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Creating a Micro Conference

The TEDxVolcano

The TED conference franchise has been extended to TEDxVolcano [1], this is a small conference that features people who are stranded by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. As usual TED is an inspiration to us all, so there is obvious potential for other conferences to be organised in similar situations – there’s no reason why a free software conference can’t be organised in Europe right now!

What You Need to run a Conference

If a conference will have limited attendance (EG due to a volcano preventing anyone from flying to the area) then filming everything is very important. I’ve seen adverts for digital cameras that support “Full HD” resolution (1920*1080) for as little as $AU400. $AU600 will get you a “digital camcorder” that does Full HD which will offer some benefits for recording long movies (such as the ability to store the video on an external hard drive). If I was stuck in a foreign hotel with not much to do then I would be prepared to buy a digital camera or camcorder for the purpose of running such a conference (my current digital camera is 5.1MP and only has 3* optical zoom, it’s a nice camera but I could do with something better. A tripod can cost up to $100, but I recently bought myself a 15cm tall tripod for $10 – that would do at a pinch. Once you have high quality video you can easily upload it to something like Blip.TV. Of course you get a better result if you do some post-production work to merge images of the slides for the lecture into the video, but that is a lot of work and probably requires a camera that outputs uncompressed video for best results.

The next issue is getting a venue. Different hotels cater for different parts of the market, some cater to tourists, some to business travel, some to conferences. If you want a venue at short notice you may be able to get a good deal if you find a hotel that is adversely affected, for example I’m sure that there are some quite empty conference hotels in Europe right now – but the tourist hotels are probably reasonably busy (why not do some tourism if you are stuck). I expect that hotels really don’t want to have empty conference rooms and are prepared to offer good deals for bookings at short notice. Of course you would want to try to ensure that hotel rooms aren’t too expensive in that hotel as some delegates will want to stay in the hotel which hosts the conference.

The minimal staffing for a micro conference is probably two people, one for taking payment, directing people, etc, and the other to film the lectures and moderate panel discussions. Rumor has it that attending without paying is a problem at conferences, for conferences that are planned in advance corporations will try and send multiple employees on the one ticket and have them share a name-tag – one issue with this is that there is a fixed quantity of food supplied and if extra people appear then everyone who paid gets less, another is that people who pay really hate to see freeloaders. The best reference I’ve found for people not paying at conferences is Jon Oxer’s description of how Leslie Cachia of Letac Drafting Services brazenly stole a book from him [2].

Name-tags are needed for any meeting with more than about 15 people. I’m not sure how to get proper name-tags (ones that pin on to clothing and have printed names – maybe the bigger hotels can add this to the conference package). But a roll of sticky labels from an office supply store is pretty cheap.

Costs in Wellington

Along with a few other people I considered running a small security conference immediately before or after LCA 2010, that ended up not happening but I will consider doing it in future. When considering that the general plan was to get a hotel to provide a meeting room for 10-30 people (we had no real idea of the demand).

When investigating the possibilities for running a conference in Wellington I discovered that the hotel fees for a conference room can either be based on paying a fixed fee for the room plus additional expenses for each item or you can pay a fixed rate per person. It seemed that there was the potential to save a small amount of money by paying the fixed fees and avoiding some payments for things like tea/coffee service. But the amount that could be saved would be small and it would incur extra effort in managing it – saving $5 per person is a good thing if you have 600 delegates, but if you have 30 then it’s probably a waste of time. So it seemed best to go for one of the packages, you tell the hotel what time you want the lunch and snack breaks and how you want the tables arranged and they just do everything. The cost for this seemed to be in the range of $nz35 to $nz55 per delegate per day. There is some flexibility in room arrangement, so a room that seats 12 people in the “board-room” layout (tables in a rectangle facing the center) would fit 25 in the “classroom” layout (tables all facing the front) or 50 in the “theater” layout (chairs facing the front with no tables). So the hotel could accommodate changes in the size at relatively short notice (whatever their notice period for buying the food).

The cost for a catered conference dinner seemed to be about $nz45 per diner. In many cases it would be possible to get a meal that is either cheaper, better, or both by going somewhere else, but that wastes time and effort. So that gave an overall conference cost of about $nz135 for a two day conference with a dinner at the end of the first day. Given that the cheapest budget rate from Wotif.com for a 3 star hotel in Wellington is currently $nz85 per night it seems that $nz135 for a two day conference including dinner is pretty cheap as the minimum accommodation cost would be $nz170. Also note that the hotels which I considered for hosting the conference had rates for their hotel rooms that were significantly greater than $nz85 per night.

The hotels all offer other services such as catered “cocktail parties”, these would be good things for any company that wants to sponsor the conference.

Different cities can have vastly different prices for hotels. But I expect that the way conference rooms are booked and managed is similar world-wide and the ratio of conference costs to hotel booking fees to also be similar. Most of the hotels that cater to conferences seem to be owned by multi-national corporations.

It would probably make sense to charge delegates an extra $10 or $15 above the cost of running the conference to cover unexpected expenses. Of course it’s difficult to balance wanting to charge a low rate to attract more people with wanting to avoid the risk of a financial loss.

Conclusion

The hard part is getting speakers. If you can get speakers and panel participants who can fill the time slots and have interesting things to say then all the other parts of organising a micro conference should be relatively easy.

When the cost is less than $150 per delegate then a syndicate of a few people can easily agree to split the loss if the number of delegates turns out to be smaller than expected, a potential loss of $2000 shared among a few people shouldn’t be a huge problem. Also if the conference is booked at short notice (EG because of a volcano) then the hotel shouldn’t require any deposit for anything other than the food which is specially ordered (IE not the tea, coffee, etc) – that limits the potential loss to something well under $100 per delegate who doesn’t attend.

Anyone who has enough dedication to a topic to consider running a conference should be prepared to risk a small financial loss. But based on my past observations of the generosity of conference delegates I’m sure that if at the conference closing the organiser said “unfortunately this conference cost more than the money you paid me, could you please put something in this hat on the way out” then the response would be quite positive.

Note that I am strictly considering non-profit conferences. If you want to make money by running a conference then most things are different.

2 comments to Creating a Micro Conference

  • It didn’t take much Googling for Leslie Cachia to ring my alarm bells. Yikes.

  • Jonathan Wakely

    There’s an “Open Space London – Volcano Edition” event happening tomorrow, see http://openvolcano10.eventbrite.com/

    It was set up by speakers who are stuck in the UK following last week’s ACCU conference. I think the nature of an Open Space meeting makes it much easier to set up at short notice