2012 PNW Drupal Summit Post Mortem

RockSoup's picture

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.

No keynotes
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.

Limiting attendance
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.

Here’s looking forward to another great event next year in Vancouver!


Great write up! Thanks so

greggles's picture

Great write up! Thanks so much for sharing this.

Can you describe the icebreaker/social activities that you did each day? Did you hold them in one big space or in different spaces? How did you direct folks to those spaces?

Ice breakers

jkopel's picture

The social committee came up with two great activities. Day one they had everyone build a tower of spagetti that had to be strong enough to hold a marshmallow, and day two was a classic paper airplane contest. Basic, fun, and perfect for conversation starting. They did a really great job!

We were lucky in that the venue we found had a wonderful large gathering space. It was not really usable for sessions, but it served well for BOFs and social interactions during the ice breakers and at lunch.

Web developer @ tableau

The ice breakers were great,

jyee's picture

The ice breakers were great, especially for a smaller conference where you can run into the people you met throughout the day.

I think the space was good for the ice breakers, but not so good for BoFs. That was partly because it was hard to find the BoF you wanted among the groups of people. I think perhaps dedicated or marked tables would have helped. e.g. the BoF board would have 2 columns for table A and B, and the tables would have flags/placards/etc marking them as BoF A or BoF B.


TrevorBradley's picture

Mary Gates Hall was a fantastic venue. This year, each of the presentation rooms had ample seating - even the smallest rooms could hold 60 people easily. Both Portland in 2011 and Vancouver in 2010 had their smaller rooms cramped to capacity and having overheating and humidity problems.

I know it's tricky to find venues with space, but it would be incredible to find a Vancouver venue which gave the smaller sessions room to breathe.

One thing that would have helped in Seattle would have been maps of the campus itself. UW has almost no maps and very poor signage on campus, and I wasn't the only one wandering around for 20+ minutes trying to find the right building. An on campus map in our conference booklets would have been handy.

Seattle 2012

UW Campus Maps

jdwalling's picture

I wished we had had UW campus maps at check-in for people who wanted to find campus resources. Our bad.

We planned to put out sandwich boards with directions but we ran out of time juggling the tasks. Our bad.

We did have links to UW campus maps on the Summit website:
Main Menu > Location > Mary Gates Hall and UW

Don't get me wrong, you guys

TrevorBradley's picture

Don't get me wrong, you guys did a fantastic job and I think this was the best PNW DS yet! I think about 75% of the maps issue is a UW issue, rather than a PNWDS issue... that's one confusing campus! Even reviewing maps carefully before I left I still had a lot of difficulty finding buildings.

I did manage to come across a map of a subset of the campus while searching for Mary Gates. All it could tell me was that all the surrounding buildings weren't the ones I was looking for. The building names are also difficult to determine unless you go up to the doors - I suspect that's to keep the aesthetic of the campus.

The students there were very helpful in helping me to find where I needed to go though.


jelo's picture

If you stayed in the conference hotel, you could have asked the concierge. They had campus maps and were very helpful in giving directions... ;-)

Sadly, I came with my family,

TrevorBradley's picture

Sadly, I came with my family, and the Deca didn't have rooms for four online. We went for the alternate accomodations down the hill.

The two bedroom apartment suites at the Travelodge were pretty nice though - much bigger than my first apartment! Well worth the extra $10 a night.


uwguy's picture

Just FYI (and yes, I realize not everyone has smart phones ;)

We have very nice online maps at http://www.washington.edu/maps/

Mobile options at http://www.washington.edu/mobile/

(especially good to know if PNWDS is on campus next year)

The only (minor) suggestion I

Paul Kim Consulting's picture

The only (minor) suggestion I have is, to either have a dedicated lunch area, or have enough chairs and tables for everyone to find a seat to eat. It was minor, since people were given the option to just go into the classrooms.

Other than that, it was fantastically organized!

Thanks for this write-up,

arh1's picture

Thanks for this write-up, Jared. We discussed so many different issues during the planning and preparation, and -- in light of our efforts to learn from our mistakes and keep raising the bar for future PNWDS's -- this type of narrative is priceless!

It was a lot of work and a lot of fun to put this event together and though my availability waned as the event approached (hello, new baby!) I was glad to be a part of it. Kudos to all of the organizers and volunteers!