For those who don’t know me, I spent three years with a team of fantastic individuals organising an annual PHP conference – PHP South Coast, in the sunny seaside city of Portsmouth, UK. This was a very rewarding experience for me, and paired with my unexpected career in speaking, I’ve been lucky enough to visit many conferences. It’s been very fulfilling, quite an adventure, and way out my comfort zone. Whilst I can’t speak for the rest of the team, I had several goals in mind when starting the conference.
Firstly, to provide a platform and opportunity for new speakers to be able to speak at a real conference. I spent a lot of time trying to start getting accepted to conferences. I followed all the advice out there as best I could. I visited user groups up and down the United Kingdom – even a trip to Manchester and back to Portsmouth where I used to live in one evening, which in good traffic is about a 4 hour drive. I saw it as an investment, and it’s paid off. Right now I’m sat in a hotel in Vancouver, ready to give three talks at ConFoo. I’ve visited countries I’ve never been to – South Africa, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Italy, Romania, Ukraine and more. I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also put in a lot of effort to try and build my speaker profile. I wanted to give other budding speakers the same chance. For this goal, I’m proud to say we achieved it – around 40% of our speakers year on year were “new and upcoming” speakers, most of whom had never spoken at a conference. The lesson learnt? It is possible for new speakers to get accepted. The advice put out there works, but you need to work at it. Speak at user groups and get experience – don’t just submit to conferences having never spoken anywhere and expect to be accepted (although, it might happen!).
Another personal goal when organising PHP South Coast was to bring awesome speakers to the south at an affordable ticket price. There was already PHP North West and PHP UK conferences, and both these conferences really were inspirational for me; I like to think of it as a complimentary homage to the conferences. With the new speakers with exciting new proposals, and also some “big names” in the speaking circuit, I feel we were able to put on what I feel was an interesting selection of great, diverse content. We budgeted hard – really hard – to keep ticket prices as low as possible. The highest ticket price in the last year was just £130 – which is a fraction of many conferences with similar calibre of content. To make this possible, we had to skimp on many things. Each year there was only one or two speakers we could afford to pay for travel for. The catering was the most expensive part of the conference, and even then we pushed the catering company hard to bring the price down – in the end that cost us a smidge under £10,000 – just for the food. We didn’t print t-shirts, as much as we wanted to, but making t-shirts gets expensive. We discussed every year whether we should, but we agreed it was a cost we couldn’t afford without raising ticket prices to account for that. The lesson learnt here was that it is possible to keep ticket prices down, but there are some things that will suffer for it. It’s a trade-off, because money is not unlimited. And of course, our sponsors were amazing with helping out with around half the cost of the conference. Thank you sponsors!
The first year we made a big mistake with the social. Whilst we provided board games and laser quest games, which were superbly received and we had great feedback about, the bar offering was somewhat lacklustre. We actually did this intentionally. We wanted the social to focus on networking, and having folks enjoy themselves with board games and the fast-paced laser quest games, and we wanted to take away the emphasis on alcohol at the social. So we offered a bottle bar, but the pricing was set by the caterers, and it wasn’t exactly cheap. These combined factors unfortunately meant our plan backfired, and a lot of folk left the social early to go to nearby pubs for more reasonably priced drinks. We learnt our lesson from this, and so in the second and third editions of the conference, we put money behind the bar – a token system which I feel worked much better. The socials were busier, more sociable, and those who came were able to network at the tables, enjoy a board game or two, or exhaust themselves running around shooting laser guns at each other. We put an extra twist on the bar too. The conference was held in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and so as a nod to the Royal Navy traditions, we gave away a tot of rum to those who wanted it; this is a tradition known as “splice the mainbrace”, so it fit in nicely with the theme of the conference.
Finally, another lesson learnt is that having a code of conduct is an absolute necessity for an event such as PHP South Coast, especially when serving alcohol. I am so thankful to say that we didn’t have any serious incidents that we were made aware of, and although there were a couple of minor complaints, they were dealt with appropriately. The couple of issues were things like inappropriate comments, but were sorted swiftly. I wanted to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable at PHP South Coast, so I made sure we had the code of conduct clearly in place, and although we used the standard PyCon template, we chose that because it details the procedure for handling incidents.
There are many other things I’ve learnt from running this conference. I’ve improved myself as well, and hopefully I’ve helped others improve. It was an incredible experience for me, and seeing all the great feedback made it all worthwhile. I admit, I was a little sad to end it, but maybe one day someone will take over the mantle, whether resurrecting the conference, or maybe something new, but I feel we did the community a great service for the short, but sweet, run of PHP South Coast conferences.
One thought on “Lessons learnt from running a conference”
“even a trip to Manchester and back to Portsmouth where I used to live in one evening” I still think you were an idiot for that, and if we’d known you were going to do it, we’d have put you up in a hotel overnight…. we’d far rather have you driving home well rested than risking yourself with that much driving in one day
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