Things I’ve learned from organizing a large-scale event

DevCon Summit 2015, a 2-day developer conference that had over 1500 attendees, ended a few days ago. I was part of the organizing team which consisted of 60+ volunteers - The largest team we’ve ever had at a DevCon event. It was a really bumpy ride for everyone. Mistakes were made, and a lot of things were learned during the event. The event opened my eyes and made me appreciate how hard events productions can be.

I will be listing some of the things that I’ve observed and learned to serve as a post-mortem of the event. Hopefully, this will give our attendees and exhibitors some insight as to what was happening behind the scenes and why things seemed the way they were during the whole thing.

Pack your goodies/loot bags as early as possible

The first challenge that we encountered before the event was that we had to pack the loot bag for our attendees. This involved having all of the giveaways from our sponsors be delivered, and arranging all of them to put inside the loot bag. Imagine having to collect, arrange, and distribute 1500+ of each piece of giveaway in 1 day, let alone just a few hours with a few other people. It’s crazy! What actually happened is that we were only able to pack around 80% of the loot bags because of the constraints that we had.

Some other constraints involved during the process of packing loot bags:

  • Late delivery of various loot bag items. Some of them were delivered just a couple of hours before the event. Imagine our frustrations when we realized that we had to go through every loot bag again just because a new item arrived.
  • The packing was done on a weekday night (Thursday). Most, if not all, of our volunteers are professionals who have day jobs, so we had to start the packing in the evening when everyone got to the venue from the office.
  • Schedule conflicts. More than half of our volunteers weren’t available during the packing process, so we had to do this with only half of our capacity.
  • Time and energy. We had to do the repacking late in the evening. We were already sleepy by the time we started, so we weren’t able to finish what we were supposed to do. We had to make up for it during the event itself.

We finished packing at around 1:00am on Friday. We had to wake up at around 4:00am because the call time was 5:00am. We barely had any sleep during the first day. In fact, some of us weren’t able to sleep at all, so we weren’t in our best shape during the event.

Here are some ideas that I have to ease the process the next time we have to do this:

  • Have the sponsors deliver their giveaways at least a week before the event.
  • Pack the loot bags as early as possible. Never do it during the day before the event. Rent a place that is accessible to the people who will pack the bags if you need to.
  • As a result of #2, just have the loot bags delivered to the venue on the day before the event. You might need to rent a vehicle to pull this off.

In retrospect, I realized that we weren’t treating our volunteers as best as we can as we were focused too much on pleasing our participants. I really appreciate how selfless they’ve been during the whole thing despite not being paid for their work

Always assume that there will be more people than expected

A big issue that we had during the first day was the lack of loot bag items, specifically, the passport, which contains various things that the participants need to, well, participate in the event. This happened because we were expecting only about 70-80% of the attendees to show up and that assumption definitely showed when we had a shortage.

While it seems odd and irrational to some people, we intentionally did it that way because of our experience in the past where we only had a retention rate of around 50-60% regardless of how big the event is and whether the event is paid or not. Of course, paid events have a higher retention rate, but the difference isn’t that big compared to our free events. This leads to having a lot of excess loot bags at the end of the event, which is a waste of money.

What we didn’t realize until the day itself was that this event is a really big deal. The fact that the event was to be held at SMX, one of the biggest convention centers in the country, and that the marketing team did a good job at hyping the event led to a very high retention rate of more than 90%. We even had a bunch of people who wanted to walk-in on the day itself just because they saw the event on social media and wanted to know what was up. We’ve never had this happen before

This is actually a good problem to have. I’ve already become jaded when it comes to retention rates, so imagine my surprise when I was proven wrong. That employing good marketing and actually giving your participants what they want will lead to a very high retention rate. It seems that I wasn’t doing my very best when it comes to organizing my own little events.

When you’re organizing a large event, at the very least, account for 100% of your attendees, if not more.

Find out what your attendees want out of the event

For DevCon Summit 2015, we introduced the Special Tracks, multiple 1-hour classes about various topics falling under UX, IoT, Game Development, Web Development, Mobile Development, DevOps, and Big Data. It was supposed to be something that our attendees can do on the side when they weren’t interested in the current talks happening in the Main Hall or Exhibit Hall.

Unfortunately, we underestimated how many people would actually be interested in this sort of thing. We were greatly overwhelmed at the number of people who wanted to participate in the special tracks. In fact, there were a significant amount of people who went to DevCon Summit specifically for the special tracks. The rooms for the special tracks, which can only hold up to 60 people each, were filled way over the capacity. A lot of people were standing at the back of the room and, even then, there were still a huge amount of people waiting in line outside each rooms. It was astounding!

A lot of people were unhappy because of this incident. It came to a point where some angry participants were verbally harassing our volunteers because of their frustration. This is probably the highlight of the event for us, volunteers, because of how traumatizing the incident has been. This lack of foresight hit us hard and it really tested everyone especially the officers. I was actually afraid of interacting with the participants for a moment because of how heated the atmosphere was during the time.

Despite what happened, we were very fortunate because SMX was gracious enough to skip/speed up the process of acquiring more rooms, so we were able to solve the problem in just a few hours. Under normal circumstances, it takes a least 12 hours to rent a room from SMX. It would have been a complete disaster if we went through the normal process. Our attendees still think that we were very slow to resolve the problems though, so it didn’t help ease their frustrations.

Here are some solutions to think about, so we can avoid this disaster from happening again:

Add a survey in the registration form and ask what the attendee will most likely be doing during the event, so we can predict and adjust the size of the rooms accordingly. Have a pre-registration for the special tracks to relieve the attendees of having to queue up before the special track starts. This way, they will have more time to go around the booths and listen to the talks in the Main Hall or Exhibit Hall. We were able to smooth things out for the 2nd day by having a lot more room for the attendees inside the special tracks. We even drafted an email containing the announcement regarding the special tracks and sent it to them at the end of the 1st day. It was huge learning experience for us and I hope this won’t happen again in future events.

Thanks for reading through this. I hope you can learn from our mistakes when it comes to your own events.


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