The PHPBenelux Conference edition 2016 took place last week in Antwerpen (Belgium). As an organizer, I’m really happy with the end result. I like to think that our attendees, speakers and sponsors also enjoyed it. It’s the 7th time we organize the PHPBenelux Conference and every year we try to introduce something new. Although the 7 years of experience and the well-organized crew have made it a lot easier to organize, it’s still a lot of work.
This post gives you a behind the scenes look at what it takes to organize the PHPBenelux Conference. It will reflect our passion, our strengths and our weaknesses.
PHPBenelux? What does that mean?
Who came up with the PHPBenelux name? It’s the logical composition of “PHP” (the technology we represent) and “Benelux” (the area we cover). Benelux stands for “Belgium, The Netherlands & Luxembourg”. Some people just think it’s a term we invented, but that’s not the case.
The PHPBenelux user group was founded in 2009 and was actually a merger between the PHPBelgium user group and PHPGG (the Dutch PHP user group). We joined forces to have enough people and contacts to organize an conference.
Our first conference was the 2010 edition: we had about 120 people and we only had a small part of the Ter Elst conference center. Up to this day, we still work with Ter Elst. Talk about a good partnership.
Post-conference hibernation mode
As I’m writing this blog post, I have to admit I’m glad that the conference is over. I’m currently in the so-called post-conference hibernation mode. This means that I don’t want to be doing anything for PHPBenelux for the next couple of months.
This period of decompression usually takes a couple of months. And in summer we wake up from our deep sleep to do it all over again. The preparations for the previous edition started kind of late last year. We only kicked-off in September and really got going in October. Luckily it all worked out.
By the beginning of November the level of activity reaches a first peak, then it all slows down when the holiday season arrives. That usually a period of uncertainty:
Do we have enough sponsors? Is the travel & the accommodation arranged for our speakers? Did we sell enough tickets?
Sometimes the answer is no, most times the answer is yes. And 3 weeks before the conference everyone wakes up and the level of activity goes through the roof! A lot of stuff needs be arranged last-minute: goodies, badges, print work, …
I have to admit I have a lot more energy after this one. In April I’ll probably start the initial preparations for the 2017 edition.
PHPBenelux Conference DNA
That sounds arrogant! This paragraph would suggest that we have it all under control and that every single move we make is part of a grand plan. Honestly, it’s not. There is a plan, we have clear ideas about what our conference should be like, but we like to keep it a bit chaotic at times.
Here’s a list of things that are important to us
- Belgium needs a PHP conference, PHPBenelux Conference can fill that need
- The event should be community-oriented and community-driven
- PHPBenelux is a non-profit organization, the money we make should always be reinvested in the conference, the user group or the community
- A good lineup: people come for the talks. It’s what drives them to the conference and it’s what justifies it to their company
- Socials: people stay for the socials. We like to provide kick-ass social activities that focus on networking, community interaction and fun. This if facilitated by food, drinks & entertainment
- We want to do things that aren’t usual at conferences
- We want to create an open and friendly environment where people feel comfortable
- But we also want to be edgy and not be too uptight or too politically correct
- We want to be professional, but still remain grass-roots. This comes with some occasional chaos and amateurism
Hotel Ter Elst has been the venue for all PHPBenelux conferences. Over the years we have gotten to know all the people at Ter Elst and our working relationship is excellent. Ter Elst has some great features, but we are well aware of the shortcomings of our venue.
The advantages of the venue have always outweighed the limitations
Ter Elst is in Antwerpen, conveniently located in the North of Belgium, relatively near the Dutch border. We are a user group that focusses on both Belgium and The Netherlands, so that means we attract a lot of both.
The venue is not located in the center of Antwerpen, it’s in Edegem and it’s a bit remote. In terms of public transportation it’s a bit of a mess. There is a bus to the city center, but it’s not super convenient. You can easily reach Edegem by car though.
The upside is that people stick around and that’s a big one!
Because of the remote location, people can’t just run away. They stay for the socials and that’s one of the main reasons why our social events are so successful.
This is a list of things we need and that Ter Elst can provide:
- Multiple tracks with rooms that are big enough
- An auditorium that fits all attendees
- An exhibition hall
- A bar
- A hotel
- A parking lot
- Outdoor space to organize activities
It’s tough to find a venue that can match this.
Things that annoy us
On the other hand there are some really annoying things that cannot be changed easily:
- The hotel is way too small. This the main complaint from our attendees
- They tore down the restaurant in the tennis club and sold it to another company
- It’s not the most modern venue
Ter Elst management have explained that since the owner change, a lot more investments are happening and we appreciate that. They sold the tennis club and fitness center (that used to include the restaurant) and the former bowling alley will be turned into event space.
Unfortunately, I don’t expect a serious increase in hotel room capacity anytime soon. That leaves us with the partner hotels and the free shuttle service.
The reason why we can make PHPBenelux Conference happen is because we have a well-organized crew. The crew consists of the PHPBenelux board members and loyal volunteers. We have been working together for years and we like/trust each other.
Time is the enemy! Everyone has a day job and making PHPBenelux Conference happen takes a lot of time. Every crew member has one or more responsibilities and can work on that independently. That saves us so much time!
Michelangelo van Dam
Michelangelo van Dam is our president and international ambassador. He goes all over the world and spreads the word. I’m pretty sure he’s been at more than 70% of all active PHP conferences out there. Everywhere you go, Mike is there and Mike talks PHPBenelux.
He attracts the speakers, he attracts the international audience.
Paul Borgermans takes care of onsite logistics. He does all negotiations with Ter Elst, he decides what catering we have and sets up the scenario.
Paul also leads the CFP commission and is in charge of the schedule.
Leon Luijkx is our treasurer, accountant and financial advisor. Leon open sources his financial skills to keep our user group and our conference healthy.
Leon is also in charge of ticket sales.
Kana Yeh takes care of all speaker communication. She also arranges their accommodation, travel and pickups from the airport or the railway station.
She is also in the CFP commission and helps decide which talks will be scheduled.
Richard Tuin takes care of sponsoring and primarily focusses on sponsoring in The Netherlands.
He also is in charge of ordering goodies.
Martin de Keijzer
Martin de Keijzer manages our website and social media profiles.
He’s also the one that replies to e-mails that are sent to our main address.
Stijn Janssen is a new member of the PHPBenelux board. He’s a long-time volunteer who decided to take it to the next level.
Stijn manages the volunteers and handles communication with them prior to the event.
He also took care of the print work and made sure there were badges, roll-ups and printed schedules. He also helped design the Welcome To The Jungle logo.
He also handled the logistical side of this year’s special decoration.
My main responsibility is sponsorship. I need to make sure we have enough money to spend on crazy ideas. I handle sponsoring in Belgium and internationally and I assist Richard with sponsoring in the Netherlands.
I also do the brand marketing for each edition of the conference. That means figuring out a central theme and making sure our style and look matches the theme.
I’m also mister crazy: I usually come up with ideas that are crazy and will put us in the public eye. Some of them work, other ideas don’t quite.
Some notable ideas that made it to this year’s edition:
- The bumper cars
- The inflatable elephpants
- The idea of having a jungle
- JeoPHPardy with real buzzers
Because I also go to a lot of conferences I help Michelangelo scout for talent. We give our advice to the CFP commission, but we don’t take the final decision.
We also have loyal volunteers. These people are so important to us and execute the day-to-day tasks at the venue: they do room management, the fill the goodie bags, they pick speakers up from the airport and they manage the registration desk.
Without them it would be a giant mess!
These are our volunteers:
- Felix de Vliegher: room management
- Tom Claus: room management
- Tobias Gies: room management
- Peter Luijkx: room management, sound & light
- Stefanie Schweitzer: registration desk
- John Deprez: our dedicated driver, AKA John Uber.
Thanks to our volunteers, they’re awesome!
Welcome to the jungle
This year’s them was Welcome to the jungle. It’s the third time we have a theme: 2 years ago it was “carnival” and last year it was “show time”.
It’s the first time we successfully enforce the theme throughout the entire conference. I’m sure that no one remembers much about our previous themes.
This time we went all-out and we decided to work with a decoration company that could turn our expo hall into a real jungle. I know I’m biased, but I believe we succeeded!
I haven’t seen any other conferences do it and I hope we can inspire conference organizers to have a theme and decoration. It does cost a lot and it took a decent chunk out of our budget, but in the end it was all worth it.
I’m also very impressed with the way our sponsors have adopted the theme in their booth. One of our sponsors brought a live snake to the event (only 2 hours, 2 handlers and was properly treated).
Combell installed a jungle-themed bar and served juices and smoothies.
We already figured out the theme for the next PHPBenelux Conference. We’ll eventually announce it.
I’m really proud and grateful with our loyal sponsors.
40% of total budget comes from sponsoring
That’s quite significant and this allows us to add value to the conference by investing in cool attractions.
We have 4 levels of sponsoring
- Platinum: premium visibility online, onsite and on stage.
- Gold: online and onsite visibility
- Silver: online visibility
- Special: custom sponsoring
It’s surprisingly easy
We noticed that most sponsors want the onsite visibility. They love to have a booth in our expo hall and the conversations they have their lead to interesting opportunities. That’s what sponsors tell us.
The funny thing about the sponsoring is that I sent out a mailing and a tweet and after an hour my phone started to ring. I sold 5 of the 10 gold slots in a single day. We sold out our gold slots in a couple of weeks and even the platinum slot was sold relatively quick.
And even then we had sponsors asking us about gold sponsoring. Unfortunately, one of our sponsors backed out of the deal, but luckily 5 companies where interested.
Why do others struggle?
I’m surprised to hear that some conferences have difficulties to attract sponsors. I honestly wonder why.
There’s a great demand for PHP developers: everyone is hiring. More demand also means more opportunities for product vendors.
Why do they choose us and not the others? I honestly have no answer to this question. There are a couple of things we do that people like:
- We “force” exhibiting sponsors to have a booth attractions. This draws people to the booth
- We have an expo area where food and drinks are served and where the socials take place
- We’re quite commercial and willing to be creative to address the sponsor’s needs
- We’re very kind to our sponsors and we focus a lot on promoting the people behind the brand rather than brand only
The PHPBenelux Conference brand
Someone told me that we have a strong brand and that’s the reason why sponsors pick us. That person also told me are brand is strong because we have an international focus. We don’t position ourselves as a regional or national conference. Our user group itself focusses on 3 countries.
My advice? Prove to sponsors that you’re an investment, not a charity.
5 gold sponsors have already given their OK to sponsor the next edition. But I do realize that this could all end one day. That’s why we try to save some of the profit. We need the buffer for the down payments and to save our asses in case anything goes wrong.
Regardless, I’m proud, happy, grateful and ready to convince our sponsors to join us in 2017 for yet another edition of the PHPBenelux Conference.
If you’re a conference organizer and you have difficulties getting sponsors, get in touch. Communities should support each other.
Although we’re very responsible when it comes to managing our funds, we do like spending money. Who doesn’t? But it’s necessary, because organizing a conference costs a lot of money. Especially if you want to make it an event that people will remember.
You have your basics
- Speaker expenses
Then you have some specific expenses
- Speaker dinner
- Fuel and parking expenses for the crew, especially for the ones that pickup speakers at the airport
- Badges, rollups, schedules and other printwork
- Goodie bags
- Speaker gifts
- Attendee gifts
- Insurance for the event
- Crew hoodies
- Online communication and marketing subscriptions
- Video crew
And for this edition we had some even more specific expenses
- Game show equipment (buzzers)
- Giant inflatable elephants
- Bumper cars
- Game rentals (foosball, pool, pinball machines, …)
As you can expect, the most expensive extras are the bumper cars, the game rentals, the elephants and the decoration.
Without our sponsors, we wouldn’t be able to afford this.
The legendary bumper cars
You probably heard about it, if you were there you probably experienced it first-hand: the bumper cars are back!
If you’re from the US, you probably think this is a lawsuit waiting to happen. In Europe these things don’t happen that often. And with these things I don’t mean “accidents”. It’s an explosive cocktail: geeks, alcohol and bumper cars.
I can assure that there was pain involved and accidents did happen. But people were sensible and knew what they were getting into.
I’m also pretty sure that the bruises (or even scars) will be a nice memory of the PHPBenelux Conference.
How did we end up with bumper cars?
Years ago, I attended the Graspop metal festival. On of the sponsors had bumper cars at the festival site. It got me thinking and at first it seemed ludicrous.
I think I started pitching the idea to the crew back in 2012, but they weren’t having it. Very expensive and would people like it?
In 2014 we celebrated our 5th anniversary and decided to spend a bit more money. After a lot of nagging I got my way and we ordered the bumper cars. The rest is history.
This year the bumper cars were back and people loved it. But they’re not coming back anytime soon. It’s not that crazy anymore and the excitement wears off. I’m sure we’ll come up with something equally exciting next year.
The goal is to improve with every edition and learn from your mistakes. We have made our fair share of mistakes over the years.
The main lesson we learned from last year is to be more open about our speakers dinner. Last year we had an incident where a couple of speakers didn’t like the dinner and wanted to leave. We were pretty remote and were driven there by bus. Although we had 2 backup cars ready to drive them to the hotel, they didn’t know.
We figured they would ask. That assumption was wrong. Apparently not everyone feels confident enough to approach us and let us know. Then I learnt about introverts and the fact that’s different from being shy.
I’m a pretty outgoing and in-your-face kind of guy and I usually hang out with the same kind of people. It was a matter of empathy. Now I know, now I won’t make that mistake again.
For this edition we announced very clearly:
- Where the speakers dinner would be
- What kind of setting the speakers should expect
- When we would leave from the hotel
- How they would get there
- When and how they can get back to the hotel
- The alternative travel options in case they don’t join us by bus
- The fact that there were 2 backup cars
- That speakers shouldn’t be afraid of approaching us and that we would drive them back to the hotel in case of an issue
- How they could contact the crew in case they didn’t find us
A lot of people don’t like surprises and we respect that. By communicating clearly , speakers can either feel more comfortable or they can opt-out in advance.
That doesn’t mean we regret last year’s speakers dinner. We only regret the fact that we weren’t transparent enough about the setting and the means of transportation.
What can we improve for PHPBenelux Conference 2017?
The shuttle service needs a thorough evaluation. I don’t believe the service was efficient and I’m sure that some attendees felt a bit restricted in their movements and schedule. We need to improve this.
Although we put more effort in dietary preferences, we need to make sure that vegetarians and vegans are first-class citizens. During the Friday social, we had a dedicated food truck that served vegetarian and vegan options. We need to make sure this is a constant.
I know that only a fraction of the audience has some dietary restrictions. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the quality. We already put more efforts into this, but I’m sure we can do even better.
And finally, I would like to improve our communication strategy. Communication is handled by separate crew members depending on the kind. Speaker communication is not streamlined with communication to attendees and sponsors.
I believe we need to assign a communications manager who manages all our channels. That is e-mail, website and social media. We need to communicate faster and in a more streamlined way.
If you have other suggestions, let me know, OK?
I’d like to end with saying thank you to everyone who was involved. PHPBenelux Conference 2016 was a real event, we brought the community together, we learned, we had a good time.
Did you know the #phpbnl16 hashtag was trending on Twitter in Belgium for a while? That’s awesome!
And thank you to Jordi Boggiano for some of the pictures in this blog post.