Planning a WordCamp: Organizer’s Notes

I was asked recently to “brain dump” my thoughts and experiences about organizing a WordCamp and I thought some of you might find this helpful, too. I was Co-Organizer of WordCamp Pittsburgh in 2016, and Organizer of WordCamp Pittsburgh 2017 & 2018. All of this is as correct as I can make it as of the time it was written. Things might be different when you’re reading this, so be sure to look into the most current rules and guidelines.

I kind of anticipate this being a somewhat “living” post as I’m sure I’ll come up with other stuff later that I forgot to add, but I’ll try to note where I’ve updated information.

This is not meant to be exhaustive or gospel or anything like that. This is simply my experience. I’m not saying I did it all right, and I’m fairly certain I probably did some things wrong. But, we often say in our Meetups that “everyone knows more than someone else,” so I just wanted to share what I know in case it helps someone else out. WordCamps are great events, and they are 100% volunteer-run, and they take a ton of time to plan. Next time you go to a WordCamp, be sure to thank the organizers and volunteers.

The Timeline

This is the overall timeline that I used when planning a WordCamp. This is based on some personal preferences, some feedback received from past attendees, and some on rules. The rules may have changed since I did this, so make sure you do your due diligence to learn what rules apply to you.

  • Figure out who your team is
  • Select some preferred dates
  • Find a Venue
  • Explore Catering options
  • Explore A/V options
  • Submit a budget
  • Contracts
  • Call for Speakers
  • Call for Sponsors
  • Call for Volunteers
  • Select Speakers
  • Announce Speakers
  • Open Tickets
  • Wrangle Everything
  • Order Swag
  • Make sure everyone gets paid
  • Speaker Dinner
  • The Big Day!
  • After Party
  • The follow-up

My plan is to cover each of these areas. I may hit publish before I get to them all because otherwise this might never be live. And knowing that I have an unfinished blog post will keep me coming back to add more. You are welcome to ask me questions, but please also respect the fact that I’m running a business and raising some kids, so give me some grace and patience if I don’t get back to you right away.

Figure out who your team is

Organizing a WordCamp is not a one-person job. There’s a lot of different components and aside from having the extra people-power to get it all done, it’s good to have different opinions go into the planning process. Team members include:

  • Lead Organizer
  • Venue Wrangler
  • Sponsor Wrangler
  • Speaker Wrangler
  • Volunteer Wrangler
  • Video Wrangler
  • Designer
  • Social Media Wrangler
  • Blogging Wrangler

The same person can fill more than one role, as in the same person can be in charge of social media and blogging, or the Sponsor Wrangler can also be the Venue Wrangler. Just make sure no one person is doing too many jobs, if for no other reason than if the person is ill, that’s a lot for someone else to take over.

Not all of these roles are as busy as others or “active” all the time. But it is good to identify as many as possible at the beginning of the planning stages so you’re not scrambling to find someone to cover the role later.

Select some preferred dates

In our planning, we tried to identify some preferred dates for the Camp before we approached venues. Most venues will ask for a date that you’re looking for as one of the first questions. It’s also helpful to make sure you’re not unexpectedly having to deal with a major event in your city on the same date. When picking preferred dates, we considered:

  • major events in Pittsburgh (we have 3 sports teams, and lots of other bigger events that might make it harder to find a venue or draw from our potential attendees)
  • dates of other ‘nearby’ Camps (there are 5-7 WordCamps withing driving distance of Pittsburgh, so we tried to avoid the same weekend or consecutive weekends, if possible)
  • avoiding major holidays
  • avoiding “back to school weekends” since we have a lot of colleges in the area, back to school weekends can make travel and hotel stay more challenging and also affect attendance
  • making sure we had enough time to plan everything based on our preferred timeline. Once we found a preferred date, I put it on the calendar and planned backwards to find our deadlines (for example, tickets on sale 6-8 weeks before Camp date, speakers announced before tickets on sale, speaker submissions due at least 3-4 weeks before announcing/tickets on sale, call for speakers open 4-6 weeks before deadline, etc.

Find a Venue

Always consider parking. Maybe it’s a Pittsburgh-thing, but for every venue that was considered, I made sure there was sufficient parking available as well as proximity to public transportation lines.

Of course, there are other considerations, too.

  • Available rooms – for WordCamp Pittsburgh, we aimed for one large room big enough for all attendees for general sessions, keynotes, morning announcements, etc., and then an appropriate number of appropriately sized breakout rooms for the multiple tracks.
  • Room for Sponsors/Vendors – if you are allowing Sponsors to have a table at certain sponsorship levels, then you need to make sure there’s room for the Sponsors that’s not restricting the flow of traffic, and that’s not too far away from the “action” so your attendees actually visit the Sponsors.
  • Happiness Bar room, if you’re having it
  • Registration area – this area can get crowded when everyone is arriving, so it’s handy to have it slightly away from the main room and Sponsors so it doesn’t get too congested. This area will likely be dismantled later in the day, but it’s really useful to have a larger space in the morning
  • Quiet Room/Area – this is nice to have, is possible, so people can have a quiet place to escape to if needed
  • Lunch space – where are the attendees going to be eating lunch?
  • Coffee/Beverage station – attendees need to be hydrated (and probably most prefer to be caffeinated)

Explore Catering options

Some venues will have a required caterer, or preferred third-party caterers, that you have to use. Other venues may let you use whoever. Know what your options are here so you can budget properly. In my experience, working with onsite caterers is very convenient, and we were lucky enough that the one used for the last two WordCamp Pittsburghs were reasonably priced, so that was an easy decision to make. If onsite catering isn’t available, I suggest contacting some other third-party caterers so you can make an informed budget decision.

Explore A/V options

Similar to Catering options, some venue might have required or preferred vendors for A/V services. Be sure to ask your venue about this before you sign a contract with them, and be sure to include their pricing in your budget considerations.

A/V considerations include microphones for the speakers, and access to screens/projectors. Many WordCamps request camera kits from WordCamp Central, and these usually include lapel mics and receivers, but these are for recording purposes and don’t usually tie unto the venue sound system. If you’re using smaller rooms, mics might not be needed for attendees to hear, but make sure you remind your speakers to speak loudly. If the venue rooms include computers, make sure to ask what software is available for slides (Windows/Macs, Powerpoint, Google Slides, etc.), whether or not there will be an internet connection, are flash drives able to be used, can speakers user their own computers if they want and can these be connected to the screen/projector, and what is the aspect ration for the slides.

Submit a budget

Your budget has to be submitted and approved before your Camp is officially on the calendar. Once you’ve got your numbers (or a really good idea of what they will be) schedule a meeting with your deputy to go over it all and get it approved.

There are sample budgets available in the handbook. Reach out to other WordCamp organizers, too. They are generally a friendly bunch and willing to help each other out.

Contracts

All contracts have to be signed by someone from Central. You can forward them to your deputy, or check in the slack channel for who might be available if you need something sooner.

Call for Speakers

There should be a template in the website draft for the Call for Speakers. Make sure you clarify any particular types of presentations you are looking for, and the deadline for submissions.

There should also be a template for a submission form in the website that automatically creates drafts of the Speaker bios and Topic posts. This is super helpful when it’s time to put it all on the site, but if you have a different process, it isn’t required to use included forms.

Call for Sponsors

There should be a template in the website draft for the Call for Sponsors. You’ll need to set your Sponsorship Level rates and what’s included at each level. Common things to be included are blog posts, social media posts, logo included on the site, logo included on shirts/swag, printed materials, signage, etc., and a table/space at the event. Usually the higher the sponsorship level, the more that’s included. Some WordCamps may choose to limit the number of each level for space reasons, and also because scarcity of availability of the sponsorships.

Call for Volunteers

Timing the Call for Volunteers can be important. If you put put a general Call for Volunteers too early, your potential volunteers might lose interest or make other plans by the time your event rolls around. If you put it out too late, you might not get enough people to help.

Select Speakers

Every WordCamp team will have their own method for choosing speakers. After our speaker deadline, I exported all the the submissions and dumped them into a Word file that was emailed to those helping to pick the speakers and set a Zoom meeting for about a week later to go over them all together. (We had 5 people on the selection committee.) We had a shared Google Sheets file with all of the submission titles listed and we each voted for our top picks. Then we sorted by which had the most votes and went over the results. Generally, the ones with the most votes got selected. If those speakers that were selected had submitted multiple topics, we elimiated their other topics since each speaker would only be doing one session. Then, the ones with 3 or less votes went up for discussion. Were there similar talks submitted by different people and, if so, who was the strongest of those speakers? What topics did we think would be most well received by our local community, based on what meetup topics they liked most or were requested most? What was a timely topic? Did we have good topics for beginners? Were there blogger-friendly topics (not just for developers or beginners)? This process took about 60-75 minutes.

Once they were all selected, our Speaker Wrangler got in touch with all of the speakers and asked if they were still interested and able to attend to be a speaker at our WordCamp. Once we received their confirmation, we were able to mark those presentations as chosen.

Announce Speakers

We generally published our speakers and sessions at once, hopefully with the schedule, so that this information was available before our tickets went on sale. This was done so people could see what the sessions would be before buying a ticket, and so that any potential speakers didn’t buy a ticket that would have to be refunded later.

As far as announcing, we usually did three blog posts, each with about 1/3 of the speakers included. This allowed us to have more content for the blog, and not make the speaker announcement blog post be super long.

Open Tickets

As I mentioned above, we put tickets on sale after or at the same time as speakers and sessions were published. Generally, the open tickets announcement/blog post would reference the speakers/sessions/schedules but it wasn’t the official announcement of those. (see above.)

The WordCamp site has a way to reserve tickets for certain groups, such as speakers, sponsors, and volunteers, so we made sure to reserve those first and the rest of the pool of tickets is open and you just tell everyone you can in every way possible – blog posts, social media, FB group if you have it, slack channel if you have it, etc. Encourage your speakers to announce if from their channels too to spread the message around more. And keep doing it in case people didn’t see it before and to remind them.

Wrangle Everything

There’s a lot of little things to manage along the way. Just keep working on it, and stay connected with your team to make sure they are on top of their tasks, too. This is where it’s really important to have strong volunteers in the different areas to make sure that the lead organizer doesn’t end up having to pick up the slack and do all the extra work.

Order Swag & Other Items

If your Camp budget includes swag for all attendees, make sure you know when your deadlines are to get the swag back in time. We always did t-shirts, so we had to carefully balance when the shirts needed to be ordered, and what sizes to order if the tickets weren’t all sold out yet. I used an Excel spreadsheet and some formulas to try to guesstimate what sizes I would need for the then-unsold tickets since the shirts had to be ordered about two weeks before the event.

Other camps have done water bottles, tech packs, battery backups, etc. These obviously don’t involve sizes, so ordering them just depends on making sure they arrive in time. We also were able to include a speaker gift in the budget, so these needed to be ordered at an appropriate time. Also printed things like our corrugated plastic directions signs, postcards to be used as name badges, etc. Lanyards and general WordPress swag are sent from Central a few weeks before the event, so that wasn’t an issue. Just make sure you have a designated place for things to be shipped to where you have room to store them. (If the lead org has a small apartment, for example, it may make more sense to have things shipped to another team member.)

If you’re doing camera kits, make sure you get in touch with the coordinator 4-6 weeks in advance to make sure you kits are on the right schedule. They will need to know where to ship them, so be prepared with an address. Check the kits when you get them and make sure everything is there. We always like to make sure we had extra batteries on hand, just in case, and we bought extra memory cards for the cameras so we didn’t have to worry about pulling all the footage off the cameras that day before having to ship the kits on to another Camp. Other random things that might be good to have extra on hand are power strips and extension cords.

Make sure everyone gets paid

We had the luck/pleasure/insanity of typically scheduling our event around the same time as the Grand Meetup so the deputies in charge of authorizing payments were going to be away. This meant that we had to coordinate payments in advance, or cover the payment out of our own funds and submit the receipts for reimbursement. Generally, it’s easier if you can get Central to handle the payment, but have a backup plan if its needed.

Speaker Dinner

The Speaker Dinner is a nice way to welcome the Speakers to your Camp weekend, and to say thank you since they are coming on their own dime, but it is not required. If your budget doesn’t allow for this, make sure your speakers know since it is common enough as to be expected, and it gives them the opportunity to make alternative arrangements. If possible, maybe give some suggestions for some unique places they might like to visit while they are in town. Try to make sure it’s over early-ish, because you and the speakers will need their rest to be ready for the big day.

The Big Day!

Be ready to accumulate a lot of steps on your step counter! (One year, I was at 10,000 steps by 11 am, and hit 17,000+ for the whole day.)

My preferred method was to pack everything in my car the night before so I didn’t have to worry about packing it all up early in the morning. Ask your volunteers to arrive about an hour before Registration opens so they can help you unload and get everything set up. A/V Volunteers should get the cameras set up in the rooms and make sure they have a good location for the tripod as well as proximity to an outlet or a place to run the extension cord that won’t be a tripping hazard.

Make sure you registration area is set up first, and that the registration volunteers know what they need to do. Expect people to show up before the official beginning of Registration time.

Make sure Coffee/Water/Beverage station is ready. Your volunteers will likely need this soon, and its one of the first things attendees will look for, after the sign in and get any swag.

If you’re doing breakout sessions, make sure the rooms are labeled. If possible, have the schedule for that room posted just outside it.

Your sponsors will be showing up early, too. If your venue is providing tables/chairs, make sure they are available for the sponsors. If the sponsor wrangler can be there to help with this part, great, as you will be running around everywhere else.

Make sure you have a phone number for your venue contact for the day, in case you need anything. If they have on-site tech support, have their number too. Another phone number to have on hand is for catering, so you can communicate with them about needing more coffee, when lunch needs to be ready, etc.

Opening Remarks

Opening remarks are the official kick-off to the event. This is where you share info that your attendees will need to know, such as restroom locations, breakout room locations, wifi information, and lunch location. Be sure to thank your sponsors and your volunteers. Review the Code of Conduct, and let attendees know who they should contact if they have an issue. Share any last-minute changes to the schedule, if applicable. This may be the only time you’ll have (almost) everyone in the same room, so whatever you need them to know, tell them now.

If you’re having an after party, share the info with them now. Ideally, it’s also on your website, and you may want your room attendant to announce this in the last session. But, people may be in hallway track, late to the session, or skip the wrap-up talk at the end, so make sure you tell them early.

Wrap-Up

Speaking of wrap-up…

At the end of the day, gather everyone together again. Thank the sponsors again, thank the volunteers again. Invite the attendees to join the local meetup group, if they haven’t already. If any sponsors have drawings to do, now is a great time to do them. Ask everyone to make sure they take all of their belongings with them, and ask for extra hands to help clean up, if needed. Remind attendees that you will be sending out a post-WordCamp survey and how important their feedback is to helping to shape and plan future events. Give everyone a round of applause – you did it! Woohoo!!

Clean-up

This is just basically the reverse of all the setup stuff in the morning. Pack up an leftover swag, pack up the camera kits and make sure everything is in them (be sure to copy the videos off of the memory cards onto something else if you’re using the Central-provided memory cards). Return any tables and chairs to their original place and any other requirements from the venue. Make sure you take down any signs you posted around the venue, and be sure to grab any directional signs on your way out. Check every room for items left behind, chargers left plugged in, etc. (You’d be surprised!)

This part usually goes pretty smoothly, and there are usually many hands available to help – use them.

After Party

If you’re having an after party, make sure you have a representative of the team who can be there when attendees start to arrive. As lead org, I preferred to stay at the venue to make sure everything got cleaned up properly, so I asked another volunteer to head over the to after party venue to keep things running smoothly there.

There are no rules about what must be included in the after party, except that it must be 18+. There is no obligation for the WordCamp team to provide beverages, snacks, or entertainment. Even if you’re not providing anything, its a good idea to give the chosen venue a heads-up so they know there will be an extra influx of people there so they can plan their staffing accordingly. One year, we did our “after party” at the venue and had soft drinks and water and pizza delivered. Another year, we had it at a nearby bar/restaurant that was willing to keep an area blocked off for our attendees for a little while (but not the whole night.)

Go and mingle with the attendees. Chat with the sponsors. This part was always super rewarding to me because the rest of the day was basically a blur, but at the after party I got to sit down and talk with people and get some feedback on the day.

The follow-up

After the WordCamp is over, you’ll need to do the final wrap-up call with your deputy, and make sure all receipts are turned in for reimbursement they can close out the financial side of your Camp. If you have Camera Kits from Central, make sure you ship them on to their next destination. Send out the follow-up email to attendees with the survey link. I always made sure to thank them for attending, and to thank the volunteers and sponsors again. Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Planning a WordCamp is A LOT of work. But, if you have a great team to help you, it can be a very rewarding experience. I loved seeing the smiles on the attendees faces throughout the day, and to get to meet the people I only knew from Facebook/Twitter/Meetup chats in person.

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