Planning a small conference

I like small, focused events especially in the early days of an industry. Om and I organized the Widgets Live! conference to bring together the major players creating widgets, gadgets, and modules and the major endpoints of deployment. Many decisions were made along the way, and I’ll share just a few in this post.


We knew lots of people from around the web industry would be in San Francisco for O’Reilly Media’s Web 2.0 conference November 7-9. Scheduling the widgets conference adjacent to the Web 2.0 conference creates a convenient opportunity for a few people to extend their visit to San Francisco from France, Ireland, Japan, Seattle, and many places in between.

Hosting a conference the day before the Web 2.0 conference allows smaller companies and products to launch at our widgets-specific conference before the downpour of press releases and announcements that usually happen at the bigger conferences.

Rough schedule

What products and companies do we want to be sure are represented at the conference? Om and I listed some of the different widget sectors (desktop, social network, homepage, etc) and the key players we would like to see represented from each sector.

How many attendees?

The speakers and their coworkers created a base attendee level, and we knew more people would like to hear them speak and meet the other people in the room. But how many? We guessed there would be a total attendance of between 150-200 people. The total number of attendees limits available venues and rooms available to host the group so I rather sell out the available space and have a more intimate setting than restrict available rooms to something like a big ballroom.

Room configuration

Conferences are typically setup with either a theater or classroom seating arrangement. A theater arrangement consists of rows of chairs facing the stage. A classroom arrangement adds tables to each row, allowing attendees to place a laptop or notepad on a flat surface. I like the classroom setup a lot better, and restricted venue searches to rooms that can hold 150-200 people in this configuration with either 18″ or 30″ tables for laptops and notepads.

I hate crappy WiFi

There’s nothing like crappy WiFi to ruin an otherwise good conference. It allows attendees to stay connected with their office colleagues, write e-mails, post to a blog, and connect with other attendees. The widgets conference needed to have working WiFi access for all the laptop-toting attendees, but would networks at possible event venues be able to handle the load? Could I trust the sales person who assures me they can?

Clay-Jones and Sutro towers

Fixed wireless access might help solve the issue, beaming microwaves of bandwidth from the hills of San Francisco. If the event venue has line-of-sight to a point of presense there may be hope. Two big towers in San Francisco are Sutro Tower on Twin Peaks and the Clay-Jones building on Nob Hill.

Picking the venue

We ended up choosing a locally owned and operated non-profit as our event venue. The Marines’ Memorial Club provides discounted accommodations to visiting military personnel and recently renovated their event space. I like the high ceilings, vintage look, and a small venue for a small, focused conference.

The event rooms on the 10th floor also happen to have a great view of the Clay-Jones building just a few blocks away on the top of Nob Hill. TowerStream happens to have a point of presence on Nob Hill, boosting available bandwidth at least 10-fold.

Separating speakers and sponsors

I wanted to select the best possible speakers regardless of their company’s sponsorship role. I handled speaker selection for the conference and Om handles sponsors. This separation of duties is attempt to balance the best possible attendee experience with a good level of sponsor participation.

We rented an additional room to provide exhibit space for sponsors and allow attendees to interact with the products and staff talked about at the conference. Maybe you’ve never seen Windows Vista or a tricked out MySpace page, or you want a hands-on experience with some widget hardware. Setting up a physical space of focused interaction creates a better experience for both sponsors and attendees.

I think sponsors get a better value at a focused event, setting more focused objectives and getting their name and product in front of the appropriate community. I can reevaluate the perceived ROI in about two weeks.


Conferences are a lot of work, but I hope to see more small events in the future. There are definitely expediencies learned with experience and I’m open to sharing implementation details with anyone thinking of doing their own event.