November 17, 2017

What we learned organizing conferences. A look inside Lambda World

What we learned organizing conferences. A look inside Lambda World

Lambda World is a Functional Programming conference hosted by 47 Degrees that just concluded its third year in Cadiz. In October, our events and community organizational team (myself, Maureen Elsberry, and Benjy Montoya) were overwhelmingly busy with conference preparation, but figured what’s one more thing added to our plates? In the spirit of openness, we decided to give a talk during the conference about the trials, tribulations, and successes when organizing a tech event.

You can follow the slides here, but I thought it might be easier to highlight each vital component with an article. This article in specific relates to our experience organizing Lambda World, but I think it’s information that’s adaptable for most tech conferences, and events in general.

First things first

Forbes states that one of the top 5 most stressful jobs in 2017 is to be an Event Coordinator.

This is no joke. We’ll be honest; organizing conferences can be complete and utter hell at points. You’ll find yourself awake at night stressing about how many tickets you have to sell, the sponsors you need to acquire, or the speakers you need to contact. But, it’s worth it. There is a non-evaluable currency that is earned that covers all the energy invested in this type of planning, and it’s the people.

The conference is about the people. Whether it’s getting to know new individuals, or gathering together with friends, who are slowly becoming family with each year that passes.

How does an event start?

There are three main ingredients needed for a basic conference recipe:

  1. Craft a target

Having a target demographic for your event is vital. Who will be interested in your event? How will you market this? Will your host city and logistical setup work for them? These are questions you have to ask yourself from the beginning.

For example, we choose to host our conferences during work days because we understand that our attendees are usually professionals sent by their companies. Based on this, and the fact that most people prefer working during the week, and spending the weekends with family and friends, it is the logical choice. On the other hand, if our main targets were students, having the conference on a Saturday would make more sense.

It’s also important to know your audience as it will affect which channels will be most effective for your marketing purposes.

2. Craft a team

A conference is a team effort. It’s not (and it cannot) be something that is focused on just one person. You need a heterogeneous and complementary team to work together in the same direction. And, it’s very important, that these people share a similar vision and ideology.

3. Craft an ideology and the history behind it

Every little detail of a conference is encapsulated into a bigger story. In our case, for Lambda World Cadiz, it’s a non-profit conference in a city that’s not very well connected and has the highest unemployment in Europe; but, it’s a special and beautiful place with many things that make its culture unique that we choose to incorporate into the event.

For example, the 2017 speakers welcome dinner was at a restaurant called Venta Vargas (the place where Camaron de la Isla began his singing career), and their welcome gift was a box of Chocolate Pancracio (a local brand from a friend of ours). Everything we create, and every outside company we use, is local. By doing so, we’re taking advantage of the great things from our city, as well as helping support the local economy.

Money is Money

Obviously, money is one of the most important things needed to plan a conference. Your budget will determine a large number of pieces that need to be established from the start.

There a few formulas that can help you figure out the cost (of course, this is a rough idea) of your project.

[ Expenses = Food + Venue + Speaker’s cost + A/V + Design stuff ]

Of course, this is not counting on hundreds of expenses but its your MVC (Minimum Viable Conference), because because they account for the largest costs of your conference.

Also, on the other hand, we can apply another related formula:

[ Ticket Price (MVC)= (Expenses — Sponsor’s budget) / Number of Attendees ]

Beware, this formula is not taking into account the hundreds/thousands/millions of hours you and your team are investing in planning here, this is only talking from a non-profit point of view (MVC).

The triangle 🔺

So, now that we have the primary ingredients on the table let’s talk about the actions we need to take.

There are three important segments of work in any conference.

Each segment has its own line of planning, logistical issues, timing, necessary actions, etc. It’s this structure that makes it important to deal with each one independently.

Let’s talk about {Sponsors}

  • Be mindful of company budget calendars

The majority of companies have budget calendars that typically start in December. It’s important to be aware of this and ask for sponsorships quickly, because if you’re too late, they may have allocated that money to another conference or purpose.

Side note: The worst times to contact companies are usually around August (or most summer months) through October.
  • Research conferences similar to yours.

The companies that sponsor conferences usually move in the same circles, so look at who is sponsoring what when you start building your list of companies you want to approach. I recommend attending similar events and talking directly with each sponsor company there personally if you can.

  • Only have one person running the sponsor’s communication. ☝️

This is something you will hear us repeat frequently. It’s essential that you divide the communication between team members because you will soon realize that there are hundreds of emails you will be sending and receiving.

  • Figure out what perks will be appealing

Everything you offer will depend on the type of conference you are organizing, but you have to keep something important in mind. If they think it’s worth it, companies will invest money in your event, so you need to make sure you take advantage of all the tools and things you can offer to make your conference more appealing.

  • Don’t forget post-event tasks

It’s a good idea to provide some analytical details and create a follow-up line of communication with each sponsor after the event. This is a detail we’ve forgotten in the past, and have learned is needed along the way. This way, they have viable information to present to their company to show how much reach the event had and why you’re worth sponsoring again.

Lets talk about {Speakers}

  • Do a bit of background research on each speaker before you hit send on that invite.

When you bring someone onto your stage, you’re giving the speaker a 📢 to share their technical knowledge, but also, their thoughts and ideologies. It’s crucial that you have a Code of Conduct (personally, we follow the Berlin Code of Conduct) and to make sure that the speakers you contact are aligned with your event’s ideology.

  • [⚠️ Important] Include end-dates in your email communication!

Speakers are busy people with jobs. Most are not giving talks full-time for a living, so it’s not, nor should it be expected to be, their top priority. Try to understand this and make sure you share with them the important dates you need information from them, don’t expect them to know and drop everything for you.

And Speakers, please keep this kind piece of advice in mind and reply back to the organizers on time. If you’re missing the event’s requested deadlines, you’re likely blocking important logistical and marketing related tasks. Thanks, and we say this with love 💙
  • The event doesn’t finish until the last speaker returns home.

The day after the conference you will be a shadow of your former self because you will have invested 95% of your energy in the conference. But, even in your near catatonic state, please keep in mind that your speakers are traveling back home. Take care of them and check twice to make sure everyone is safe and travel plans are going as expected.

Everything depends on your budget (and the kind of conference you are running), but if you are an event organizer, try to pay the maximum amount of your speakers’ expenses possible. They are investing a lot of time (time=money) on your conference and shouldn’t to have to pay to speak for you.
  • If you can cover their travel expenses, we highly recommend offering them two options:
  1. Self-management. Allow them to book their own travel and pay them back in a swift manner.
  2. Travel Agency. Try to delegate this to an experienced company. You don’t want to deal with the hundreds of email threads regarding travel. Hiring confident companies is a win-win.
  • Yes! Only one person should be running communication with the speakers. ☝️

Lets talk about {Attendees}

You’ll find that the community will give you back all the energy and good vibes you’re investing in it, in some form or another. I highly recommend supporting Meetups and like-minded conferences and play connect the dots with key people in your community.

  • Maintain an open and fluent line of communication with your attendees

Emails, event newsletters, chat — any and all of these channels are very useful tools for speaking with your attendees. Make sure your door is always open so they can reach out with questions, concerns, or just to stay-up-to-date with the event.

I know, with tons of things that need to get done, maybe it’s not a top priority, but if the attendee is asking for the menu, train information, the nearest airport, etc. it might be a critical piece of information for their attendance, so, respond in a timely manner.

  • And… Yes! Have one person dedicated to running communication with attendees. ☝️

Yes, there are millions of platforms to manage your ticket sales, but Eventbrite works relatively well and allows Paypal integration as a payment method for a small fee added to each ticket cost.

Side note: Paypal is also a useful and fast tool to reimburse speakers’ expenses.

We automatically integrate our attendee list into our newsletters that we send out through MailChimp. We segment our lists into Sponsors, Speakers, and Attendees so we can send each group relevant information about the conference.

Yes, we are developers. So, inevitably, when we think of organizing something, we do it developer style. Every detail and work task for the conference we deal with from an Agile perspective. We also have sprint and scrum meetings to make sure we’re staying on task.

This helps us manage even the smallest of details, like forgetting to include the accent in Cádiz. We needed to go through all of our items for print and make sure everything was updated, GitHub’s handy checklist feature made this easy..

If your website is on GitHub, it means you can automatically use the chat created for that project. It’s a pretty useful tool for both the QA for attendees, as well as a place they can use as a message board with each other.

When we need to poll our attendees for something (for example allergies, activities, surveys), we use this service. You can also use Google Forms (and that one is for free), but Typeform offers better design and integration capabilities.

Keep in mind that only some of the attendees will actually fill your forms out, so, manage the results as percentages.

A few pieces of advice worthy of a tattoo


This might be one of the principal reasons for the death of conferences (and event organizers) — lacking delegation. This is the reason why I have repeated the importance of having a team you trust so many times.

Think Twice

Don’t plan on having time to do specific tasks during the conference, those days you are going to be spending your time solving issues and putting out fires, because no matter how well you plan in advance, you will have issues, and there will be fires (but hopefully just figuratively).

Also, for every action you complete, make sure you’re considering every point of view and try to share your ideas with the most heterogeneous group of people on your team, to get feedback.

Be Nice

I am a true believer in Karma, not in a religious connotation, but in the notion that everything good you do, will come back to you. So, if you are kind and friendly to people, hopefully, they will be kind and friendly back to you. The opposite is true with negativity, but the results are usually swifter and far-reaching.

Be Humble

When you are dealing with a large number of people, you have to be prepared to handle different points of view and a different range of emotions. It doesn’t matter what your original intentions were, you can offend people without knowing it, and how you handle it, is of the utmost importance. Here is our advice:

Forget your pride. If there is one person angry or concerned, it’s something that deserves your time to invest in a solution, and surely, at the very least, an apology.

Devil is in the Details

A sentence I love from Charles Eames says:

The details are not the details. They make the design

You can apply this idea to the design of conferences. Details are the most important thing; they are going to give your event a personality and identity.

Fight! ✊

When you organize a conference, you have the powerful tool in your hands. You have the power to try and help change the environment around you for the better. It is your duty to try to improve the areas that need improving and do your best to help the community grow in a positive light

And… Have Fun!

This article is tagged with:
In the category: