This is the third post in my series on running a tech conference.
- Getting Started: Goals and Vision
- Choosing a Venue
- Budget and Sponsors
- Finding Speakers
- Event Logistics & Timeline
- Promotion of your Event
- The Day Of!
- Post Event
As I mentioned in my first post, you can spend as much or as little as you want on a conference. For the purposes of this series, I will assume that most of the readers are organizing events in the 100-300 person range, with a limited budget. Given that, in this post I will outline the different items that you should consider including in your budget, and the range of prices you can expect.
Room rental fees vary depending on the venue that you are using. Obviously if you get space donated by a corporate sponsor, you won’t have any room rental costs. If you are using a hotel or conference center, the rooms themselves tend to be relatively inexpensive but will require you to use their catering services and charge you a food and beverage minimum. In my experience with hotels and conference centers, you can usually rent a ~150 person room for about $1,500 a day.
Audio / Visual
Here are the A/V items that you should expect to rent for your event:
- Projector package (includes an LCD projector, screen, cart, and extension cord) — $325
- Wireless Microphones (lavaliers) — $120
- Wired mic — $50
- Power Strips — These are super useful when you have lots and lots of people using laptops at the event. Some facilities (particularly universities and training centers) are built with lots of outlets in the floors and desks. If there are insufficient outlets in the space, you can probably rent them from the venue for a nominal fee. However, you need to make sure that they are stocked beforehand as most facilities don’t have 30 power strips hanging around! — $15
- Flip charts and/or white boards are an essential item at any tech conference. In most cases these items can be rented from the A/V department. — $50
This is where your choice of venue makes a huge difference. If your event is at a hotel or conference center where you are required to use their catering vendors, then your daily delegate rate (DDR) will include food, and can range anywhere from $25-$75 per person depending on the market. (Some markets, like New York City and Paris, soar into the $90-125 range.) Continuous beverage service will run about $20 per person. In contrast, if you are not obligated to use a specific vendor, then you can feed a large group cheaply with pizza, sandwiches or bagels.
Here are a few cost-cutting tricks when planning catering for an event:
- Skip a catered lunch: Suggest that people go out and grab lunch, or encourage people to “brown bag” their meal. There are two big drawbacks to this approach. First, you drastically reduce the networking opportunity at the event. Second, you run the risk of people deciding to go back to the office or home instead of returning to the event.
- Skip a catered breakfast: Give away granola bars at registration or stuffed in the swag bag. (Be careful, as this may violate your contract with the venue if the agreement states that you must use their catering services.)
- Designated beverage breaks: Rather than having continuous beverage service, consider having a few designated breaks.
- Get a sponsor to agree to cover one of the meals or the coffee station: They can either by purchase the food outright, or pay a sponsorship fee. They can then have their signage on all the service tables.
- Don’t overorder: If your meal is set up buffet-style, you usually don’t need to order food for your exact registration count. Typically we order breakfast for 50% of the headcount, and lunch for 85% of the attendees. (The one exception to this rule is box lunches. In that case, you need to order the exact number since each person gets an individual box.)
We try to go out of our way to show our thanks to the speakers. This typically includes a dinner the night before the conference. I particularly like this gathering as it helps build some camaraderie among the speakers at the event. We also give a small gift to the speakers. A book or a gift card is a nice gesture to thank them for their time and efforts.
Design & Print
- You print lots of items
- You print last minute
- You ship overnight
- You print in color
I think that name tags might just be the bane of my existence. Trying to get them printed any earlier than a day in advance is not worth the trouble as there are always last minute additions, registration swaps, and other changes. Our method for handling name tags has evolved over time.
The first few events I did I had no idea what I was doing, so I would use Eventbrite to print badges. It has a very convient “Print Name Badges” functionality that allows you to export the attendee list into a set of name tags in different sizes. I would then stay up until 2am the night before the event and stuff name tags into plastic holders and attach lanyards.
Then we started using a vendor called PC Nametag to do plastic holders and lanyards for every event. We would send them the attendee list and a badge template, and they would print, stuff, and ship directly to the venue. This was better than being up all night badge stuffing, but it was problematic for a number of other reasons. First of all, we had to place the order about a week in advance, which meant that it wouldn’t include any of the registrants in the final week. And even a week in advance, we would need to do an expedited order and it would be very pricey (often $1,000+ depending on the venue).
Eventually we decided, with the exception of our largest events, that sticky name tags would suffice. We have a template that our graphic designer created, we drop the names into it, and print the labels the day before the event at the office. If we’re cutting it close, we send the file to a local print shop and get the labels done there. We still need to print a few blanks but this method is affordable and accommodates the last-minute registrants.
For MongoSV this year, where we had 1,200 attendees and a full expo hall with dozens of vendors, we used a vendor (ExpoBadge) to print the badges with scanners. They provided lead retrieval units for the vendors, which was a big value-add for sponsors. They also handled on-site registration and last-minute badge printing. Outsourcing this aspect of the conference to a vendor was worth the $6,000 as it allowed the team to focus on the more important parts of the events, such as the sessions, the guests, and the sponsors.
After the success of the lead retrieval units with our sponsors at MongoSV, we wanted to figure out a way to offer this service at our smaller events. This has resulted in us starting to experiment with a startup called Qrious, who has built a name badge printing service and smartphone app that makes it easy for attendees to share contact information at events.
If you don’t want to deal with the headaches that I’ve described above, do yourself a favor and invest in some white sticky labels and sharpies!
Signage (directional, agenda)
Depending on the layout of your venue and the complexity of your schedule, you may need signage. Venues will often have small signage posts, but printing large signs with the schedule, directions, and map of the venue can be extremely helpful. (As nice as it is to have signage, in my experience it’s even more important to have people stationed in designated areas to direct people on the day of the event.)
A print agenda is particularly useful in a multi-track event where there are many sessions happening concurrently. For this audience, however, it might make more sense to invest in an app that manages conference scheduling, and skip a printed agenda.
Pro Tip: A clever place to put the event schedule is in the name badges. You can insert a condensed version of the schedule in the plastic name tag holder.
Another “nice-to-have” is a mobile-friendly agenda. BusyConf is currently in beta but has a very nice scheduler that looks great on a variety of mobile devices. They recently published the agenda for RailsConf if you want to get a feel for their service. Guidebook, which I first encountered at PyCon last year, offers an iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry app for conference scheduling, feedback, interactive maps, and more.
I could probably write a blog post on swag, but for this post I will focus on the two most common promotional items in the tech sector: stickers and t-shirts.
If you want to offer a memento from your event without breaking the bank, stickers are a great option. They can be produced with fast turn around for a few hundred dollars. IMHO Sticker Mule has the best quality stickers, but if you’re on a budget 4over4 will do the job (but the design will scratch off over time!).
T-shirts are often the go-to form of swag for a conference. For this audience, high-quality t-shirts are a requirement. If you want American Apparel tees, for example, you will need to spend $11+ per shirt (unless you are ordering in enormous quantities). One way to reduce costs is to have a company sponsor the tee shirts in exchange for their logo on the sleeve or on the back. Another idea is to have a ticket type that is $10-15 over your standard fee that includes the event t-shirt. (Eventbrite’s ticketing tool lets you do this easily.) Just don’t forget to ask for t-shirt sizes at registration!
A professional photographer is a nice touch for your event. They can capture the energy of the conference, and if you chose to continue to organize your conference annually, the photos can be invaluable marketing assets for your website or future email campaigns. I prefer to hire someone to take photos (usually only for a few hours) rather than relying on the staff to take pictures. In my experience, I’m always too frantic on site to take anything other than a few iPhone snapshots. To simplify things, we use a service (Orange Photography) across all of our events, and they subcontract to freelance photographers. We spend <$750 per event on photography, which includes the photos, processing, and posting online. And I’m sure that with some research, you could find an excellent semi-professional / good amateur photographer for a few hundred dollars.
Capturing the conference on film can be a way to make the experience of the event extend beyond the audience that is able to attend. For most of our events, we record ourselves. We purchased a basic video camera package for about $1,500, and set the camera up to point and shoot. After the event, we hire a contractor who edits the talks on a per presentation basis.
For our largest events, we hire a professional film crew to record the event, edit slides with video, and post online. We also wanted to post videos online quickly. To increase turnaround time for the bigger events, we had the shooters do live switching between the presenter and the slides. We work with several contractors for these events, and while it can be expensive, it is worth it for the number of views the videos get.
This is also another great opportunity to engage sponsors. Ask someone to cover the cost of filming in exchange for their logo on the videos.
A networking or social part of your event is, in my opinion, a really important aspect of your conference. This is the opportunity for your guests to talk to one another, discuss what they learned, share ideas, and generally have fun. This is where the whole event really gels for me, and it’s also where I am able to get lots of anecdotal feedback on the conference.
There are a few approaches for organizing a social event at your conference:
- Bar minimum: Many bars will let you use their space for a large group in exchange for a minimum spend at their bar. In my experience, the minimum requested is usually $2,000-$3,000. If you are on a budget, you can simply arrange for space at the bar and let guests buy their own drinks. You will, however, be responsible for making up the difference for your bar minimum if your guests don’t drink enough.
- Open bar: Most bars will offer private groups a per head cost for an open bar for a certain amount of time (e.g. $30/person for two hours). To decrease costs, when we organize open bar events we typically offer wine and beer only. Another trick is to offer a one hour open bar to get people to attend the after party, and then convert to a cash bar.
- Drink tickets: Another way to control costs is to purchase drink tickets at a fixed price. Once at the event, you can have your staff give away the tickets. This is a great way to get your staff to mix and mingle with the attendees.
- Sponsor: The after-party is another great opportunity to get a sponsor involved!
Your Emergency Gear
There are a few random items that I strongly recommend that you have on hand for your event. At 10gen we have a conference kit that we bring everywhere. You won’t regret bring over-prepared. Something always goes wrong the day of the event, so you want to have the right tools available to fix things quickly and efficiently!
- Mac Adaptors: Conference venues simply don’t have these and you can’t rely on your speakers to remember to bring them. I always bring a Mac Adaptor for each session room, with a MongoDB label on it.
- Slide Clicker: A Logitech clicker costs about $35 and is another nice item to have on hand in each presentation room.
- Power Strips: In case you need to make an emergency power up station.
- Sharpies: These permanent markers are always useful to have around in case you need to make an impromptu sign of some sort.
- Packing Tape: Tape is just useful stuff to have around.
- Labels: In case you have any problems with your badges, it’s good to have some back up, blank labels.
- Batteries: For your slide clickers and any other devices you will have on site.
Here are a few final items that might land in your budget:
- Shipping or storage costs for the gear you are bringing to the event.
- Travel for speakers and staff.
- Temp staff to assist with registration, set up, or directing people, to supplement any volunteer staff.
Offering sponsorship for your event is beneficial for many reasons. Sponsors raise the profile of your event and help drive registration while offsetting some of the event costs. Typically sponsors come in two general categories:
- Cash: A sponsor will pay you a fee in return for listing on the event website, a table at the event, or some other form of co-marketing.
- In kind: A sponsor will provide some kind of service — e.g. host the event, buy everyone lunch or beers, buy t-shirts for everyone.
- Power-up stations
- Lanyards for badges
- Wireless network
- Presentation recording
- Conference t-shirts
- Meals, coffee, or after party
Ask 5 companies to sponsor for $250 and you’ll likely get two sponsors. Ask 5 companies to sponsor for $1000 and you’ll likely get one sponsor. Now do the math. Do you want two sponsors for $500 or one sponsor for $1000?
- The company sells or markets a product to the same audience that your event is targeting
- The company wants to raise their profile in the community in order to recruit top talent
- Companies that sponsor local meetups
- Sponsors of similar events
- Tech partners
- Companies that make complementary technology
- Local companies that are growing fast and recruiting
I strongly recommend charging a nominal fee for your event. Obviously some ticket revenue helps to offset your costs. But it also makes the attendees feel invested in the event, reduces the number of no-shows, and helps give you an accurate attendance count. And with tools like Eventbrite, it’s dead simple to set up registration and collect fees.
At our MongoDB events, we have established a pricing model that works very well:
- $50 early bird (ends 4 weeks prior to the event)
- $100 general admission
- $75 “come as a group” discount when you register 4 or more (ends 1-2 weeks prior to the event)
- $30 student rate
This pricing works for a few reasons:
- It’s inexpensive enough that it’s not a barrier for most professionals. Yet, it costs enough to make people think twice before registering, and discourages those that aren’t serious about attending. At a free event we typically see 50% attrition. At an event where we charge using the $50/$100 model, we typically have <15% attrition.
- While most attendees get their employer to reimburse them for the cost of the ticket, it’s inexpensive enough that many just pay out of pocket.
- The early bird pricing serves as a forcing factor to motivate people to sign up in advance.
I’ve found that without incentivizing people with early bird discounts, it can be a major challenge getting people to sign up for an event any earlier than a few weeks in advance of an event.
This post has been in progress for many weeks, and it ended up a lot longer and more detailed than I expected. I hope that you find the details beneficial, and as always please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.