This past quarter or two, I’ve been rather quiet lately on my blog — and for good reason. I decided to help co-organize WordCamp Phoenix. It was incredibly rewarding to give back my time and talent back to the WordPress community. But I’d be lying if I said it was a breeze. It takes a lot of work to have 760 people show up to a WordPress conference, let alone to plan for all the moving parts. I owe my fellow organizers a huge thank you for going great lengths to plan and operate one of the most successful WordCamps the southwest has seen: Lead Organizer April Holle, Carol Stambaugh, Brandy Lawson, Nat Handler, Cody Landefeld, Jeremey Saxey, Seth Carstens, Kathleen O’Brien Thompson, Maura Teal, Chris Diamond, Ita Udo-Ema and Eileen Kane.
Everything in this post reflects my own personal views and not necessarily that of my fellow organizers or the WordPress Foundation.
In early to mid-2013, I decided it was time I step up and apply my skills in email marketing, WordPress, social media and blogging and share it with the community. As a past attendee and speaker of the past three or four WordCamps, I was amazed with the caliber of event, professionalism of staff and how much value the community can receive from a weekend dedicated to WordPress. I caught myself delivering recommendations to organizers and I stopped myself in mid-sentence and said, “I can do that!” And the rest is history as they say.
In late summer 2013, we got going, we initially decided on creating a “very similar” event to WordCamp, but to depart from the WordPress Foundation’s WordCamp banner. I’m not going into that topic here, but we decided it would be best to continue as-is under the WordCamp name, standards and guidelines. Little did I know, this meant a lot more work than I had initially budgeted.
See, it was originally my game plan to leverage a certain well-known sales and marketing software to manage all ticket sales, attendees, organizers, volunteers, sponsors and truly benefit from the fruits of automation. I later discovered this wouldn’t be possible this year. I objectively plead my case and actually all the organizers were in support of this direction. Try as I might, we used the existing tools that all other WordCamps are provided.
We moved on into developing the branding, the site itself, the logistics of the tickets, securing venues and programming. We had many, many discussions, healthy debates and leveraged all the resources we had at our disposal. Whether we were “assigned” a role or not, we all collectively took on necessary work to get the event planning done — or as Chris Lema says, “done done.” Lead organizer, April, had the not-so-glamorous job to keeping the team moving along. From keeping things organized on her instance of Basecamp, to a nudge via text message to making swift decisions to getting on the phone with vendors — she put in plenty of hours to keep us all on track while still tending to the needs of her business.
Towards the end of summer, we were moving quick and gained momentum. The sense of urgency was upon us as we were approaching the launch “date” of the previous year of tickets. The initial roles that I was owning was the email marketing, managing Twitter. What I assumed next was to be the data analytics guy, too.
Selling tickets are a thrill.
Into the fall of 2013, we proceeded to do our first launch of early-bird tickets. As a first-time user of CampTix and MailChimp, I had my work cut out for me. Hitting send on that email campaign was so exhilarating and even a bit nerve-racking since I would hate to disappoint the WordPress community. Once I saw the first ticket come through on the site, I was stoked. It made all my efforts real.
Then I discovered one of the inherent limitations of MailChimp: Segmentation of Lists. (Don’t get me wrong, they do emails remarkably well and I dig their company.) There was a severe and imminent need to segment our email list against those who purchased, or volunteered or registered to speak. Left to my own devices, I became cozy with the VLOOKUP function within Excel. I was relatively comfortable with working with email data, but I can’t tell you how much time I spent managing the data and the lists my hand. Roughly what would take me 90 seconds in a well-known sales and marketing software took me three hours. Seriously.
Additionally, I discovered that in order for attendees to get their ticket confirmations, we had to hit the Sync button within CampTix. From the first night of selling tickets, every day and night, I would log into WordPress, head over to the plugin and click the Sync button — and if not me, than fellow organizers with access also did it. Hence, why I was recognized for the “Hit the Sync Button” award on stage. Just for context, this amounted to roughly 70 days of doing this. Much to my chagrin, I discovered from a core contributor that issue this could be fixed/improved with not too much code. I’m currently working with him to improve this.
Minutia aside, I found it thrilling to sell tickets. Every day (as noted above), I would see the tickets sold. I’d by lying if I wasn’t nervous about hitting our numbers, but we did because the WordPress community is awesome. I did the best I could to interact on the Twitter account, sprinkle a little love on Facebook and create really good emails that compelled people to take action. Every day leading up to the event, it was thrilling because one day, we’d get a bump in tickets. Next, nothing. And over, and over. It’s like logging in to check your bank account balance before, during and after pay day.
All throughout this time (now into winter), the organizers met frequently to discuss outstanding items and we took on responsibilities to get these done. Each time, we advanced further along in the campaign, all getting closer to the event.
Without divulging too much, I can say that in the beginning of January we were “close” to our target number of attendees, but still had a little more to sell. Within one week (a couple of days before the event), we experienced a massive spike of ticket sales. I remember strolling into Gangplank to write up some emails with April, and she casually darted her eyes at me and said, “We sold out.” I responded, “You’re kidding?” She nodded and said, “Yep, we are shutting it down and have a block of 50 tickets on reserve for walk-ups.” We did it and the energy shared among organizers was unstoppable.
The countdown clock was on: We had to ship an event for 750 attendees.
Operating a WordCamp is exciting and exhausting.
Pretty much from that night of stuffing bags, sorting shirts and making last-minute changes to the agenda and stuff, we were in execution mode. I can tell you that there were a few outstanding things up in the air that were on my plate, most notably, the registration experience. I didn’t really think through exactly how it would work, other than having a few conversations with the team at EventDay. We had developed a template in Photoshop for the badges, but I’m not a designer and some things got held up due to me. I distinctly recall how relieved I was when Scott Cate arrived the night before to deliver the badge shells and equipment. Again, all delays on this aspect were on me, not EventDay. But, once we did a trial run of it the morning of (!), we were solid. They did an excellent job at producing badges for our WordCamp! And we only used like 5% of their solution’s actual features. (We’ll post the template in case other WordCamps organizers are interested.)
However, not only did I organize and sign up to speak, I also assumed the role to run the registration desk and operations. Oh, my. This is a lot of work and not for the faint of heart. It was fun though, to see (sorry to put it this way), the result of all our efforts where people were lining up on both sides of the building to attend the event. I remember one individual who literally showed up at 6:45 am to purchase a ticket. All of that indicates this event has equity and is well worth attending.
Once the rush of check-ins slowed, I was able to walk around and have a great time at the event. Mostly, just people-watching, chatting with attendees, exchanging updates with fellow organizers and being there to support the volunteers with Eileen. It was fun and in this process I learned a lot about how we need to efficiently handle check-ins. Again, to a majority of attendees, they saved time and checked in smoothly with the help of EventDay’s rapid scanning capabilities and auto printing. It did save all of us time and it yields us great data into the attendance rate of those who purchased. To my surprise, no one complained about check-in and they found it painless. (Woo hoo!)
Every day, I was tired — I don’t mean like a “long work day”-tired, I mean like “SXSW-bender” class of tired. With a reduced immune system combined with talking all day on Friday, I found it troubling to speak hardly at all on Saturday. As a person who is extremely sensitive to breaking commitments, I decided to follow-through on speaking on the merits of marketing and selling with WordPress. It wasn’t my best performance (but not my worst) because my voice was going out. I still delivered my talk and was happy to do it — and from the follow-up comments from attendees, they enjoyed it as well. But, expect a recorded “encore” since no one should have to sit through my scratchy voice or sips of water every other slide.
The after-party was fun. Sorry for the delay at first, I swear it wasn’t on purpose. We just had some additional verification to do with the City of Chandler and the insurance company since we did distribute alcohol. While I did kinda assume the bouncer at the door with the volunteers, it was great to greet everyone who attended.
The next Sunday, I managed the check-in for that and it was fairly painless. To my surprise, we filled the entire Gangplank facility. That, my friends, is the power of daily emails. People like to know where they should go, why they need to be there and any additional details. Usually just the hardcore WordPress’ers attend Sunday; this year we filled it.
Before I headed home, I asked random attendees what they thought — and you know what, they really loved it. Like all the stuff that I was in trenches solving, they hardly noticed or even cared. Funny how that works; but I went home happy and rewarded that I was able to contribute to the success of this event.
As I packed up and headed home, still a bit delirious from the past 72 hours, I pondered for a bit. Even if everything didn’t go exactly or according to plan (my own self-criticism), it was done. People were happy. There weren’t any major snafus and I was satisfied with my level of involvement. The past five or six months had meaning to me because the event was real. The people enjoyed it. And in the end, that’s what matters. Could we have improved a few things — absolutely — but all in all, it was a great success judging by attendee feedback and my fellow organizers and I have a much smoother recap session since there weren’t any major fires to put out.
Will I continue to organize next year? The verdict is still out on that one. As much as I would love to, I need to have a much more focused role and in general, we need more organizers. If we can get more organizers to step up and contribute to the success of WordCamp, I’d love to work alongside you. You never know, I could be convinced into it.
TLDR; Lessons Learned:
- Always, when offered the opportunity, stay on-site at the hotel.
- Make some very clear guidelines and instructions at check-in.
- Enroll a friend or two or help you with WordCamp.
- Have a dry run of all processes the night before with organizers.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Take some time off work, if possible.
- Learn how to use VLOOKUP.
- Lock in your registration badge template well before a few weeks before the event.
- Ask for help when you need it. (I burden a challenge here because a lot of my skills are a specialty.)
- Do not sell tickets the day of WordCamp, except for them to purchase on their own.
- Give yourself “shifts” where you can relax and step away from your role.
- Give yourself more authority and execute. Your lead organizer wants do-ers, not plans.
- Organizing a WordCamp is a LOT of work, but is VERY rewarding.