This year at Devoxx UK, I organized the buddy program. This program was intended to introduce people who didn’t know anybody at the conference to some other people, to make the times between the sessions (lunch, evenings, etc.) a bit more enjoyable. My hopes are that this program will make conferences more diverse, by appealing to people who might not come exactly _because_ they don’t know anybody there.
Initially it looked as if we would have nine people, but there was a surge at the last minute, adding another seven participants. So there were sixteen participants in total, of which four were speakers. About half of them had never been to Devoxx UK before. All of the feedback I got was positive, people really liked sharing their experiences with each other.
Of course, as this was the first time I tried this, there were a lot of lessons to be learned.
1. Announce the program in the keynote
As I was listening to the introductory keynote, I realized I hadn't asked the organization to mention the program. This could have helped the program to reach more people. Next year we'll have to make more of a fuss about the program in general, as many people never heard of it, despite it being mentioned in the newsletter and the link on the site. So if you were in the program, please blog or tweet about your experiences!
2. Have the registration desk/meetup point set up in advance
I wasn't around for setup, so I could only arrange for a table after the attendees were inside already. And with everybody coming in at once, the organization had no time to spare to help arrange such things. (Mind you they were very helpful, just also extremely busy.)
3. Prepare signage in advance
Once again, the organization was very busy. And I could have easily prepared all this at home. And with more signs, hanging all over the place before people even enter, I think I might have pulled off what I really had in mind: an actual registration desk. The round table was a nice meeting point, but so few people had heard of the program, that it didn't feel worth my time to hang around there at all times to hook people up.
4. Have an official meet and greet
It would have been nice if we could have all participants meet up with each other before the conference. I even heard the idea of doing speed dating to get people to know each other. So maybe next year we can do some pre-conference activity.
5. Monitor registration on-site
I got four more registrations during the first day, but as I'm usually offline during conferences, I didn't see them until the next morning. So either I should stay online to monitor them, or I should make sure the online registration is closed as if the night before the conference.
6. Have info boards
I had intended there to be boards where people could share information about dinner, meeting up, taxi rides to the airport and the like. I tried to put up static notes on the wall behind the meeting point, but they were not visible enough and therefore not used.
Some other ideas that were mentioned during my session were to make the buddies more visible (stickers on the badge?), or even to add them to Huntly. The list of questions should be shorter, I cash probably make do with just name, contact details, conference experience and interest in tracks. In the end I didn't use the other data, as there were so few participants. It was also suggested that there might be a checks on the general Devoxx registration form to indicate being a first-timer, which would result in extra information about the buddy program being shown.
And finally, during the workshops the last day, we realized that having such workshops at the beginning (and in particular those like the one about retrospectives) as they help to introduce you to your fellow participants.
All in all, I thought the program was a success, despite being so much smaller than I'd hoped for. And I would love to do this again. So if you are a conference organizer and would like this at your own event, feel free to contact me! Even when I can't make it to your conference, we can certainly talk about getting this on the rails! I'd love to see this becoming a default aspect of all conferences. (And there's no way I can actually visit all conferences myself, sadly.)