[ This is a draft, but it's good enough to publish. Please post feedback. ]
Someone recently asked me for my advice about planning a conference.
First, I want to say that conferences are really important to the open source community. Conferences build community. Conferences build community. Repeat that over and over. It is so true it can't be underestimated. From the early Usenix conferences which bolstered Unix, to MacWorld which gave the Mac developer community "a home", to modern Linux and other conferences: If you want to build a community, have an annual conference. A well-run conference has the side effect of building your local community. First, the conference is great PR for your organization. Every planning meeting is an excuse to tell the world that you exist. Second, a conference is "special" and that brings out people that might normally ignore a monthly meeting. Third, if you do the planning right and spread the work around, you will find volunteers come out of the woodwork. The person that was intimidated to run an entire conference is certainly willing to do a small task like reaching out to a potential speaker or coordinating the catering vendor that provides lunch. That grooms people for bigger jobs. By the end of your conference you will have found the next generation of leadership that your organization needs.
So here's my advice.
A successful conference is created by having a logical plan that will carry you from the start all the way to the end.
1. Work from a timeline. I have run or been involved in about a dozen conferences. The most important thing that I learned was to build a timeline. Do this in person. Get everyone in a room for a kick-off meeting. Put huge sheets of paper on the walls marked with the months or weeks leading up to the conference. Mark 'today' and 'conference' as end-points. Now discuss the various aspects of the conference and mark them on the timeline.
Suppose you start with the program: Mark the day you'll announce the "call for papers", mark when the deadline will be for submissions, mark when the program committee will have their selections done, confirmations will go out, when replies are accepted, and so on. Next let's hear from the registration committee. Mark the last day people can pre-register, mark the last day you offer a discount for early registration (which is a lie. Mark 1 week early, but use that day to announce "the discount is extended 1 week!" and have the real deadline 1 week later). PR is important. How often will you send out press releases? Monthly? Mark the first of each month. Magazines have a 4-month lead time, and people make travel plans 6 months in advance: Mark 10 months early that you will have contacted magazines. Keep doing this with every committee... even if you don't have your committees set up. Most of it will be guesses. That's ok. A lot of it will need to be coordinated: The moment you have the keynote speaker, send a press release. People don't register for a conference until they know the entire (draft) program, so be fore that your have a (draft) program early, and that registration deadlines are coordinated around that. etc. etc. Mark the days of the planning conference calls (once per month, then once per week when you are closer to the event).
If you can get all this into a timeline in a single day-long meeting the rest of the story "just writes itself". Each week/month have a conference call where you figure out who is going to do the tasks in the next week/month of the timeline. It lets volunteers feel like no task is too intimidating (they only look a week/month ahead), and leaders don't micromange because they are setting goals. It keeps everyone "on the same page" and removes a lot of the chaos. (Note: If you want to encourage new volunteers, have the meetings in person and announce them publicly. Newbies are intimidated by phone calls.)
2. End the "timeline meeting" with a commitment. The next thing I recommend also takes place at the "timeline" meeting. At the end of the meeting, gather everyone in a circle and ask them all to commit to making sure the "timeline" happens. Go around the circle and have each person saying that they are agreeing to this commitment. I know it sounds really hippy-dippy, but the conferences that I've done this have been the ones where all the volunteers stayed on to the end. The ones were I chickened out and didn't do this were the ones that everyone was fighting, volunteers dropped out, and by the conference date 1-2 people were doing all the work (and hated it). I call this my "good luck ritual". There is magic in this ritual.
3. Get a signed contract for the location as soon as you can. Most volunteers won't volunteer until the date/place are certain. They don't want to put effort into something that they can't attend.
The few volunteers that you do get before you've booked a place... use them to find and book a place.
Once you've booked a place, have the timeline meeting.
4. One more thing... Here are some things to add to the timeline because they are often forgotten.
- Before the conference starts, write "thank you" notes to all the speakers. (Send them 1 day after the event).
- Send rejection letters AND confirmation letters. Many times conferences forget to send rejection letters. Don't leave people hanging.
- Have the "post-conference" party immediately after the conference is done. Don't wait a day... people won't be around for it. Use the party to thank everyone, give them space to relax and celebrate, and make notes for next year. Rather than a formal "what will we improve next year" meeting, just put a big sheet of paper on the wall and let people write. Have another sheet for people to list "Great things about this year's conference!"
Setting up a timeline early on gives the entire process structure. Structure is comforting to volunteers that may be otherwise unsure and, quite possibly, scared. Scared, confused, people are more likely to be stressed, get into arguments, and drop out. Giving people some structure, but not so much as to be micro-managing them, helps build their confidence, makes sure that everyone understands their job and the jobs of everyone else, and that all helps people work better together.
Have a great conference!