How to organise community events

Since my first days working at Regus, events have been some of the things I enjoyed the most. Organising an event is like throwing a party: you have to think of what you want, who you’ll invite, what will you do, buy and prepare food… I’ve organised big events and tiny ones, and from every single one of them I’ve learn something that helped me organise the next one. I still have a long way to go, but I am on it.

In the last months I have been organising two different community events for Asquera. Having the chance to work with different kinds of events has given me the opportunity to work on the organisation process and discover the tools that work best for me. I’ll be sharing some of my latest learnings about organising community events, and I hope you’ll enjoy it!

The first of these two events is the Elasticsearch Berlin user group. Elasticsearch is a piece of software that lets developers take full control of the search function in their applications. Asquera uses Elasticsearch almost since it went out and they have been running this event for a while.

On a monthly basis, developers using this technology and people interested in learning more about it to see if it is a fit for their projects get together to talk about their experiences and ask and answer questions. At the same time there is an introduction to Elasticsearch for total newbies.

This event happens every last Tuesday of the month at co.up, the coworking space that’s run by Alex, Thilo and Aleks from Cobot and where I used to work. It is a small world :).

The other event, MRGN, is very different in form and content. MRGN is also a monthly event, but is is different to other meetups in Berlin because it happens in the morning and is about talks (as opposed to other breakfast meetups happening in the city).

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While we serve breakfast, the core of the event is a talk by an entrepreneur or technical manager, who share with the rest of the attendees insights on subjects as diverse as remote work and domain driven design. After the talk and the Q&A attendees have a chance to chat with a diverse crown that includes social activists, designers, developers, CEOs, investors, entrepreneurs from abroad…

As with any project, there are different phases I consider when planning these events.

Planning

This is the conception phase, in which you get together with the other organisers or initial sponsors and stakeholders to decide what you want to do, for whom, and how you are going to make it happen.

Some things you want to plan much, much  ahead in case you plan a regular community event are:

  • What is the topic of the meetup?
  • What is the name of the meetup?
  • Which are the possible dates? Check the calendar of events in your city to make sure dates don’t collide. You don’t want your event to be shadowed by a major conference or established meetup that targets your audience.
  • Which are the possible locations? Many coworking spaces sponsor space for free meetups (like co.up in Berlin, coSfera in Cordoba and Locus Workspace in Prague), and some other times you can ask companies to let you use a room (SysEleven and ThoughtWorks have sponsored space for MRGN, for example). If you are organising a bigger conference, hotels and specialised venues are where you should look at.
  • How many people do we want to host?
  • Will it be an open event, or will we charge a fee? If so, how much?
  • Who’s our target attendee and how do we reach him/her?
  • Do we want to host a talk?* If so, what about? By whom?
  • Do we want to host a panel?* If so, what about? By whom?
  • Do we want to host an unconference?*
  • Do we want to host any workshops?*

The answers to these questions will affect how your event has to be organised (do you have to sell tickets? Do you have to worry about a different location each time?) and how much effort you have to put on it (are you aiming at 30 or 300 participants?)

Our events are more or less pre-planned, always happen in the same locations, have a fixed regular date and always follow a certain structure, so we have a very relaxed, bottom-up conception process each month, where we almost only have to care about finding speakers and booking catering and video recording.

Speakers

If any member from our community has manifested an interest in speaking, we reach out and find out what the topic they want to share is. If it fits in the thematic and it has not been discussed recently, we have a candidate.

Sometimes, when we have no volunteers, we look at people we know and would like to hear, or ask people we trust for recommendations. Once we’ve done our homework and checked what topics they could speak about and wether they are a fit for our group, we reach out.

I’d personally love to have a call for talks process at some point in the future – I am a big fan of conferences that are organised in this way, and I think having an anonymous platform where people can submit their ideas shamelessly is a good way to keep events open and diverse.

I’m trying to reach speakers as soon as possible for each meetup, preferably with at least 5 weeks ahead. This way we can make sure we have enough room for planning and we don’t find ourselves without a speaker, as it happened in MRGN in November 2014.

Having a speaker for the next meetup already gives you a chance of doing promotion in this month’s event, which is a great way of ensuring people will know what to expect if they don’t read meetup notifications or miss your tweets.

Budget

You should also take a look at your budget, see how much you can spend and who’s going to run with the costs. Sponsors management may be a very interesting topic for another blog post don’t you think? For now, consider that the main sponsorship-spending thing are

  • Venue
  • Catering
  • Media recording
  • Equipment (projector, mics…)
  • Print-outs

Additionally, if you organise a bigger event, you may want to consider

  • Travel costs
  • Hosting costs
  • Personel

For MRGN and Elasticsearch we are lucky to have wonderful venue sponsors (SysEleven and co.up coworking, respectively) that also provide us with all the equipment we need; and we host it ourselves with no external help; so we only have to worry about catering costs in both events, and about video costs for MRGN.

Catering

Catering is another big topic for event management. Investing a little bit of money in keeping people’s cups and stomachs filled up is always a good idea. One of our main claims at MRGN is ‘come and eat breakfast while you learn’. Providing healthy and tasty food that covers all the specifics (vegans? checked) and looks good gives you points.

There is still room for improvement there, though. The Elasticsearch group often leaves with an empty stomach, since we have drinks at co.up but it is always hard to know how many attendees will come by.

I’d also like to vary more and to make our catering tables look better – many years ago a customer at Regus organised a series of wine and cheese tasting events called ‘Beauty & Wine’ that were wonderfully branded; I’d love to put some time in making our catering scream ‘MRGN! MRGN!’.

Mrgn Berlin 2014
Mrgn Berlin 2014

I am guilty for leaving thing for the last minute in many cases and I am trying to get better at it, so I have created a calendar that reminds me to do things with enough time ahead:

Arrange catering, video recording, book room, contact the speaker, create event in meetup, schedule first tweets to warm up, schedule tweets to confirm location if we move, send tweet to promote speaker and announce talk, ask to RSVP…

Don’t be afraid of over planning, calendars and lists are an event manager’s best friends (only until we wait for a decent event management app to come out!).

Execution

The room

The day of the event! I arrive between 1h and 30m before to the location to make sure everything looks fine, move the tables and chairs around and wait for the catering if there is any.

I like to leave an area free of chairs around the catering area where people can talk and relax. Forcing people to seat limit the amount of people that can form part of a conversation, and also make it more awkward to join a group.

Another thing I like to so is use colour in the room. Simple touches of colour can brand the space – most event spaces tend to be very neutral to accommodate to any kind of event, and can sometimes be boring. Go for one or two colours – too much is always too much. And remember that you don’t need to spend a lot of money for something to look great: posters, napkins, balloons, pillows… are great cheap things that you can use to give that touch of colour that will make your attendees enjoy the place and your event look great in video and pictures.

Rails Girls Prague 2012
Rails Girls Prague 2012

Give aways

When we organised the Elascticsearch Hackathon we also had to manage accreditations and hand off wi-fi forms to all attendees – leave some room to prepare these things before your guests come in!

One good idea is to have any information you need to deliver already prepared in what many call ‘welcome packs‘. Some of the things you may want to give include an authorisation to use attendees images in videos or pics you’ll share, any internet connection details they need to use, a schedule of the event, any takeaways your sponsors have asked to give away…

For registration, if you want to have any, having a printed out list of attendees to check people in may come in handy, though I am on the look for a good event check-in app.

Communications

The day of the event I like to be relaxed and able to stay in the room with little to do. If something comes up, I’d rather be free to act on, rather than putting off any other fires! One way of freeing up time is scheduling some tweets in advance using buffer or a similar tool – this gives me room to fav, share and comment anyone else’s tweets without being buried in my social media feeds and left out of the event.

Introductions

As a host I also like to chat with the attendees and make introductions after the talk, after all, we are in this for the people, and it is only thanks to pre-preparation that I can do so. Listen to people, try to understand what they want to get out from the event and introduce them to some other attendees. This will not only free you up to go and do your things but also help attendees connect and enjoy the event.

Don’t be afraid of going outside

If the weather allows, having part of your event outside is a great way to relax people. Who wants to be siting inside when you can… sit outside? Not much more to say about this.

Rails Girls Cordoba 2014
Rails Girls Cordoba 2014

Control

Unfortunately, pre-preparation can’t save you from the unexpected. Then there’s the fact that events have peak busy times.

In a workshop, it can be the installation moment, when the internet can be slow, attendees can have issues with software updates… Keep calm, invite everyone to take it with humour, and be creative.

When I organised Rails Girls in Prague in 2012 our Internet connection failed all the time and did not let attendees work properly. We ended up bringing an antenna and putting it on top of a pile of pizza boxes to get Internet from a nearby building. I can’t tell you more about it, but it solved our problem – attendees could finish the installation of the software they needed for the workshop and we had a long day full of fun and code.

Always have a solution on hand or know who to ask ;).

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One of the top peak times in an event is registration. At the beginning of the event all attendees come in about half an hour, we have to check them in, help them find a seat, give them the internet passwords… Even at the most relaxed, DIY community event there is SOME attendee check in to be done.

In Campus Party Europe 2012 I worked in the attendee registration team. We checked in and assigned a tent to over 7000 attendees. Each attendee had a badge with a picture, their name and company information, and a bar code. We used check-in devices for this task, which accelerated the process but also meant only so many of us could help with that.

My top advice for check-in would be have as many lists or checkin devices as you can. You don’t want check-in to create a bottle neck!

2014-10-25_1615

Keep an eye on your twitter hashtags to learn about any questions, comments  or complaints from the attendees; always answer and act fast to correct anything that’s going wrong.

Make sure the vent goes on schedule and that everyone can leave when they expected to leave. Some of your attendees will have to go to work, some will have to take a flight and some will plainly have dates to get ready for. Be respectful with that. On the other hand, don’t try to make plans yourself: As the event host you are expected to stay there until the room is empty and clean, the keys have been returned and the last person wants to stop chatting or go home. Unless… you have a convincing reason to postpone your chat to some other time!

Closure

Once the event is done, it’s time to say thanks and see you soon.

It is polite to thanks sponsors, attendees, speakers and suppliers publicly or in private for coming. A good idea is also to let them know how to stay in touch and when the meetup will take place again.

People enjoy memories. Offer them a place to share pictures, videos and slides. We have a vimeo channel for Mrgn, for example, where everyone can listen to past interventions.

Last, if you have the time and skill, I am a big fan of post-event blog posts. We’ve written after some Elasticsearch events and after Eurucamp (which Florian co-organised) and I wrote about Mrgn in my blog. Post event posts are a great opportunity to say thanks once again – don’t forget to be nice!


Closure closes this (huge) post too. I hope you found this useful (or at least interesting or entertaining!). I know some of you have broad experience organising events, so I am looking forward to hearing what you think. Have a great weekend!

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