FOSS4G2007 Lessons Learned

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This page is a collection of information, comments, and suggestions, based on the planning, organizing, and hosting of the FOSS4G 2007 conference. The intent is to provide a resource that can be used by organizers of future FOSS4G conferences. This is not a forum for conference attendees to comment on the conference.

Bidding

If you approach your local conference center, or tourist bureau, you may find a wealth of support for your bid. Local governments often fund promotion to bring in conferences, and will get behind you with free assistance in preparing your bid. A conference of only 500 people can represent a couple million dollars for a local economy, so it is worth their time to help you win the conference.

Victoria 2007 engaged with both the local conference center and a local organizing company, who helped on the bid preparation pro bono in return for the opportunity to work the conference in the event we won. The conference centre provided lots of pre-made content about the facility, accommodations, and so on, and the organizer helped prepare material for the bid web site.

Take advantage of your local government to assist your bid. FOSS4G is a large enough event now that localities receive a significant financial benefit when we locate in their city.

Timetable

The most important piece of timetable information is that you can not make any predictions about response/attendance until deadlines. The number of workshop submissions in 2007 doubled on the deadline day; the number of presentation submissions doubled in the last two days. The 2004 organizers reported having registration go from 100 to 200 in the last month. The 2006 organizers reported having registration go from 150 to over 500 in the last six weeks.

2007 attempted to force the registration timetable backwards somewhat by having an early-bird rate ($395CAD) substantially lower than the regular rate ($565CAD) with the early-bird deadline two months in advance.

Lesson: The steeper Early Bird price schedule, combined with a large associated marketing campaign around the Early Bird deadline did change the traditional registration pattern. 2007 registered 450 people prior to early bird, about 2/3 of the final attendance, far better than in previous years. Remember, the pricing and date alone will not be enough, people have to actually know the deadline is coming, so an associated marketing blitz will also be required.

Lesson: Where there is no financial motivation or other counterbalance, people will put things off to the last minute. Over 2/3 of the workshop submissions were received on the last day. Same basic pattern for the presentations, over 1/2 of the submissions received in the last two days.

Sponsorships

Starting sponsorship solicitation as early as possible is very important. People will register at the last moment, so it is very difficult to predict registration revenues, but sponsorship revenues can be locked up very early through aggressive work on getting commitments from sponsors. First write out a list of potential sponsors, then assign each one to a committee member to pursue. We used the Google Spreadsheet to keep a shared page of information about who had been contacted, who had committed, how many contacts had been made, who at the sponsoring company had responded, etc.

Registration

Support For Some Attendees

You will get lots and lots of requests for support. Travel subsidies, free registration, free lodging, you name it. Establish your policy early, and work within that policy. Because we had no policy and no budget item for this, our policy was "no". However, if you think ahead, you can probably ensure that a couple worthy attendees who would otherwise be unable to come can make the conference. Establish your budget number, and how you will decide who gets support, and go from there.

Scams

We had a number of attempts to scam the conference in various ways. The most popular were:

  • "I want to attend, please write me a VISA support letter", from folks with no obvious motivation to attend.
  • "I paid with a credit card, but I want a re-fund by wire."

We also had a few people pay the conference in full in order to establish their VISA credentials and then attempt to get a VISA on that basis alone. They eventually asked for and received a refund, less the cancellation fee. The cancellation fee sounds draconian, but it probably cut down on the number of these scams by making a failure potentially expensive.

Discounts

Everyone wants a discount, and everyone feels they have a right to a discount. As with your policy for travel support, figure out your discount policy well in advance. The FOSS4G2007_Discounts page is a good start in determining the classes of people who will be looking for discounts.

Marketing

How People Heard about FOSS4G2007

The registration form on the web site included a question about "how did you hear about the conference". Here are the responses:

  • 223 (36%), colleague
  • 160 (26%), weblink
  • 134 (20%), previous conference
  • 60 (10%), email
  • 43 (7%), other
  • 4 (1%), mailout

On the basis of these numbers, the physical mail-out seems to have been a poor expense. The email spamming activities were highly effective, and worth doing again, both bulk-email to harvested addresses and emails to project mailing lists. The web banners on the project sites were also highly effective. Note that the purchaged mailing lists did include e-mail addesses for a couple thousand people, and those were used for direct email campaigns.

Lesson: Harvest and purchase mass email lists. Get emails onto lists of associations and other organizations with lists. Make spam a top marketing priority. Spam more frequently.

Lesson: Ensure as many project sites are badged as possible. Note that the top referrers are Mapserver, QGIS, PostGIS, OSGeo, and GRASS. Paul Ramsey's personal blog (part of the PlanetGeospatial blog roll) was the fifth highest driver of traffic. Get a FOSS4G08 blog into the PlanetGS.com blog roll and keep it live and interesting.

Local / Regional / International

You are going to attract people from three geographic segments, and they have very different characteristics:

  • Local people will find it cheap to attend the conference. Therefore, even marginally interested people might go, just to "see what it is about". So your local marketing compaign should be as broad as possible. Hit everyone, don't just target at "GIS, open source", target all scientists, all computer people, all development people. You never know who might have an interest, and because the threshold for them to come is relatively low, it is worth it to be indisciminate.
  • Regional people will have to travel to the conference, but not far. These are folks who might be in the field, but not have heard about open source GIS before. It will still be a learning experience for them. A broad approach is still not a bad idea, but gets harder to execute and more expensive over a larger regional territory. Buy mailing lists from local trade magazines for your targetted regions (2007 did the US states, CA, WA, OR, CO, VA primarily, as well as Canada).
  • International people will be committing to a major expense to attend. These are true believers. Getting web badges on the open source project sites, and doing mail-outs to the project lists is enough to keep these folks informed of deadlines and connected to the beat of the conference.

Use Proxies

Wherever possible, identify people to do your marketing for you:

  • Emails to project lists should come from project leaders.
  • Get local OSGeo chapters to promote the conference to their members and to local GIS organizations.
  • Get academics to carry the torch to their professional bodies.

Local Marketing is Key

One thing we failed at in 2007 was really hitting the local market as hard as possible. As a result, we had people who should have known about the conference saying at the last minute "oh, there's a conference coming?". Word of mouth is not enough, you need to spam local people indiscriminately. Build a list of every remotely technical person in the city, and ensure they get three emails about the conference.

Lesson: Don't be afraid to spam. Web traffic analysis from when we did spam showed that we logged way more hits after spam runs on local institutions. We should have done more.

Web Site & Program

The web site is the public face of your conference. It it's not on the web site, it doesn't exist.

People make the "buying decision" for your conference based on your web site. It had better

  • Look smart and professional
  • Include as much information about the content of the conference as possible

In order to include lots of content, you need to get your program firmed up as quickly as possible. The earlier you have your program set, the more information you can provide to prospective attendees on the web site.

Lists are Important

You will be able to easily mail all the active community members by putting together a list-of-lists (FOSS4G2007_Communication#E-Mail_Marketing) and getting the list owners to help propagate the FOSS4G message.

However.

Since 80% of your attendance will be local and regional people, not necessarily the international community you communicate with on the lists, you must compile lists of local people who may have an interest in the conference. You must compile these lists early in the process so that the marketing message can be put out early for people who need lead-time to get approvals for conference attendance.

Here are some ways to get lists:

  • Regional technology magazines sell their subscription lists
    • Get the physical addresses and mail postcards
    • Get the e-mail addresses for your mass-email list
  • Screen-scrape the phone directories of government agencies
    • Mail everyone you can, particular people in the 1-2 hour travel radius of your event
  • Get contact lists from sponsors if they will provide them
  • Professional groups have lists of potentially interested parties
    • Surveyors, geologists, ecologists, biologists, foresters
  • Academics are often interested and also connected
    • Computer science, geography, ecology, forestry

Remember that if people do not know the event is coming, they'll never purchase a registration, and you cannot count on the international community for your attendance, you need local attendees.

2007 purchased lists from magazines and did a 10,000 card mail-out. Also compiled addresses from local organization web sites that might be interested, and added them to the main physical/email distribution lists. We compiled the secondary lists manually, just surfing to county and city site and gathering the names of GIS coordinators.

Press Releases

Press releases get wide distribution and repetition via the less-industrious GIS "news" outlets and "journalists". Doing format press releases and making sure they hit all the GIS web sites and so on for each important milestone (call for workshops, call for papers, early bird, etc) will add to the out-of-community marketing reach.

During the conference, press releases can be used to control the message coming out of the conference. Much of the conference "coverage" will come from these same "journalists" re-packaging the press release material they are receiving. Hence, the coverage of 2007 hinged a lot on the Ingres announcement, the Autodesk/Mentor announcement, and some of the releases Safe Software sent out, all of which were transmitted to the "media" in the traditional PR-oriented way. Having an "in house journalist" to create content, a couple releases a day, and fire it out to the outlets will improve the quality of the "press" the event receives.

Social Venues

The Sticky Wicket was a great venue in terms of capacity (1200 seats), location (one block from the conference centre) and service options (food and beverage, table service and bar service).

Lesson: A number of people felt short changed when the "Welcome Reception" was really just a mixer at the Wicket. Bad choice of name, should have been "Ice Breaker" or "Get Together". Easier to change the name than to put on an actual reception.

Lesson: The Wicket actually closed for a private function on Tuesday, our "free evening" when ordinarily everyone would have met at the Wicket. Ooops! Check the event schedule for the venue, don't make assumptions about the schedule.

Conference Venue

The biggest single expense category for 2007 was the food (it was actually broken into several categories in the budget, but if you put them together it was the easy winner). That was because the Conference Centre had an exclusive catering arrangement with the associated hotel, and the food was expensive. $5 cokes, $4 coffees, that sort of thing. This will be very common for most conference venues. Be prepared, be unsurprised.

One pleasant surprise at the 2007 venue was the price of wireless internet. Conference centres and hotels traditionally charge a huge amount for internet access, but the quotation we received from the in-house provider was 30% of our expected budget number. However, be prepared to pay a lot for internet.

On the exhibition floor, the conference centre might expect you to leave your exhibitors to "fend for themselves", paying extra fees for internet, power, and so on. 2007 opted to pay those charges directly, so they were included in the overall sponsor/exhibition fees and everyone had access. It seems silly to consider power or internet an "optional" expense at a technology trade show -- it is not like we are running a home-and-garden exhibition, where an exhibitor might reasonably run a booth without them.

Quirks

  • FOSS4G attendees have an unusual willingness to sit on the floor. This surprised the venue managers quite a bit. They provided more stand-up tables by day two.
  • FOSS4G attendees pack laptops. Almost all of them. That means (a) lots of demand for places to use laptops, like chairs (b) huge wireless load. VCC had good physical infrastructure in terms of access points and outgoing bandwidth (dual 100Mbit fibre) but had not sufficiently tested their log-in system prior to the conference. The result was a melt-down on day two, as they ran out of logins in their security box, then ongoing issues afterwards from machines with "bad logins" from the melt-down the day prior. This will be hard to avoid -- the conference centre will always be sure they can handle anything right up until you prove them wrong.
  • FOSS4G attendees tend to be predominantly male. That means that standardized food orders, that expect more gender balance, will tend to under-budget for how much each attendee eats. This was especially noticeable on "pizza day", when, despite the food services accidentally over-providing 20 pizzas, we still consumed every single piece.

Accommodations

Getting a hotel room block reserved ahead of time was wise. The kind of contract you have to agree to will vary, depending on the demand for rooms from ordinary customers. We got very good contracts, with three different hotels at different rates, with no penalties for not filling the blocks.

  • 50 rooms at $100 night
  • 50 rooms at $110 night
  • 100 rooms at $135 night

The final room block was filled on August 23.

Providing a very complete list of local accomodation options on the web site will save your attendees the trouble of Googling it all up themselves. Plus you'll know and be able to find some that are very hard to find independently. List every reasonable hotel you can think of, with a web link directly to the hotel site, so that folks don't have to hunt them down.

Lesson: FOSS4G attendees are cheap. The cheapest room block ($100 / night) filled up right away, followed by the second cheapest, and the most expensive block ($135 /night) filled up last. Attendees booked hotels relatively late in the process, in the final month before the conference.

Transportation

Try to be explicit about transportation options and publish that information on the web site well in advance. In particular anything that is not normally part of the airline experience, like how to get downtown, is useful for people to visualize their trip and feel comfortable about it.

FOSS4G 2007 kept all activities downtown, and had no transportation logistics. Previous conferences all had at least on event that required hundreds of people to get onto busses (2004, hotels were download but conference was at Carleton, and everyone had to be bussed; 2005, the event was a barbeque at an old fort 30 minutes out of town; 2006, after the castle dinner everyone had to be bussed back to Lausanne).

Workshops

In 2007, there were 12 slots for 3 hour workshops (for the workshop day), and 16 slots for 1.5 hour labs (for the remainder of the conference). All the computers were rented, 120 in all, and broken into 6 labs of 20 computers, with 2 attendees per computer, for a total of 240 attendees on workshop day.

Workshop submissions were accepted by email, in a standard document template, and the information was entered into a summary spreadsheet (for title, name, short abstract) and document (for all information). Submitters were asked to indicate what kind of physical infrastructure they required, and whether their submission was a 3 hour or 1.5 hour submission. Some submitters indicated they could do both formats, others only indicated one. It was not made clear to submitters that "both" was an acceptable answer, which led a bad selectivity situation later on.

52 workshop submissions were received. 33 submissions indicated they could do 3 hour formats, which made almost 3-to-1 demand versus supply (12 slots). 22 submissions indicated they could do 1.5 hour formats, which was much closer to the 16 slots available in the lab format.

The committee first selected the 12 3-hour workshops, via a ranking process (more below). Submissions that were accepted as 3-hour workshops were removed from the 1.5 hour list, and then the 1.5 hour workshops were selected using the same ranking process.

The submissions that were only in the 3-hour list had a much harder time making the cut than the ones that were dual-listed. Some submitters would probably be "OK" with that, since their content would not fit into a 1.5 hour format. Others would have been happy to present in either format, if they knew they had the option when submitting.

Lesson: Having two formats is handy, for using infrastructure more effectively, and submitters need to be properly instructed on their options for submitting, so that they have the best chance to compete for slots.

Timing

Workshop selection forms part of the registration process, so workshops must be selected prior to the opening of registration. Workshops are also a good piece of "web site content" that help convey what the conference is "about" for potential attendees. As with every other piece of conference content, the sooner these things are selected and published, the easier you will find it to attract non-traditional attendees, who form their opinions based on the content you provide on the web site.

In 2007, the Call for Workshops went out in early February (8 months prior to conference) and closed in early March (7 months prior to conference). Workshops were selected by the end of March (6 months prior to conference).

Ranking

Workshop submissions were ranked using a multi-criteria system, scored from 1-5, and each workshop was supposed to be given scores for all criteria by all committee members. In the end, some members found the process too onerous and only gave one score for each workshop, based on a holistic understanding of all the criteria. Some members ranked in a range of 3-5, others used the entire range of 1-5. In general, because of the different methodologies, the amount of "information" pulled from the ranking process was not as high as it could have been. Ideally, each committee member would provide equal "information" to the decision, but in 2007, those members who used the whole range of their scores, and only provided one score, had higher influence than members who ranked more judiciously and provided all the criteria separately.

Lesson #1: Before publishing the Call for Workshops, agree on the decision criteria, and publish them along with the Call.

Lesson #2: Do not attempt to gather individual scores for each criterion. Have members score the submissions holistically, keeping all the criteria in mind as they do so.

Lesson #3: Do not use a 1-X scoring system, but instead use an ordered sorting system, where each member returns a sorted list of submissions, from most to least desirable. This approach maximizes the amount of information gathered about each submission, and sidesteps "plumping" strategies (where a member gives all the submissions a "0" except for the two he really likes which he gives a "5", thereby accentuating his affect on the overall average).

Lesson #4: Potentially, remove the workshop committee process entirely and move to a community scoring model. However, given the limited number of slots, and the benefits for workshop presenters (free admission), a community model might be a tempting target for vote pooling and other forms of influence. Also, because workshops must be selected far far in advance of the date, it will not be possible to bring in the opinions of conference registrants who are not members of the "usual" OSS community of interest.

Presentations

213 presentation abstracts were received before the submission deadline. Of those 73 were received on the closing day, 39 the day before, and 13 the day before that. Basically a slow dribble until the last days, then a rushing torrent.

Submission Process

The submission form and database worked acceptably. Having the coordinates of submitters made for fun, with the KML outputs and so on. One item missing from the form that would have made it easier to build presentations into sessions would be a "category" that indicated whether the talk was "software / technical", or "business / case study". For example, a good case study of how Geoserver is used in MassGIS was tracked with technical talks on Geoserver.

Community Ranking Process

The ranking process was universally hailed as a good idea, and the results were considered good. However, it is hard to know how representative of the final attendance the opinions of the community were. The final program ended up fairly technical and software oriented, and in general the case study style of presentations did not receive prominent billing in the process.

Cancellations

Speakers will cancel. In 2007, we had 7 speakers cancel before publication of the program, and 2 cancel on-site. As part of the final presentation selection process, we picked 10 talks to use as stand-by talks. When speakers were notified of acceptance/rejection, the stand-by talks were also asked if they were willing to serve as stand-bys. Being stand-by meant that you were going to attend the conference, and would have your talk ready.

Posters

The poster session was not planned in advance, but kept around as an option, and then brought forward as a salve for folks who were rejected as speakers. Most of the posters were based on abstracts that were submitted as talks but not accepted. We took every poster submission that was received before the poster deadline.