The future of conferences? Small and local, if you ask me

This post might sound like a blatant excuse to promote OSBA, our fist public venue packaged as a nice day where we grab some unusual audience for Open Source (CIOs, decision makers, business people) and talk about important yet somewhat underestimated stuff: economics, budgeting, metrics and all that makes Open Source a viable proposition to business users. We already have an impressive speaker list and registrations are going incredibly well, which means we’re looking forward to a successful day packed of nice discussions and some reality checks about business and Open Source.

Shameless plugs aside, this is an occasion to voice my opinion about conferences and events. I’m attending quite a few of them, I’m getting employee requests to attend conferences day-in day-out and I receive my fair share of pitches to sponsor tech events. What I notice, however, is a clear shift towards smaller, focused and localised events which are becoming more popular than traditional, well-established and international shows. Two examples come to my mind:

  • the Cocoon GetTogether, a small, local and highly focused event which has been successful for its fifth year in a row, with the usual 100-or-so Cocoon enthusiasts coming from all over the world (a large majority were from Europe, of course). Cocoon is just one of the 35 ASF projects, yet the yearly event has been able to do surprisingly well compared to other major stuff such as EurOSCON or ApacheCon. Just do the math.
  • BarCamps rock. Just look at their news page to see how easy is to gather a few hundred hackers to party, code and talk about tech stuff. All you need is a large enough room, wi-fi, beamers, beers and pizza. Hackers bring the rest and the experience is great.

Those two events have something in common: they are comparatively small, localised and definitely affordable. It’s no surprise how corporations tend to be skeptical about spending a few thousand bucks in travel, conference fees and lost working days: with self-education being so affordable today (just google for stuff), the measurable benefits from sending people to conferences tend to be employee motivation and, possibly, some networking. With my corporate hat on, I have serious issues in justifying conference budgets these days, so much that our current policy provides full conference packages just for speakers, while others are considered on a case-by-case basis (e.g. we happily send committers to ApacheCon).

Sticking to my corporate hat, I also have an hard time considering my company as a potential sponsor of big events, and I think I have a solid business case for it. Our upcoming event is far from running on a shoestring budget: given we’re addressing decision makers dressed up in suits, we chose a great location, we have been assisted by a leading agency, we will provide a full business lunch, coffee breaks, gadgets and everything that sums up to a quite posh event. Quite surprisingly, though, when we were presented with the budget, we found out that running our own event is going to be less expensive than sponsoring a major venue. And it wasn’t a close call.

I guess this boils down to a win-win situation: our attendees will enjoy not having to travel far away (we plan to move OSBA to a European roadshow, by the way), while listening to great speakers and enjoy an interesting day for free. We, of course, will gain quite a bit of recognition both in the Open Source and business community, while of course we won’t mind grabbing a few leads. If you move this business case to the typical geek event, where all you need is a wi-fi router, power plugs, beamers and enough beer to keep the code flowing, the difference becomes even more apparent.

I guess this might be some food for thought for conference organizers and for the future of conferences: sticking to Open Source events, what I can see is a couple of major venues left, with a galaxy of volunteer-based and maybe company-sponsored local events, possibly happening on informal basis such as “structured hackathons” and bringing – at least – lots of fun and interaction between focused communities of users. I just happen to love the “Get Together” concept we used for our Cocoon event: a great excuse for a few days out, with some nice work done and lots of fun. For a reasonable budget. A recipe for success, indeed.

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