Whisky Web - On Organising A Conference20 May 2012
It’s been a little over a month since the inaugural Whisky Web conference was held in Scotland’s beautiful capital city of Edinburgh. By all accounts, our first endeavour into organising a conference was a roaring success. I’ve procrastinated enough, so I think it’s time to write up a review of the event from an organisers perspective, and present a SWOT-analysis of sorts.
It goes without saying that Whisky Web 2012 wouldn’t have been possible without the speakers and delegates that made it the brilliant event that it was. However, none of that would have been possible were it not for the tenacity and determination of the organisers: Juozas ‘Joe’ Kaziukėnas; Michael Maclean; Dale Harvey; Paul Dragoonis and me!
An extra special thanks goes to Joe who bankrolled the whole thing. Without financing from previous year’s profits, the conference’s financial success was largely dependent upon anticipated ticket sales and invoices being settled by sponsors – until that money had cleared Joe’s company, Web Species, fronted all of the costs.
What follows is my account of the conference: the night before, the actual conference, and the hackathon that followed on the second day. Opinions are my own and may not necessarily be representative of Whisky Web, its organisers or sponsors. I’ll also discuss the conference with respect to what we did well, what we could have done better, what we failed to do and what we aim to do next year.
For the organisers, the conference really started on the Thursday afternoon. We met at The Hub to get the AV equipment set up, and to meet the technicians who were providing and managing the projector equipment. This all took a little longer than we had expected and we were getting dangerously close to being late for the speaker’s dinner we’d organised! Since I’d been the primary contact for the speakers with respect to the dinner and their schedule on the day etc., I went on ahead with Paul to meet everyone at Pizza Express at the other end of the Royal Mile.
With the exception of the Highland Fling, I have neither attended as a delegate, nor spoken at any conferences. This put me at a slight disadvantage as, unlike the other organisers, I had never met any of our speakers before! After making introductions and nervously chatting with fellow developers who have made names for themselves speaking at any number of high profile conferences the cavalry arrived, in the form of the other organisers. We all had a good feed, a few drinks and a good chat. However, we had a schedule to keep! Inspired by Eamon Leonard’s Whiskey March, I’d arranged a tour of some local pubs and bars that offer a wide range of malt whiskies for the speakers and anybody else who wanted to join us.
With a few points from WhiskyCraig, I’d planned the following route through some near by pubs.
- Kilderkin, 65 Canongate, EH8 8BT
- The Canon’s Gait Inn, 232 Canongate, EH8 8DQ
- The Albanach, 197 High Street, EH1 1PE
- The Doric, 15-16 Market Street, EH1 1DE
- Whiski Bar, 119 High Street, EH1 1SG
We didn’t manage to make all of the stops; The Doric was a little out of the way compared to the other locations. We also spent a little longer than planned in some of the pubs which left some people a little unsure of where they should be. However, I think everyone enjoyed themselves and had a good time. Those who wanted to sample some of Scotland’s whiskies had ample opportunity and variety but the pubs we went to had plenty of choice for those who didn’t care for whisky, or indeed preferred a soft drink. I left the party at a reasonably respectable hour, given that the organisers were meeting at The Hub the following morning at about 07:00/07:30. I couldn’t say what happened after I left but I gather there were a few sore heads in the morning, and Jeremy (phpcodemonkey) and Ben (Ben_Nuttall) of Magma Digital (our AV Sponsor) even managed to be unfortunate enough to get stuck in their hotel elevator!
The Main Event
I had an early start on the Friday to meet the rest of the team at The Hub for some last minute preparation. Fuelled with dangerous levels of caffeine we made it through the day with barely a technical or logistical hiccup. I honestly don’t think things could have ran more smoothly, for an event that neither of the organisers had any prior experience of running. Being an organiser necessarily meant that I couldn’t see all of the talks I had the opportunity to watch, but what I did see was excellent. Feedback on Joind.in and general chatter amongst attendees would suggest that my feelings were echoed by all who attended.
Paul and I started at the check-in desk eagerly awaiting the arrival of delegates and speakers. Unlike a lot of other conferences, we got the issue of attendee names containing diacritics and other UTF-8 characters spot-on; we printed our own labels instead of relying on printers to do it! We missed Joe’s opening remarks and the first half ofJosh Holmes’ opening key note – where he discussed why failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but once we’d checked everyone in, we managed to get upstairs and catch the second half.
Before lunch we had talks from Rowan Merewood (Estimation, Or How To Dig Your Own Grave); Derick Rethans (OpenStreetMaps For The Web); Mike Amundsen (Essential Node.js For Web Developers) and Sebastian Marek (Ten Commandments Of A Software Engineer). The morning of talks was followed by a gratefully received long lunch which gave everyone a good opportunity to mingle, chat and discuss the talks that they had all seen.
The conference was closed with a keynote fromDavid Zülke on the evolution of hypermedia, which involved some flying remote controlled inflatable sharks! Joe wrapped things up nicely, and on behalf of all of the organisers, a massive thanks to all of our speakers, delegates and sponsors.
### Scotch Whisky Tasting / After Party
Bruichladdich kindly sponsored the after-party, a masterclass in Scotch whisky, which was lead by the wonderfullyknowledgeable and personable Craig Johnstone. We were all offered three or four different whiskies to sample, and Bruichladdich’s Gin offering, The Botanist. We heard about the origins and history of Scotch whisky and learned tips and techniques for sampling. Later in the evening, some speakers, attendees and I believe some of the organisers went to Finnegans Wake, a nice Irish bar around the corner. I however, was beat… so I headed home for an evening with my wife, ready for an early start for the next day’s Hackathon.
Saturday saw us host a hackathon event at Edinburgh’s Our Dynamic Earth exhibition and conference centre. The hackathon was largely organised by Dale, to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. There were a number of ideas put forward for people to collaboratively work on. Some people formed groups and got down to some hacking; others worked on some personal projects. I just quite enjoyed the atmosphere, I chatted to a few people and worked on my own pet project. There was also a significant contingent of hackers working on Joind.in who helped fix a number of bugs throughout the day. Happy Lorna was happy ;-) I chose to abstain from the after-hackathon fun, as I was absolutely shattered! I’m sure others will happily offer to tell more stories!
And that’s it, the end of Whisky Web 2012. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment, from the Thursday afternoon to the Saturday evening. Make no mistake however, the three months from inception to execution were among the most stressful of my life, I fell of the no-smoking wagon, and am still waiting to jump back on again. Would I do it again? You bet, in an instant; and I am! In fact, the whole team are keen to get the ball rolling on 2013. More on that shortly.
For now, I thought it might be cathartic, and perhaps educational to others to discuss the post-mortem of the event that the team had a few weeks ago. Below I’ll discuss the issue of the talk recordings, the positives and the negatives.
While we recorded all of the talks, we’ve been somewhat remiss in actually making these videos available on the web for those who couldn’t make it, or want to relive Whisky web 2012. Believe me, it’s not through lack of trying. Unfortunately all of the team have been very busy and finding suitable time to get this done is proving tricky. Because of the bitrate of the recordings, they’ll all need to be played back and recorded on to disk in real-time; edited to adjust sound levels and to include sponsor’s logos; and transcoded or resampled to a suitable format for the web. We really are hoping to have this done very soon and are currently making arrangements to hire a camera so that I can process the videos.
What Did We Do Well?
- Well, we did better than we could have ever hoped!
- We had a good selection of speakers taking about a diverse range of topics.
- We received nothing but positive feedback from both delegates and speakers.
- On the whole, good facilities and catering.
What Could We Have Done Better?
- Our communication with attendees could have been better.
- Although we liked the design of the site, as did others, it wasn’t really suitable for the amount of information that we eventually realised we needed to present. Next year, we’ll need a multi-page site, with a more responsive design.
- Given the short lead time, it was difficult to provision a cost-effective and reliable web connection. This is something we hope to address in the future.
- We could improve our compering of the talks.
- The pre-conference social could have been better organised, perhaps using e.g. four-square to co-ordinate activities.
What Didn’t We Do?
- We didn’t make a profit. That wasn’t our goal, so you could say we succeeded. But we’ll need some money in the pot for 2013, so we’ll need to work something out.
- The relatively low price tag encouraged a lot of people to come along. We won’t be able to do that next year. We’ll have more outgoings, we’ll need to pay speaker’s travel and accommodation – thankfully all of our speakers were kind enough to pay for their own travel and accommodation this year. We’re very grateful to them for this, but we aim to address that next year.
- We’d like to offer a larger selection of talks on a more diverse range of subjects.
Next year’s conference will be bigger and better. We’ll communicate with everyone better. Our site will be more useful. We’ll be hoping to attract even more attendees, so we’ll need a bigger venue; how about a castle?! We’ll be aiming higher, with a bigger budget to pack even more awesome into a couple of days of geeky fun! We hope to see you there!