This last weekend the 2012 Pacific Northwest Drupal Summit took place at the University of Washington in Seattle. There were around 250 people who attended this 4th iteration of the PNW Drupal Summit and by all accounts it was an enjoyable and informative event. This post is a bit of a post mortem on how the conference went from the perspective of the organizers.
When the Summit was originally conceived, it was intended as a way to build a sustainable conference hosting model for a targeted audience, people who already are into Drupal, and it aimed to educate and connect those people across the Pacific Northwest. The mission statement for the conference is:
The Pacific Northwest Drupal Summit is an annual event for Drupal professionals to gather, exchange ideas, learn from one another, and advance the Drupal CMS.
As we planned the conference this year we wanted to put an emphasis on increasing the social opportunities at the conference. We wanted this conference to build on the success of the previous 3 years and try some new things to push the connections between attendees. Here are a few of the things we tried:
Small and Special
We limited the number of attendees to keep the event small and special. By limiting the size of the conference, we created a space where the experience of attending was more intimate and allowed for more familiarity to develop. We sold out of tickets, just as the previous PNW Drupal Summits with limited tickets.
We brought lunch to the conference. We decided to do so to create an opportunity for participants to get to know some other people while sharing a meal, rather than splitting off with people they knew to some off-site lunch location. Attendees were able to grab their food and find dining companions organically and coincidentally.
This year we did not have keynote speakers at the Summit. This was an experiment for us. Rather than have a single session keynote for all attendees to start each day, we did an icebreaker activity. We decided to try out these icebreaker/social activities for a couple of reasons. First, by not having a keynote, our venue requirement did not need to include a room that could hold all attendees at one time; this proved to be quite helpful. Second, we reached the decision that connecting the attendees was a goal we wanted to focus on and we wanted to use the keynote time to try something which would advance that goal. Based on the number of positive comments I received following the 2 days of trying out fun social activities to start each day, I think that they were really successful.
After Hours Social Events
We had 2 official social events at the Summit: a game night Friday and a party Saturday. The game night was our effort to create a space for people coming into town for the event to connect once they arrived. Social activities usually revolve around adult beverages and we wanted to provide events that did not focus so heavily on drinking.
- On Friday evening we rented an event space at the conference hotel and had tables set up so that attendees could come and play board games and socialize outside of a bar context.
- On Saturday night we held the party at a 21+ venue that offered bowling, billiards, and shuffleboard. We were able to ensure that music was not too loud to prohibit conversation.
Both events were very successful.
Organizing conferences is hard
Every conference has its challenges. As we planned this conference we ran into some decisions that were hard.
The organizing committee decided to cap attendance at 270 for the following reasons:
- We have always wanted the Pacific Northwest Drupal Summit to be an intimate gathering allowing attendees to develop rich relationships with their peers in the region. The larger the conference the harder it is to accomplish this.
- PNWDS is organized entirely by volunteers. The larger the event, the more time and energy required to do a good job of organizing, and the more volunteers that are needed to avoid burnout.
Of course there are drawbacks to keeping the conference small: not everyone can come. We feel that we provided plenty of “warning” that the event attendance would be limited and that the event would sell out. We had an announcement list signup on the website before registration opened and we emailed subscribers to that list once registration began. In addition, we promoted the event on twitter, facebook and g.d.o.
Required admission fee
This year every person who attended the conference paid for a ticket, including presenters and volunteers. There were a number of factors that contributed to this policy.
- Attrition/fall-off/cancellations are minimized by charging a registration fee. In the end we had only about a 10% attrition rate, far less than we expected.
- With the registration fee, we could accurately gauge the number of people for meals, etc.
- We wanted to create a level playing field. By charging a small amount for admission to every person who came we eliminated any possibility of “They did not have to pay so why do I?” conversations that can be unhealthy.
- We also wanted to demonstrate through a ticket price that the conference provides a valuable experience.
As a conference that is put on by a different group of individuals in a different city each year, this conference has an amazing amount of consistency, especially around being awesome! I had a great time and it is fun to see this event become an annual tradition as a place to make new friends and to reconnect with old ones.
Thanks again to the sponsors and volunteers who made the event a reality.