This post is an open discussion on the future of Drupalcon management. After Drupalcon Boston held in March, 2008 it became clear that Drupalcon was (is) growing at a rapid rate and that the underlying management infrastructure needs an upgrade. Changes were made for Drupalcon Europe as well as for Drupalcon D.C (2009) and these have proven to be successful. The process still needs to evolve such that we not only meet the demands of the attendees (expected to be 1,200 strong at D.C) but give these attendees the high quality conference they expect. In short, we can and should do more.
Drupalcon (Drupal Conference) is the only official Drupal conference put on by the Drupal community. Two conferences are held annually, one in North America and another in Europe lending to the names Drupalcon NA and Drupalcon Europe. North America is held every spring and Europe is held in the fall with an approximate 6 month gap.
The first Drupalcons were put on by a group of volunteers that got together and simply decided that they wanted a Drupal conference and made it happen. Usually the Drupalcons were commingled with a larger conference (FOSDEM, OSCMSS, etc.) but beginning with Drupalcon Szeged (Europe, 2008) they became a freestanding conference with a decent sized, and paid, support staff.
How a Drupalcon is organized today
After Drupalcon Boston it became clear that the old model of a few people getting together to put on a conference wouldn't scale to 1,000+ attendee events. Attendees were spending a serious amount of time and cash to come to Drupalcon and the management team needed to step up to deliver a quality conference. The current model is as follows.
The Drupal Association is the maintainer of Drupalcon. The Association maintains the name as well as the final decision on where and when a Drupalcon occurs. It also engages in a supervisor role for Drupalcon management but it does not manage Drupalcon. Management, and ultimately all kudos and thanks, goes to the next people.
A community team
Members of the Drupal community band together to create a Drupalcon team. This is usually always based on geography but doesn't always. For example the Drupal Hungary community collaborated and put on the highly successful Drupalcon Szeged, 2008. This team sends a proposal to the Drupal Association asking to host Drupalcon. The association and the team meet, discuss and eventually agree to let the team host Drupalcon. After acceptance the Association will supply the team with initial capital to secure/rent venues and get the gears turning. This team then kicks into gear.
The team is responsible for all aspects of Drupalcon (which is why we owe them great respect and thanks). The team is responsible for fundraising the capital needed to put on Drupalcon by soliciting sponsorships or other actions. As recent Drupalcons cost nearly 200,000 USD this is no small feat. They also build the website, filter the sessions, contact attendees, answer all attendee questions, arrange hotels, provide maps, find the venue, setup chairs, run power outlets, etc. They do everything.
Events management company
Beginning with Drupalcon Szeged a budget was allocated for the hiring of an events management company. An events management company should handle all aspects of the venue including room allocation, chairs, projectors, power, food, coffee, signage, etc. Prior to Drupalcon Szeged all of this work was done by volunteers from the Drupal community which proved to be unsustainable (i.e. we were burning out our volunteers at astronomical rates). This model was continued with Drupalcon D.C. The idea is focus the community on the more important aspects; sessions and the attendees.
So that's the current model.
Drupal Association --> Community Team --> Events management firm. In all it starts with as little as 3 people and grows to around 50. Outside of the events management firm few people are paid. In fact the key people that organize the conference are all volunteers.
Moving forward and our challenges
From this description it seems as though things are running fairly well particularly since Drupalcon Boston and Drupalcon Szeged were highly successful and Drupalcon D.C is on track for being another success. Things may very well be A-OK but we do have some challenges that still need to be overcome.
Planning is becoming more arduous and tedious
The hiring of an event planner has helped things and our current community teams are doing a great job at it. However at the end of every Drupalcon these teams are rather burned out.
Because each Drupalcon is held in a different geographic region as well as the simple fact that hosting Drupalcon is incredibly hard work we find ourselves with a new team for each Drupalcon. Although we are not reinventing the wheel at each Drupalcon we are repeating an incredible amount of work.
78.6% of the people that responded to the Drupalcon Szeged survey (around 260 people) discovered Drupalcon from drupal.org. Drupal is growing and the successes of Drupalcamps as well as Do it with Drupal have shown that there is a large base of users that are completely unaware of our community. We need to reach out to them.
Increase session quality
Feedback from surveys and personal interviews have shown that while Drupalcon is highly successful and people enjoy the conference the sessions are not entirely up to snuff.
Keep it accessible and affordable
As the conference has grown so have the costs. Sponsorships and volunteers have been key to keeping the ticket price of the conference affordable (<$300), however, we're starting to see that this may not be a sustainable process.
What we are doing
Some of the quality enhancements are easy. For example a decision was made to choose the next year's Drupalcon one month before the current Drupalcon thus the deadline for Drupalcon 2010 is Feb. 2009. This gives the organizers more time to plan and execute the conference. Others enhancements are not so easy.
Marketing, increasing session quality, keeping it affordable, etc. are currently being looked at and are the subject of this post.
At Drupalcon Szeged a proposal was raised to hire a single events management firm to handle all Drupalcons. Although we decided against this for Drupalcon D.C (the D.C folks had a great firm lined up), its still an option on the table for 2010.
The O'Reilly proposal
This proposal is only for North America at the moment
Earlier this year Dries met a few people who talked to a few people and it eventually led to O'Reilly events contacting the Drupal Association. For a quick review the O'Reilly company has a publishing company AND an events company, the two are tied only by name. At the moment we are currently engaged in talks with O'Reilly events regarding the management of Drupalcon. <br/ >
So what does this mean?
First lets go over what it does not mean. It does not mean that a decision has been made and it does not mean that the community has no say in this matter. This is, again, the reason for the post.
OK, so if O'Reilly does Drupalcon what changes?
Without getting into major details (we can do this later) O'reilly would become this central events management firm. They (O'Reilly) would handle all logistics including venue scouting, A/V, electrical, Internet, chairs, coffee, food, etc. The location, date and session are all determined by a committee between O'Reilly and the Drupal Association with both parties having to be in agreement.
What is the benefit to the Drupal community and Drupalcon?
1) Focus on session quality. With the major pieces of the event being taken care of the community has focus on what the conference is really about; networking with other Drupalers, learning more about Drupal and strategizing as well as defining the future of the project.
2) Outside speakers. O'Reilly has a vast network of previous presenters as well as reviews on how they did. Drupalcon could tap into this resource to bring in some outside speakers on various topics.
3) Marketing. O'Reilly puts on tech conferences its what they do. They know how to reach the techies, the geeks, the managers, the contemplators, the decision makers, the developers, the project managers... well you get the point, they know people.
What is the benefit to O'Reilly?
O'Reilly charges an entrance fee and they get a cut of that. So in short,
We waited to bring this issue to the community until after we had a chance to have some serious talks with the O'Reilly folks. They (O'Reilly) are extremely receptive to the feedback as well as working within our community should this be what is decided upon. Here is a list of potential "issues" we have discussed with them.
a) Ticket prices: Drupalcon has historically been sub $400 per ticket. O'Reilly conferences are typically not this inexpensive. Although there is no final decision O'Reilly is very receptive to discovering way to keep the entrance fee low.
b) Location: The Drupal community gets to choose the location and provided that its in a major city and has the infrastructure needed to put on a conference of our size Drupalcon can happen there. This means that Drupalcon won't always happen in San Francisco.
c) Sessions: The Drupal community is actively involved in the session decision process and there is no indication that are currently processes will change. They will augmented by people with loads of experience in helping to find excellence speakers and pair them up with the right topics as well as scheduling them accordingly.
d) Drupalcon remains Drupalcon. The name will not change.
e) NO publishers will be locked out. As this is O'reilly events and not O'Reilly publishing no other publishers will be barred from booths, sponsorships or the selling/trading/giving-away of books. We appreciate the publishers that are printing Drupal books and they are always welcome equally in Drupalcon. I will stress the word; equally.
Stop rambling and listen
This is exactly what I need to do at this time. I've rambled on quite a bit and now I(we) need to hear from you. Post your feedback, comments and suggestions. If you have the time and are willing to get involved please do so. Drupalcon is the community's conference and you are the community.