Reducing risk when running a conference

Written on June 25 2014 at 14:37

It was really interesting to read the news about the potential cancellation of Wicked Good Ruby, a Ruby conference that was due to run for a second time in Boston this year:

Rather than half-ass a conference we’ve decided to cancel it. All tickets will be fully reimbursed. I’ve already reached out to those that have purchased with how that will be done.

There’s lots of interesting stuff in this thread, but one point that jumped out to me was the financial risk involved:

Zero sponsors. […] I had 2 companies inquire about sponsorship. One asked to sponsor but never paid the sponsorship invoice after 82 days.

[…]

Last year we lost $15k. In order to made it worth our effort this year we needed to make a profit. The conference we had in mind required a $50k sponsorship budget with an overall budget of close to $100k. (last year’s conference cost about $125k) Consider to date, after 6 months, we have received $0 in sponsorship the financial risk was too high.

[…]

Since announcing this a few hours ago I’ve been contacted by 3 other regional conference organizers. They are all having similar issues this year. Sponsorship is incredibly difficult to come by […] I didn’t get the sense they were going to bail but I think this is a larger issue than just Boston.

With costs in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s really no wonder that organisers might have second thoughts.

But does running a conference really need to come with such an enormous financial risk? With Ruby Manor, our biggest budget was less than £2,000 (around $3,000). Here’s why:

Now, it could be that there are a few factors unique to Ruby Manor that make it difficult, or even impossible, for other conferences to follow the same model. For instance, holding the event in the center of a big city like London means there’s already a wide range of lunch options for attendees, right outside the venue.

Another problem could be the availability of university and community venues as an alternative to conference centres. I really don’t know if it’s possible or not to rent spaces like this in other cities or countries. A quick look at my local university indicates that it’s totally feasible to rent a 330-seat auditorium for less than $1,000, and even use their coffee/tea catering for a total of less than $3,0001, all-in.

I would be genuinely fascinated for other conferences to start publishing their costing breakdown. LessConf have already done this, and even though I might not have chosen to spend quite so much money on breakfasts and surprises, I genuinely do applaud their transparency for the benefit of the community.

In the end it seems there’s hope for Wicked Good:

I think I’ve come up with a plan: reduce the conference from 2 nights to 1 night. Cut out many of the thrills that I was planning. This effectively would reduce our operational costs from ~$100k to around ~$50k. This would also allow us to reduce the ticket prices (I would reimburse current tickets for the difference).

I genuinely wish the organisers the best of luck. It’s a tough gig, running a conference. That said, $50,000 is still an enormous amount of money, and I cannot help but feel that it’s still far higher than it needs to be.

Every hour you spend as a conference organiser worrying about sponsorships or ticket sales or other financial issues, is an hour that could be spent working on making the content and the community aspects as good as they can be.

Let’s not forget: the only really important part of a conference is getting a diverse group of people with shared interests into the same space for a day or two. Everything else is just decoration. A lot of the time, even the presentations are just decoration. It’s getting the community together that’s important.

I realise that many people expect, consciously or otherwise, some or all of the peripheral bells and whistles that surround the core conference experience. For some attendees, going to a conference might even be akin to a ‘vacation’ of sorts. Perhaps a conference without $15,000 parties feels like less of an event… less of an extravaganza.

But consider this: given the choice between a glitzy, dazzling extravaganza, and a solid conference that an organiser can run without paralysing fear of financial ruin, I know which I would choose, and I know which ultimately benefits the community more.

  1. To be clear, they require that you cannot make a profit on events they host, but from what I can tell, most conference organisers don’t wish to run their events for profit anyway.


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