Ever since my first software conference in 2005 (OSCON Europe 2005) I’ve been to quite a few amazing but also some mediocre rather events. Luckily, no horrible experiences so far but there were some situations where I didn’t see the value anymore to stay and took at least the rest of the day off.
Let’s focus on the positives, though: What makes a conference amazing for me? Here are a couple of factors in no particular order:
Room to exchange ideas
While talks are great, the main reason I’m at a conference is to get new and exchange ideas with others. You might have called the term “hallway track” which refers to all the amazing things happening outside of the main session rooms. You might say that this can happen virtually everywhere. Personally, I don’t like hallway tracks that are crammed into a place where the actual hallway is just 2m wide. I don’t feel comfortable 😞
Large conference centres are ideal here as they are spacious enough to host multiple events at the same time yet are rarely completely booked out. So, finding a nice quiet place between the rooms is easy! The convention centres in Montréal and Portland are great examples here as they offer seating virtually everywhere (even with power outlets).
Also good: Large hotels. A couple of years ago I attended PyCon Ireland at the Burlington Hotel (now a DoubleTree). Turns out that hotel lobbies are great esp. if the air-conditioning is set to kill in the main conference room 😉
On the other hand, while EuroPython was in Florence for three years, the main venue didn’t offer too much space between the session rooms so a nearby park incl. the bar there quickly became part of the event.
The airport in Graz advertises itself as a conference venue. Why on Earth would I want to have an event there?! It’s about 20 minutes by (infrequent) public transport to the city and in the vicinity there is absolutely nothing interesting. When I’m at an event I want to explore (ideally on foot)!
This is also the reason why when I’m looking for “new” conferences I usually prefer those in larger cities I’ve never been to. Over the years this broad me to Posnan (PolyConf), Utrech (Django sprint), Budapest (JSConf), Montréal (PyCon), and so many other beautiful places <3
FOSDEM, for instance, has a bit of a problem here, though. The venue here is the ULB Solbosch Campus which is quiet far away from the centre of Brussels. Compared to Graz Airport, there are at least very frequent bus and tram-connections.
Let’s be honest: Sometimes things come up and you have to fix something rather quickly. Sometimes you also hear something during a talk that you want to try right away. If you can do that while still listing to the talks inside a session room, amazing. Otherwise there should at least be a place somewhere close to the session rooms where working is possible.
WTD NA and WTD Europe offer some tables right in front of the main stage where you can listen to talks and get some work done at the same time. DjangoCon Europe 2016 even had a dedicated room where you could quickly escape to … aaaand return quickly not to miss too much of the event.
A clear code of conduct
This is one of these points that I really wish weren’t necessary. Reports on virtually any conference have shown, though, that a clear code of conduct incl. contact points is highly beneficial. There have been some events like FOSDEM who’ve struggled with that but are (at least from an outsider’s view) improving while esp. DjangoCon Europe events have been a shining star here.
This is mostly related to point about offering room to exchange ideas. Side events like parties are great for that. Over the years I’ve had the most interesting conversations with people over a beer or even on a tram riding to a conference party.
Everybody is simply more relaxed there and since you normally go there to talk, you talk 😉
But the most important “side event” for me are sprints. I haven’t seen them at any commercial event but esp. in the Python community they are a big part of the whole package. PyCon, for instance, consists of 3 session days and 4 sprint days. What are sprints? Here the event organises all the infrastructure for people from the community to work on actual projects. Sometimes these projects are even just created during the conference days (as was the case with PyTube/PyVideo during this year’s PyCon in Portland), sometimes core committers come explicitly to a conference to facilitate sprints for their projects.
Hm… are there events out there that are basically just sprints with a couple of talks in the evening? That would be perfect! Come to think of it, the CCC Congress is awefully close…
Anyway, these are just my main influencers. What makes a great conference for you?