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Let’s host a tech conference, it’ll be easy right?

2012 February 15

Last week White October hosted our first technical conference, jQuery UK 2012 for 320 web developers in Oxford.  It turned out to be a success beyond our greatest hopes with overwhelmingly positive feedback from delegates and speakers alike.  However, the smoothness of proceedings on the day belies the huge challenges we faced in putting it together, and the financial risks it placed on our small web agency.

The conference was the brainchild of John Wards, White October’s Technical Director.  Experimenting with the latest web technologies is ingrained our agency culture, and so hosting a tech conference felt like a natural next step for us – an outward expression of our inward dedication to messing around with the latest cool stuff!


John Wards

What we found in John, and what John probably found in John, was a natural flare for curating a conference.  His ballsy approaches, first to the jQuery team, and then to sponsors were undoubtably what made the conference – the cracking speaker line-up kept everybody happy all day, and the financial support from some great sponsors including Nokia and Blackberry gave us the freedom to go to town on some of the finer details which make a day memorable.

We realised from the start that we are a web agency, not event organisers, and we would require some help to take on an event of this scale.  We found a fantastic partner in the form of Sarola Events who provided astute advice throughout, and showed the patience of saints in dealing with our novice questions and concerns.

We were also lucky to have Becky on our team who had been involved in running events on this scale before.  She was the only voice in the agency sounding a note of caution as we committed to the conference, because she knew the scale of the challenge we were embarking on. But her experience and natural attention to detail proved invaluable as she meticulously planned, designed and procured every asset we needed, from banners and table clothes, to toilet signs and lanyards.  You have to think of everything when you put on an event like this, and we had endless discussions covering topics such as: preventing queues that would divide the foyer; the volume of music at the after party (pro tip: quiet enough to allow easy networking); the ratio of men and the availability of men’s toilets; minimizing queues at lunch; walk-in music and its necessary qualities; getting enough light for videos; how to hang banners on the pillars; the best arrangement of sponsor stands.  The list was endless.

Captivated audience

All of this, plus the production of assets including the website and all of the conference goodies, imposed a huge workload on our small agency.  The disruption was two-fold: the conference work displaced paying client-work representing a real impact to the business, and the attention it required interrupted the flow of our projects with key people dragged off to hit its immovable deadlines.  To date we have clocked up nearly 600 man hours.  Billed at our day rate that time would be worth over £40,000 to us and although the real cost to our business of that time probably lies somewhere between £20k and £30k.  Added to all of the other costs – hotels, flights, printing, merchandise, catering, venue hire and Sarola’s fees, and the event has certainly ended up losing us a few thousand.

Am I upset or concerned about this?  Not at all – the benefits to White October are numerous and substantial.  Besides the obvious raised profile and contacts we made, the pride and self-belief that it has inspired in all of us is probably the most gratifying outcome for me as the business owner.

At the after party I joked to John that after this success we should start planning the next one.  “I have already”, came the reply, “I’ve got a name, list of speakers, list of sponsors and a budget spreadsheet.”.  So I guess you should watch this space.

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