Planning an Unconference : Insights

This is first in a series of blog posts where we focus on event organizers. Keeping in mind the growing popularity of unconferences in India, we asked Kiran of HasGeek if he could write about how AndroidCamp was arranged. Read on to gain insights on how attention to detail ensures an awesome experience for your attendees.

HasGeek organized AndroidCamp on April 1 in Bangalore. We came up with the plan in late February. We had just finished the DocTypeHTML5 series in five cities and wanted to do something lightweight. Android was a great topic and it seemed a good time to reboot the unconference format.

One of our sponsors at DocType HTML5 — Althea Systems — had recently moved into a new office with a spare floor for expansion. They offered us the space for an event. Since the floor was completely empty, we were free to set it up any way we liked.

The Cricket World Cup series was running through March, so we picked the only free date in the calendar, April 1, and put together a website in two hours with a simple announcement linked to a sign-up form. The website went viral on Twitter and in two days we had 300 sign-ups.

We still hadn’t decided on any specifics regarding the event. The only thing confirmed was the date, April 1. We closed the venue and, as key item in our plan to reboot the unconference format, decided to charge for participation. Most community events are either free to participants, with all costs being picked up by a sponsor, or charge participants while being free to speakers. We decided to charge everyone the same fee, regardless of whether they were speaking or not. Our reasoning was two-fold:

  1. We wanted the event to be participant-supported. A common refrain in Internet marketing is that if you are not paying for it, you are the product being sold; you’re not the customer. We felt this true. The event had to be viable on the basis of participant support. Any sponsor support had to be a bonus.
  2. A fundamental rule of unconferences is that the organizers don’t interfere in the content. Much of an unconference’s content is dynamic, with participants deciding to propose sessions based on what they see happening around them. This meant we couldn’t recognize anyone as speaker prior to the event, so we charged everyone the same flat fee.

AndroidCamp was a typical participant driven unconference

The next issue was with determining venue capacity and charging the fee. We’ve seen a turnout of between 40-60% at free events and about 80% at paid events. When given the choice of paying online or at the venue, only about 40% pay online. These two factors make for a lot of ambiguity on actual turnout at the event — especially since we had a small venue that could only take about 150.

We decided to offer everyone a discount of 10% if they paid online, with a ticket price of Rs 300. The ticket covered for lunch and unlimited all-day beverages. This approach worked: over 90% of our participants chose to pay online. It allowed us to fine tune our logistics to cover for exactly the expected turnout, making the most of the thin margins we were operating at.

We used DoAttend for our billing. DoAttend provides an embeddable form that we could integrate into our website with practically no effort. It took just a few minutes.

As the event date got closer, we turned to venue arrangements. Most all-day events have two tea/coffee breaks. We thought it was bad user experience to have everyone stand in line for up to ten minutes, so we kept the counter open all day. Given the onset of summer heat, we went with chilled soft drinks instead of hot tea/coffee and stocked up a fridge that anyone could take from.

Convention halls at hotels are priced on the basis of food, so the selection tends to be elaborate and loaded with carbs. This results in carb coma: participants get drowsy and have trouble paying attention to the post-lunch speaker. Many will desperately look forward to the next tea/coffee break, or head out to the nearest coffee shop. We deliberately selected a light meal that was just right for the afternoon.

The common layout of a venue is to have a speaker’s corner with a projector and screen, with chairs filling the rest of the space. We figured we could do better than this. Plastic chairs are uncomfortable beyond a few hours, besides making the event feel cheap. Hotels typically provide metal chairs covered with white cloth. Whether to protect from bedbugs or hide stains is unknown, but what happens is that the occupant of the chair keeps sliding down and must constantly readjust position. Most events see their audience thinning out post-lunch because participants can’t bear to sit on those chairs after a nice meal.

We did away with the chairs.

Not entirely: we still had them, but only in a single row in the back. For the rest of the hall, we filled it up with mattresses and cushions. Our participants loved it. The mattresses gave the space an informal air, breaking the unspoken hierarchy that separates speakers from audience. Participants felt more comfortable asking questions and engaging in discussion. Our audience strength post-lunch was the same as pre-lunch. Making the space comfortable convinced everyone to remain there all day. In the feedback session at the end of the day, the mattresses were rated as one of the most notable features of the event.

mattresses and cushions nicely complemented the informal atmosphere

Our total effort in putting together the event: about four man days. This was by far our easiest event to organize and DoAttend played a significant role in it.

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