Closing the Books on WordCamp Boston 2011

Photo by Peter Wood, cc-by-nc-nd license.

It’s been nearly 6 months now since WordCamp Boston 2011, so I figure its a good a time for the official wrap-up post. (OK, so it’s long overdue – I’ll spare you the obligatory blogger’s apology).

In this post I’ll cover some of the facts and figures from WCBOS 2011, talk about what went well and share some of what went not-so-well. I look forward to your comments and responses, especially from attendees who have (constructive!) feedback that will help with the planning of WCBOS 2012.

  1. Attendance
  2. Budget
  3. What Went Well
  4. What Went Not-So-Well
  5. Looking Forward to WordCamp Boston 2012


1. Attendance

534 people registered online in advance, of which 64 were “late registrations” (too close to the event to be guaranteed lunch or a shirt). There were 66 walk-up registrations, and 26 volunteers. That’s a grand total of 626 registered attendees.

Note: this doesn’t fully equate to ticket revenue, as various levels of sponsorships included tickets, speakers recieved complimentary registration (though many did also purchase tickets), volunteers generally did not purchase tickets (though some did), etc.

According to our records from the registration / badge pickup desk, we had 64 no-shows (people who had registered but never picked up a badge). Interesting that the no-shows, walk-ins, and late registrations were all roughly 65 people – not sure if that pattern holds true more generally for WordCamps or similar events. This brings the total attendance for WordCamp Boston 2011 to roughly 562 (including volunteers) or 536 (without volunteers).

2. Budget

Running a WordCamp is a significant challenge, even with a strong organizing team. There were many points in the planning during which WCBOS was officially “in the red” and was scheduled to cost more than it took in. In the end, however, we ended up coming out in the positive, thanks in part to sponsorships and in part to patron registrations as well as late registrations and walk-in registrations (who, because they did not get a guaranteed T-Shirt or Lunch, were net positive to the camp budget).

Summary

WCBOS 2011 took in (via sponsorships and ticket sales, including parking) a grand total just shy of $40,000. We spent a grand total of  $32,500.

As a whole, the camp was profitable to the tune of just under $7,500.

Of that $7,500, the majority (nearly $6000) of the surplus this year remains with the WordPress Foundation, to support other camps, and the broader mission of the foundation.

The WordPress Foundation collects revenue on behalf of camps and pays vendors on their behalf, greatly reducing the personal risk and complexity of financials for camp organizers, and we’re happy to be able to help support their long term mission.

The remaining (approx) $1500, mostly from walk-in registrations, is in a WordCamp Boston account, to be used to help kick-start next year’s camp.

Income Breakdown

The two sources of revenue for WordCamp Boston 2011 (as I suspect they are for most WordCamps) were sponsorships and ticket sales. Ticket sales make up slightly more (58%) of the revenue than Sponsorships.

What this shows is that while only 7% of tickets sold were “Patron” tickets ($80), those patrons represent 14% of the ticket revenue. Student tickets represented only 4% of the total sold. (These figures exclude walk-ins, who were mostly “regular” attendees).

Lesson Learned: While keeping camp prices affordable is critical, don’t be shy about offering “patron” style tickets, especially if sponsorship is going to be difficult.

As you can see from these graphs, the great majority of sponsor revenue came from our platinum (1), gold (2), and silver (7) sponsors. (We didn’t count “Patron” tickets as a sponsorship this year, but if we had, their collective contribution would have been about 75% of the contribution made by the platinum sponsor).

Expense Breakdown

The greatest expenses of WordCamp Boston were, as expected:

  1. Food (Lunch, coffee, snacks during the main conference days):
  2. The “After Party” saturday night
  3. T-Shirts
  4. Other venue costs (janitorial, setup, etc)

These four categories together account for over 85% of the cost of the event. The remainder was split across: printing for the programs and signs, event insurance (required for both the camp venue and the reception venue), Audio-visual costs (including a camera unfortunately damanged at the event), a brunch for speakers, and lanyards, along with a raft of miscellaneous costs.

All in all, we’re very happy to have put on an event (in Boston, in July) at an effective cost of about $60 per attendee, including 1.5 days of content plus a party on Saturday night.

3. What Went Well

At the risk of being self-congratulatory, I think the overall camp was a resounding success. To put on an event over 2.5 days (including the pre-conference workshop) and two venues (BU and the NERD center) for over 500 attendees for under $40,000 is no small feat.

Doing so while keeping ticket prices to attendees at $40 is a testament to our sponsors, our volunteers, and my colleagues on the organizing team, as well as the help and guidance we received from the WordPress Foundation.

We were very happy with the overall quality, consistency, and breadth of speakers and sessions, including a significant percentage from the local New England WordPress community.

We also had a great mix of very WordPress-specific content with broader sessions on marketing, content strategy, and other topics of importance to the WordPress community that go beyond just the platform itself.

The venue (available to us thanks to our sponsoring organizations at BU) easily handled the 500+ attendees without major incident.

The beginniners’ workshop the day leading into the conference was sold-out and well received – definitely something we should do again, and other WordCamps should consider doing either in parallel with or before “regular” content.

The organizing committee and volunteers all really stepped up to get done what needed to get done with very little friction. I can’t imagine a better team of folks to work with on such an event.

4. What Went Not-So-Well

Every event, in my experience, results in some lessons learned. I’ll share what we’ve been thinking about since the camp here, but I hope attendees (and other organizers, volunteers, sponsors, etc) will also take advantage of the comments below to add others.

Having the After-party at a different site than the main conference

This was the most frequent issue I heard about from attendees I spoke to. In short, we made the decision to host the after-party at the NERD center, rather than on the conference site at BU. In large part, this was a decision made largely because holding the reception (with alchohol) on-site at BU would have been cost-prohibitive. (Serving alchohol would require also serving food at relatively costly catering prices, as well as employing additional security, food service staff, and janitorial staff).

Holding the reception at the Microsoft NERD center was far more cost-effective (primarily due to their allowing off-site catering and alchohol service), and could accomodate an unknown number of attendees more easily. (Locating a commercial venue in greater Boston which can accomodate somewhere between 50 and 500 people showing up for drinks and food on a Saturday night in July is impossible).

So, we faced the choice of having no after-party or having one off-site from BU. We figured enough of the community knew the NERD center well, and it was reasonably easy to get to from BU (by transit and by car), that it was worth the risk of having two venues.

In reality, it seems, many attendees never made it to the reception. It’s likely that if the reception were at the same venue, inertia might have held many more attendees on site than we lost due to the transition.

In the end, we had more food and drink planned for the reception than we needed. We went from worrying about not having enough room to having too much food for those who did make it.

Captive catering

Boston University’s George Sherman Union proved to be in many ways an excellent venue:

  • Wifi coverage did well at handling 500 bandwidth-loving camp attendees
  • Commuting to the venue by public transit and by car were both reasonable
  • The patio proved a delight given the weather
  • The BU event staff were very helpful and responsive before, during, and after the event

What it did impose, however, is the requirement that all prepared food had to be provided by the University’s catering service. It isn’t that catering was substandard (I thought the food itself was fine) but that the costs are so high relative to external (off-site) options.

We worked around this by having a relative simple breakfast Saturday am (coffee, bagels, muffins), simple box lunches Saturday, and then a “frozen novelties” break Sunday afternoon, but no lunch on the second day. Even with this scaled back offering, catering costs were over a third of the overall budget (and that is not including the food for the after party, which is included under “reception” in the graph above).

Venue issues

We did also have some issues with the venue itself: difficulty keeping some rooms appropriately air-conditioned in the July heat, water leaks in one room, and A/V difficulty in another.

The BU event staff were fantastic and responsive, working to minimize / react to these issues as much as possible, and I’m not sure what else we as an organizing team could have done differently, but we will be looking more carefully next year at what the issues might be and how we can minimize their impact on the attendee experience.

Parking

We pre-sold parking along with tickets, and also were able to make same-day-paid parking available in BU lots. In the end this just caused more confusion than it was worth: lots backed up as large numbers of attendees showed up in relatively short periods of time and overwhelmed the parking attendants, who had to deal with both looking up prepaid attendees on a list and taking payment from those who didn’t prepay. It was inefficient and frustrating to some attendees.

Having collected money for parking spaces which then had to be paid to BU also complicated the budget unnecessarily, making it more difficult in the long run to run reports against the WordCamp.org ticket sales system by attendee type. This also impacted the attendees page on the site, which listed some folks multiple times and omitted others who had registered.

In some way, having pre-paid also raised attendee expectations that the lot should be close, easy to find, and should not have a wait.

What could we have done differently?

It would probably have been more efficient to simply offer pay-as-you-go parking, though I’m not certain we could have to hold the necessary number of lots open without the substantial number of prepaid parking spots we had in advance of the event. (Staffing lots was one of our expenses – though largely covered in the end by the parking spots sold). We would probably have had to risk the commitment of keeping the lots open in the hope that enough attendees would drive to justify the cost. Remembering that at many points in the planning process we were officially “in the red,” this would have been a hard expense to justify.

We could also have simply punted on parking, made no promises to attendees, and made a call closer to event date to fund lot attendants when we began to see we were going to be financially positive – but that might have kept some attendees away.

Lightning Talks / Unconference

In 2010 the lightning talks session (which we called Ignite WordCamp) was very popular. In 2011 we recieved very few submissions and even some of those had to cancel last minute. Ultimately we made the call to just cancel the lightning talks session altogether, largely due to a lack of planning support. (We didn’t really identify a champion on the organizing team for these talks, and in the end that showed).

In 2010 we also had a smaller room available for unconference style, scheduled on-site, given by attendees talks. While the percentage of attendees who took advantage of that space was quite small, when it came time to planning 2011 we simply did not have the bandwidth (organizers or volunteers) or space to do a set of unconference sessions. WordCamp Boston is not an unconference, and I’m not suggesting it should be – but I think having an alternative track that allowed for more ad-hoc, birds-of-feather style discussions was a good thing about 2010 and I would have liked to have done it in 2011.

5. Looking Forward

So where does this leave WordCamp Boston for 2012?

First, and most importantly, if you’re interested, please sign up to be informed about WordCamp Boston 2012 as the planning comes together, and let us know if you are interested in helping to organize WCBOS or be a volunteer at the event itself.

We have not yet made any concrete decisions about the next WordCamp Boston:

  • Venue: Should we ask BU to have us again? Return to the NERD center where WCBOS 2010 was held? (It holds fewer attendees, but allows off-site catering which is much more cost effective). Explore other venues in the greater Boston area (especially other larger universities)?
  • Date: Should we aim for midsummer again? We try to avoid conflict with BarCamp Boston, WordCamp San Francisco, WordCamp NYC, and other major events. Summer is good as university facilities are more likely to be available, but so far our record has been either the coldest day of the year (2010) or the hottest (2011) – moderate weather might be a nice change.
  • Format: Is three parallel tracks of sessions ideal? Four? Two? Should we offer more “unconference” style space? Would it be possible to do a “code sprint”? A larger “beginniner’s workshop”?
  • After-Party: We love social events associated with WordCamps, but what’s the right balance in terms of expected attendance (and therefore budget) to devote to this? What percentage of the planning effort can it take?
  • Frequency / Size: Should WordCamp Boston continue to be large annual event, or consider twice-a-year smaller events? Smaller events open up additional venues. Or should we consider making WordCamp Boston an every-other-year event, to reduce the organizational burden?

WordCamp is organized by volunteers, and there’s constantly a need for more help keeping the camp moving. Although I believe the entire organizing committee from 2011 plans to be involved again in 2012, it would be healthy to see some new roles for existing organizers and some new faces in the organizing group.

And that feels like a good place to wrap up what’s already a much-too-long and much-too-overdue post.

Please do share your additional feedback / lessons learned in the comments, and I hope to see you at the next Boston WordPress Meetup.

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4 Responses to Closing the Books on WordCamp Boston 2011

  1. reiko says:

    Great job John, on the event and the write up! Looking forward to 2012!!

  2. Tim LeBlanc says:

    John, you, your staff and volunteers really made this event a great experience. Not everything can be perfect. Those expecting perfection know nothing about volunteerism or making an effort for the good of a common community. I’m looking forward to 2012. If it is half as good as 2011, it will be worth the drive from Connecticut. Thanks for all your efforts.

  3. andipandi says:

    Hi there, I came wondering when the next WordCamp would be. Looking forward to it!

    WordCamps should be annual, there is too much new information to go every other year. Twice a year possibly, but then I wonder if the presenters would be diluted. 2011 seemed less content-rich than 2010. I don’t care about scheduling conflicts with San Francisco as I thought the point of a WordCamp would be local attendees and presenters.

    BU was a good venue for the classrooms, the NERD center was too jam-packed.

    Regarding parking, another simple solution which you didn’t list would be to download PDF/email/mail parking tickets for those who paid, which they could show the attendant so they didn’t have to look up on a list. It took over a half hour just to get in the parking lot. I imagine if everyone in line had to pay cash instead, it would be no faster.