This will be my fourth year as an organizer of WordCamp Miami, but don’t be fooled; I’m still learning how to pull off a flawless, successful event. The cruel irony here is, of course, that such a thing doesn’t exist. At least at the level of a large-scale WordCamp, something is bound to go wrong. It’s just a question how big that something will be, whether will you ever know about it and, after reflecting on the event (say, six months down the road) if that something was a big deal.
Every conference has unique challenges, depending on the people involved, where it’s located, and a thousand other factors. What i’m going to relate to you now are the lessons I’ve learned from drama in past WordCamp Miami events. Maybe you can relate, or maybe you can’t, but it might be entertaining.
Equipment failures (for speakers)
Have you ever been to a WordCamp where a speaker is getting ready for his/her presentation and something on their laptop won’t work with the projection system? Have you ever experienced problems with adaptors or USB drives not begin recognized by the host computer? (I’ve seen this outside of WordCamps as well, of course, but it’s rare at some conferences I’ve been to. These conferences usually have higher price tags for tickets, but I am not sure if there’s a connection). Regardless, the goal is to have smooth transitions between sessions. From what i’ve seen, asking speakers to simply bring their laptops with their slides doesn’t guarantee much. To attempt the smoothest transitions you should (1) communicate with your speakers early and often before the event, letting them know the game plan (such as the format of slides you prefer), (2) have speakers email you slides prior to the event, and set them up on a single host computer (no mess, no stress) and (3) assign room captains whose only job is to check in with speakers and be able to handle problems immediately. For my next WordCamp, I am practicing #1 down to a religion, giving #2 a degree of a shot, and #3 completely done. If I’m right, then we’ll see much smoother transitions than in previous editions.
I’ll make this short and sweet, but i would like to point out that i’m the type of attendee that prefers Wi-Fi at a technology conference. As an event organizer, I don’t think it represents a threat to my attendees’ attention span (if people really want internet access, they’ll get it somehow). Whether you agree or not, make sure to let attendees aware of the situation BEFORE the event; if you don’t, it quickly becomes a top question asked around the event. The existence of Wi-Fi, what network to connect to and any passwords should be posted during the morning of the event (many make it a slide in the opening remarks or post signs in each room). Maybe it’s just Miami, but you would think WordCamps were the only place with Wi-Fi in the state.
Get your volunteers as soon as you can
It helps in planning to know how many hands you have available to help; as soon as you have WordCamp dates immediately start a mailing list sign-up form. When people purchase a ticket, make sure to ask them if they would like to help out (even if it’s for a few hours). You would surprised at how many people say yes (although that doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to, when the time comes). I’ve made mistakes in the past where asking for volunteers a few weeks before the event ended up not producing the best results. Not having volunteers for your volunteer coordinator (you do have one of those, right?) means that things like registration, crowd control, lunch, and cleanup will not go smoothly and create more stress than they should. This is especially true for registration, the typical trial by fire for many volunteers. For WordCamp Miami 2013, we started asking for volunteers about 3 months prior. This has resulted in getting more volunteers, and knowing more about what they want to do, so that we can assign them to tasks that they actually like doing.
Pick your organization committee early and create roles
Much like recruiting volunteers, you should define your core volunteer team as soon as possible. In fact, you should have this BEFORE your event gets a date or venue. These people should be very reliable, and most likely people you’ll find in your local meetups. On top of that, put each one in charge of a “big thing”; WordCamp Miami has a sponsorship coordinator, a volunteers coordinator, a marketing coordinator, a food/party coordinator (er, I mean “entertainment coordinator”), and so forth. Start a central planning website (Basecamp or a P2 theme has been used for WordCamp Miami) and make sure each of your core organizers can see their “to-do” lists. I’m happy to say that WordCamp Miami, this year, has a much improved organization team and I’ve already seen its benefits.
You can never have enough signs
Ok, you can, but if you think like this, you’ll get it right. I can’t tell you how many WordCamps I’ve attended (especially on college campuses) where you don’t know where to go — either for rooms, lunch or for registration itself. Granted, if people are wandering around like sheep for a short time until they get their bearings, it’s not the end of the world, but how difficult is it to put up a $1 sign as well? WordCamp Miami does have rooms in two different buildings this year — similar to last year — and people get confused about what is in which building. This year we’ve made sure to have plenty of specific large signs, and if that doesn’t work we’ll draw footprints on the ground for people to follow for next year.
T-Shirts are like gold
Everyone likes a free t-shirt; it’s the traditional souvenir. In Miami, however, you would think they were made out of gold. The mistakes from which I’ve learned in this department were: don’t give out t-shirts during the event, especially if not everyone at the event was guaranteed a t-shirt (last-minute ticket sales make it difficult to ensure that you have enough t-shirts, in the right sizes). People who weren’t guaranteed a t-shirt can get annoyed when you tell them to wait, and leaving t-shirts out for anyone to take on the honor system is a bad idea (sorry if I’ve shattered your faith in humanity). Give t-shirts out when people register to solve these problems. You might be thinking that all of this is obvious, but it took a while for us at WordCamp Miami to adopt these guidelines; not because we didn’t think of it, but because something prevented us from being prepared and organized at registration, to distribute the t-shirts (it’s a long story; last year, due to venue issues we had to rush registration). Also make sure to provide t-shirts in both men’s and women’s sizes. For some reason, in some areas, women’s sizes cost more (this isn’t a fault to any WordCamp organizers or even the t-shirt people they order from). That’s a “fail”, but pony up the few extra bucks, because WordCamps should target both equally.
I have tried to touch on a few small lessons, the ones sometimes you don’t think about until you are told about them AFTER the event is over. WordCamps, among other things, are an experience, and anything to make the experience smooth and better, benefits all. Do remember what I said at the start of this post — about problems being or not being a big deal. It’s important to know what to focus on, while a WordCamp is in progress. If something DOES go wrong, don’t panic and look at it from a 10,000 foot perspective: should you stress that a speaker needs to borrow a laptop at the last minute? Probably not, because it’s likely that there is another laptop available. Stressing because you can’t find your coordinators during the event, to help address some issues? Ok, stress a little there (I solved that problem last year with walkie-talkies).
Organizing WordCamps is hard work, but you should be able to enjoy most of the experience. A bit of pre-planning and help from your fellow trusted coordinators and volunteers can go a long way.