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.