Tl;dr: Probably no con this year.
The longer version:
By this point in the year we usually have all the sponsors booked, the majority of the cash in, and a lot of it back out again paying for goody bags, badges, shirts and putting deposits on things. This year, none of that is done.
With all the uncertainty, sponsors were interested, but reluctant to commit, we were also reluctant to accept any money, because if we spent it and then had to cancel we would have to replace it somehow.
Our venues were also not sure what was going on and if they would be open or not. Hallam has to commit to it’s students first and so even if they were allowed to open they may not have been able to accept us. Imagine having everything in place then not having anywhere to put everyone.
Other cons have moved online and have done a very good job in doing it. We could have followed, but as we’ve said before, we are an in-person event and while we could do something big and flashy online, it isn’t our style.
So, at this present time, the event is not happening, but we may review this closer to July, and if we think we can put something small on we will see what we can do. If something is going to happen, we will make a big noise about it, you won’t miss it. No promises though.
PS, for any of you who normally attend the after con Quasar, I randomly bumped into the owner who handles our morning. He said despite not being open for nearly a year, they are surviving and and looking forward to having us back whenever we are ready.
Unless you know him well, you’ll be surprised to know that one of our longest standing supporters, Scott “Lord Helmet” Helme turns fifty this July. To celebrate this momentous day, we have decided to declare July 15 “SSLv3 Appreciation Day”.
As we can’t be with Scott to celebrate this year, we are asking for as many people as possible to set their WiFi ESSID to “Scott loves SSLv3” for at least five minutes at some point during the day and send us photos or screenshots so we can make an album to give to him as a gift at next year’s con.
For extra credit, upload a packet capture to WiGLE so the day will be recorded for ever more. Remember though, only do so if it is safe to do this while retaining your regular high level of OPSEC.
It is with deep regret, that after a lot of discussions, we have decided to cancel this year’s event due to the coronavirus.
At the time of writing this, we are exactly four months away from main weekend, and we know a lot can happen in that time. We hope, for everyone’s sake, that the outbreak is taken under control very soon, and that by July, it is just a memory along with the bad winter weather, but we can’t take that risk.
We could hold off and make this decision in April or May, but our first priority is to our attendees. We don’t want people booking holiday from work, paying for hotels and travel, and then, at the last minute, having to cancel them and fight to get refunds.
We also have to think about our sponsors and spending commitments. We bring in quite a bit of cash from our sponsors, but most of it goes straight back out again on hosting costs. Making this decision now will limit those costs and not end up with us taking sponsor money, spending it, and then having to find ways to pay it back or to take a hit on next year’s event.
We have looked at other alternatives, the main one being a virtual event. A few people have said that they would be OK with that, but it wouldn’t be SteelCon. People come to Sheffield for the atmosphere, for meeting old and new friends, and for downing shots of odd things they will probably regret in the morning. We have had quite a few submissions of both talks and workshops and we will be contacting everyone who has submitted to see if we can help them get their work out there in some other way, possibly with another conference that is doing some form of virtual event.
For those of you who managed to grab a ticket in the test run, you’ll all get contacted as well to give you your options.
So lets hope that with hindsight, this is the wrong decision, and that by July everything is back to normal and that the con would have run as it has for the last six years. But with the foresight we have now, we can’t take that risk.
Pinching a line from @javvad, stay safe our friends, and look forward to 2021, where we will be back twice as strong to make up for it all.
For those of you who have lost their programs but still want to fry your brains at the challenge that is Woody’s Wonder Cube, here are the instructions from the brochure.
If you need a reminder of what to do, solve the crossword, decode the cube, solve the cube so it matches the crossword.
We had two solves on the day so we know it can be done. If you think you’ve got it, feel free to email photos and we can check it and add you to the Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame
Can you find or answer the following:
- Enough coloured paper to make a rainbow – 1 point per colour
- What is the next film showing in the Hallam cinema? – 3 point
- Any piece of swag from a previous years conference – 5 points
- A used postage stamp – 3 points
- Your best score from a game in the C64 arcade – 1 point
- A solved Woody’s Wonder Cube – 10 points
- Find the age of the youngest attendee – youngest age found gets 5 points
- A wireless packet (be creative) – 5 points
- What are the seven layers of the OSI stack? – 1 point per layer
- Name the two songs used on the crew t-shirts – 2 points per song
- Name as many university buildings as you can – 1 point per building
- Name the 7 main rivers of Sheffield – 1 point per river
- What is the oldest football club in the world? – 3 points for the club name, 2 points for the year it was set up
All the following are for conference speakers or close friends:
- Where was Andy Gill born? – 5 points
- What was Scott Helme’s first pet? – 5 points
- Draw a picture of Woody (Mike Woodhead) – 5 points
- What is Neil Richardson allergic to? – 5 points
- What is Tanya’s favourite colour? – 5 points
For those attending SteelCon and staying in Sheffield for a few days, you’re in luck! Sheffield is an increasingly foodie city, with a great selection of food to suit different tastes. Here are just a few selections from the SteelCon team that we particularly like.
BBQ – Smoke BBQ https://www.smokebbq.co.uk
A fixture on SteelCon recommended lists, this is proper BBQ cooked low and slow with plenty of wood smoke. Don’t go here for a light meal, this is hearty portions and heavy on the meat. The ribs are some of the best you’ll find this side of the Mason-Dixon line.
Coffee – Tamper Sellers Wheel https://tampercoffee.co.uk
Just a couple of minutes walk from our Sheffield Hallam location, Tamper’s New Zealand-influenced cafes brought the flat white to Sheffield, and is a fantastic, smooth caffeine shot for those who want more then espresso, but not a heavy latte (though those are also excellent). Up front is a take away counter with pastries from Depot bakery, while grab a table and enjoy a good breakfast or lunch.
Tea – Birdhouse Tea Bar and Kitchen https://www.birdhouseteacompany.com/visit-us/tea-bar-kitchen/
If your tastes are more tea than coffee, a few minutes away is Birdhouse’s new tea bar. Birdhouse have been blending tea in Sheffield for several years (and their blends have names like Kelham Island, Peace Gardens, and Seven Hills) and now you can try their tea, try different drinks like a Matcha Latte, and have something to eat. It’s also a great place to explore their different teas and try something new.
Cocktails – Botanist, Leopold Square https://thebotanist.uk.com/locations/sheffield
A huge range of spirits, garnishes and bitters don’t mean much unless you’ve got good bartenders who can make the most of them, and the Botanist delivers. Don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions or something off menu too. There’s a good restaurant upstairs too that’s almost worth a visit for the décor alone.
Mexican – Street Food Chef http://streetfoodchef.co.uk
With several outlets around Sheffield, Street Food Chef has made a great name for itself doing classic Mexican dishes really well. Close to Hallam University is their cantina, with seating to eat in and enjoy hot salsa and a cold cerveza. Their beef burrito is amazing, but the El Bastardo challenge is only for the brave.
Something Different – Ambulo http://weareambulo.com
Taking up home in the Millennium Gallery, opposite SteelCon’s Hallam University location, Ambulo does both classic dishes like Eggs Benedict or a Fish Finger Sandwich and ones with their own twist. A particular favourite is the Korean Fried Chicken Crumpet, big enough for a lunch, beautifully fried chicken and a sauce that is tangy without being overpoweringly chilli. They also have cocktails like Negronis and Old Fashioneds on tap.
I’m Not Sure – Kommune http://kommune.co.uk
A short walk from SteelCon, on the ground floor of an old Co-op department store, is Sheffield’s latest food hall. This is a great option for groups as each can pick from pizza, Indian street food, burgers and others and then all sit together and enjoy. The food is really good with small vendors specialising in one style to great effect. The space also incorporates a book shop, an occasional pop-up cinema, and just next door is the National Videogame Museum too!
Craft beers and real ales – Sheffield Tap, Sheffield Train Station http://www.sheffieldtap.com
A highly regarded pub with a dizzying array of beers from around the world, their own brewery on site, and all housed in beautifully renovated Edwardian rooms.
Ice cream – Our Cow Molly http://www.ourcowmolly.co.uk
A fixture since the first SteelCon, we love Our Cow Molly! Going to the farm and seeing their herd of cows on one side of the yard while their milk and ice cream is being sold on the other really brings home how good local produce can be, with the milk being pasteurised and bottled on site, as well as the ice cream being made there too! It can get very busy on a sunny afternoon, so it’s good to go early doors. It’s also known for experiencing some of the highest winds in Sheffield when the weather’s bad!
International Variety – London Road
Just past the ring road, London Road is a melting pot of international cuisines. Some come and go, while others have become well known over the years. From Turkish to Japanese, hot pot to satay and beer, London Road rewards the curious and is always changing. It’s also well worth a visit to shop for ingredients that you won’t find in a normal supermarket!
The New – Kelham Island
Kelham Island to the north of the city centre is undergoing a huge change. There’s still companies there doing powder coating, fixing, welding and casting, but it’s become so, so much more than that. At the heart is the Kelham Island Museum – an interesting trip through Sheffield’s industrial heritage and a chance to see a cocking massive steam engine running – and the Kelham Island Brewery. The brewery opened thirty years ago, and was the first in Sheffield for a hundred years before that. However two more have opened recently in the area, joining Sheffield’s first food court, a monthly street food market, a cheese maker, a retro gaming bar serving great vegan fast food and more. There’s a great intro to the area here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiCQN77R1go
It has just been pointed out that we forgot to include a link to the 2018 photos on the site, so here it is:
Thanks to Chris Ratcliff and all others who contributed.
In year one, we used the Cantor building and sold out the 150 tickets we created. Year two saw us move to the main building and increase ticket numbers to 300, again, we sold out. In year three, we increased numbers to 450 and have been at that level since.
450 is not an arbitrary number we picked out of the air, it is the maximum capacity for the Pennine lecture theatre (the big one we use for track one), and for the Atrium area (the sponsor and lunch area). Getting bums on seats means that we can’t go above 450 if we want all attendees to be able to get into the opening and closing ceremonies and fire regulations mean we can’t go above it if we want to feed everyone together.
We appreciate that not everyone who buys a ticket will turn up, and because of this, when creating tickets, we over allocate by a small percentage each year. Last year, this gave us over 50 extra tickets, however, as the demand for tickets increases, we are having to reduce this percentage each year as people appreciate the scarcity and so are more willing to pass them on if they know they can’t attend.
Despite all this, each year we get many calls from people (usually those who don’t manage to get a ticket) saying that we need to grow and to let more people in. So, what can we do about this?
Grow Within the Current Venue
As already stated, we are maxing out our two main resources, Pennine lecture theatre and the Atrium. Pennine is the largest space the university has so there is no option to go any bigger and keep everyone in the same room. Some conferences get around this by streaming the opening and closing to other rooms, but we feel this would change the atmosphere; we like having everyone in the same room, especially when handing out prizes, giving away swag and embarrassing people who have said things that they wish they hadn’t. To give us more open space for lunch and sponsor booths, we could expand and take over the top floor cafe area as well as our existing space but this gives a few problems: it would add additional work for the catering staff having to balance the distribution of food between the two areas, it would break the conference into two groups and would cause problems when allocating sponsor spaces. Like it or not, the sponsors are the ones who pay for the event and, in return, they want to get their booths in front of as many attendees as possible. If we split the food, we would split the attendees and sponsors would lose footfall at their booths. You could argue that people would probably still wander past all the booths at least once, but with the current model, the sponsors are visible to everyone during key times including registration and lunch. All this rules out growing within the current venue.
Before we cover the options, a bit about costs. At the moment, both Robin and Neil are employed by Hallam and because of this, have access to internal resources at special rates and are able to better negotiate getting access to all the different resources needed to put on an event (little things like the TVs on you see dotted around the place don’t come free and have to be arranged and paid for). We are also very kindly sponsored by ACES, the computing department, who book the venue through the internal process for us and so get a significant discount (they pay about a quarter of the price we would have to pay if we came in directly). Therefore, to move to any other venue, the first problem we would have would be raising the extra costs. We haven’t got quotes from other venues, but just based on university costs, we would need to sell at least an extra four of our top sponsor packages to cover this.
Transport and accessibility is also a consideration; Hallam is a brilliant location, a few minutes walk from the train and bus stations, plenty of parking, surrounded by hotels and other things such as restaurants and shopping for people who want to escape the con for a while.
Anyone who knows Sheffield knows that there aren’t that many options for this but here are the main ones:
- The Lyceum and Crucible: The Crucible is where they host one of the big snooker tournaments of the year and the Lyceum puts on some very big and expensive shows. Even if we could afford these, they aren’t designed for conferences and wouldn’t work for talks.
- The O2 Academy or one of the other night clubs – These may be able to be converted to work for a conference, but would you really want to spend the day in night club?
- Sheffield University – For those who don’t know, the city has two universities. The University could be an option as it does have a much larger lecture theatre and is obviously designed for talks, but it is a bit further out of town and we don’t have any contacts there so would have to go through all the teething troubles that we have already got sorted at Hallam. Universities are big bureaucracies with lots of departments that take a lot of navigation – anyone remember our first year where we didn’t have air con because we hadn’t booked it?
- The Mercure St Paul’s Hotel – A very nice hotel that has conference facilities but being a 4* hotel comes with a 4* price tag, which is well out of our reach.
- Magna Science Park – An amazing venue which would be perfect for us, unfortunately, it is on the outskirts of Sheffield and much harder to access by public transport. It has been suggested we could run a coach/minibus from the city centre but does anyone honestly think that something like that would run smoothly?
- The cinemas – We have two cinemas in town but neither are going to give up a days takings to let out three screens to a bunch of hackers.
The other problem with moving venues means we would probably have to move the after party. We looked at doing this after some problems in year three but found that, beyond the clubs, we’ve already got one of the best and biggest in the area. Any move would put a serious cap on party numbers which we are sure, no one wants.
So, that rules out changing venues, what about increasing prices? The dream for the conference was for it to be free so anyone could attend, whether they are a skint student or a top end consultant on full expenses. The decision was made to put the price of £20, then £25, on a ticket, just to give it a nominal value and to try to encourage people to pass the ticket on if they couldn’t attend. All this cash goes into the goody bags you get on the door, none of it is used to pay for the event itself.
The options we have on ticket prices are:
- Increase prices to a level where demand matches availability – People have suggested they would be happy paying into the hundreds but this would exclude the students and those who aren’t earning loads of money which we don’t want to do.
- Offer multiple tiers of pricing – Giving those who have money early access to tickets at a higher price. This isn’t fair and gives those who have money an unfair advantage over those who don’t.
- Offer early tickets for those who have money who want to buy a ticket for themselves and donate one to someone less well off – The effort of trying to manage this is a lot more than most people think and would still create an unfair advantage to those who have money.
- Have a ballot for tickets – Everyone who wants a ticket enters a ballot and they are allocated randomly. This would work but can be easily gamed by multiple entries (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org etc.) which is not fair but would definitely happen. With the current system, users can use multiple Eventbrite tabs to try to grab extra tickets but it is much harder than entering multiple email addresses into a ballot.
None of these options allows lets us keep the fair, single tier option, putting everyone on the same level.
Here are some extra things to think about:
- Last time we did the calculations, each extra person costs us around £11 just for the day time activities. If we wanted to increase numbers in any significant way, we would need to add at least 100 extra tickets. This extra increase of £1100 would need to be covered by sponsors.
- Adding more people would change the character of the event. The current numbers make the event small and friendly, increasing numbers will change this, probably in a negative way.
- Most of the event is organised by three of us in our spare time, none of us get paid for it (it usually ends up costing us money) and the event is not designed to make any profit, all we want to do is cover our costs. We currently have a system that we know and that runs mostly smoothly, when there are issues but we know the people to talk to or the things to do to sort them out. Significant changes will mean we have to go through the learning process all over again which none of us really want to do.
- We want to remain inclusive and be accessible to everyone; students, unemployed, ex-military, top earners, newcomers to the industry, hobbyists and anyone else who wants to come along. Any changes would have to ensure that all the different groups still have an equal chance of attending and are not considered special because they paid extra or paid less.
- We allocate a bunch of tickets for sponsors, speakers, crew and others who don’t get their ticket through the main ticket drops. Any of these which aren’t used are taken back and put into normal sales, this is why we have the main sales drops and then often find a few more tickets to sell quite close to the date. These are not new tickets we make up, these are our way of trying to make sure that we use all the space we have available.
- We actively encourage people passing on tickets if they find they can’t attend and are happy to broker deals between individuals when needed, again, this is to try to reduce waste and try to get attendance to 100%. The downside to this is that the more successful we are, the less overhead we can put on the number of tickets we create.
- All this has to fit in with the kids track, training, workshops, party and everything else that goes along with the main event. Changes in one area has to be balanced in all areas.
Over the last five years we, as organisers, have put together an event we are happy with and want to attend. Based on attendee numbers, feedback and the fact this has to be written, we also assume that it is an event that the community enjoy and want to attend. Any changes would have to ensure that this does not change.
If you think that we have missed something that would let us increase ticket sales then feel free to get in touch and tell us. But before you do, answer these questions:
- Is the change fair? Would everyone still be treated equally and have an equal chance of attending?
- Would it cost more money and, if so, does your suggestion include a way to raise that money?
- Would it increase the organisation overheads? If so, would you be willing to come and and give your time to absorb it?
- Would the change affect the feel and atmosphere of the event? It has to stay open, friendly and like a family get together, we won’t sacrifice any of these just to sell more tickets.
Just to be clear, some other conferences do grow year on year and have made some of the changes we’ve rejected. We are not knocking these others, every event is different and is ran by different teams for different reasons. But this is our event and we are running it our way.
This is a long post that has needed writing for quite a while. We appreciate that each year people will miss out on tickets, we are sorry for that and would really like to see everyone attend but it just can’t happen. Maybe one year something will change and we will be able to grow in a sustainable way that fulfils all the requirements, till then, get your F5 fingers ready for the main drops or keep your eyes out or random releases throughout the year.