I’ve kind of sort of recovered a bit from BarCamp London 7 last weekend. My legs, arms and back are still aching, my thighs are still completely bruised (I got squashed between the security gates… again. The same thing happened to me at the previous BarCamp at The Guardian offices. Ouch!) and I’ve still quite some stuff to sort out and finish off, even after all the planning from the previous weeks. But in the end: so completely worth it!
As regular readers of my blog might know, I’ve been going to BarCamps (and spin-off Camps) for more than 2 years now and have participated in a fair share of them (12 actual BarCamps in total, plus 7 spinoffs). At the past London one, I helped out on the weekend itself as a volunteer, but thought it was about time to actually contribute a bit more and give back to the BarCamp community. So this time around, I joined the group of organizers to help out with the planning and preparations in the weeks leading up to the event.
Although BarCamp is an “unconference”, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done before the event itself. The non-conferencey bit of it lies mainly in what happens on the day itself: there is no preordained schedule, everyone holds a session or participates in one form or another, and everything (and everyone) is quite informal and relaxed. To get to that point though, everything else needs to be arranged; BarCamp is a free event for all attendees, so this means taking care of food, drinks, venue, and sponsors to cover it all.
Now with BarCamps in other cities this might be a bit more simpler, but in London it’s trickier than most might think. For starters, finding a venue. Yes, London is way bigger and will have more potential places to use, but there is a negative side to that which some people don’t even consider. Because it’s ‘London’ a lot of the potential venues know they can be used for conferences, conventions, etc, and will ask a ridiculous amount of money. Besides that, most venues have delicate insurance policies, that don’t allow overnights to be held in their buildings. Believe me, we’ve had quite a bit of companies contact us interested in hosting a BarCamp, only to hear later on that they don’t own their building and can’t get permission for the overnight. And without an overnight, a BarCamp just wouldn’t be a BarCamp.
We were really lucky in getting IBM as a venue. Basically on the day of our deadline of finding a venue for the date we had planned (six weeks before the actual event), we heard that IBM was willing to host our BarCamp. Yay! And their venue was gorgeous; lots of sessions rooms, lots of space for lounging and just general hanging around, it was exactly the type of venue we were hoping for.
Then, food and drinks. Again not as straightforward as it might seem. First of all, there’s the matter of what the venue will allow: can we bring in our own food and drinks, can we use the internal catering, can we have alcohol? Whatever the answers to those questions are, they all lead to the next issue: how many people are we expecting and how much should we order from everything? I’m sure it’s not a London-only thing, but it’s always difficult estimating how many people will show up to your event. I know from experiences with the Geek Dinners it can be really tricky; one time you’ll have a 50% drop out rate, other times only 10%. How can you get a good estimate of the numbers you’ll get?
So, that leads us to the third issue: ticketing. There are so many people interested in attending BarCamp London, that we can’t give a ticket to everyone who wants one. And yet… there have been London BarCamps in the past where the showup rate wasn’t that good. Such a pity, cause a) tons of other people who wanted to show up and could have showed up, didn’t get the chance to attend, because someone didn’t cancel their ticket, and b) the added problem of too much food being ordered and wasted.
This time around there went quite some time into thinking of ways to prevent a low showup rate, like asking for confirmation, blogging about tips and tricks for newbies, and considering the different ways tickets can be released. And it worked. Although we still have to do a final check of the numbers, I think we had a 95% showup rate! This also meant we were pretty spot on with the meal numbers. We got to use IBM’s inhouse catering, so all we had to do was give through the amounts and the menu, and they arranged everything for us. Plus, the food was good (I loved the chili for Saturday lunch and the curry for dinner, although I suspect there was mango in the curry and I got an allergic reaction).
And finally: sponsors. Not much to explain here, right? You find a company, ask them for money, they give you money, done. Well, no. Not exactly. I was the main person responsible this time around for arranging everything with each sponsor, and there goes much more time and effort into it than I initially believed. Especially with the number of sponsors we had this time (17 in total). First off, it’s finding companies who are willing to sponsor, explaining to them what a BarCamp is, and what’s in it for them (negotiating the terms, basically). Then it’s setting up invoices, contracts, and with the bigger companies going through the process of getting a PO etc. And finally it’s organizing all the extra things for the sponsors: so allocating sponsor tickets, getting info and logos from them for blog posts and banners, arranging schwag to be delivered for the goody bags, etc. It’s not that much when you consider 1 sponsor, but multiply it by 15 and you’ll get an idea of what we had to deal with.
We couldn’t really believe it when Friday finally came to setup stuff at the IBM venue; after weeks of preparation the BarCamp was actually going to happen! I was amazed at the number of crew and volunteers we had that Friday (and Saturday/ Sunday; to name them all: Kevin, Cristiano, Zoe from IBM, Alice, Caz, Leeky, Tom, Dan, Tobes, Mary, Paul, Sharon, Reinier, Joost, Improbulus, Sam, Chris, Dom, Tim, Carolyn, Alistair, Judith… am I forgetting anyone?) and with so many people we got through most of the setup pretty quickly. A couple of people were put on laminating the badges (ah, the smell of burnt plastic), a couple more were put on filling the goody bags with schwag, some were put on re-arranging the furniture and some went to get fizzy drinks, juice, snacks and sweets to stock up the cafe area. Simple menial stuff, most of it, but it had to be done.
Saturday morning started early for Cristiano and me; we met with Kevin at 8:00 at the venue to handle the final arrangements. This included going over security regulations from IBM, and fine-tuning the registration process. We tried to make the registration as smooth as possible, seeing as there was a sort of double registration: we needed attendees to go past IBM security, get their IDs checked and get a visitors badge, but also through our own registration and badge collection. We managed to come up with something that was hopefully tolerable for most of the attendees, and it turned out to work out pretty well. There were practically no queues at all, and registration was quick and painless. The main thing we did right was have attendees print out their confirmation emails which had unique barcodes on them. For a quick registration, all you had to do was hand in that print-out. Later on, when it was quieter, we scanned in all the barcodes to create the final overview of who attended.
Most of my first half of Saturday was spent on registration and keeping track of the number of attendees who turned up. Up until lunch I was a little bit stressed, wondering whether we had enough/too much food. In the end there was no real need to worry: we had ordered food for 200, and we had 195 people (so we invited the nice guys from security to eat along too).
Afternoon was spent on sorting out sponsor stuff. Vodafone had sent a box of schwag tshirts that had gone “missing”, which I had to hunt down (turned out they had ended up in the IBM internal post room) and lastminute.com labs had arranged some special afternoon snacks (cream puffs and weird Japanese sweets) which required some setup. There were tons of other thing I was doing too (can’t remember what though), cause I was busy with stuff until about 17:00. Then it finally all calmed down a bit, and I got to do some normal BarCamp stuff.
So, it was about at that time that I finally got my first chance to even look at the grid. Damn. I should have looked earlier. Tons of interesting sessions that I wanted to go to! The Future of Wayfinding, Recovering from RSI, Stuff You Shouldn’t Tweet That I Have, Hack Yourself A Cheaper Train Ticket, Teaching Journalists to Code and Coders to Write, Filmaster.com, Design in Lost (the TV show). I wanted to go to all of them! I’m still a little bit gutted that I missed these; next time around (and yes there will be a next time) I’m going to force myself to take a look at the grid earlier and choose some sessions to go to. As one of the organizers, you know you can’t make it to all the session slots, but we should have at least each picked out a handful of ones to go to and give ourselves a little break.
I finally made it to my first session which was The Art of Improvisation from Willem van der Horst (hippowill). It was a funny session, even though I realized half way that I had only joined halfway (he had booked a double slot). After dinner, I remained in the realm of improv, with first going to the “An After Dinner Game” session, where groups of 3 had to hold short presentations, each person only saying one word (me and my team failed miserably), and then Powerpoint Karaoke, which always turns out fun.
After the after-dinner sessions, began the party! There were free drinks for everyone, and tons of games and stuff going on. We had a massive round of Urban Terror going on in the cafeteria, plus board games like War On Terror, Muchkin and Carcassonne, and of course, BarCamp’s obvious game of choice: Werewolf. I joined in one game of Werewolf this time, even though I said I’d never play again; there were enough newbies and people who I hadn’t played with that often to still make it fun (my problem with Werewolf lately has been that people don’t trust me anymore. So or they kill me off early in the game, or they keep me around, but won’t listen to anything I’ve got to say, because I’m potentially *dangerous*. Yeah, it’s no fun when you can’t actually say anything!)
I managed to stay awake till 3.30 or so, playing games and catching up with people. I’m still not exactly sure which 3.30 this was. This weekend the clocks went back, so we got an extra hour for this BarCamp (while the last one at The Guardian we lost an hour). So I’m not really sure what time I went to bed (I think 3.30->2.30). With how early I got up that day, I’m still baffled that I lasted that long. When I finally did go to ‘bed’, it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. And after 6 hours sleep, I was fully refreshed for another day.
Sunday was slightly less hectic for us organizers. We had to do a bit of a registration in the morning, giving back badges to those who had left during the night. But the rest of the day seemed a bit more quiet. Looking back now, I only managed to go to 2 sessions, so it wasn’t actually that much less busier, it only seemed that way (less running around, but still quite some things to setup etc).
The first session I went to that day was about NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. It takes place every November, and everyone who takes part has to attempt to write 50.000 words that month, that’s 1667 words a day! I’ve always wanted to do something like that, but I’d have no idea where to start in writing a novel. I like writing and with every blog post I think it comes more naturally to me, but novel writing? That’s a whole different ball game.
The second session I went to was a discussion about Failure, lead by Ben Reyes. Some good points were made, but it seemed a lot of the discussion was focused on failure at work. How about failure in other aspects of your life, like relationships? Also, it seemed most were talking about ‘how to accept failure and get on with life’, but always treating it still as something negative.
Around lunchtime things got slightly busy again. Kevin and Dom had the brilliant idea to turn the coffee seating area into a ‘picnic’ area with a Duck pond in the middle. So the PayPal blankets we got as schwag were spread out throughout the room with the packed lunches already setup over them.
Also, somewhere during the day one of the toilets began flooding. It didn’t seem much of a major issue at first; IBM got a guy in to solve it and we thought that would be the end of it. Nope. More toilets began flooding and we had to ‘evacuate’ the help desk (well, unplugging all electronics just in case the water reached that far). The IBM staff were all on hand to sort it out, and thanks to them I think most attendees didn’t even experience the whole incident. Later on we found out what caused the blockage: a male g-string. Ehm… right. *giggle*
Before we knew it, the end of the BarCamp was in sight. Cristiano held the closing talk (with Kevin and me adding some bits), thanking all the attendees, sponsors, etc. It ended with a huge round of applause from the attendees thanking everyone involved in the BarCamp. That alone was worth going through the past couple of weeks; the response was staggering!
With the help of all the attendees, the tidy-up went pretty quickly, although there were things only us crew could do (like dismantling our “war” room). Slowly, people started disappearing to the pub, until only a handful of organizers and IBM staff were left. By that point it was all kind of surreal: we had done it, we had organized a BarCamp, we had put so much work into this, and now it was over.
The final thing that had to be done that day was figure out what to do with the stuff we had left. This included leftover food/drinks, schwag, but also crew stuff for the next time (laminators, lego, cables, etc). We quickly figured out best option was bring it to Cristiano and my place: closest to the venue and enough space. We still have to figure out a permanent solution, but for now I’m sharing my living room with a huge pile of stuff.
And that’s it. That was my first real BarCamp experience from the other side. There are still a couple more things that need to be done before I can put BCL7 finally to rest, but the main stuff has been done now. I think this might have been the longest blog post I’ve ever written (and I’m wondering how many of you will even take the time to read my ramblings), but I mainly had to get this all down on ‘paper’ for myself.
One more thing: thank you to everyone who was involved in this BarCamp. Thanks IBM for allowing us in your great venue. Thanks Zoe for being a great contact and force within IBM. Thanks to all the IBM staff and volunteers for helping out on the three days. Thanks to all the sponsors for contributing and providing us with the means to make this all happen. Thanks to the catering and security guys and gals for putting up with this weird bunch of crazy people. Thanks to the rest of the organizers, especially Cristiano and Kevin, for making this a fun (albeit slightly stressful) experience.
And thank you to everyone who attended and participated. Without you guys BarCamps wouldn’t mean anything; it would be yet again another normal conference.
If you’re interested in hosting or sponsoring future BarCamps, you can contact me at email@example.com. Oh, and if anyone is missing a g-string…