Javaday in Rome – wow!

I meant to write this post over the weekend, but I got sidetracked by my computer woes. I just need to congratulate and send all my kudos to the great guys at JUG Roma for pulling off a great, outstanding and amazing event for the second year in a row. The recent Rome Javaday really made me think there is still hope for conferences: after a few trips to well-unattended events and half-empty rooms, last Saturday I was welcomed by an incredibly long line of people waiting to register for a morning full of conferences and talks: during my talk the room was overly packed with people nearly sitting on our lap and a lot of others who just weren’t able to sneak in. Such things happen when you have amazing numbers such as 1.200 registered attendees: scaringly exciting  numbers that make you feel part of a broad and vibrant community, and a really nice breathe of fresh air.

Saturday I also learnt that Javapolis is sold out, I think for the second year in a row or so. Nearly 3.000 people will be meeting in Antwerp next week, for three days full of hacking, networking and knowledge sharing. That number would have been mind-boggling to me if it wasn’t for what I saw last Saturday: if Rome can pull more than 1.000 people for a local event, it just makes sense that an international venue gets at least three times as much, right?

Wrong. Most traditional conferences are either failing or barely able breaking even, with attendance in the low hundreds, if even that. I have been to more than a venue where conference rooms had huge echoes from empty chairs, and lucky enough to escape others. Why is that? I might be naive, but think it all boils down to a few key factors:

  • guess what, content is king. This is the bread and butter of conferences and most definitely you won’t have lots of people to show up unless there is a compelling proposition behind it. This is not just about specific talks: what people want to see is a clear positioning of conferences, with a concise and well-defined content framework. Consider this: I saw way too many Open Source conferences with poor attendance, yet the Open Source tracks at vertical conferences are always packed full. Maybe it’s time to be more specific when it comes to the general topic of a conference, especially avoiding general Open Source venues?
  • user-generated conferences are a blast and a great recipe for success. Having a community behind a conference means standing on a key foundation of diehard fans who will go at the greatest lengths to get the word out and involve as many people as possible. Moreover, their honest pitching won’t be perceived as sales tacticts from a producer willing to milk money from attendees. And yes, the conference program will be much better as well.
  • logistics and costs are not to be underestimated. Let’s be honest and admit that, in times of screencasts and webinars, information is much more available: while nothing beats a competent speaker telling a story in front of an audience who can interact, ask question, and get a better understanding overall, truth is it’s hard to find a compelling value proposition in something that meets or exceeds a month’s salary in conference fees, travel expenses and lost work days. Javaday was free, and Javapolis has little more than a nominal price tag. People love it and find real value in that.
  • conferences still need to make ends meet, which means expensing the venue and all the related stuff. Thing is, user-generated conferences can be much more streamlined, rely on a cheaper location, avoid hefty producer fees and require a significantly lower budget. Which can then easily be covered by sponsors. And you won’t have a single problem in finding sponsors if you can offer them packed rooms full of people and a fair proposal which gets them value for money.

I might sound as a broken record, as I said all this a while ago.Still, I had so much fun in Rome, mingling with fellow hackers and speaking in front of a large crowd, that I’m dying to do it again.