This post is part of a series and the first one is available here So if you read that and your still interested in running a conference let’s talk about the next scary topic before we move on into the good stuff.
There is simply a never ending list of things that require money when putting on a conference. This is a look at how we raised it, and the decisions we made with and about it.
Step 2: Money
So a conference has a ton of things that have to have deposits put down and ultimately paid in full. I’m gonna cover those in detail in the expense section below with the numbers from PyTennessee. Next I’m going to cover how we settled on the decision to charge for the conference and our ticket price. Finally I’m gonna wrap up with a section on handling sponsorships. None of these are 100% perfect, but it’s how we did it. NOTE: This is not our actually ledger, I rounded things off and I’m not disclosing direct amounts to or from individuals.
Before we go there, let’s talk about a very important part of the finances of a conference. If you don’t have an LLC, S-Corp, 501(c)3 etc, you will be personally liable for any issues at your event! Reread that sentence again. Gonna put in it forth in a different context. If you fail to have the money you need, you’re the one people will come to for the funds or refunds if the event isn’t satisfactory. Also, if you have a company behind the event, make sure to have an official rep sign any and all binding paper work to protect individuals for any extra risk. Get Insurance, and if you feel uncomfortable with anything just don’t do it.
So let’s start with expenses. First and foremost, we had to have space to hold the event. When we started PyTN, we thought we would have roughly 100 people and maybe 150 at most. In fact our early sponsorship pitches talked about 75 to 100 attendees. We ended up with 281 tickets sold and 247 actually show up at the event. The venue we chose worked okay for the event, we could have used a better setup for lunch. Of course there is never enough wifi, but much of that just isn’t fixable in an event our size. The space rental was our 3rd highest expense. So these prices are rounded amounts for our event with 281 attendees. NOTE: We still had to pay this amount even though only 247 attended.
Nashville is a spread out city, and there weren’t a ton of close by food options so we had to provide food for our attendees as well. We also feed any speaker that wanted it food for every meal starting Friday at Lunch until Sunday at dinner. We also wanted to make sure attendees has plenty of snacks and drinks available at all times. This was our largest expense!
Our second largest expense was our young coders class, the costs for this included the RaspberryPis, books, and rooms. It also equipment rental to have all the needed monitors, keyboard, and mice required to hold the class.
So the TEDx, PyNash, and Chair Expenses I feel need a bit of talking about. So TEDxNashville was the 501(c)3 we used to back PyTennessee. This greatly reduced the accounting and risk of putting on the event. The money we paid to them was used to help support their costs and expenses for servicing our event. This would have been WAY more expensive to attempt to manage and control on our own. We also gave in meetup, food and giveaways to PyNash to support the launch of a local Python user group. The last one was the cost for me to be able to spend the whole weekend in Nashville, I live roughly an hour away and it would have not been reasonable for me to drive home and back every day.
Another thing we looked into was having video done of the entire event. To me partial video wasn’t really an option. I didn’t want to pick who we did and didn’t record. Every presenter deserved video! I got compliments and comments on twitter about every single session. Video was priced to us starting at $7,000 and topping out at $9,000. This was over 25% of the conference budget! In the end we choose to grow the young coders class, and provide a better experience to the attendees that were onsite. Was this the right decision? It was to me. YMMV!
So the first good conference organizer cry came over ticket prices. We knew that we couldn’t follow the awesome example of PyOhio, PyArkansas etc of having a totally free conference. Good food that could handle 281 people simply was not accessible nearby enough to have everyone leave and come back. We tried to figure up food costs and attempted to base ticket prices on that. Then we tried to work up a distribution so that the average ticket price would cover our food expenses. We collected roughly $10,000 in ticket sales prior to Eventbrite and PayPal fees. This made the average ticket price $35.60. Some had to pay more or less, but we felt this was a fair price. Then we began aggressively working to make sure we gave every single attendee that money back in other ways. Working out sponsorships that gave every attendee something. In our case that was a sling bag, shirt, O’Reilly ebook, Gondor credits, Emporium Discounts etc. I felt in the end that everyone got their money’s worth. Again this is my point of view, and 97% of the attendees who answered the survey said the cost was worth it.
Someone who knows how to do sponsorship right should right a book. I got priceless guidance from Jesse Noller, PyOhio and PyCon Canada organizers. First is we always tried to find an individual in the company to talk too. Secondly, we always made sure to go to them with three options we thought their company would fit as a sponsor. We also worked with companies to make a special package just for them. Maybe they didn’t need tickets or didn’t want an ad. Maybe they wanted to spend just slightly less. Whatever it was we did everything we could to accommodate them. We also just straight up didn’t take money from some sponsors, we traded them out for services or assistance in other ways. We also didn’t charge anything if we couldn’t guarantee they would have a successful event with us. This flexibility worked great for us, and several times a company that we worked with came back and upped their sponsorship level. In general it seemed to me that if you focus on getting the sponsors you want involved and don’t get hung up on the money then it was more of a partnership than just a handout. It’s hard for me to say if the sponsors felt they got their money’s worth out of our event. I know a few of them thanked me personally and said they did. I hope they all felt that it was worth it.
In the end, we raised $23,000 in sponsorship money, and turned down quite a decent amount more that frankly we didn’t need or was for our failed video efforts.
Do you feel you wasted any money?
I’m been pondering this since the event, and I’m satisfied that we spent all the money in good faith and in a good manner. I wished I could have done more for the speakers. I think some people could nitpick the final budget and find money they would have not spent or repurposed for another area. As a whole I happy with how we spent them money, and I feel nothing was out of line. My one worry was the amount of food we had to give away and in some really sad cases throw away. We were expecting the 281 paid attendees to come and while we encouraged the 247 to eat as much as they wanted, there was simply too much food. We were able to give much of it away to a local church and senior center; however, we still ended up throwing away food each day that they didn’t need or wouldn’t accept.
What do you wished you could have done differently?
I really wished I could have done more for speakers, keynoters, and volunteers. While I was able to offer them a few niceties, they took time out of their own schedules, money from their own pockets and handled a lot of stress to make this event worth coming too. Honestly, our event was popular and great because of the amazing speaker and keynote line up. I also was initially really sad that we couldn’t do video this year. Looking back spending that money on young coders, and financial aid was a far better use of the funds for our first year. I wasn’t in a position to have to organize and handle one more task during the event.
I would have also not jumped ahead of the money we had in the bank at each step of the vendor selection process. Many times I was personally committing to a vendor prior to PyTN having the funds to cover that cost. This is a huge risk, and one I can’t even remotely suggest anyone else take on. It lead to a ton of sleepless nights and agonizing days. Conferences are a drag on the organizers expenses as well. Many deposits have to be made before money is available, and many meetings require buying lunch etc prior to there being funds.
In reflection, we couldn’t have done it differently this year, but we can make some changes for next year to close what I saw as short comings.