Beachhead - Events for Suits

Maddog continues his framework for a good conference by considering the suits.

The planning for the conference at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianopolis, Brazil was proceeding well. Several tracks had been selected for the technical subjects, and the planning committee had put out a call for papers and selected several “invited talks” from speakers on topics they knew would be of interest to everyone—at least to all the techies.

But today, the organizers wanted to plan some conference topics for business people—managers who might not understand free software from a technical perspective and who would be bored by sessions on the brilliance of the emacs text editor.

“What about the suits?”, asked JR, “What types of things should we do for them?”

I told JR that it is hard to get business people for even one day, and that you have to develop a special program for them. Also, their interests do not lie in technical subjects, but in making and saving money. Often their interests also relate to better products or customer service that can come from the careful application of free software.

We decided to set up a short four-hour conference for the business people, starting with a breakfast sponsored by a few computer vendors. The sponsorship would pay for the room, food and travel for some of the speakers.

“First, we will discuss briefly what free software is, and make it clear that the real value to the software is the freedom to change it to meet your needs”, I said. “Some managers think that low cost is the only value.”

We also decided to ask a local computer magazine to send one of its writers to discuss subjects such as “where to use free software in the enterprise” and “how to migrate and interoperate using free software”. We knew this writer would be fair to free software and would tell customers the truth about how it would fit in to their environment.

“Next, we need case studies”, I said. The best way of convincing business people that something will work is to show them another similar business person making money with free software. This makes the attendees see success, and later they can become your best case studies for future events, after they have been successful in their own businesses.

“How do we find these case studies?”, Carlos asked. I answered, “You can go to the Web sites of your sponsoring companies or of local magazines and see if they have any articles about companies similar to the ones that you want to invite to your event. Often the sponsoring companies would be happy to work with their customers to get them to come to your event, and perhaps they will even sponsor the customer's travel to speak at your event.”

Other items where business people want clarification are licensing, where to get support, where to get training and other business issues associated with using free software.

After the meeting is over, the business people can talk to the vendors at the vendor exhibit, so the breakfast room would have to be near the main event.

A lot of conferences do not like to have vendor exhibits, but I like having a small vendor exhibit area just to allow attendees to see “the latest and greatest” of the vendors' wares. It is recommended, however, to tell the vendors that you want tabletop displays, small displays that do not take up much room or resources, and that they should mirror the themes of the conference. If the conference deals with multimedia, you might invite vendors who make sound cards, solid-state music players, midi instruments and so on to your event—particularly if these work with free software. If your theme is rapid development, you might invite vendors of compiler suites, test harnesses and so on.

You also should recommend that vendors send some technical people who can answer technical questions, as well as marketing people.

Do not forget to invite the .org groups. These are often the most popular exhibits—a lot of the .org people are doing some really innovative and fun things. Also remember that .orgs usually have even less money than small start-up companies, so often you have to donate the booth to them or sell it to them at a real discount. And, any money you can save the vendors on items such as electricity and Internet support, which is typically very expensive in large venues, will be appreciated twice over by the .org people.

“What about advertising?”, asked Dennis.

Although advertising is key, so is timing. These days, the Web is used to allow last-minute changes to programs, accommodations, travel tips and other things, but unless your Web site motivates attendees to come on the first viewing, you may never get them to come back for a second viewing. So, you need to make sure that enough information is available the first time potential attendees go to your site to make them register, and then update it with small items and changes as necessary.

Things necessary on the first showing of the Web site are location, time, themes for the event, main speakers (and hopefully the main speakers' topics, abstracts and bios), and fees (if any) to attend. The more speakers you have lined up by the time you take your Web site live, the better the Web site is for your event. A Web site with a lot of blank spaces does not inspire people to come to an event.

Although you should not advertise your site too early, you also should not advertise too late, as people make plans and may not be able to attend your event simply due to conflicting arrangements. With earlier warning, they might be able to reschedule the conflicting event or have enough time to talk their employers into sending them to the conference.

Once the Web site is ready, look for places to get low-cost or free advertising. Most Linux and PC magazines and on-line portals have event calendars. Most would be happy to include your event in those calendars. Local and public radio shows also have community calendars where they announce local events for free. University bulletin boards, library calendars and local newspapers are also good places to place small advertisements.

Entrance fees are always a touchy subject. A lot of free software people want everything to be free, not realizing that floor space, custodial care, security guards, insurance needs, electricity and Internet usage cost money. Some events charge very little to the attendees and get all of their money from sponsors and vendor sales. Often these low-cost events do not supply food to the attendees and instead have some type of meal plan available for a small fee or suggest that people eat outside of the event at a restaurant of their own choosing.

I have seen some free events, such as LinuxTAG in Germany, put together a small bag of goodies, such as donated CD-ROM collections, T-shirts and other donations from vendors, which are then sold to the attendees to raise money. And, some people either pass the hat for donations or raffle off items, such as a T-shirt signed by all the speakers. One time such a T-shirt brought several thousand dollars for the organizers to help cover costs.

Finally, have fun with your event. Putting together a one- or two-day conference should not be a person- and relationship-killing proposition. By planning ahead, you should be able to take the time to plan events without burning out anyone.

Jon “maddog” Hall is the Executive Director of Linux International (www.li.org), a nonprofit association of end users who wish to support and promote the Linux operating system. During his career in commercial computing, which started in 1969, Mr Hall has been a programmer, systems designer, systems administrator, product manager, technical marketing manager and educator. He has worked for such companies as Western Electric Corporation, Aetna Life and Casualty, Bell Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, VA Linux Systems and SGI. He is now an independent consultant in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Business and Technical issues.

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