I have been blessed to be thrust into the world of conferences these last few years as a planner, producer and videographer. Not the trade shows and expo floors that I’ve worked and attended in the past as a corporate technical marketing engineer, but special interest groups, birds of a feather type affairs that typically attract an audience of bright people to watch engaging speakers give their talks. For me it started small with something called a “Cyborg Camp” (how cool is that, right?) at a former SE Portland co-working office called Cube Space and then Bar Camps, Journalism Camps, WordPress Camps (a lot of camping in there) and on to larger Open Source community conferences. And Portland, Oregon has hatched several of these gatherings, large and small, with WebVisions being the largest homegrown gathering of web and mobile designers in its 12th year and growing annual events in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Barcelona to Open Source Bridge, the Portland conference for open source citizens in its 4th year and Word Camp (Portland Edition) in its 5th, for the community of bloggers and developers on the WordPress platform. What makes these conferences work is the people involved, from attendees, speakers, organizers and volunteers who put their hard work and love into the event each year. Sometimes these gatherings can find the right venue to fit the atmosphere of the event and sometimes, for several reasons finding the right place to hold an event is a challenge.
Part I: Say Goodbye to Conferences, Say Hello to Love @XOXO
It’s a love of gathering amazing special people together in one space and an eye to create an atmosphere of highlighting creative hacking in that space, that Andy Baio and Andy McMillan launched the XOXO Festival in Portland, Oregon in the middle of September. This wasn’t just a simple one-off Kickstarter stunt, but a real attempt at changing the way conferences look and feel and I was very lucky to be a part of it. So lucky that I got a look inside the thought process behind this conference that started with a concept, much like the brainstorming sketches attendees were encouraged to make on the purple “Field Notes” graph paper booklets everyone received as part of their XOXO swag. And that swag was as unique and genuine as the conference itself. No giant vendor sponsored stuff that encourages attendees to drink a certain beverage, or drive a particular car or whatever. Look. It costs a lot of money to put on any gathering of a group of people interested in something and conferences need to sell sponsorships to pay for that privilege as well as get paying butts in seats. It’s not easy and that’s why your attendee bag is full of adswag, or hopefully some good stuff if the conference has attracted the right niche sponsors that already have captured the community of attendees interest. All the Portland conferences I’ve experienced do a very good job of this, by the way. It was this focus on the small details that sought to make the XOXO Festival a different experience.
1) Funded on Kickstarter
Before there was ever an XOXO conference, there was a Kickstarter project that described the concept in a video. They raised ~$175k in less than 2 days. The conference was funded- now time to deliver.
2) Limit attendance to 400
Whether due to the venue or on purpose, this conference was limited to 400 ticket holders. Those that didn’t have the opportunity to attend in person were offered the opportunity to get the “box of goodies” and early look at the presentation videos.
3) Single track conference
Track 4 is in ballroom B/C only when the sun is heating the earth at 82F unless it’s Sunday. Come on! Can’t we all just agree to get together in a single room and partake of the sessions all together? 🙂
4) Hold the conference in a visually stunning place
This is where the magic happened for me. To rent out a convention center or large hotel ballroom would have been easy, and vendors servicing those venues would have had their tried and true attack plan, but that’s not how this one was going to roll…
(Next, PART II: Making XOXO)