All in the <head> – Ponderings and code by Drew McLellan –

The Trouble with BarCamp

After reading Neil Crosby’s post on the people who had a ticket but didn’t show up for BarCamp London 5, I began to write up some thoughts as a comment to that post. As often happens, it turned into more than a comment, so here are my thoughts on the problem of people claiming a BarCamp ticket and not showing up on the day.

Show me the money

One suggestion is that tickets should be paid for up-front, perhaps with the money being refunded to attendees on the day (or given to a charity). My thoughts are that charging just doesn’t work. Check the front desk of any major conference during the morning coffee break and observe how many badges are still waiting to be collected – that’s at £300 or £400 a pop. The act of paying for a ticket in advance (with good intention) and deciding to bail on the event nearer the time aren’t closely connected enough for people to stress about it.

The only way to make a fee work is if it’s in the form of a fine for not showing up, so that there’s a new financial consequence to their actions – but that’s aggressive and hard to enforce.

Ask for presentation outlines

My suggestion to make sure that only genuinely interested people claim tickets would be to continue to issue tickets as happens now, but not confirm the place until a presentation outline has been submitted. Let people go ahead and claim a ticket, but set a deadline a couple of weeks before the camp by which presentation outlines are to be sent in and verified. No outline submitted, and the ticket gets released back into the pool.

Outlines wouldn’t need to be set in stone or final – but should demonstrate some thought has been put in. It’s one of the few explicit rules of BarCamp that presentations shouldn’t be prescheduled, so the outlines wouldn’t be published and heaven forbid judged or put into a time table. They’d simply be a demonstration to the ticket issuer that the applicant is genuinely committed to attending. Plus it’d help attendees get a head-start on their presentation.

Make more room

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. No-shows are only a problem if spaces are limited and demand outstrips supply. Therefore one way to tackle the problem is to make sure there’s enough space for everyone who wants to come. That probably means that it couldn’t be held in an office building – so we need to be more creative. Who ever said it needed to be in an office building? Or in a building at all?

Make more BarCamps

Places are hotly contested because BarCamps don’t come around that often, so if one is happening lots of people want to be there. Therefore, another approach would be to get back to basics, simplify and make it easier to put BarCamps on more regularly.

The first BarCamp was laid on in a matter of days. Recent London BarCamps are massively pre-planned events that appear (from the outside) to expend a lot of time and energy in having a sponsor for every meal, drink and crap an attendee takes. Free lunch is nice, but I’m equally happy to buy or bring a sandwich. Having somewhere for people to sleep is important (that genuinely does keep the cost of attending down), but I’m not convinced even having wifi is essential.

Announce that you’re holding a BarCamp THIS weekend, and people are likely going to be able to commit with certainty to being there or not. And if you’ve reduced the effort to a point where it’s possible to announce a BarCamp for this weekend, then it should be possible to put them on more frequently, enabling more people to attend.

Make it easy to return tickets

Of course, there will always be those who genuinely intend to come along, but then either change their mind or circumstances preclude it. For those people, we should make it really easy for any ticket-holder to either re-assign their ticket to someone else (a friend or colleague) or to release it back. That might take some software (for assigning and releasing tickets) but we’re good at that stuff. Make it open source and let any BarCamp organiser use it.

Even if a ticket-holder changes their mind on the morning of the event, if it’s super easy to release a ticket then they’re more likely to do it. If someone else (let’s call them a prospector) can then claim the released ticket online, they may be able to get along still and make good use of it. Send an email out a couple of days before (as suggested elsewhere) with a link to release the ticket if it’s unwanted.

Day tickets

The last factor is a bit of speculation, based on my own experience. Signing up for a BarCamp sounds like a lot of fun – a whole weekend of geeking out, camping out (or in) and generally having a lark. However, come Friday afternoon when you’re feeling tired from a week in the office, the idea can be slightly less appealing.

There’s a presentation to finish (so there goes Friday night), then all day and late into Saturday night, a few hours sleep, and all day Sunday. Then that’s it. Weekend’s gone, you’ve had fun but are exhausted and facing the prospect of a fast approaching Monday morning back in the office when really all you need is another weekend. It’s the primary reason I’ve not applied for a BarCamp ticket the last few times – I feel like an entire weekend is too much to commit to, and if I only show up for one day I’m depriving someone else of a space.

Perhaps if other people are the same, we could consider either running one-day events (which might also make venue-sourcing easier) or alternatively making single-day tickets available alongside the regular weekend tickets. If a weekend ticket holder doesn’t show up on Saturday morning, limit the damage by releasing the other half of their ticket as a day ticket for a prospector to snap up.

For a typical BarCamp London of around 100 places, 50 could be released as weekend tickets, and then 50 for each day. You could juggle the allocation on the fly to meet demand. This would offer perhaps 50% increased capacity, but also create more flexible tickets that might enable more people to get along. And I think if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the more people who are able to attend and contribute, the better.

I don’t expect everyone to agree to these ideas – often the ideas that lead on from further discussion are more the useful ones anyway. But I strongly believe we shouldn’t be afraid of mixing things up. There aren’t very many rules to a BarCamp (check them out) and none of them relate to tickets or format or venues or sponsorship. It’s all about what people bring and how they share it – so lets stay focused on that, and make the event serve the content.