You say Camp! I say, well, this…

In the past couple years it feels like Camps have been getting kindof out of control. Started by Foo Camp, then Bar Camp, there are now X Camps going on seemingly every weekend in cities all around the world. And now there are camps for almost everything you can think of. Transit Camp. Change Camp. Science Camp. WordPress Camp. Cupcake Camp for Christ’s sake!

And with all these Camps come organizing committees asking for all kinds of sponsorships to facilitate these great meetings of minds. Since when were free drinks a necessary component to gather some smart, interesting people together to do some extraordinary things over a day or two?

This has recently come to a head with some debates over sponsorships for events in the local blogging & social media realm – what kind of sponsors should and should not be allowed and expected to participate in these events?

If you didn’t click on the links above, the latest debate in my particular area of interest and locale is whether or not it’s kosher for a political party to sponsor a portion of the event. There’s a good debate going, focusing mostly on whether or not the event organizers are selling themselves out.

But that’s not quite the right argument. They are not selling themselves out – they are selling out the attendees. Whatever the sponsorship agreement, no sponsor will start dishing out dollars without a return of some size. It could be as insignificant as their name printed on the napkins, or as hefty as banners in every room, a keynote with materials that align with their message (even if their “product” isn’t overtly mentioned) and access to the entire attendee contact database.

In any case, something of the attendees is being sold – from metadata down to a bit of mindshare.

(And as an aside – in case you’re unfamiliar with the cost of sponsorships in general, these sponsors are getting a screaming hot deal for the coverage they end up with out of these events. They’re banking on Camp organizers being unfamiliar with the going rate of selling out an audience.)

And this is when Conference and Camp organizers need to check themselves and really ask “how much of our people are we willing to sell out for a party?”

The more parties one wants to host, the sparser those sponsorships will become with everyone fighting for a piece of the pie.

And the more sparse the pool of available funds becomes, the less savory the pool of available sponsors will become, and the more the organizers may be asked to give up for a share of the dollars.

Frankly I think it’s all getting a bit out of control.

Has the community turned into a group that won’t gather without free drinks on someone else’s dime?

So I just want to put my $0.02 out to the Unconference organizers: Next time you have an idea for a Camp, please start with the “Low Rent: High Minds” theory (hat tip to Raincoaster for that phrase). If you truly have great work to do, brilliant people will come out anyway, in spite of (and perhaps because of) a lack of free drinks by Advertiser X.

Then perhaps the organizers of those large-scale events where sponsorships really are a necessity to facilitate obtaining access to the logistics required to have hundreds of people in one place, or to secure a really great keynote speaker, will have the luxury of choosing the best possible sponsors. Ones their audience and attendees would feel best (if not actually good) about being sold to.

And for the organizers of any camps or conferences: You, as the organizers, are the ones in control. I will not fault you for putting together a more modest affair if it means you aren’t blindly accepting, or talking yourself into sponsor choices that don’t honour the spirit and intelligence of your attendees. I accept that you’re selling us out, but please help us to still respect ourselves the morning after.

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14 thoughts on “You say Camp! I say, well, this…

  1. With respect, I don’t think of it as selling out the attendees at all. Nobody is forcing any of the people who are coming and making them buy tickets. If any of the attendees of any conference has a problem with the sponsors, they simply don’t need to come.

    I also want to point out that several of the people who appear to have problems with sponsorship in general (and more so with political sponsorship) were given complimentary tickets (at their request) to WordCamp Whistler. The full price of those tickets (about $90/head) came out of the very same sponsorship pool as the other parts of the event, and was in essence financed by at least one of the parties that are in this discussion.

    I personally have no problem doing a similar conference next year and charging $90/head for each person and skipping sponsorship altogether (in fact, it would greatly simplify things as an organizer). But that would alienate many people that I really think would get a huge benefit out of attending. So while some people perceive sponsorship as an evil (and I don’t), I think the good it creates (for example, allowing us to accept people that can’t afford to pay the tickets themselves) far outweighs the bad. Just my humble opinion.

  2. Thanks for your comment Duane – first off, I really appreciate that conference organization is a daunting task, and I applaud you guys for pulling off WordCamp so well!

    I don’t think sponsorship is evil either. I happen to purchase a lot of it at my day job, and I hope that brings a happy harmony between us as a company and the attendees who may become customers. And we try to respect that, whether or not the conference does.

    I also think it’s ludacris if people asked for free tickets after sponsors were published, and have since complained about the sponsors – they knew what they were getting into. As is the case, really, with anyone who complains about sponsors (whether or not their tickets was free) if they decide to attend after the sponsors are published and then complain about the sponsors.

    But adding controversial sponsors after the majority of tickets have been purchased can feel like a bit of a bait & switch, or a betrayal, to attendees who purchased tickets, trusting that the organizers are trying to do best by them.

    If that attendee’s idea of the organizers doing best by them is a night of free beer and a sponsored lunch, then fine – no right to complain.

    But if the attendee’s idea of the organizers doing best by them is to present the best event possible with sponsors that are truly aligned with the community, then it’s a poor move by the organizers.

    It’s a fine line really, and not always easy to know what the right thing is. Ultimately that is decided by the audience, and I’m sure it’ll have some bearing on what happens at local Camps and Northern Voice in future years.

  3. Permit me to bang the drum I’ve been, uh, banging elsewhere: as of last year, Northern Voice officially became a non-profit. So, it’s easier than ever to become involved in the organizing committee and render the kind of conference you want to attend.

  4. I think it’s harmless as long as influence beyond namesakes doesn’t exist. In this case there was a few mentions of the sponsors, and a couple logo images.

    Really, this is hot air, and detracting from a highly sucessful event in which everyone attending enjoyed, from what I gathered.

  5. @peechie – I appreciate your comments. Understand though that pretty much the very first question any sponsor asks is “how many people have registered?” If we truthfully answered that prior to selling tickets, we’d have to say nobody was registered, and we wouldn’t get many sponsors. Running something like this is really a chicken and egg type of problem. Until you have money from sponsorship, it’s hard to commit to things like venues and lunch. And until you have registrations, it’s hard to entice some sponsors. So while I understand that you’d like to have all the sponsors decided before you buy a ticket, it’s simply not realistic. In fact, the majority of the sponsors for WordCamp came within the last four weeks prior to the event.

  6. Duane, with respect you know quite well I was prepared to pay my own way to WordCamp Whistler, as well as April’s. I asked how to get the money to you more than once. On behalf of Fearless City, which livestreamed the event for you, we did and do appreciate the comped tickets, but that has nothing whatever to do with the key question in this blog post.

    The question is: do you have a modest event that perhaps does not include nice facilities, socials, lunches, and swag, or do you make the choice to have those things and accept sponsorship? Essentially, are you putting on an Unconference or a Conference?

    This is such a hot-button issue right now because there are people who perceive WordCamps and Northern Voice as unconferences, while some of the organizer’s choices seem to indicate that they don’t feel the same way. And both sides are vocal and active in social media, so there are transcripts all over the intertubes all of a sudden (this blog post didn’t even link to the debate on Facebook).

    I’m personally acquainted with everyone on the organizing committees of both WordCamp Whistler and Northern Voice, and I can say of all of them that I know them to be men and women of high personal standards of integrity. And the rest of Vancouver knows this as well.

    What we have here are not accusations of misconduct or selling out.

    What we have here is a straightforward, old-fashioned culture clash.

  7. @Darren I think the organizers (past and present) of NV & assorted camps are doing a bang-up job. Joining their ranks shouldn’t be a requirement for submitting constructive feedback (which this is). Too many cooks and all that.

    @Derek That’s exactly my point. Whatever my feelings on the current sponsors of these events, I think turning everything into a Camp is detracting from the ability to do a few events really well.

    @Dale I don’t think this discussion is taking away from the success of these events at all. And I think it’s a healthy discourse on keeping them successful in the future.

    @Duane I really appreciate the difficulty that is organizing a conference of any sort – it’s part of my day job – and I applaud anyone who’s doing it on a volunteer basis. I think you’re misreading my points though. I don’t expect that the sponsors will be determined before the event occurs. I do expect that the organizers will take a hard look at their budgets and the offers of sponsorship that are coming in (after many tickets have been purchased of course) before accepting sponsors whose alliance with a number of the attendees is questionable.

    And I am saying that, as an occasional attendee of conferences (both actual and un-), I personally feel better about a lower-scale event than swanky affairs paid for by organizations whose message and ads I’d rather not give my eyeballs to.

    But mostly what I’m saying is that it’s not necessary to turn *everything* into a sponsored conference, which would then make sponsorships more valuable to the sponsors, and the scarcity would allow organizers to pick the best possible sponsors for their valuable audience.

    @raincoaster That’s exactly it. I’m not criticizing any individual event or practice, just posting my concern about the spiralling trend that seems to be forming -which I think can turn into all sorts of no good.

  8. Jen, I really appreciate your thoughts on this. I have, for days, considered what it was about that particular sponsor that had me feeling un-right about it all. You’ve nailed it.

    That said, I’m still going — both to the dinner and NV, because whether or not there’s a political sponsor, it has topics and people I’m interested in.

    I think it’s just the fact that it’s a political party (and even one that I vote for) that I’m concerned with. It’s partnership to bring the ticket prices down doesn’t make sense to me. But, I appreciate how hard it is to organize these things, (having organized dozens of events myself), and sometimes when times are tough, we have to make compromises. I just wish it wasn’t with a political party, that’s all.

  9. @raincoaster – it wasn’t meant to be a slight to you. We comped many tickets for the event, and we appreciated what you guys did and Fearless City — so thanks! But people have to realize that the reason conferences are able to support initiatives like that are only because the sponsorship money allows them to.

    Also, I’m not really sure why the word unconference is appearing at all. Neither WordCamp Whistler or Northern Voice are unconferences (although NV has an unconference portion on the Friday). The only real unconference that I’m aware of is BarCamp. The speaker lists were predetermined well in advance and were not a result of the attendees voting in any capacity, so it was a full fledged conference.

    @peechie — fair enough, but obviously it’s next to impossible to have a cheap conference in Whistler, especially during peak snowboarding season. So by nature, you basically have to accept sponsorship, or charge a massive amount of money (for example, I believe tickets to web directions north in Whistler were $700 per person). There was a free WordCamp in Vancouver in the summer, so there’s plenty of variety for people who don’t want to pay for a conference.

  10. We certainly realize that attendance at WCW was dependent on sponsorships; that’s true even of the people who paid, since as you pointed out they didn’t truly pay the full cost of their attendance. The rest was kicked in by the sponsors.

    There’s a disparity of interpretations about WordCamps built right in to the online guide. The introduction page specifically refers to Wordcamps as “conference-type events,” while the How To Put One On page says you won’t find them at Four Seasons-style venues, because they are low-key. So the cultural schism is built right in!

    Maybe we need Matt to chime in!

  11. Hi, Peechie.

    I thought you might be interested in the thoughts of the Northern Voice organizing committee, which are now up on the conference site.

    Thanks for sharing your POV — and I think Darren wasn’t saying that you need to be on the committee to give feedback. He was saying, if you feel like doing more than just chipping in an opinion, you have a great way to directly influence the conference next year, in a way that you couldn’t influence some other event that was a private company’s undertaking.

    @raincoaster Northern Voice has always tried to maintain a for-the-people, by-the-people vibe, which is why I think that your comments are probably more applicable to WCW than to NV, which does keep as much affordable to many as we can, and which is why this year the pre-party is separate from the conference price.

    TTFN
    Travis

  12. Fair enough, Travis, but given that for the people by the people vibe, I don’t think a literally exclusive party on the night before the event is such a good idea.

    Look at it this way: the party has a maximum capacity of 100. That is less than half the number of attendees expected, so by default the majority of attendees will be excluded, no matter what. A minority will have the opportunity to party and bond together, which will, frankly, divide the conference into two groups: those who were at the party and those who did not. That’s a built-in schism, however well-intentioned everyone is.

    As well, all politics aside, an additional $25 to attend the party (however great a value it is, and it IS) is something that is a barrier. None of Fearless City’s people, for example, except perhaps the executive director and paid staffers, are likely to attend, for the simple reason that most of our participants won’t have an extra $25 that night, not to mention no credit card to purchase tix in advance. So we have a class schism as well.

    I know that the idea of having a simple “pay your own way/BYOB” party is perhaps not the fabulous experience you’d like to give people, but it may be more in line with the “of the people for the people” objective, as well as healthier for the conference overall.

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