From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon
While there isn't the space to cover all the types of events you might want to hold, we’ll focus on the most popular and common events:
Common in the software development world, a sprint is when a number of (traditionally online-based) developers get together to work in the same physical location. The foundation of a sprint is merely to be in the same room working, but people naturally use the opportunity of being in the same location to have discussions, solve problems, and carry out other activities.
Summits are organized events in which the members have a series of discussion and debate sessions. Summits rarely have prepared presentations where someone speaks and the audience listens. Summits are instead a series of discussion sessions that hopefully result in an outcome. We will talk more about summits a little later in this chapter.
Conferences are composed of a series of presentations in which a speaker talks about a topic and the audience listens. Conferences are primarily useful for disseminating knowledge to others. Conferences are also a useful focus point to get people together for other events. Some communities deliberately collocate other events, such as sprints, at times and places near conferences that many people will be attending, in order to make it cheaper and easier for potential attendees to visit both.
Cons (usually short for conventions) are popular in the user community, particularly in story-related communities such as movies and comics. These events are focused on fans coming together to celebrate something (e.g., Star Trek fans coming together to discuss the show, showcase their outfits, and participate in other strange activities).
Release parties celebrate the release of something. These parties are common in the software, movie, and gaming worlds. These parties are often social gatherings in pubs and restaurants and have real value in building community. Some release events are fuller and incorporate presentations, workshops, and other features.
Each type of event is composed from broadly the same ingredients: a group of people meeting at the same venue to do something. The way they differ is in the focus of the event, be it working together (sprint), discussing ideas (summit), sharing knowledge (conference), coming together to meet like minds (cons), or celebrating something (release parties).
It should also be noted that physical events are excellent opportunities for socializing with your community. With each of the events, there is invariably an adjoining set of social events and parties to get your community to enjoy each other’s company.
Although it may seem like the different types of physical events are very different, they all share some common ingredients. Before we move on to look at the specifics of some of these different events, I want to discuss some of these shared ingredients that apply to all physical events. When you have a firm idea of how these ingredients will look, you will be 90% of the way to having your event ready.
For each of the following elements, ensure that you document all the details online on a website. Your event website is a critical component of your physical event, and visitors will expect it to be up-to-date.
It is also recommended that you have a private organizers’ website that can act as a home for the many organizational details that develop as the different parts of the event are put together. Ensure this information is there, too.
All physical events need a home. The first choice you need to make is the location. If you are organizing an event in which you expect your community to fund their own travel to attend, you should try to choose a location that is as convenient as possible for most of your members who are likely to attend. As an example, if most of your members are in the Eastern United States, hold it there. If most of your members are in Australia, hold it there. Choosing a venue for your event depends heavily on the kind of event that you are organizing. If you are holding a sprint, a small venue is likely to be suitable, such as a hotel meeting room. If you are organizing a large conference, you may need a larger and more complex venue. In addition to choosing the size of the venue, you should consider some other, subtler elements:
Can your attendees get there on public transportation, and can they get elsewhere in the area, too?
Distance from airport/train/bus stations:
Many of your attendees may be flying in from other countries or getting trains/buses to the event. You should try to aim for a venue that is a reasonable distance from those transport links. If people will incur a hefty taxi bill to get to the venue, you will get some frustrated attendees.
Distance from accommodation:
Many people who attend an event may be in a hotel. Is the venue within a reasonable distance? There are few things more frustrating than a venue distant from the accommodation.
If you are holding an all-day event (as many of these events are), you should ensure that your attendees can easily get to local bars and restaurants. Ensure that the range here is as flexible as possible, too: are there vegetarian, vegan, and halal options? Many of your attendees will want to get together for some drinks and dinner. You should ensure the bars and restaurants are within reasonable distance, and if not, ensure public transportation can get people to them.
Venues range hugely in terms of cost. Here you should think imaginatively: consider some less obvious venues as suitable options. As an example, when we were organizing LugRadio Live in the UK, we considered options such as bars, music venues, and outdoor events. Unfortunately, desirable choices for many of the other items on this list tend to require a high-cost location, because that’s the kind of location near airports, nice restaurants, and so on.
A subtle consideration when choosing a venue is how your audience will perceive it. As an example, if you run a business community, you may well want to choose a venue that is more professionally oriented, such as a business center or hotel conference facility. If your community is more low-key, you will have more flexibility with venue choice.
When I was involved in organizing LugRadio Live, a loose, social, and informal event that was part of our LugRadio podcast, we discounted many venues due to the “feel.” We were explicitly looking to achieve a social environment for the show, and many available places didn’t fit, including university lecture theaters and hotel conference facilities. We instead chose student union bars, independent theaters, and football stadium facilities: the latter all immediately expressed a more social and fun feel than the former.
Another consideration is the environmental impact of the venue on the mood of the event. When we organized the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Seville, Spain, the venue was in a large underground conference facility in a hotel. There were no windows, making the summit feel more constrained and causing people to tire earlier. The lack of windows meant that attendees could not see the daylight, and as such could not judge the time of day as the light changed.
For many physical events, people from out of town will attend. This will usually mean that they need to stay in a hotel. Many will expect you to tell them about reasonable hotel options, so you should provide these on your event’s website.
There are three tasks that you should work on in terms of accommodation:
Provide a range of options:
Everyone has different budgets when it comes to hotels. Provide details for a range of room rates and quality.
Negotiate a special room rate:
Call each of the hotels in the area and ask them if they can organize a special room rate for you. Many hotels will provide a room rate if you ask your attendees to give the hotel the event name or a special code. One thing to be cautious of: some hotels want you to reserve a block of the hotel for the discounted rate. This is risky if this is your first conference. Whatever you do, do not put an unaffordable deposit down to reserve the rooms with the expectation that people will come. It is too risky.
Document your hotels:
Put a travel page on your website that contains all of the hotels that people can stay at. List the hotels by order of the largest discount on the room rack rate. Ensure you include the full address of the hotel (with zip/postal code so people can put it in their GPS units), and also include the telephone number.
You will probably find one or two hotels that are particularly accommodating (pun intended) to you and your event. Many of these hotels are hoping for repeat business in future years if the event becomes an annual fixture. These relationships can often blossom with positive effects on your event over the years. When we organized LugRadio Live, our regular hotels would go further and further out of their way to provide a great service for us and our guests.
Keep these hotel representatives in your circle of professional friends. You should always pick primary hotels for your event. When traveling to an event from out of town and not knowing any of the natives, your attendees will want to be in a hotel with other attendees so they can socialize in the hotel bar, share cabs, and coordinate other activities. These primary hotels at events become a social hub. As such, when deciding which hotels will carry this role, ensure you check facilities such as bars, restaurants, and fitness centers.
When you ask for discounted room rates, it is likely the hotel will push back at first. Persevere. Tell them how important your event is, and tell them that you really want to recommend their hotel as "an" (not "the"; that would be lying) official hotel.
Keep asking and pushing for the discount. You have nothing to lose and lots to gain. If you get that discounted rate, it will make your event more affordable and allow more people to attend.
Every event has equipment requirements. This can range from pens and paper through complex IT and networking facilities. You should ensure you have a clear idea of your equipment needs and that you have a means of acquiring them in time for the event. Although seemingly a simple consideration, figuring out what you need to take to the event may be harder than you think. Imagine you are organizing a sprint. You may think of some of the obvious equipment requirements such as whiteboards, pens, networking equipment, cables, and power strips. There are many less obvious pieces of equipment, however, that you may not have thought of. This could include signs to show people where to go, tack, sticky tape, pins, lights, converter cables, speakers, notepads, whiteboard dry wipes, and more. These simple and easily forgotten parts can make a big difference!
To ensure you don’t forget anything, you should note down your full equipment needs and consult with your community to see if there is anything you have forgotten. And like all your planning, the resulting list will be a useful reference point for future events.
You should announce the date of your event at least four months before it happens. For events where you expect international visitors, I recommend you provide six or preferably eight months’ advance notice so there is enough time for visas to be organized. Don’t let the wheels of government cause problems. International visas were a scourge on events for the first few years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and can still get in the way of travel between some countries.
When picking a date for your event, you need to decide on two things:
How long will your event last? We will discuss this in more detail later when we cover specific types of events.
Picking a time can be complicated. You need to ensure that your event does not conflict with events of similar interest, that the dates are suitable for the venue, and that they do not conflict with any holidays. You will never completely bypass every competing event and holiday, so use your best judgment.
One important tip that so many conferences and events still seem to get wrong: always put the date of your conference on the front page of your website. Don’t bury the date three pages deep into the website. It will frustrate potential attendees and might suppress attendance.
One of the most difficult decisions to make for many events is whether to charge for entry, and if so, how much. Much of this discussion is entirely dependent on the type of event that you are running, its expected attendee demographics, and whether the event seeks to make a profit.
This was something we considered heavily for LugRadio Live. The event was very much intended as a community event. It was never intended to make any profit. The only monetary concerns were covering the costs of the event (and much of this was reduced due to sponsorship, which we will discuss later).
One conscious decision for LugRadio Live was to make it affordable for everyone. We were not especially big fans (to say the least) of open source conferences for which community members were expected to pony up $800 to attend. We felt that this produced a false economy: a conference in which significant portions of the demographic of open source members were unable to attend. On the other hand, even though we had enough sponsorship to make the entrance to LugRadio Live free, we decided to charge a nominal fee (£5 at the door). The reason for the charge was subtle: if something is free, people will rarely commit to it. Even with a tiny cover charge, it would mean that people who registered to attend would actually show up.
For many events there should be a means for attendees to let you know in advance that they are going to attend. Having this information is useful for a few reasons. By far the biggest worry in organizing an event is whether people are actually going to show up. This is typically less of a worry for invitation-only sprints, but a significant cause of nervous twitching when organizing a conference. It is always advisable to have a way for people to register their attendance so you have an idea of where your numbers stand. Another benefit of knowing these numbers is that if you have an outright success on your hands and are likely to have many more people attending, you can make preparations to deal with the increased traffic at the event.
It is important to remember, though, that conference preregistration figures often don’t reflect the final attendance, particularly for events that are free or where people can pay at the door. In these cases, where there is simply no justification for them to preregister, there needs to be a reason and a catalyst, such as limited availability or discounted ticket prices. Justification in the eyes of your prospective attendees is not “it helps the organizers know how many people are coming”; justification needs to be something the attendee will feel is a personal benefit. This is where the cost of your event plays a large role. If you are charging $1,000 for a conference ticket and preregistration allows people to get a $400 discount on the ticket, you will see more preregistrations.
Although many formal events keep attendee lists private, or share the lists only with other attendees, many community events ask attendees to register publicly so everyone can see who’s coming. This provides a small incentive to register in advance: attendees can then encourage colleagues whom they want to meet to come.
Events have different approaches to registering attendance. For the majority of you reading this book, I am willing to bet that you are primarily organizing small summits and sprints for your community. In these cases, a wiki page is a perfect solution: simply ask your community members to add themselves to a page if they are planning on attending. For much larger conferences and sprints, you may want to use a conference management system or a custom website to handle the attendance registration process. You also may want to include an online payment process with your registration facility.
You need to decide whether you want to have food at your event. For a daytime event, this is most typically lunch and breaks. If it is an evening event, the catering is typically dinner and drinks.
Catering can make the cost of the event balloon, so you need to consider it carefully. An added complication is that many venues will restrict you to using only their on-site kitchen or a specific vendor. You should check this when investigating the venue. Such locked-in vendors usually lead to outrageously inflated costs, but you can’t really blame the venue, because it has its own advantages in maintaining a relationship with a vendor who gets to know it well.
Expectations around catering vary. For a small, locally organized event, catering is not typically expected. If you are organizing a large professional conference, lunch will be expected, particularly if you are charging a significant entrance fee. Irrespective of what you decide, it is highly recommended that you have drinks available: people get thirsty throughout the day, particularly if there is lots of discussion.
If you do decide to cater your event, a buffet-style format is recommended for both lunch and dinner options. It is easier to organize, promotes socializing (instead of people sitting at the same place at a dinner table all night), and is often cheaper.
IF YOU DON’T CATER...
...you should ensure that you provide details of local, reasonably priced food and drink providers. I always recommend providing a list of fast food restaurants as well as sit-down restaurants and bars. Again, the key is to provide a range of options that can suit as many tastes and budgets as possible.
One area that you should properly investigate when planning your event is the insurance needs and possible union requirements for your area. These issues vary tremendously around the world.
I experienced this firsthand when comparing the experience of organizing LugRadio Live in the UK and in San Francisco in the U.S. The events were a world apart in terms of insurance and union requirements. The San Francisco event was a far more complicated affair with more rigorous and complex requirements than its UK counterpart.
With the laws and requirements varying so much around the world, it is difficult for me to give any concrete advice other than to ensure you check these legal elements thoroughly. If you are unsure, ask the venue management for its advice.
You should also make a point of looking into basic first aid facilities. If someone slices his hand open or passes out, you want to be able to react appropriately. Preferably you should have someone available on site who knows first aid.
Organizing a Sprint
Sprints are events in which your community gathers together to work in the same physical location. Sprints rarely have any special time-tabled content, such as talks or presentations, and their primary focus is more to get people working individually or on shared projects, taking advantage of the face-to-face time to have discussions and solve problems together where required.
The primary requirement for a sprint is to provide a working environment. This is dependent on the kind of work your community performs, but for most communities it’s likely to be a conference room with tables and chairs where your community can sit together to work. I have organized a number of sprints for different purposes, including specific team sprints for my own team and wider community sprints. You should always allow a sprint to be a sprint. Over the years I have seen many people organize sprints and instead try to turn them into more of a summit, replete with brainstorming sessions. I was one of them. When I used to organize sprints for my team, I would run them largely as mini-summits, and we would discuss and flesh out plans for the coming cycle. At one wider team sprint I could not be there with my team, and they reported back that having the opportunity to just work, as opposed to brainstorm, was hugely productive. Since then I have been careful to ensure that sprints are primarily focused on working together. To achieve this, I reserve the mornings for brainstorming and the afternoons for sprinting.
Here are some additional notes building on the topics I covered in general earlier:
Sprints are typically smaller events and require smaller venues. Bear in mind that the sprint is intended to be a working session, and therefore you may need facilities for this work, such as Internet access, plenty of power outlets, and tables and chairs. For a small sprint the venue can be informal and loose, with many communities sprinting in houses and apartments.
There are no special accommodation requirements for sprints.
The equipment requirements depend on the type of work that you will be doing. As an example, if you are doing software development, people should bring their own laptops,but you may want to provide blank media, commonly requested cables, power strips, USB storage devices, etc.
The length of the sprint should reflect how long you can reasonably expect people to be together. Do remember that people will need to book time off work to be there, and some may be away from their families and children. I recommend that a sprint range from three to five days. I would not recommend a sprint that lasts longer than a week.
To the best of your ability, sprints should be free. You should seek to cover your costs with sponsorship if your organization can’t pony up the funds itself.
You will want to get a firm idea of who is coming, but also make the sprint open so anyone is welcome to attend. Specialist sprints will require specific invitations to the people whom you want to attend.
Many smaller sprints provide either a buffet lunch or defer lunch to nearby restaurants. You should ensure there are plenty of water and cups available, and preferably some sodas or coffee. Some caffeinated beverages are particularly important if you have a long sprint: people will rely on them to wake up in the mornings.
As always, check into the insurance requirements for the sprint. There are unlikely to be union issues.
Organizing a Summit
Summits are organized events in which your community gathers to discuss and debate a set of topics with the purpose of developing an outcome. An example of this is the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS). During every release cycle, the Ubuntu community gathers together to discuss, debate, and design the next release of Ubuntu. The summit is broken into a number of tracks (community, desktop, server, mobile, quality assurance, etc.), each containing a number of sessions. Each session has a leader who focuses the discussion on the topic, and the attendees weigh in and discuss the best choices. By the end of the session the expected outcome is a broad solution that can then be documented as a specification from which the community can work.
The UDS is a large and comprehensive summit that has been running for a number of years. It attracts more than 200 attendees, involving a huge range of sessions over multiple concurrent tracks, and remote participation. Organizing and running the event is a large and comprehensive undertaking, and it would require another book the size of The Art of Community to discuss all the details. I do, though, want to distill some of the key lessons learned from organizing UDS that you can apply to your own summits.
Structure and scheduling
The primary goal of a summit is to ensure people can discuss and debate topics to the point of producing a solution. For this you need to have a template for how many sessions will appear in your schedule. As an example you might have the following schedule.
- 8:30 a.m. Doors Open
- 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Session
- 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Session
- 11:00 a.m. – 12.00 p.m. Session
- 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. LUNCH
- 1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Session
- 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. Session
- 3:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. Break
- 3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. Session
- 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. Session
- 5:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. Closing/Wrap-Up
This schedule is productive but not too taxing on your visitors. It provides six session blocks with breaks for lunch and other rest, ensuring that your attendees don’t go for longer than two hours without a break, which is always recommended. If you find that you are going to require more than six sessions on one day, you may want to consider multiple tracks—sessions running at the same time. As an example, at the last Ubuntu Developer Summit there were seven concurrent tracks. Of course, there is an obvious downside to this approach: people can’t be in two (or seven!) places at the same time. With this in mind, you need to ensure the tracks are distinct and will attract different interests.
When having multiple tracks, you should account for a lot of time spent moving around.
Inside a session
For each session, ensure that the room is set up to encourage discussion. Chairs should be in circles or around tables, not facing front, which implies only the session leader matters.
Each session should have two people serving specific roles:
The leader is responsible for ensuring that the session is kept on-topic. Sessions can easily get sidetracked, so the leader must be prepared to bring discussion back. The leader should also ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak and that the session drives to a conclusion.
Every session should result in a set of actions to implement the work that was discussed in the session.
In the interests of referencing the session as well as transparency and openness for people who can’t attend the summit, a person should take notes about what was discussed and what the concluded actions were. Some sessions find it useful to put notes up on a bulletin board or easel. In any case, the session leader should not be the note taker; each role requires full concentration and a different kind of thinking.
Always be conscious of community members who can’t attend sessions. Your notes should help them feel a part of the session, but you may also want to consider options for remote participation. This could be as simple as a conference phone that people dial into or as complex as a video link. Twitter and/or identi.ca could be great options for this. Physical attendees could post messages of what is being discussed, and online attendees can then read and respond.
I have been involved with a variety of methods of remote participation. A conference phone to dial into is always a useful option: it is low maintenance and requires little conscious thought. A video link is more complex and more intrusive in the session because it relies on members of the session to operate the camera so that it points at the person who is speaking. Another possible option is an audio feed that streams onto the Internet. People can then respond to topics via an online chat service such as IRC, or even a microblogging service such as Twitter or identi.ca. You should evaluate your options and see what is doable with the resources and time that you have available.
Summits are typically small to mid-size events and often include multiple concurrent tracks that will need rooms. You may also want to provide a morning plenary presentation for all the guests, which will require a larger room. Bear in mind that the summit is intended to be a working session, and you may therefore need facilities such as Internet access, plenty of power outlets, and tables and chairs.
There are no special accommodation requirements for summits.
Summits are generally entirely discussion-led, but you may need to supply an Internet connection, data projectors, whiteboards, writing pads, and pens and pencils.
The length of the summit should reflect how long you can reasonably expect people to be together. Do remember that people will need to book time off work to be there, and some may be away from their families and children. I recommend that a summit range from three to five days. I would not recommend a summit that lasts longer than a week.
To the best of your ability, summits should be free. You should seek to cover your costs with sponsorship if your organization can’t cover the funds itself.
You will want to get a firm idea of who is coming, but also make the summit open so anyone is welcome to attend. As such, it is recommended that you have an attendee list but also publicize the open nature of the event.
Many smaller summits provide either a buffet lunch or defer lunch to nearby restaurants. You should have plenty of water and cups available, and preferably some sodas or coffee. Some caffeinated beverages are particularly important if you have a long summit: people will rely on them to wake up in the mornings.
As always, check into the requirements for the summit.
CASE STUDY: GOOGLE SUMMER OF CODE MENTOR SUMMIT
For some time Google has been running a program called Google Summer of Code, which provides funding for open source projects to develop new code, features, and initiatives. The program has been overwhelmingly successful. Hundreds of projects have benefited, and millions of dollars have left Google’s ample wallet as part of the program.
Each year Google invites two individuals from each successful project involved in Google Summer of Code to their annual Mentor Summit at Google HQ. Leslie Hawthorn of Google reports:
"I’m particularly proud of the feedback we’ve received on the Summits, our attendees repeatedly telling us that the connections they make that weekend lead to collaborative development between projects. It’s also an excellent opportunity for these seasoned Open Sourcerers to share best practices and not just around participating in Google Summer of Code; some of the most important knowledge-sharing that takes place at the Summits is when contributors finally get to meet face-to-face; exchange ideas; and form the social ties that cause patches to be reviewed and merged more quickly, requests for support answered rapidly, etc. The typical view of FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) development is that everything takes place online, but that’s only a part of the interactions that fuel Open Source; without these in-person meetings, establishing a reputation and securing the trust of one’s fellow project members certainly occurs, but much more slowly. Bringing together these experts from each project helps everyone to build rapport rapidly, greasing the wheels of online activity through social bonds."
"We primarily organize the Summits by using our mailing lists and a wiki. Each participant is encouraged to propose sessions in advance of the unconference, with all suggestions collected on the wiki; the mailing list is primarily a vehicle for reminding folks to update our shared online resource. Once attendees arrive, we ask them to write out their ideas for session topics on large pieces of paper, which are then posted for all to review. Each attendee is given sticker dots so that she can +1 sessions, meaning adding a dot to the topic’s poster signifies interest in attending a particular discussion. This system allows us to easily determine which sessions require the largest amount of space for participants, which is particularly handy when managing logistics for an unconference, as there’s no set agenda in advance. The posters also give us all the opportunity to discern which ideas are most compelling—and which challenges are most daunting—within our community. By structuring the meeting as truly participant-driven, our attendees are guaranteed to get precisely what they need from their participation provided they put energy into the wider discussion."
"During sessions, we encourage everyone to take notes on the conference wiki to most widely share what they’ve learned. As is typical during any conference, there are many more sessions that attendees would like to go to than they actually are able to, so these notes allow folks to glean something from the discussions that took place and to know whom to follow up with later for additional exploration or collaboration. The good folks at Oregon State University’s Open Source Lab host this community wiki for us, which is globally readable so that everyone has the benefit of our collective experience. Several community members have volunteered to administer the wiki and are actively (re)organizing the content so it’s most useful to would-be Google Summer of Code participants and anyone else looking to run a similar outreach program. See http://gsoc-wiki.osuosl.org/index.php/Main_Page."
Organizing an Unconference
Unconferences are a relatively new addition to the menagerie of commonly organized physical event types. In its goals, an unconference appears to be the same as a normal conference: a group of people gather in a venue to watch a series of talks and discussions. There is, though, one key difference: an unconference has its schedule created on the day of the event in an entirely free-form way. One such example of an unconference is the Community Leadership Summit, an event which I organize each year to bring community leaders, managers and organizers together. You can find more details about the event at http://www.communityleadershipsummit.com.
The history of unconferences traces back to O’Reilly’s invitation-only geek event, FooCamp (“Friends of O’Reilly” camp). The real success and growth of unconferences has been exhibited by the BarCamp spin-off events. BarCamp was originally a joke between Chris Messina and a couple of friends regarding some somewhat disgruntled people who had not been invited to O’Reilly’s FooCamp. Curious as to why these people were complaining, Chris and friends decided to run their own equivalent event, coining it BarCamp, as a nod to the (ironic in this case) foobar references in O’Reilly books. Chris notes how the event came about:
"We just thought it’d be fun to get a bunch of friends together and have an emergent (or "open space") event to offset FooCamp. The crazy thing is that we planned the whole thing in only six days. I was on Instant Messenger and email and calling people trying to get a venue: originally thinking of doing real camping in the mountains! When nothing panned out, Ross Mayfield from SocialText saw Andy Smith’s call for a space, realized that we were just down the street and offered up his new space down the road. Once we had a venue, everything fell into place."
Since such humble beginnings, there have been over 500 BarCamps to date in all the major inhabited continents. There have also been less-nerdy spin-off events, with one such example being WineCamp, a derivative of BarCamp in which a mix of nonprofits and technology fans camp out at a vineyard with no water or power. Chris noted that not having Internet access and power was actually a boon:
"On the second day of the camp, we went to a winery where we had wifi and power and worked on producing all the ideas we’d brainstormed offline the previous day. It was seriously productive and hugely interdisciplinary. It’s events like that that blur boundaries and encourage diversity that I think are the most rewarding to me."
Unconferences are an excellent way to host discussions that everyone has the opportunity to drive. They are by definition intrinsically open events. By allowing your guests to set the schedule on the same day, you are opening up the event to all manner of topics, even if attendees prepare a session before they arrive and volunteer it.
From my experience with unconferences, the free-form scheduling always uncovers unusual and intriguing topics. There will be topics proposed that you or a wider scheduling body would have never thought of, and this can make for some really interesting and intriguing discussion.
Fortunately, unconferences are devilishly simply to organize. In addition to the obvious resources, such as a venue and attendees, the primary consideration that you need to account for is a place where people can add their sessions to the agenda. Most unconferences feature a large whiteboard (or two whiteboards side-by-side) on which you write the conference grid. This is a box that shows the rooms along the top and the times down the side. This will result in a number of session slots in which people can write in their sessions. The whiteboard should be in a central location that’s easy for people to check regularly.
Normally with an unconference there’ll be 100 or so attendees and quite a lot of talk tracks (say, 7), so each talk is expected to attract only 10 or 20 people; this means you need lots of small rooms, not one big one, and it means that a talk is less intimidating for a speaker because talks normally end up being discussions anyway when there are only 6 of you.
Another consideration is to provide a wiki and other resources to wrap around the event. Even Chris Messina, one of the originators of this style of event, likes to keep things simple:
"[For BarCamp] we really relied on the wiki, the mailing list, blog posts and photos posted to Flickr. Early days, I’d say that made up 98% of the documentation. There was also word of mouth of course—individuals became spreading vectors in and of their own right. The rules themselves were also fairly viral—I mean, we basically stated, along the lines of Fight Club, "If this is your first time at BarCamp, you must present!" We weren’t draconian about it, but that was an important aspect of the event: no spectators."
Given the slightly unusual format of an unconference, it is recommended that you attend a few of these events before you organize your own.
Although many unconferences are called camps, a campsite is not typically required as a venue. Provide a number of breakout rooms to have the different sessions in. These rooms will need to have tables and chairs.
Again, camping facilities are not typically required. If you do want to have a camp, ensure you have an area in which your attendees can pitch tents. Also ensure there are toilet and washroom facilities. Some unconferences that take place in offices allow people to sleep on the office floor. If you do this, ensure you remind people to bring sleeping bags.
The main equipment that you will need are a large whiteboard and dry markers that your attendees can use to contribute their sessions to the schedule.
Unconferences are typically no longer than one or two days.
Costs vary between these events.
Unconferences vary: some are open events with open attendance, and some are closed, invitation-only events.
Many unconferences provide either a buffet lunch or defer lunch to nearby restaurants. You should have plenty of water and cups available, and preferably some sodas or coffee. Some caffeinated beverages are particularly important if you have a long unconference: people will rely on them to wake up in the mornings.
As always, check into the insurance requirements for the venue.