Part 6. Final Lessons Learned

Use email effectively — We could’ve used email better. Reaching out to past attendees should’ve happened earlier on. We could’ve reached out to attendees earlier as well, and enlisted their help in advertising the event. Email user groups. Email businesses. Create things that can be easily shared by user group organizers.

Delegate — Don’t try to do everything on your own.

Engage local media — Local advertising and promotion didn’t happen soon enough. I should’ve delegated the responsibility to others to execute. I created posters too late in the process that weren’t used at all. Reach out to local media. Reach out to user groups. Give free tickets to user groups in exchange for promoting the event to their members. Do whatever you can

Don’t wait too long — Waiting on sponsors will delay promotional efforts. Getting sponsors is hard work, especially if your event is unknown to your local community. I went back and forth with several companies about sponsorship and had a few of them ultimately decide not to sponsor. I waited on printing posters because I had hope to include their logo on it. If you don’t get a commitment from someone, don’t let that delay your promotional efforts. Their delay will impact the amount of exposure they ultimately receive from supporting the event.

Hotels — Work with a local hotel close to your venue to get a discount for your speakers. Have them extend that rate to your out-of-town attendees. When budgeting for hotel rooms, don’t forget about taxes and additional fees when making your budget. In Augusta, this increased room costs by at least $25 per person per day. If the host hotel is $100+, don’t be afraid to suggest cheaper alternatives to out-of-town attendees if they’re looking to save some money.

Getting Sponsors — Reach out to as many local companies as possible, even if they’re not industry-related. Don’t be afraid to reach out to larger companies that you know and respect. The worst thing that’ll happen is they’ll say no. Some will say yes. And those that don’t may send employees to the event. Some might not be able to send money, but they might be able to provide services or goods in exchange for sponsorship. Not asking will create missed opportunities.

Schedule — I should have made the schedule publicly available somehow and been more clear with speakers upfront on when they’d be on-stage. Post something on your event’s site sooner rather than later. Your speaker’s will appreciate knowing their timeslot and it’ll help attendees plan their day in case they can’t be there for the full event.

Web Afternoon Augusta (WAAUG) wouldn’t have happened without the support of people like J Cornelius – who leads by example and encourages people to #SUGTW. It couldn’t have happened without great people like Grace Belangia and Keith Pickett who helped get things done leading up to the event. It couldn’t have happened without people like Eric, Jessica, Farhan, Moses, Nic, Matt & Adam, and countless others. It couldn’t have happened without friends like Gene Crawford and the UnmatchedStyle.com crew who took a leap of faith and sponsored the event before we had anything in place.

I’m a better person having put WAAUG together, and I’m already thinking about what to do next. What’ll it be and when will it happen? We’ll just have to see what 2014 holds.

Want to plan your own Web Afternoon? Check out the Web Afternoon Planning Guide.

Part 5. Conference Day

Nothing will prepare you for the day of the event, especially if you’ve only organized local meetups. Having a team you can depend on is essential for your event to be successful. You’ll need a game plan. You’ll also need to accept that you won’t think of everything. You will make mistakes. Roll with it. React when necessary. Avoid freaking out. Chances are the audience won’t even realize a mistake has occurred.

  • Speaker Meals — Because some of our speakers arrived later on Friday evening, we decided to have a Speaker’s Brunch in lieu of a Speaker’s Dinner. I wouldn’t recommend doing it again. Mornings are sacred for people. If we did have a breakfast thing again, I’d make it unofficial and probably just have it at the hotel. We ended up paying for 15 meals that weren’t eaten because we guaranteed a party size. (Related: Don’t guarantee a party size. And avoid buffets unless you are absolutely certain of your party size.)
  • After Party — If you plan on having food, be very deliberate in letting everyone know it’ll be there. We had a 45-minute gap between the end of our event and the after party and didn’t communicate that there would be food available. The money we spent on food could have been saved or paid for an extra drink for attendees.
  • Volunteers — It’s probably better to have too many versus not enough volunteers. Make sure you have plenty of people on-hand to help get things setup, run errands, etc. Being short-handed will put extra pressure on you and your co-organizers.
  • Signage — Create signs you can reuse or repurpose. This will help keep costs down if you decide to do this again.
  • Breaks — A 15-minute break every two hours will give attendees time to stretch their legs and mingle. Light snacks and canned drinks are good. And have plenty of water available. (Run out mid-event and you may find yourself making a snack run.)
  • Lunch — You can save money by blocking out 1-1.5 hours for lunch and encouraging attendees to explore nearby eateries.
  • Backstage Coordination — Doc Waller is an absolute pro and kept things in order both on and off-stage. Make sure you have someone you can rely on to make sure speakers are on stage when they need to be and that all of their technical needs are addressed well before they have to get in front of everyone.

 

Part 4. Pricing Your Event

Do you charge for your event or do you make it free? Calculate any hard costs you have: Travel, Accommodations, Venue, Catering, etc. to determine the approximate cost of your event.

Sample Event Budget
Travel $1500
Accommodations $2500
Venue $2500
Catering $1000
Other Expenses* $1000
Total $8500

* Other Expenses might include paying a photographer, emcee, badges, etc.

Tickets

Tickets are not going to cover all of your expenses.

Hard Costs/Tickets = ~Ticket Price

If you have $8500 in estimated Hard Costs, you’ll need to sell at least 150 Tickets at $57 each to generate enough to cover your base costs. Factor in at least 10% extra, just in case. That’d make your target ticket price around $62.50.

Selling 150 tickets isn’t easy for a first-time event. And getting 150 people to spend $62.50 a ticket is a challenge, too. So here’s an approach worth considering: Sell tickets in waves.

  • Tickets 001-050 @ $35 x 50 = $1750
  • Tickets 051-100 @ $60 each x 50 = $3000
  • Tickets 101-150 @ $75 each x 50 = $3750
  • Total Ticket Revenue: $8500

Selling the first wave at a loss helps build interest in your event. Those people will (hopefully) help attract more people to your event. The second and third waves help nudge procrastinators. If people know that the ticket price will increase by $X on a certain day, it’ll help them to commit to a ticket earlier.

Lesson 10 — If you set your prices too high, it will keep people away. If you don’t want to charge $62.50 per ticket, look at where you can cut costs to drive prices down.

  • Give group discounts to businesses that might send a group. Be creative with relevant user groups. (They can help promote discount codes that won’t otherwise be promoted by official channels, and will encourage greater local participation.)
  • Give tickets (or discounts) to key influencers.
  • Encourage speakers to promote the event as much as they’re willing.
  • Sponsors will see a greater impact if they promote the event to their customers/followers as well.
  • Offer military or student discounts.

If the idea of charging for tickets makes you cringe, you’re either going to need to find – potentially lots of – sponsors or trim your expenses down to the bear minimum.

Part 3. Securing a Venue & Setting a Date

While you’re trying to nail down who to have speak, you’ll need to nail down when and where to have your event. (When you have your event will impact speaker availability.)

Lesson 8 — Before you decide on where (and when) to hold your event: Research, research, research. The last thing you want to do is plan your event while something bigger or more established is going on.

  • Contact local user groups to see if they’re planning anything or know of anything happening in your area.
  • Check out Lanyrd & Plancast to see what’s going on nearby.
  • You’ll also want to check local event calendars to see if anything else is going on near your event. Nearby events could impact parking, getting to your venue, etc.

Lesson 9 — Venues may end up costing you more than anticipated. Get as much information up front as possible.

Shop around for venues. Depending on the type of event you’re having, you might be able to find a space for free (or trade). Rentable event space isn’t cheap. Reach out to local universities, libraries, businesses and see if any of them have space you could use first. If you have to pay for a venue, know that costs can and will fluctuate. Sound, lighting, labor: the costs quickly pile up.

  • Make sure they’re available on the day you want to hold your event.
  • Review contracts, rules and regulations closely.
  • Don’t sign or agree to anything without having others involved in your event review them first.
  • Don’t assume the cost you’re given is fixed unless it is explicitly indicated as such.
  • If you’re a first-timer, the venue may require up-front payment to secure your reservation.

Other questions you might want to ask a potential venue:

  • Are they willing to waive whole or part of rental fee in exchange for sponsorship? (Don’t be afraid to ask. They might say yes.)
  • Is parking readily available? Is it free?
  • Is wi-fi available? Can they handle X number of attendees?
  • When can you begin setting up?
  • Have they ever hosted an event like yours before? (Get what details you can. You might be able to track down that organizer and get their opinions on the venue.
  • Do they have an A/V system you can hook into? (If not, you may need to rent a screen, projector, sound system, etc.)
  • Do you have to use the venue for catering/concessions? (Some may have stipulations for a concession guarantee or charge a fee if you bring in outside goods. Some may outright prohibit outside food.)
  • Is event insurance required? Even if it’s not, I’d highly recommend looking into getting a policy. I used EventHelper.com and coverage for our event ran less that $130. If something were to happen to the venue you’re using, or an attendee was hurt, you could be held personally liable. That’s a bad thing. Trust me.

Part 2: Really Getting Started

Without _____, you don’t have an event.

It’s damn near impossible to market a first year event without a lineup. And you can’t have an event without a venue. And you can’t get a venue without having a date. And getting speakers to commit relies heavily on when your event will happen. (!) This’ll post focuses primarily on speakers.

Do you want to offer a curated lineup or put out a Call for Speakers and select from people who apply to speak at your event? With a curated lineup, you have more control over who appears in your event, but you can be limited by who you know. With a Call for Speakers, you may attract speakers you haven’t heard before. (Maybe a hybrid approach is best?)

Before I had an event, I understood that we needed to have a good core lineup in order to have an event people would pay to attend. Established, well-known speakers help get asses in seats. I reached out to a number of friends to see if they’d be available to speak, and fortunately, they were able to.

Finding local speakers was challenging. I’m not as plugged in as I’d like to be. This is where I leaned on others to help identify people that would be a good fit. (You may want to reach out to local user groups to see if they can suggest great speakers in the area.)

Lesson 6 — Don’t be afraid to ask someone to speak: they might say yes.

If there’s someone you’d really like to have speak at your event, just ask them. They very well might have availability for your event.

Lesson 7 — Don’t get discouraged if someone isn’t available.

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t hear back from someone you’d love to have speak. Be persistent about following up, but don’t be obnoxious. And if they can’t work it into their schedule, thank them for their time and ask them to consider speaking in the future. Even though you’re only planning this event, it hopefully won’t be your last.

Travel & Accommodations

  • Be prepared to cover travel and/or accommodations for your out-of-town speakers. (These costs will impact what you need to charge for your event. Have these discussions as early on as possible. Don’t waste anyone’s time if you can’t afford to have them or if they have unrealistic expectations.)
  • Plan early. If you’re going to make travel arrangements for speakers, don’t wait until the last moment. (This was an area where I really fell down.) The longer you wait, the more likely travel expenses will increase.
  • If applicable, ask them if their company could cover any of their expenses in exchange for sponsorship.
  • If they live close enough, ask them to drive.
  • Hotels are expensive in most downtown areas. Ask to speak with someone on staff and see if they offer group discounts.

Communicate. Often.

Communicate with your speakers often. Leading up to the event, they need to feel comfortable you’ve got your shit together. Let them know if things change. Let them know what your plans are. Let them know when they need to arrive, where they need to be. Don’t let there be any guesswork on the day of your event.

Don’t make it difficult for them to get in touch with you or whoever your point of contact is.

Part 1: Thoughts from a first-time conference organizer

This is the first part of many. I started writing this back in May, right after Web Afternoon Augusta. I’ve been to a number of conferences as an attendee, volunteer/staff and once as a co-organizer of sorts… but this was the first time I really tried to pull a conference together as a lead organizer. (It’s not exhaustive, by any means, but it captures most of what I learned.)

Before I get into the what it took to pull together a conference, I think it’s important to discuss what led me towards thinking it was a good idea to begin with. Prior to Twitter, the web was a smaller, more fragmented place. You learned about things through personal sites and forums. And it was through those sites I first learned about events like An Event Apart and Webmaster Jam Session.

If I hadn’t attended An Event Apart Atlanta in 2006, I wouldn’t have learned about Webmaster Jam Session later that year. I wouldn’t have attended WJS in 2007 and I wouldn’t have met J Cornelius. If I hadn’t met J, I probably wouldn’t have attended any AWDG or any of the conferences I have since then. And I certainly would’ve never entertained the notion of trying to organize something in my own backyard. As I sit here thinking about all of the conferences I’ve been to in the past decade, I’m able to clearly see how they got me to where I am today.

It was because of these events that I met other people in the region and started attending?—?and later got involved in?—?events like ConvergeSC, ConvergeSE, AWDG, WordCamp Atlanta and Web Afternoon.

Lesson 1: Conferences taught me the value of community and the value of learning directly from peers.

It was because of these events and the people I met there that I was inspired to start RefreshAugusta in 2008. I worked daily alongside a very capable group of people, but we stayed to ourselves. I knew there was a tremendous community online, and I was certain there were others in Augusta looking to branch out as well. We held meetings every month from mid-2008 through 2010. We started meeting again last summer and have met almost every month since then.

After Web Afternoon Charlotte in 2012, I approachedJ Cornelius about bringing the event to Augusta. I knew he was interested in seeing the event grow beyond Atlanta, and seeing the Charlotte event succeed was the ammunition I needed to try to make it happen in Augusta. By the end of October 2012, I was emailing key friends about bringing Web Afternoon here and they all loved the idea. I knew I had to make it happen.

Lesson 2: If you care about your community enough, you’ll create opportunities to help it grow.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

If you’re thinking of starting your own conference, awesome! Just know this: Rome wasn’t built in a day; your conference won’t be either. Give yourself plenty of time to get things ready. Depending on your event, and the people organizing it, you can probably pull things together in a short amount of time, but it’ll add way more stress than most can (or want to) handle.

Lesson 3: Six to eight months of lead time should give you more than enough time to get things ready.

Planning for Web Afternoon Augusta started in October 2012. The event didn’t happen until May 2013. The first few months involved contacting speakers, finding a venue, and reaching out to potential sponsors. As the event drew closer, it involved more time and more effort to pull things together.

Strangers Walk Alone

It takes a special type of person to pull off an event on their own. Maybe you’re that person. I wasn’t, even though I had somehow convinced myself early on I was.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to lean on others for advice or assistance.

If, at any point, you start feeling completely overwhelmed by your event, you need to have a good support system you can rely on. At the very least, you’re going to need someone to handle administrative tasks, sponsorships, marketing,finances and volunteer coordination. Do you really want to be the one wearing all of those hats?

Get others involved that share your passion for bringing this event to fruition. If they don’t care about what you’re trying to put together, do you think they’re going to care when you really need their help the most? Passionate people give a shit.

Conferences Cost Money

Conferences cost money, you need to be prepared to handle dealing with it. Consider creating a separate bank account to handle money that comes in. (At first glance, PayPal might seem convenient, but I’ve heard more than a few horror stories about frozen accounts from other organizers.) Running it through personal accounts is certainly easier, but it could create tax implications for you or whoever handles the money.

Lesson 5: Before you collect a dime, have a plan for how you’ll handle it.

Keep track of all income and expenses. Keeping an accurate accounting of everything that’s come in and gone out is one of the metrics you should use post-event to measure whether another event is viable or not.

While it’s not required, having a line of credit will help expedite your ability to make things happen. Having to wait on ticket sales or sponsorship money will delay your ability to pay for things like your venue, food & drinks, etc.