Every now and then I get people asking me about how to run a conference. One thing I encourage is that people start small and build from there. I ran the Winnipeg Code Camp for a number of years before evolving it into Prairie Dev Con, and the foundation of the code camp is the base that Prairie Dev Con grew out of.
So below are my thoughts on how to run a one day, multi-track, Code Camp.
What's a Code Camp
Code Camps became popular in the 00's. They were free one day technology conferences that focused on showing off technology (so more code, less marketechture). This is the true volunteer event – low budget, high volunteerism, but still high quality and lots of fun. All costs are covered by sponsors and there's never an entry fee for attendees.
Ok, so let's start planning our Code Camp!
The Code Camp Format
For a first-time code camp, I would suggest doing a single day event on a Saturday, running two or three tracks of sessions (this will be based on your market size and speaker pool). Schedule will look like this:
8:30 – 9:30 Breakfast/Registration
9:30 – 9:45 Welcome
9:45 – 10:45 Session
11:00 – 12:00 Session
12:00 – 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 2:00 Session
2:15 – 3:15 Session
3:30 – 4:30 Session
4:30 – 5:00 Wrap-Up
That gives you 10 sessions for a two track or 15 sessions for a three track setup.
Step 1 – Gauge Interest
A big part of a Code Camp's success is the energy and commitment that an organizer brings to it, but you also need to know if your community shares your vision and will support the event. Reaching out to local technology user groups to see if their organizers and members share the same excitement is your starting point. It also makes it easier to promote the event if you can get leaders of those communities on board.
Now realize you're just gauging interest here, not commitment. I ran a PrDC where community leaders – who were all very well meaning – said I'd get well over 300 attendees out; I struggled to get 180. The reality is that until you run your first event you won't have an idea of how many people you'll actually get out, so early on you're just gauging interest and not looking for commitment.
You also need to gauge interest with the people who will be speaking at the Code Camp. We'll talk about doing a call-for-speakers later, but especially for an initial event you want to have a good number of speakers already lined up and committed to the event.
Step 2 – Source Venues
If there's enough interest, now is the time to look at venues. For a Code Camp you want to do this on the cheap. Don't even bother with hotels or conference centers. You're first hit should be to local schools, colleges, and universities. Here's why:
They'll already have lecture halls and classrooms set up with projectors (verify that projectors are included in room rental prices)
They're usually cheaper to rent rooms space from then hotels/conference centers
No classes happen on Saturdays (typically) so space will be more generally available
They can be located on more convenient public transportation routes (buses, subways, etc.) so easier to get to for people
If you have any contacts with the administration, you may be able to pitch this as a good community event that students will benefit from and get a discount on the rooms.
When sourcing venues keep in mind that you need n+1 rooms, where n is the number of tracks you're running. The +1 is for your plenary room – the place that all attendees will meet for meals, for the welcome/kickoff in the morning, and for the wrapup at the end of the day. All rooms should be close together so attendees aren't required to go walking all over the place.
Make sure that you ask about parking – if its free, if there's paid lots nearby and what the costs are, and what the street parking rules are. You'll want to communicate this to your attendees.
Also ask about internet access – is there public wi-fi, is there a charge, is a passcode required, etc. This information will be important to provide to speakers as well if any require internet access for their planned talks.
Finally, while this shouldn't be an issue with building codes and current laws, make sure that the venue you select is easily accessible for people with disabilities.
Step 2.1 – Food
For your first code camp food is definitely optional – although if you decide to not do food you should try to ensure that there's enough restaurant options and coffee shops for attendees nearby the venue.
If you do decide to do food check what your venue's policies are. Most venues will have a policy that you must use their own food services and can't bring from outside sources; and that also means that price will be higher because venue-based food is almost always more expensive (always in my experience). This is where gauging interest is important because since you aren't charging a fee there's no way to know how many people will show up. If you charged a fee, even if they no-show you could still cover their food, but in this case its all about estimation.
You could run your first code camp, gauge attendees, and use that to base future events off of and incorporate food later. Or if you're confident in your estimations then figure out a reasonable menu. Code camps are the only event where I think continental breakfasts are ok. Also look at sandwiches, pizza, or chicken fingers & salad for lunch – typically on the lower side of cost and generally liked by most people. Do take into account people's dietary needs (allergies, cultural preferences, etc.). I avoid any food option based on pork or seafood and stick to chicken or beef from a meat point of view. You could have vegetarian and vegan folks as well. Just make sure when you review the available menu that there are options in case you need alternate meals.
Step 3 – Who's Running This?
Now that you have your venue, a date, and food cost, it's time to start approaching sponsors. But first, this is when you should tighten up your leadership organization if you haven't already. These types of events get run by very well meaning individuals who want to improve their communities, but they're also run by people who aren't perfect and stuff can happen (I blogged about a community event gone bad here). So let's talk about how you can organize this.
For the Winnipeg Code Camp although I'd organize it we'd use the Winnipeg .NET User Group as a neutral and already set up organization to run finances, sponsorship, and communication through. Finances because a community group account was already set up and the guy who handles finances was willing to be the pass through for everything. It's also good to have a neutral body be the host for sponsorship – some companies don't want the perception that they're partnering with competition to put on an event, but they'll definitely sponsor a neutral organization's event (so they're sponsoring the .NET User Group's Code Camp, not putting one on with competitors).
Here are options:
Leverage an existing organization to act as the "host". A technology user group is ideal for this, however note that whoever is seen as hosting is also owning liability for the event as well. We'll talk about that in a second.
Write up an organizer's agreement stating who is responsible for what and who is accepting liability for the event. Yes this sounds scary, but its a necessity. The reality is that putting on any type of event, free or not, holds some level of risk that needs to be mitigated. This also protects all organizers.
Create a corporation to run your events out of. This is probably extreme though, but its what I ended up doing for my conferences. For code camp events you probably don't want to go through this rigor but it does dot ALL the i's and cross ALL the t's. It's also costly and time consuming.
A note on liability – this is always a consideration when running an event. Even if you're the nicest person in the world putting on a free community event for the betterment of the community, if someone eats bad food or trips and breaks their leg you could still be named in a lawsuit. Event insurance is very inexpensive. For Prairie Dev Con I pay $300 - $500 which covers me for food-borne illness and any type of injury that could occur while at the conference. The insurance will need to be made by a person or entity though, and unless you're running this under a structured legal entity then somebody may be the one to own the liability coverage (and any liability).
Step 3 – Sponsors
Now that you have venue costs and an estimate on food costs, you can approach sponsors – which is how code camps are typically funded. You should create a package you can present to sponsors:
What is the event and what is the vision for it, what are the goals.
Who is involved and who will the attendees be.
What is the ask of the sponsor.
What will they get in return (logo recognition on marketing, website, opportunity to do a presentation, etc.)
I would not put a limit on the number of sponsorships you have available. Have a number that you need to get to in mind to cover your costs, but if you get more sponsors that's ok – you can spend the money for prizes or extra perks at the code camp. Just have the mindset that you want to spend ALL of the money on the event – there's rules/tax implications for volunteer groups who carry money forward and I don't know them all (I have an incorporation now so I just run stuff through that).
Step 4 – Website and Ticketing
You may want to get a website set up before you approach Sponsors, just so they can see that there's an online presence and the event is legit – or you may not if you have personal connections to those you're looking to get sponsorship from Regardless, you should get some website up as early as possible once you have a good idea on whether the event will be a go or not.
You will also need some way for attendees to register. There's lots of ticketing/event-registration sites out there, my fav is Picatic. Your registration method needs to be more than just collecting a name/email and tracking registration numbers. There's a few key pieces of info you need to ask.
Food Allergies/Preferences – Does the person have any food allergies? Are there any preferences you need to be aware of (personal preference, religious/cultural, etc.)?
Emergency Contact Info – In the event something happens, who should be contacted.
Consent to Media – Are you planning on taking pictures and posting it to social media? You may want to get their permission to use them in pictures online. At one conference I had an attendee ask that she not be included in any event pictures because of fears about an ex-boyfriend who was looking for her.
Most good ticketing sites will let you add custom questions to the process, which is the easiest way to collect this information. (Note – one way to handle the "can I take your picture or not" practically is to provide a slightly different name badge (colour, ribbon, etc.) to identify those who wish to not be photographed).
Step 5 – Speakers
You can approach speakers and sponsors at the same time, but I put it here in the order because you need to have sponsors lined up first to ensure you can cover venue costs and book the venue. Ideally you start gauging speaker interest early and continue looking throughout the organization process so you can have some people/sessions ready to post on the website when it goes live.
For code camps, speakers tend to be locally sourced and while outside speakers can definitely be invited a code camp usually doesn't have the dollars to pay for travel or hotel. I've known many speakers (and have done this myself as a speaker) who will pay their own way for a code camp, but I see code camps as a great opportunity to groom new and upcoming speakers and give them a stage to help improve their presentation skills. The point of a code camp is to learn from each other, not come out and see big-name speakers.
In fact for my code camps I wouldn't vette out speaker submissions – I ran it as a first come/first served basis. I would however discuss with a speaker if they submitted a duplicate talk as someone else, or if we had an imbalance of sessions (i.e. you don't need 5 talks on Intro to ASP.NET) and work it that way. I would also offer guidance and coaching for those that are new to speaking.
Call for speakers can be as simple as providing the info to various community leaders to spread through their membership groups, leveraging social media, posting to services like SpeakNet, and also asking sponsors if they have anyone in their organizations who are interested (but not for a sales/marketing point of view – has to be about code/technology). Of course you should have a method for people to submit their session submissions that can be shared on your event website and social media. I use Survey Monkey for this – you can build a "survey" that captures speaker info and their session details for free.
Step 6 – Promotion
Time to promote the event! Social media helps out a lot here, but there's still some things that will require in-person contact of some sort. Working personal connections to get the word out works wonders, especially if its seen as a low cost, community driven, learning event open to everyone (like a code camp typically is).
Also look for non-traditional local industry groups to help get the word out – groups that deal with management/decision-maker level folks in IT (i.e. ICTAM) or Chambers of Commerce. Newspapers will sometimes allow events to be posted for free in their business sections under upcoming events.
Speaking of newspapers, definitely reach out to local media at print, radio, and TV either to get visibility before the event or at the event.
Step 7 – Prep for The Event
The event is coming up and its time to start prepping for it! Whether a low-budget code camp or a for-pay single day event, here are some tips for getting ready!
One rule of thumb I've learnt is that you need to invest money into the areas of your event that provide the most value. Especially for a code camp, you shouldn't worry too much about all the "nice-to-haves"; you don't need t-shirts or fancy badge holders or big banners. If, after you cover the basics, you still have budget left over then by all means look at adding some special things to the event. But don't put them at the top of your list.
Nametags – Amazon is your friend here! You can get plastic name-tag holders and lanyards for much cheaper than paying retail at places like Staples. If you're only doing a small amount to 200 nametags, you can print them off yourself with a home printer and nametag printer sheets (also available at Amazon).
Signage – Staples is actually a great place to get posters made. a 4x3 feet poster is about $35 here in Canada, which is pretty inexpensive.
Mobile App – I used Guidebook for Prairie Dev Con Regina 2015 and was very happy with it! It provides iOS and Android apps with full schedule and the ability to build your own schedule, as well as other features like showing venue maps and custom lists. And its FREE for events under 200!
Print Schedules – Event with the mobile app, many people still like to have a physical, paper schedule in hand. Black and white is fine unless you have extra funds to do colour. Make sure that whatever you print matches what's on the website and mobile app
Confirm Venue Access and Review Schedule – Make sure that you confirm that you'll have access to your venue space before your event is scheduled to start. You'll at least need to be there a few hours before your event starts to do any setup (registration table, signage, etc.). Make sure that security for the venue is aware of your event and what time you'll be getting access to the rooms. Confirm numbers and times for food. If you need to drop anything off the night before, know where the materials will be locked up and who will be able to get you access.
Communicate with Your Attendees – Make sure via email, social media, blog, etc. to remind attendees (and speakers) about venue, times, locations in the venue, and the schedule, and where to get more information. Don't forget to include information about venue parking! One thing I strongly suggest is to have an Attendee FAQ area on your event website where you can post all this information and make it easy to refer people to it (just send them the URL). People are busy and providing a friendly reminder is definitely appreciated as they may have registered a while back and not had a chance to keep up with event announcements.
Social Media – Make sure you have all your social media accounts created and hashtags decided on.
Step 8 – Run the Event!
Time for the big day! Running a code camp is a lot of fun, but if its your first time it can seem daunting. No worries though, you'll do great!
Remember the timing format we talked about earlier:
8:30 – 9:30 Breakfast/Registration
9:30 – 9:45 Welcome
9:45 – 10:45 Session
11:00 – 12:00 Session
12:00 – 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 2:00 Session
2:15 – 3:15 Session
3:30 – 4:30 Session
4:30 – 5:00 Wrap-Up
Let's break this down.
7:00 AM – 8:30 AM
Get to the venue early, at least an hour ahead of time based on how much pre-event prep you've completed. Make sure the venue has a table outside your main meeting room for registration. I usually put out nametags alphabetically on a table and let attendees pick them up, with one or two people available to help and re-organize the tags. If there's any swag or materials (like schedule hand outs), have them available at the registration desk as well. If there's any signage you want to post giving attendees directions get that up during this time.
8:30 AM – 9:30 AM
Direct attendees to where food is and the plenary room. In the room, have a laptop setup with a rolling PowerPoint with information like venue wi-fi (if available), link to session surveys (Survey Monkey is great for this as well), thanks to sponsors with sponsor logos displayed, and any other important information.
9:30 AM – 9:45 AM
This is where you welcome everyone to the event, introduce yourself and the organizers, thank the sponsors, and go over housekeeping things like reviewing the venue map (point out both rooms and things like where bathrooms are), reviewing the schedule, where attendees can submit session surveys, encouraging them to use social media and what accounts/hashtags to use, and how you'll be drawing for prizes at the end of the day (if you are). Don't forget to thank the speakers and the attendees – code camps need everyone to succeed and the effort people put forward, even just giving up a Saturday to attend, should be acknowledged.
9:45 AM – 12:00 PM
The rest of the day will be all about the sessions. As an organizer you should be making rounds ensuring that everything is going well. Your biggest issue during this time will be technology issues – people not being able to connect to a projector, laptops crashing, projector bulbs burning out, etc. If you can, have a backup projector of your own on hand and a back up laptop so that worst case scenario files can be transferred over. At one code camp I had a presenter have his VGA port die between when he successfully practiced that morning to when his session was that afternoon. Weird stuff can happen.
Also gauge social media – watch for how people are enjoying the event and if they post any concerns or issues.
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Lunch time! Use this time to make any announcements, updates, or reminders in the plenary room.
1:00 PM – 4:30 PM
Same as the morning sessions.
4:30 PM – 5:00 PM
Here you bring everyone together for a wrap-up. Here's where you thank everyone again for coming, thank the speakers and sponsors, review the days events, and do any prize draws.
Don't be surprised if the number of people you started the day with is smaller at the end. Not everyone can make it the whole day, and that's ok.
Once you're done, all materials you had are packed up and you're ready to leave, this is a great opportunity to go out somewhere for after-code-camp beers/food/whatever and continue the awesome community building!
Once the event is done, your role as organizer isn't. There's still some after-event items you need to do.
Send out an email to your sponsors thanking them for their support and also providing information on how well the event went. Sponsors want to know that their sponsorship dollars were put to good use, so let them know!
Send out an email to attendees thanking them for coming out and encouraging them to continue the conversations started at the code camp – give links to various user groups in the community, show where they can get session materials, and let them know where to submit feedback for a post-event survey (you should have a post-event survey btw…Survey Monkey is great for this).
Do a post-event review with the other organizers. Talk about what you could do better next year, what you'd want to keep the same, and how you can make the event better.
Do you have money left over? You shouldn't but if you do figure out what to do with it. Finding a local tech-related (or not) charity to donate the money to is a good option if you have no other ideas. Remember that the idea is to have no left-over dollars by the end of the event.
And That's It!
We covered a LOT of information in this post, and if you felt a little hesitant before you may be feeling very hesitant now. PLEASE DON'T BE! Running the Winnipeg Code Camp was one of the most rewarding and fun experiences for me, and putting on a code camp can be a great experience for you too! If you have any questions or comments, or want to discuss in more detail how to get your code camp or one-day event off the ground, please either leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter!
Thanks for reading!