We are only 7 days away from the sixth edition of The Next Web Conference. On our TNW Editors backchannel I just mentioned that and Courtney Boyd Myers replied with “Woohoo!”. Woohoo indeed, but to us here in the Amsterdam office it feels more like “OMG, Panic!!!”.
Organizing a conference is completely the opposite of building a webservice or maintaining a blog. On the web, you are infinitely iterating. Everything is always evolving and never done. You launch something, fix some errors, change some things, learn, repeat, improve.
“The most awesome stage”
Last year, Facebook's VP of Design thought the TNW Conference main stage was the best she'd ever been on.
A conference is the opposite; you plan for months, try to think of everything that could go right, and wrong, and try to be prepared for everything. Then, at the last moment, about 50% of what you planned turns out differently, and there is nothing you can do about it.
After 5 editions we have learned that at least one speaker will miss his or her flight, get sick or just disappear. So we have back-up speakers. We also know a number of attendees will show up at the last moment, without a ticket, hoping to still get in. Videos and presentations will suddenly not work. Laptops crash. Remotes become unresponsive. We improvise, fix and make small changes and the audience usually doesn’t notice.
Last year was different though. The ash cloud happened.
The Ash Cloud
Remember that little incident? It almost meant the end of TNW as a company. For the first time since that happened I’m going to talk about how terrifying that all was and how it affected our conference planning.
You can imagine that as an international conference we are quite dependent on international speakers and attendees. We had exactly two dutch speakers in the past 5 years and one of those lived in the US for more than 20 years so he hardly qualifies as Dutch. The rest, all not local. So when we heard that all planes were grounded we took another good look at our speaker list and realized that, well, we had no speaker list.
When you organize a conference, have committed to hundreds of thousands of euros and are expecting 1000+ attendees within a week and you suddenly realize you have NO speakers your first reaction is to panic. It is just the natural thing to do. Canceling the conference a week in advance would have meant would’ve been a financial disaster.
Of course, panicking doesn’t really help anyone so Patrick and I took a deep breath, decided not to panic and just work with what we had. We decided to NOT cancel the conference, whatever happened, and started working with speakers on alternatives. We looked at the attendee list and called everybody who seemed interesting and asked them if they were already in Europe. A few were and we asked hem to become back-up speakers. Then we recorded Skype Video interviews with some of the speakers and scheduled live Skype video interviews with others. We booked three different flights for every speaker, via different routes and airliners to make sure that if flights resumed they would be on one.
We ended up with a ‘shadow’ planning if none of the speaker would make it to Europe. It was one of the most stressful times we ever experienced as we had no idea who would show up, who wouldn’t and if the conference would end up the worst experience ever or better than before.
Two days before the conference we still didn’t know if people would be able to catch flights. Our speakers kept texting and DMing us of their progress “Waiting in line at the check-in counter”, “Just checked in, no idea if we will actually leave”, “In the plane! This looks good!”. One by one they started arriving in Amsterdam.
A sigh of relief…
We ended up with a great conference and for the first time ever not one speaker cancelled or didn’t show up. We proceeded as planned and didn’t have to revert to our shadow planning at all. The ash-cloud did cost us € 40,000 in extra airline tickets and missed revenue.
I don’t think anybody had an idea of how terrified we were and how close to financial meltdown we came in those last days.
And that is how we like it. In fact, maybe next year I will write a similar story like this, about everything that almost went wrong in 2011. ;-)