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Selecting a venue can be a long and frustrating process; however, it sets the stage for most every other aspect of the conference. It will be the stage for your speakers, dictate your food options, network choices, tracks, and schedule. During the venue selection process of PyTennessee we looked into about 10 different venues, and ultimately bumped up our selection a few times as our number of attendees increased. We initially expected 100 to 150 people, and it ended up a 281 registered and 247 attending.
Venue selection is a battle of compromises, so start by making a list of what you need from an event center. Our criteria for the venue were (in order): space for our conference tracks and young coders, security, price, A/V, WiFi, food availability, and hotel availability.
When thinking about space for your conference, keep in mind how many tracks your gonna have, what kind of room layout you need, and how you will distribute any food or snacks. Also keep in mind how long you have access to the event space both for the conference days and setup/teardown. At PyTN, we only had access to the event space from 7AM-6PM Saturday and Sunday, and one classroom from 3PM-6PM Friday for setup time. This meant that we had only 3 hours to prepare for young coders, and our sponsors had to setup their tables Saturday morning. It also meant that we had to have any events after 6PM at another facility. Thank goodness Emma stepped up to help. This meant attendees had to find their own transportation from NSL to Emma to attend our party and sprints.
Our venue didn’t have a great way to setup for food. (it takes people way longer than you think to get food.) If you have more than 150 people, try to find a way to setup two lines. We had a good setup for many things, but I completely screwed up the food distribution process. We also had an issue with food for sprints the first night, as a vendor cancelled our order, another refused to help us, and we finally found a place but it caused our sprinters to get their food late. :(
Wait, why is security so high on your list? Everyone has differing opinions about how to ensure the safety of their attendees. Some people like to use on campus/hotel security or use the local police force to handle any incidents. At PyTN, creating a safe place was a major part of our goals, and we wanted a visible security presence at all official events. Security is rarely included in the venue, but often they have pre-established relationships with security providers and occasionally pre-negotiated rates. For example, we used on campus security at the Nashville School of Law, and used Emma’s preferred security vendor for the events held there. We gave them simple instructions to mostly stay out of the way, but to make sure they made rounds and were noticed. Speaking of security, we treated them and all our vendors like they were our guests as well. We made sure to offer them food, shirts, stickers, bags, snacks, water, and anything else we thought they might want.
The price for space is all over the place, and often the prices include bundled things or put restrictions on the vendors and services you can use. Often hotels and convention centers require you to use their kitchens, their A/V system or vendor, etc. This can make the overall cost of the conference more than you expect. So make a total cost sheet for every venue you look at so you can compare them accurately. You can see our cost of the venue and security during the day in the Space Rental fee, and Emma donated the use of their amazing space for sprints and the after party, but you can see our security costs for their space in the security line of our money post listed above.
A/V is the number one headache for speakers once they arrive at your site, and can affect video if you elect to do it at your conference. Make sure you have plenty of different input support, adapters, and patience. You will have speakers with every combination of OS, Window Manager, and output you can imagine. Don’t be afraid to ask the audience, often other people have a similar setup to the presenter, and will have the cable or adapter you need.
Whatever you get it’s never enough… At the conference strive to have 1 ap/20 attendees (consumer access point) or 1 ap/60 attendees (commerical access point). Also, try to have at least 25Mbps download / 150 attendees. No that’s not a ton of bandwidth, but it will enable email, irc, etc. At sprints make sure to have 25Mbps / 30 attendees. These are my thoughts on the idea. Our wifi wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough for the event, and I heard zero complaints about it at sprints.
Food is the greatest variable in a conference. It can cost next to nothing, or it can be your largest expense. Try to determine your source of food up front for both the conference days, and the other events such as sprints. This doesn’t mean you have to provide food, but it means you need to know how everyone is going to eat! It has to fit into your schedule as well. If people have to go out at lunch, you’ll need a longer break to accommodate that. Plan on providing snacks and drinks even if people are going to be going out for lunch. If your venue requires you to purchase food from them, be aware of the minimums and the cost per person. Food is also a chance for you to share a bit of the flair of your city. If your city is known for a type of food or a special restaurant try to serve or point people to that.
At PyTN, we had to supply food because the food options close to the venue weren’t very close or good. We attempted to have food for many of the different diets people follow. This is very difficult, and isn’t fully achievable. We did a decent job of having vegetarian options, but we failed to provide enough gluten-free options. To show off our city a bit, we served food from Edleys, Five Points Pizza, and Hattie B’s. The lack of acceptable food close by, and our food choices set our ticket prices for us. Food and space are the number one reasons PyTN wasn’t a free conference.
Try to find hotels near your conference venue to reduce your attendees transportation requirements; however, attendee safety and comfort tops all! Nashville is a driving city, and we offered hotels that were 10 minutes away from our event venue to ensure they were in safe parts of town, and had quick access to food and grocery.