Hello, I’m James Cattell and I help run the United Kingdom Government Camp (UKGovCamp).

I attended my 1st unconference in June 2010. Since thenI’ve found traditional conferences difficult to attend for 1 simple reason – they’re designed to meet sponsor’s needs, not the needs of the people attending the conference.

Traditional conference agendas are set in advance. Organisers invite people to speak on certain topics. Sometimes there’s a question and answer session at the end. Maybe even a panel discussion. But the focus is on the people invited to talk and the sponsors who want to sell you stuff.

Open space events (also known as unconferences) focus on the people who turn up. Attendees set their own agenda and lead their own discussions. Anyone can pitch and discuss anything.

I’ve attended and run many open space events, both in and outside government. People started asking me how to organise and run them. This post gathers together everything I know in 1 place, with input from lots of fellow open space organisers.

A blog post might not be the best place to publish what’s effectively guidance, but it’s the best place to start. One reason for publishing this information here, in this format, is to get feedback from others about how best to iterate it in future.

Make it free to attend

Open Space events can be held anywhere. Any public space with breakout areas will do. Run this way, the only costs are attendees time and expenses. It’s much better to get a sponsor to cover the costs than it is to charge attendees an entry fee. In most cases, the point of an open space event is to aggregate many minds in one place and focus their attention on a particular theme – you’re asking for their help, so don’t make them pay for the privilege.

How to find sponsors

If you’ve got costs, you’ll need sponsors.

Start close to home – see if your employer or their suppliers will help. To spread your search wider, I recommend starting at www.ukgovcamp/grants 

Sponsoring an open space event isn’t the same as sponsoring a normal conference. Sponsors don’t have the same expectations that sponsors of normal conferences have. They’re there for the community and because they believe in taking action. 

Let’s take UKGovCamp as an example. In the intros at the beginning of the day we make it clear that:

  • sales pitches are not allowed
  • presentations are frowned upon
  • people won’t be allowed to hog sessions

Sponsors are still welcome to come, setup a stall and talk to attendees. We’ll happily project their details onto screens, promote them on social media and even put their logo on a t-shirt. But they don’t get to hog the stage and tell us all about their products and services. We make this clear upfront, before we take any sponsorship money off them.

Think about having different tiers of sponsorship (see http://www.ukgovcamp.com/become-a-sponsor/).

Make time to deal with the consequences of sponsorship

Once you’ve got sponsors, you’ll need time to do the work that comes with them.

You’ll need to raise purchase orders, do invoicing and reconciliation. Have a deadline for sponsors to pay up, before the event if possible (we’ve had a couple of UKGovCamp sponsors who never paid up).

If you‘ve attracted government sponsors, you may need to allow extra time. If youre not aware of their timescales then ask.

Promote your sponsors

You’ll need their logos in full colour for webpages + black & white for t-shirts. Go for a resolution of 300 dots per inch (dpi). Give your sponsors a schedule of things they need to give you (logos should be the first thing). Setup a social media schedule of promotional messages and ask friends and colleagues to re-share them.

Da balance sheet of sponsorship, expenses, running costs, etc. Be totally transparent with this – put it on the web. At UKGovCamp, we’ve used internet facing collaborative documents which sponsors can add themselves to.

Many sponsors will want to send banners and swag. Ask your venue for a named contact and full delivery address. Then tell your sponsors details for the pre and post event deliveries.

Make the theme clear

You’ll need a short summary of what your event is about. Think about the people who’ll want to come and the things they’ll want to discuss. Here are some examples:

  • “For people interested in how the public sector does digital, data and technology” – UKGovCamp
  • “It’s a two-day, weekend event, entirely devoted to Open Data” – OpenDataCamp
  • “An event in Wales where you will discuss, create and innovate – looking at how technology, new thinking and public services can improve society” – GovCampCymru

Make sure you test the language with friends, colleagues and strangers. See if it makes sense and iterate if not. Feel free to try it out on social media, which has the added benefit of drumming up interest.

Make it easy for people to plan ahead

Most open space events are 1 or 2 days long. Pick a date well in advance that doesn’t conflict with other big or similar events. If you have a comms team then ask them for help. Search the internet for stuff happening on your date(s). If your event is happening on a weekend (and many of them do) consider sports events that it might clash with. Remember to check for Bank holidays and other annual events.

You need to allow enough lead time for people to book childcare, travel and accommodation. Remember – the earlier people can book, the cheaper things are. If you can pick a date that’s at least 12 weeks in the future.

Plan for the right number of people

You have 2 options:

  1. find out how many people want to come
  2. pick a number you think you can manage

Option 1 means you’ll need to survey people. If you do thisremember to advise people this doesn’t guarantee them a ticket – you’re just gauging numbers. There are lots of services you can use such as Google Forms, Survey Monkey or the beautiful Typeform. Once your form is setup, test it with a bunch of people. Then iterate your form and test it again. Once you’re happy, promote the form using social media, mailing lists, posters and via community leaders. Feel free to get as creative as possible – sticky notes in lifts if needs be!

Option 2 means just picking a number and sticking to it. Although I’ve yet to run an event for more than 700 people, anything is possible. I recommend starting small until you get the hang of it (unless you get someone like me to help you). It’s worth having a look at Dunbar’s number, which may influence your decision.

Pick a location that’s easy for people to get to

Before you decide on a venue, you need to decide on a general location. Big cities are obvious choices, but it really depends on your attendees. If you’re going to survey people then ask what they prefer. Then you can make an informed choice. If you can, and if it suits your audience, try and get out of London.

Pick a venue that’s easy for people to access

The venue needs to:

  • be available on the date(s) of your event
  • be able to hold your maximum number of attendees
  • be accessible – thank about parking, wheelchair access, lifts to all floors
  • have spaces for holding several parallel sessions
  • have reliable wifi – this is very desirable

When you’ve found a venue you’ll need to:

  • visit it and double check it meets your needs
  • check the venue and surrounding area isn’t hosting events that will clash
  • book the venue
  • pay for the venue
  • (re)confirm the venue close to the date

If you’re using a public sector building, it’s a good idea to:

  • make sure someone working for the host organisation knows exactly what’s going on
  • get a written confirmation from the host that the space is booked
  • make sure the host organisation‘s press office knowthe event is taking place and are happy
  • tell the host organisation who is sponsoring the event

Make sure you have enough separate rooms

Within your venue, you’ll need:

  • a reception area to greet people, check their tickets and hand out freebies
  • a cloakroom (including lost property area) 
  • a main space or room that holds everyone (remember some people will need seating)
  • breakout rooms to run parallel sessions throughout the day(s)
    • the breakout rooms should be self-contained, as some discussions will make a lot of noise
    • ideally the rooms will have individual climate control (heated debates = hot rooms)
    • optional audio/visual equipment in each room for people to show stuff they’ve worked on

Provide wi-fi

  • You need wi-fi that will handle all the devices your attendees will bring
  • Ideally the wi-fi will be open access (no passwords or logins needed)
    • if you do need to login, test it with popular systems (Android, iPhone, Windows and Mac)
  • Ideally the venue should have good mobile phone reception, in case the wi-fi fails

Organise plenty of volunteers

You’ll need volunteers to help you run your event. You can recruit these people by asking them directly or by offering a volunteer’s ticket. Duties include staffing the reception desk (checking tickets, name badges and t-shirts), running the cloakroom, catering, time keeping, marshalling people between rooms, running social media accounts, photography, facilitating sessions and taking notes. Some sessions need facilitation to give everyone a chance to speak.

Give the volunteers clear instructions, so that they each know what they’ll be doing. As soon as you have a team of volunteers set up, start holding regular video conference calls (via Google Hangout, Skype or similar) so that they’re all kept informed. Tell them about the event and the kind of duties you need from them. Ask if it makes sense and if they have any questions. 

Some people won’t be able to do all the activities you need. Try to assign tasks that suit the individual.

Make it easy for people to get tickets

Decide if all the tickets will be available at once, in batches or whether you’ll run a lottery. Just remember that some attendees will be accessibility needs. If they have to fight to get a ticket, they may be disadvantaged.

There are several free ticketing services you can use. We use Eventbrite for UKGovCamp, but plenty of others are available. I personally like attending.io for its responsive and simple interface. Some services let you have different types of tickets. These are useful if you want allow attendees to make optional donations.

When you’re publicising the tickets, remember that diverse attendees make for diverse discussions. So seek out mailing lists and online communities tailored to different groups. We promoted the last UKGovCamp via Ada’s List and managed to get a good gender balance, because we actively encouraged women to come.

Whatever ticket system you use, make sure people can easily cancel their ticket. It’s worth sending several emails in the run up to the event reminding people to cancel if they can’t come. Otherwise you can “oversell” the tickets to allow for dropouts. At UKGovCamp we oversell by 20%.

Make it easy for people to find information about your event

You need a page on the internet to share information about your event. Use what you’ve already got, such as your survey page, or the page where people get tickets. 

You might want to set up and run your own website, in which case you can pick whatever option suits you, from paying for your own domain name/hosting, to signing up for a free account with a service such as wordpress.com. Choose something simpleor find someone who can help you.

Plan your session grid

The session grid is what people would call the “agenda” at a normal conference. It starts empty and gets filled up at the beginning of the day.

 It usually looks something like this:

 

Make sure you: 

  • agree how many sessionyou’ll run (we do 8 parallel sessions at UKGovCamp)
  • agree a length of each session (UKGovCamp’s are 45 minutes)
  • length of breaks between sessions (UKGovCamp’s are 15 minutes – lunch is longer)

You will need:

  • time at the start of the day for attendees to pitch sessions
  • allow attendees time to negotiate changes to the grid
  • time to fix the session grid
  • a web version of the grid (have a look at j.mp/ukgovcamp)

Remember the session grid (physical and internet) needs to be accessible to all attendees.

Find someone willing to host the day

You need someone to introduce the day and run the session pitching. Allow 30 seconds for each session pitch. Make sure you stick to this. Ideally this person will be a natural presenter and good with crowds. The intros should:

  • welcome people to the event
  • cover health and safety
  • explain any rules
  • thank sponsors
  • explain timings for the day

Think about catering

This is optional, especially if the venue or local area has shops and cafes. The 1st UKHealthCamp did this and it worked just fine. Just remember to allow attendees enough time to go out and eat, especially if they’re having a sit down lunch.

If you plan on doing catering for your event, you’ll need to:

  • plan for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets (include some soya milk)
  • get quotefor food and coffee (including decaf)
  • plan the deliveries to arrive at the right times
  • get hot water urns (I have 2 large ones available)
  • get something to fill the hot water urns with
  • keep the self-serve area clean and water topped up
  • plan where to send leftovers such as a local charity

Think about T-shirts and other promotional goodies

T-shirts are optional, especially if you’re on a tight budget. If you do this, you’ll need to gauge what sizes and for which sexes. Ask these questions during the survey or ticketing. You’ll also need all the sponsor’s logos and the event’s social media hashtag. Try and get the highest quality possible – the longer people wear them, the more free advertising you’ll get for your next event.

You don’t have to give away T-shirts. Several events I’ve helped organise did hoodies instead. These are especially good if your planning a winter event (or any other time of year given our weather).

If you have leftover clothing, make sure it goes to a local charity.

Make it easy for attendees to socialise

This is optional, but highly recommended. Have somewhere before and after the event where people can meetup and socialise. Remember that not everyone drinks alcohol or can enter somewhere that sells alcohol. The best venue will be a short walk from the venue, assuming you can’t use the venue itself. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s as accessible and is booked in advance.

Make sure you tell people in advance about the social event(s). Include them on the programme and in reminder emails. Tell people if food is provided/available at the event.

Recover

You need to take a day off after your event. Open space events are fun, but tiring. Build rest and relaxation into your busy schedule.

Thank you and further reading

I want to say a big thank you to everyone who helped contribute to this blog post, especially David Buck, Douglas Knox, Ellen Broad, Giuseppe Sollazzo, Jez Nicholson, Mark Braggins, Nick Halliday, Pauline Roche and Zuz Kopecka.

Here is some further reading:

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