YAPC::Europe 2010 - Thoughts Pt 3/3 - Organising A YAPC
When considering whether to host a YAPC, potential organisers often have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. While it can be very rewarding, and a valuable experience, it is hard work. There are plenty of things to go wrong, and keeping on top of them can be quite daunting. However, when you first consider bidding you usually look to what's gone before, and over the past 10 years YAPC events have come on leaps and bounds. This year, YAPC::Europe in Pisa, Italy was no exception.
As mentioned in the previous post, the only real pitfall that Pisa organisers suffered was lack of promotion. The actual event pretty much ran smoothly. There were glitches with the WiFi network, but that seems to happen every year. This year once again, it seems network companies just don't believe us when we tell them that potentially 300+ devices will be wanting to connect all at once to the network. So although you could connect, the network was rather slow at times. Hopefully, future organisers can point to past experiences and impress on service providers that when we say 300+ devices we mean it! It's not just YAPC::Europe, as YAPC::NA has suffered too. Thankfully these problems didn't detract from a great conference.
For many attendees, the primary motivation for attending YAPC are still the talks. You get to see a wide range of subjects, hopefully covering areas of interest that suit all the attendees. However, this is extremely hard. During a few discussions during the event, I commented on the feedback from the YAPC::NA Conference Survey, which featured several comments from attendees, who felt that a beginner track would have been very useful. In retrospect, it might have been even better to have an Introduction To Perl tutorial before the conference, with the beginner track set aside for a variety of introductory topics covering aspects of the language, recommended modules, best practices or useful projects. The tutorial could then cover a lot of ground covering the basics, that would then be enough for beginners to not lose their way in the subject matter of some of the regular talks. Several people have commented that a beginner track, certainly for the first day, would be extremely useful. There have been several suggested approaches to this, but ultimately they are going to be a set of talks that are roughly the same each year.
At times speakers hear complaints that they are repeating talks, but with so many people attending for the first time every year, attendees often welcome having a chance to hear them. So if you do have an introductory talk that you think would benefit from a repeat performance, take in the comments from the talk evaluations and see what you can improve on, and submit it again the following year. I see some speakers benefiting from this to improve their speaking talents and gain more confidence in themselves.
The scheduling this year, from my perspective, was great. I only had 1 minor clash, and 1 clash where I would have liked to have seen all 4 talks. It's unlikely you'll ever get away with not having any clashes, but if you can gauge the subject matter and level of talks well, and don't put potentially overlapping talks together, you can reduce many such conflicts. This year the list of talks was online for a while before a schedule was published. This allowed those that were already registered a chance to highlight talks they were interested in. I don't know if this helped to guide the schedule, but it did seem a good opportunity to see exactly what talks were going to be popular. Having said, you can only rely on it for a short time, as getting the schedule published is really important both for raising the profile of the conference, and to persuade attendees to come to the event. Some conferences publish the schedule several months in advance, which can be hard to do, but does give potential attendees a chance to show their bosses why they should attend. Saying there might be some good and relevant talks rarely works.
This year the organisers made one of the best decisions ever regarding the schedule, and one that got appreciative comments from just about everyone. The talks started at 10am. In the past we have typically started around 9am, with some YAPCs starting as early as 8am. That early in the morning is a killer on the opening speaker. By starting at 10am, pretty much everyone was there every morning ready for talks. It made for a much more awake and attentive audience.
One aspect of the schedule that is down to the attendees to organise are the BOFs. This year, although several were suggested, I didn't see whether any of them happened. The one that looked likely, I would have attended had I been aware of it. To help these there needed to have been a BOF board by the registration table, which attendees can write their own schedule for. Having everything online is not very suitable for those who don't have laptops or cannot get internet connectivity. Plus a BOF Board helps to promote the BOFs to those who haven't heard of them before. Sometimes you just have to fall back to low-tech ;)
Another potential hazard for organisers is not considering the breaks and lunches. If your venue is in the middle of a city, town or very close to a variety of eating establishments, you can pretty much let your attendees fend for themselves during lunch. However, if they need to search for more than 15 minutes, then that can leave very little time for eating before they have to return to the venue. Due to the venue being quite a walk away from any potential eating establishment, it was rather important that they feed the attendees during lunch. As such they laid on a spread that was fantastic. It certainly avoided any unnecessary wandering into town trying to find something, and also meant we all had an hour for lunch where we could mingle and chat. And pretty much that's exactly what we all did. The breaks and lunches were always full of discussion. It gave us a chance to carry on points from talks, catch up with friends and introduce yourself to new people. If nothing else, this year's YAPC::Europe was extremely social.
As the saying goes, keep your attendees well fed, and you'll have a happy audience. That also means considering additional options, and it was good to see that lunch included a selection of vegetarian options too, as more and more attendees these days are vegetarian or vegan. For the breaks (and lunch if appropriate), try and include water, soft drinks, coffee and tea. Note that last one, tea. While much of Europe might prefer coffee, I can guarantee you'll get complaints if you don't provide at least English Breakfast Tea (we have a wider choice in the UK, but in the rest of the world, it always seems to be labelled as that). In Copenhagen they ran out every break time due to the caterers not anticipating the number of tea drinkers. Thankfully, for Pisa the drinks were very well stocked. A decent cup of tea goes a long way to keeping this attendee happy anyway ;)
The venue choice is always a difficult part of organising an event like YAPC, and largely depends on numbers. Over the last few years, several first choices have had to be abandoned because something hasn't worked out. The venue is never going to be perfect, but as long as there is plenty of room and everyone can get somewhere to sit then you've done well. You always need one room to hold everyone, but If you have some smaller rooms for the other tracks, try and avoid scheduling popular speakers or talks in them. Thankfully it doesn't happen often, and sometimes it can't be foreseen. This year Allison Randal did experience a bit of overcrowding in one of her talks, but no-one seemed to mind sitting on the floor or standing to hear.
The auction is always another trouble spot, and in recent years has rarely been necessary, as YAPCs usually make a profit these days. However, raising funds for the next years organisers, TPF or YEF is never a bad thing, as it all ends up helping to fund and promote Perl events. This year the Pisa organisers tried to be a bit different, and had it have worked as intended, then I think it would have gone down well. This year we had 3 tag teams trying to auction off 4 items each. Had it been kept to that, and the time limit of 5 minutes that had been suggested been rigorously imposed, then the auction would have been short and a lot of fun too. Unfortunately the time limits got abandoned, and some of the items led to a few bemused looks on the faces of the audience. If you've never been to a YAPC, then the auction can be a bit intimidating. None of us are as flush as we once were, so can't always afford to bump up the prices to levels we once saw in years gone by. Having said that, I do think we saw the highest price paid for a T-shirt, with Larry winning the the PIMC shirt off Matt Trout's back, thanks to a lot of friends :)
One point that Dave Rolsky made in his observations of the event, was regarding the price of attendance. We've now been running YAPCs for over 10 years and the prices have largely stayed the same in that time. There has been resistance to price increases, but 99 qr/Dollars|Euros|Pounds)/ is *really* cheap compared to other similar events. I do think there needs to be some alternative options, particularly for students, low-waged (or unwaged) and businesses, but a small increase in the standard price would, as Dave highlights, generate a significant amount of revenue. One aspect of the pricing that we've rarely pitched in the right way, has been for businesses wanting to send attendees, whether singularly or en-masse. It was commented to José at YAPC::NA in 2008, by someone that said that they had to pay for themselves, as their boss considered YAPC too cheap and therefore not a real conference. Having a business package that includes 1 or 2 tutorials in addition to the regular conference is one way to give value for money, but still charge a higher price. Lisbon tried this for 2009 and Riga are looking to use it for 2011. I hope it works, as it has the potential to encourage businesses to regard YAPCs as a credible training event for their employees.
Aside from the tower and the Cathedral there wasn't much to see in the town, which is probably a good thing, as it meant the town wasn't overly touristy or expensive. There were lots of choices for food in the evening, although mostly we all headed for the Piazza where we all met for the pre-conference meet-up. If you'd like your attendees to get a good flavour of your city, then it's worth investing time to point out evening social venues where attendees can meet-up. If you don't then the likelihood is they'll all head for the same place every night, as it's the only place they know how to get to.
If you have strong feelings (or even mild ones) about the conference, it would be great if you could take the time enter them into the Conference Survey. All the responses help the organisers of the future get a good idea of what attendees thought about the conference. In addition, please try and complete the talk evaluations, as I know the speakers do appreciate it. I spoke to a few speakers in Pisa who were very pleased to get the feedback, even if it wasn't always complimentary. Following some discussions, next year the talk evaluations will be simplified a little, so they will hopefully be quicker to complete.
As some may be aware I started writing a book last year, about how to organise a YAPC. After some feedback I had intended to make a second draft. Due to other commitments that hasn't happened as yet. Following further feedback from the YAPC::NA organisers and discussions with organisers and attendees of YAPC::Europe, as well as all the feedback from the surveys, I plan to pool those, together with the original feedback, and work on the next draft over the next month. Seeing the success of the git way, I'll be making the text available on Github, so any one can supply patches. My eventual aim is then to publish an ebook, together with a print on demand version, that can be used by organisers of YAPCs and workshops to help them plan and improve Perl events for the future. If you're interested in such a book, keep an eye out for updates in the near future.
Overall I enjoyed YAPC::Europe this year, and came away with several ideas from talks and discussions in the hallway track. My thanks to the Pisa organisers, you did a grand job. Now have a well earned rest. Next year Riga will be our hosts. With Andrew and his crew now having so many workshops and YAPC::Russians behind them, next year should be every bit as successful as this year. Good luck guys.
A final thought from YAPC::Europe in Pisa this year. Josette Garcia noted that 4 people who attended the very first YAPC::Europe were in Pisa. I was one of them, and I think Dave Cross, Nick Clark and Léon Brocard were the others. Of the 4 of us I think Léon and myself are the only ones to have attended every single YAPC::Europe. I wonder who'll break first :)
Cross-posted from Building the Perfect Beast