WordCamp season is in high gear, and chances are you will attend at least one before the summer is over.
If you’ve never been to a WordCamp it can seem intimidating. Each one brings in more people, more speakers, and more after parties. That’s a lot to prepare for. However, WordCamps are a great place to grow your business or meet a new friend.
We talked to two WordCamp experts who have attended more than their fair share of conferences to get advice on attending your very first one.
If you feel like you’re comfortable attending but are playing around with the idea of speaking, we have expert advice for you on that as well. Either way, you’ll have the tools to make this WordCamp season your best.
Meet the Experts
John James Jacoby has been a fixture of WordCamps and estimates he has attended almost 100 of them. It is safe to say he has a fair amount of WordPress conference wisdom.
Sara Cannon is another active WordCamper who can’t even count the number she’s attended. Even though she’s spoken at 25, she can remember back to the days of her first appearance at a WordCamp.
Michelle Schulp is no stranger to WordCamps. She was an organizing committee member of WordCamp Chicago in 2012, co-lead in 2013, and lead in 2014. Schlup then moved to Minneapolis and was lead organizer for 2016. All of this on top of the countless WordCamps where she has presented, volunteered, or attended. It all started in 2011.
“The first WordCamp I ever attended was WordCamp Chicago 2011, before I even knew about the WordPress community in general, but I knew after attending that I really wanted to be involved with the next one in a more active role,” Schulp said. “When I saw the open call for volunteers for WordCamp Chicago 2012, I decided to reach out and become involved. They welcomed me with open arms, as I learned is pretty common in the community, and the rest is history.”
David Bisset is also no stranger to organizing WordCamps. In fact, he has been helping organize WordCamp Miami since it began in 2009 before there was an organized group helping put on the conference. Outside of that, Bisset has volunteered at WordCamps held in Tampa and Orlando and is a mentor with the WordCamp Mentor Program.
We asked these experts what it’s like to organize a WordCamp, and they offered some amazing insight.
Why Go To A WordCamp?
Though working in WordPress is extremely rewarding, it can feel a bit isolated at times. WordCamps are the perfect way to meet the people you’ve been talking to online. Of course, you also have the chance to learn from interesting speakers and share your ideas on WordPress, but the social aspect is what keeps bringing people back.
“[WordCamps] are the spirit of open source come alive,” Cannon said. “It’s incredible to meet and learn from others in the community with the mindset of sharing knowledge and learning from each other. My favorite part is always the people that I get to meet.”
The conversations aren’t limited to just the sessions or the after party. A great way to catch time with people is in the hallway between sessions.
“A lot of people see WordCamps as a marketing opportunity (and it certainly can be that) but the most personally rewarding interactions for me happen organically and naturally, in a time and place where everyone feels comfortable and happy; usually that’s after learning something new during a WordCamp session, and everyone’s gears are turning with the excitement of new possibilities,” Jacoby said.
Advice For First-Timers
A WordCamp isn’t the easiest thing to step into unprepared. People are welcoming and the schedule is easy to follow and plan around, but it can seem like a lot if you’ve never been. Jacoby and Cannon had the same piece of advice, sign up to speak.
Sure, it does sound like a terrifying suggestion. You’re nervous enough just attending, so why speak?
“Don’t be scared to apply to speak. No matter who you are or what level you are at, you have something of value to share,” Cannon said. “There will always be someone more beginner than you. I was able to speak at my first WordCamp and it was a great introduction into the spirit of sharing in the community.”
Jacoby echoed Cannon’s thoughts.
“Don’t attend your first year to check the landscape and see if your idea for a talk might provide some value — it will, without a doubt,” he said. “Everyone has something valuable to share at a WordCamp, and if you’re considering giving a talk and are the type of person that prefers to make a calculated risk, use this comment to help shift your assessment for the better.”
Obviously, speaking at your very first WordCamp isn’t for everyone, and neither said it was a must, but it’s a great way to dive right into the feel of the conference and connect with the community.
Cannon also advised leaving your laptop at home or at least tuck it away during sessions. “Some of the best value you can get out of a WordCamp is done through listening, taking a few notes, and meeting people,” she said. “If you’re stuck behind a screen, you might miss out.”
Find A WordCamp Near You
The hardest part is choosing which WordCamp to attend. You can start with one in your hometown or pack your bags and head halfway around the world. As long as you are open to meeting new people and learning a lot, you are ready.
Like WordPress in general, WordCamps are open and encourage sharing. Everyone finds a place to fit in a WordCamp.
“WordCamps are, by design, safe places for everyone, but they’re also usually huge events with lots of agendas and expectations to meet from all angles,” Jacoby said. “It’s easy to feel lost, or to feel like you need to find the most valuable session or talk to the one person you’re hoping to meet, so don’t lose the forest for the trees. WordCamps offer something for everyone, and if you can’t find a place to fit, that’s an opportunity for you to own that space next year.”
Look For A Strong Community
Bisset helped create a WordCamp from scratch, and something that allowed that to happen was seeing Miami’s already strong WordPress community. When your area already has the infrastructure for a big meetup, a WordCamp isn’t too far off.
“If you have a meetup, then asking attendees (and potential local sponsors) for their support for a WordCamp would be the next move. It doesn’t take many organizers at this point – a solid three or four people,” he said.
Once you’ve gathered some support, you can go to the WordCamp Foundation and start the application process. Then you’re on your way to organizing a WordCamp.
Schulp has never started a WordCamp from the ground up but she said the thing that made her work much easier was having a dedicated group of people working with her.
“…the most important thing is to have a team you can count on to shoulder some of the work and delegate tasks,” Schulp said. “Each community has its own unique dynamic, but if you can secure a core team that won’t flake on you, it will be much easier.”
Once you have your group together, find where their talents are the most useful then start delegating tasks.
Challenges Of Organizing A WordCamp
Undeniably, organizing a conference is very difficult, but maybe not in the way you may think. Sure, a ton of time goes to finding the venue, talking to sponsors, and locking down speakers. But it’s all the little day-to-day tasks that can be wearing.
“It’s the small parts that aren’t talked about as much: 1-2 hours per day, every day, for months, that you have to spend on emails, content writing for the site, monitoring and replying on social media, responding to contact form submissions, answering repetitive questions, following up, picking things up, etc. that are the most taxing to your time and patience,” Schulp said.
For Bisset, it is the things that you don’t expect that are the most challenging, such as projectors failing or scheduling conflicts.
“Most problems we can keep in the background or laugh at them after the event, but it’s those problems that affect your attendees and speakers are the ones that hurt the most,” he said.
This is all done for free on top of a job and a social life. Especially for first-timers, it can seem very hectic. Then once the work is done, and the conference is over, you will continue to hear from people with questions and even criticisms.
It’s Worth It
Though it can get very stressful, helping plan any kind of WordCamp meetup or conference is worth it. You have the ability to work with a team of people you respect and bring a fun and educational time to the WordPress community around you.
“At times I am literally speechless as to how much time and energy they put into an event. And it shows, because our attendees have been always vocal on the organization level of the conference,” Bisset said.
Don’t hesitate to try your hand at organizing. If you feel intimidated contact a successful WordCamp like Miami or Chicago and see if there is a way you can help. Just make sure you start working early.
“The biggest key I think is to start as early as you can and don’t let things sneak up on you at the last minute if you can help it. For the first time I think I got a decent night’s sleep the day before WordCamp Miami this past February because I finally learned from my past mistakes,” Bisset said.
Contact your local organizer or meetup team and see what you can offer. At the very least, you’ll meet some awesome WordPress people and learn something.
Did we miss any important tips? Let us know in the comments below.
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