Hug a Conference Organizer

As you may know, I, along with my wife, curate the rather successful JSConf which draws attendees from the international stage to present cutting edge JavaScript technology. Without a doubt, it has been our most ambitious project ever and continues to be a constant source of frustration and excitement for us. Being a developer and firm believer in the Open Source movement, I felt it my responsibility to speak up on a variety of issues that are of concern to me. This post will hopefully give you a very real and very raw view into the life of an independent conference organizer. There will undoubtably be a slew of comments about “you could have done X” or “you should have done Y” and those are, in fact, the inspiration for this post. If you don’t read any further, read this next line:

Organizing any event of any magnitude takes exponential effort and cost to the resulting “feel” of that event.

This is something I have come to after years of starting small groups and increasingly large events. JSConf, or any conference as best I can tell, is no exception to this rule. I believe in part this is due to the veil that conference organizers (myself included) put up in order to hide the details in an effort to make the event seem perfect - the truth is very often far from. A conference or any event of substantial size is little more than herding cats with nothing but a spoon and a lot of faith that things will work out, despite any specific time instance. That’s it - complete and total chaos. If you don’t immediately understand what I mean, please continue.


Possibly the most complex and important decision of every conference is the venue. Trust me, the venue is also the most precarious and hazardous of all decisions related to the success of the conference. When an organizer selects a venue they are implicitly selecting the following items:

  • Quality, variety, and costing of the food available
  • IT capability for the entire conference
  • Room cost and availability
  • Total number of attendees
  • General feel of the conference
  • Location of the event

That is a tremendous amount of fundamental concerns that all must be done prior to even the first thought of the conference. Factor in that no hotel seems to be affected by the ongoing economic troubles suffered by everyone else, or at least that is the front they all put up, and before even setting forth, the organizer begins to question their decision. Think about this, at a technology conference, you are selecting the basis for every major component that makes or breaks the conference (internet, room rates, number, feel, food) roughly 6-8 months in advance with little to no validation that the conference will work or who will show up.


Worse still, you are dedicating roughly 55% of your budget to a group that is only contractually required to turn the lights on and unlock the doors. Organizers have little to no protection in venue contracts, but bear all of the risk. If you assume a hotel for “ease of selection”, the organizer has to guarantee at their own personal risk a room block, meaning a set of rooms that must be filled by certain number of attendees otherwise you pay for the rooms to be vacant. You have to make the estimate on the size of the room block long before you really even know the numbers of attendees AND you cannot increase the size without going through another round of negotiation with the hotel. So you are stuck trying to fill rooms in a hotel to (normally) within a 5 room night space considered “acceptable” by the hotel. Worse still, the room rate is “offered” with little bearing to the market and little control over any “considerations”. Most hotels will offer the organizer a “price lower than any other available”, but will sell the rooms on Priceline/Hotwire for at or below the event price. Aside from the organizer or an attendee actually booking a room through such services, the organizer will never find out and therefore can never exercise the contract line item - rendering it completely useless. 

The mere selection of the venue is a precarious clusterfuck as well, if you choose a venue in the city which affords excitement and self-directed activities for the attendees, you can look for a room rate of $200-$500/night for your attendees at first negotiation. That pretty much prohibits anyone from attending except for local people who do not help you on the aforementioned room block issue. Also you have to factor in that the cost of the hotel room directly affects the cost of the conference, since you will most likely be providing a space for your invited speakers (yet to be determined) to stay. Consider a two day (16 speakers) single track conference, the cost of hosting speakers so you can ensure that they are ready and “on-call” normally runs roughly $15,000-$30,000 of the budget. This is also why negotiating the venue is absolutely essential, but it is very stressful, frustrating, and can build a tremendous amount of hostility between the organizer and the venue early on, yielding a less than satisfying relationship on going.

If you hold the conference outside the city, the price does go down to anywhere from $100-$250, but the organizer has to balance the likelihood of someone taking a taxi from the nearest airport to get to your conference, which decreases with every mile out from a major airport. Since you aren’t in a major metropolis (possibly in the suburbs) you likely will have to find (or create) things for your attendees to do/see/eat outside of the conference. Or you could just not care - but then the perceived quality of the conference rapidly degrades, because the attendees will just go back to their rooms and complain. So now you are looking at a social budget and the first thing you will consider is the hotel. Hotel parties cost anywhere from $10,000 - $14,000 for a group the size of 150 people, because according to their analysis people will consume $86 worth of food and drink over two hours. Stop for a second a re-read that, you could send everyone to the fanciest of restaurants in the region for that price, but instead you are going to pay that for chicken-on-a-stick and Bud Light. On top of that there is generally a 22%-30% gratuity that must be paid to thank the people cooking and serving the food - regardless of their performance. It is without a doubt, impossible to justify the cost so the organizer will now have to find a new venue for the social events, making it exponentially more complex. 

And then there is food and beverages during the day. Most hotels and venues will not let you bring in outside food, feigning rules of “state law” and “labor restrictions” - all of which is complete hogwash barring two states. So they will provide the organizer with the only option for food, which comes with prices that are outrageous. By outrageous, I mean $26 per person for a “continental breakfast” of day-old pastries and $40 per person for deli sandwiches. So for a given attendee, you are looking at spending anywhere from $50 - $75 per person per day. This amount will be even higher if you attempt accommodate your guests throughout the day with coffee and sodas which can easily range from $28 - $36 per person, per day. So tabulating that out, if you run a conference for 150 people spread over 2 days, you are looking at a base price for accommodating your guests of roughly $34,000 on average. 

So as a conference organizer, just to get started, you require about $50,000 to just secure the base essentials of speakers and food/beverage. So next time you complain about the price of admission to event X or conference Y consider this, in order to break even for an “ok” event in a reasonable place, the bear minimum the conference organizers should charge without expectation of sponsorship is $189 per day per person. That is just covering your attendance and the presence of the speakers for the event. Mind you that is only a one track conference, as you add more tracks the number of “compensated” speakers grows normally at the exchange of paying guests, which directly changes the cost per person per day. Furthermore that number does not cover the cost of speaker travel, which can range anywhere from $300 to $700 per speaker. 



I have been sitting on this post for a while, I do intend on continuing the series, but I wanted to get this out. Seriously, stop bitching about grass roots conferences, if you have an issue with them, then offer to help - it will be gladly accepted. The grass roots, organic conference movement has provided some of the most amazing events in the technology industry, but they are fading because the response is generally one of “OMG I HATE YOU” or “WTF YOU FAILED ON…” instead of looking at what positive things were done. If you think you can do better, I encourage you to go for it. You will have a new appreciation for every other event you attend thereafter.