer, fill out the schedule so everyone knows exactly when and where they should be. Finally, and most importantly, write instructions for the volunteers so everyone knows what is expected of them.

I wrote instructions last year but failed to do so this year. That was a huge mistake, but makes a perfect segue to creating a “Day of Plan.”

“The Day Of Plan”

This year, I realized that having a documented “Day of Plan” is critical for a smooth-running camp.

During the camp you’ll need at least a dozen different people doing things all at the same time. You also won’t have time to coordinate with all of them. You need to be available if something comes up, rather than the person everyone asks, “What should I do?”

This means having a defined role for everyone, from organizers to volunteers. Each role should have a set of instructions outlining exactly what they should do. For a room runner, for example, you would state:

  • Sessions start on the hour, make sure the speaker is in the room and setting up ten minutes before the session starts.
  • Sessions are 40 minutes long with 5 minutes for Q&A.
  • Indicate those critical times to the speaker using a sign when they have 10, 5 and 1 minute left.
  • When the session is over, give the speaker their gift.

The plan should include how to setup the event. Chances are you will have less than an hour to get everything unloaded and in place. Once everything has been moved from cars and into the building, there will be a mad dash to get everything organized. I recommend writing out a setup plan and to organize equipment to streamline the process.

What I wish I did this past year is to organize the boxes based on where things should go. Each room should have its own box that contains the necessary items like cables, extra batteries, signs, speaker gifts, etc. Each box could also have a set of setup instructions so a volunteer can handle the setup without need for further direction.

The more pre-planning you can do the better. This year, I found myself standing around with a handful of volunteers asking me what they should do but I didn’t know how to direct them. I could have said, “Make sure each room is all set”; but that would have taken almost as much time to communicate what “all set” means as it would to handle things myself. A simple set of instructions would have prevented this problem.

Planning for Things to Go Wrong

Chances are something will not go as planned, so have contingencies in place. What happens if a projector bulb burns out? The microphone battery dies? A speaker doesn’t show up? Someone’s laptop won’t connect to the projector? Get the venue manager’s phone number and give it to key organizers. Talk with them before the event and find out how to handle equipment problems.

I was well-prepared for this issue in the first year, which ran so smoothly that I overlooked how much preparations were made when I handled the second year. This year, two microphone batteries died which meant that a few sessions didn’t have the benefit of amplified audio. Had I brought extra batteries, that wouldn’t have been an issue.

Overall

You won’t necessarily run into the same challenges that I have, so my final parting advice would be to focus on the core aspects of a great WordCamp — great and accessible content. Most of your planning efforts should support the access to high quality content. Only after you’ve sufficiently planned for that should you think about more complicated things.

Also, as the day of the camp draws nearer, you should be changing arrangements less. We tried to add a handful of “delightors” a few days before the event (like Livestreaming all sessions) only to have them not work out and take away efforts from the rest of the event.

Best of luck planning your camp.

5 thoughts Organizing a WordCamp, Lessons Learned After Two Years

  1. Pingback: Organizing a WordCamp, Lessons Learned After Two Years | WordPress Coders - Articles

  2. Ross –

    Great insight and thanks for sharing this! For the record, I really enjoyed my time at WCA2, and am looking forward in returning next year, speaking or not! 🙂

    -Adam

  3. Thanks for the feedback Adam and I’m really glad you enjoyed WCA2. Maybe next year we’ll have an all rap track, with your previous experience you’ll be speaking for sure!

    Ross Johnson
  4. Dear Ross and Team,

    This is a great post! I will certainly be handing it over to the teams I hope to work on in future. I love the fact that you put in the part about communication, especially when so many of us at the Speaker’s Dinner were complimenting you on it. You are so right when you say that you cannot over-communicate. You guys held a great WordCamp and this will definitely be on my list in future years. I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it this year. You should be congratulated.

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