Over the years I have spoken at a number of user group meetings and conferences and have been teaching at the University of California - San Diego Extension since 2001. In all of these instances, my primary responsibility has been to speak, present, and teach. I have not had to worry about the plethora of other concerns, such as: advertising or marketing; procuring a venue; handling sign ups and collecting and processing payment; providing printouts; arranging for catering; ensuring that comforts like snacks, water, coffee, and soda were available to attendees; and set up and tear down. All of these responsibilities became mine when I decided to put on a one day conference/training event back in February of this year. This event was held on Saturday, April 21st, and I'm happy to report that it went off as smooth as I had hoped for in my wildest dreams.
I learned so much from this experience and wanted to share some lessons learned from my experience for those interested in arranging their own developer-related conferences, events, or user group meetings. Note that the event held this past Saturday had 48 attendees. My comments and suggestions might not apply of be applicable for significantly smaller or larger events. Also my advice is geared toward those who are putting on such an event by themselves or as part of a non-profit group and that they don't have the resources of a large company to tap into.
Marketing and Advertising
I marketed this event in the following ways:
- Direct interaction. I do consulting and training work for some businesses local to San Diego, and told them of this event in person
- Via this blog
- By emailing my past UCSD Extension students
- Attending the ASP.NET SIG meeting in March here in San Diego and promoting the event
- Asking Dan Mathson and David McCarter (who help run the ASP.NET SIG and San Diego .NET Developer group, respectively) to email their email lists with a blurb announcing the event
Unfortunately, I didn't keep detailed statistics as to what source my sign ups came from, but based on the dates of the sign ups I can make educated guesses as to the marketing campaign that resulted in the sign up.
As the following chart shows, the emails coming directly from Dan and David were, by far, the largest source of attendees. The second largest source of sign ups was from emailing my past UCSD students. While Dan and David's emails provided a larger total number of sign ups, the emails to my students had a much higher sign up rate. Dan and David sent emails to nearly 1,800 local developers for a conversion rate of about 1.5%, whereas I contacted less than 100 past students for a conversion rate roughly ten times higher.
Note that no one signed up from the user group meeting promotion. My guess is because the conversion rate here is on par with the email blast (~1.5%). In short, my results show that it is more cost effective to focus on getting the word out in less personal ways to a larger group than to make a person presentation to a small group. Of course, all forms of marketing should be pursued, time permitting, but if you have to focus on one, a far reaching email blast seems to be the best route.
I did not spend any money on advertising.
Since large scale email marketing appears to be the most effective marketing tool, talk to local User Group leaders about promoting your event. Also, if you are doing an event about Microsoft technologies, get in touch with your local Microsoft Regional Director for suggestions and help on promoting your event.
Procuring a Venue
Finding and reserving a venue is, obviously, an important step, and needs to be done prior to marketing the event. I had some people with event hosting experience recommend hotels as venues. They usually have onsite catering and rooms to accommodate various sizes. A more affordable option might be to find a local .NET consulting firm and see if they are interested in volunteering their site. If there is a Microsoft office in your city, that might be another option. To be honest, I didn't explore venue options in depth. UCSD Extension was able to offer me a room for the day at a very competitive rate.
One thing that is important is to scope out the room before agreeing to use it. The site may say that it can fit 50 people, but on inspection 50 people might be a tight fit. Also, make sure that the projector, amentities, and facilities are what you expect.
Handling Sign Ups and Processing Payment
Events and conferences should always have a corresponding website that provides information about the event including: a high-level overview of the event; a more detailed outline; and directions. Moreover, the website should allow attendees to register via the web. I created such a website for my event (see http://fuzzylogicinc.net/BlackBelt/). The website was very straightforward, containing only four web pages:
- Home - provides a one paragraph description of the event, key information (where, when, and how much), and a paragraph about the instructor.
- Sign Up
- Outline - a detailed outline of the material to be covered
- Directions - the address of the venue, directions, and a map
I used PayPal to handle payment processing. After entering their name and email address, the user would be redirected to PayPal's website where they would be prompted to pay for their purchase (either using a credit card, a check, or from their own PayPal account). A more professional approach would be to use PayPal's SDK or some other payment gateway and handle the payment processing logic entirely on the event's website.
For my event I provided each attendee with a bound printout of the 300 or so PowerPoint slides examined throughout the course of the day. I initially contemplated doing the printouts on my own, but instead opted to use a print shop. In particular, I chose Kinkos because they were within walking distance of my home and they have a slick application for submitting your order: namely, you install a program that adds a printer to your system. You then 'print' your slides (or whatever) to this special printer, which launches a program that let's you choose the paper type, whether to use one-sided or two-sided, if you want a binding, color or black and white, how many copies, and so on. It then lets your preview your order, shows the amount due, lets you specify a pickup time, and collects payment information. Very easy to use and highly recommended.
Catering, Beverages, and Snacks
Some venues provide onsite catering, but chances are you will be on the hook for catering. You will have to find a reputable caterer and also provide your attendees with snacks and beverage refreshments throughout the course of the day. For this event, I used Come On In Restaurants, a caterer recommended by the UCSD Extension staff. I had sampled their food at a previous UCSD Extension event and it was quite tasty. I was also pointed to Restaurants on the Run, which is an online directory of 'catering and delivery specialists.' A good caterer will help you craft the menu and will be sensitive to your budget.
You will also need to procure water and soda and snacks for your attendees to enjoy throughout the course of the day. We bought water and soda from Costco. In the end, we bought too much soda and too little water (which is understandable, given my predilection for carbonated beverages). Specifically, we purchased 36 cans of non-diet soda, 108 cans of diet soda, and 70 bottles of water for 48 attendees. We ended up bringing home about 70% of the soda and ran out of water by mid-afternoon. We also grossly overbought coffee from Einstein Bros., which serves 'catering coffee' in boxes that each have 8-10 servings. I bought four boxes of regular and one of decaf, and we ended up going through two boxes in total, throwing out the rest.
We didn't buy snacks, although in hindsight we should have. The caterer provided an assortment of cookies and brownies, which were decimated. Around 3:00 PM, many attendees seemed to be seeing if there were any sweets left over. While the catered desserts were completely consumed (as were the selection of chips), the sandwhiches and pasta and green salad had a bit of leftovers. We brought it all home and had the sandwhiches and salads for three meals before throwing away another couple of meals worth of food.
Setup and Teardown
Hosting an event of this size requires a non-trivial amount of setup and teardown time and energy. In addition to setup and teardown, the beverages and snacks need to be attended to throughout the course of the day. And the caterer may need assistance and/or directions on where and how to setup the spread. Naturally, hosting such an event is not a one-man show, so you'll need to recruit your spouse or a friend or colleague to help out. My very helpful and wonderful wife spent her Saturday restocking the beverages, assisting the caterer, and answering any logistical questions (where are the bathrooms, are there any more cookies, and so forth). She is also an ASP.NET developer, so she could have fielded technical questions!
I was pretty nervous the days leading up to this event because of my inexperience at handling all of the miscellany involved. Fortunately, everything went according to plan! There were no 'surprises' and I didn't forget anything essential. I was pleased at the turnout, the quality of the catered lunch, the attendee participation, and so on. The only disappointments I had were minor ones. For example, the thermostat wasn't very effective and the room got pretty warm, but opening a door to the outside cooled it off fairly effectively. And buying too much soda and coffee and too little water.
I had a blast putting on this event and presenting the material, and plan on hosting future one-day events similar to this one on additional topics (AJAX, ASP.NET v3.0/3.5, and so on).