Hacking DrupalCon: Event Planning & Design
Ever wonder what goes into a conference or other business event that participants will gush about (in a good way) for years? After an event of these mythical proportions, participants walk away raving about the food, the speakers, the social events, the aura, and the list goes on ...
But pulling off such an event is no easy feat. Thus, I decided to speak with Lead DrupalCon Coordinator Amanda Gonser to find out how she manages to make sure the DrupalCon event design is flawless and fits into the overall event planning process seamlessly.
(This video may cause unexpected bursts of laughter. If you cannot laugh in your current environment, please scroll down for the written version.)
You Can’t Avoid Attending Events, and You Shouldn’t
Most of us have attended at least one business event or conference in the past year. Maybe one of those was even the 2016 DrupalCon in New Orleans, which took place last April. At Cheeky we’ve attended three in the past three months alone: MozCon in September, PubCon in October, and Ad:tech in November.
Events like these are exciting, informative, full of opportunity, and utterly exhausting. And, according the Content Marketing Academy, events you should be attending them for both your personal development and your business development.
When Events Go Bad
They can also be embarrassingly catastrophic: bad coordination between the event team, unfortunate venue choices, and poor customer service can make an event experience unbearable.
DrupalCon: When Events Go Well
Lucky for us in the Drupal sphere, the annual DrupalCon conferences, “where thousands of Drupal developers, system engineers, designers, project managers, functional analysts, … media, and business people gather to participate in learning sessions, talks, code sprints, and social events”, go off without a hitch.
So, I decided to ask Amanda how she does it.
Planning a Spectacular Event: Incorporating Design and Branding
In particular, I wanted to know how she feels about working with us at Cheeky Monkey Media on design and branding for the event, and how the event design and branding plays into the overall process.
Despite an initial bout of nerves (I don’t know why, Amanda’s great), Amanda agreed to the interview:
Ya of course. We love Cheeky Monkeys so we are happy to help even if I get nervous so…
Wait, tell us more about Amanda!
Amanda: (laughs) That’s me.
I basically just live and breathe DrupalCon, which is the conference that we host a few times a year, normally two to three times a year.
The conference itself is a gathering of people who use and build Drupal from all over the world.
An Event Is More Than Itself. A Spectacular Event Represents the Community
Amanda partners with the local Drupal Community in the host city in a number of different ways.
Your Event Should Help Grow and Support the Local Community
Amanda: I’m the person that reaches out to the local community and lets them know that DrupalCon is coming to their city, which is always very exciting.
I try to make sure that throughout the whole process of having a DrupalCon, from when the community finds out the DrupalCon is happening in their city to when the event actually happening, the host community feels their city is being portrayed how they want it portrayed.
The DrupalCon is also about helping to grow the host community. It gives the local Drupal community the opportunity to get involved in various volunteer roles in the conference and just really working to continue to grow their drupal community throughout the process.
Your Event Should Inform and Entertain Your Audience (Your Larger Community)
Amanda: Another way I reach out to the community is the one that you mentioned with the all of the emails and all of the sessions and things.
I manage all of the community selected programming that happens, so it is a 150 plus sessions:
- Summits, if you go to vertical summits
- Sprints, if you sprint with us on Fridays, or on the weekends before and after
- Social events like Trivia Night, which is very famous, or Women in Drupal, which is a really huge networking event.
All of these different moving pieces of the Con are very community focused, and I am really excited to get to work with people on them.
Your Event Needs to be Cohesive Throughout: Branding and Design are Key
Amanda: The third arm of my living and breathing of DrupalCon is of course getting to work with designers like you guys at Cheeky Monkey.
So the whole branding of the entire Con from the beginning when it’s still a secret (and Cheeky Monkey knows how to do a good job of keeping it secret), to the reveal, then all the way to the conference where you have T-shirts, and you have the program works.
It’s this really long process, so it’s definitely something that I am excited to do each time with them.
… We interrupt this program with a brief note on terms.
Managing Event Design and Branding in the Midst of Controlled Chaos
Spela: You’re constantly juggling and reprioritizing a whole bunch of tasks and dealing with the unexpected, so, where does the design process come in and what does that process look like for you in the midst all of this craziness?
Amanda: Yeah. The design process is this really long project that we have to see through from concept to reality (the actual event).
It’s something that is a constant in my mind, and something that I really enjoy doing.
The whole process can take about 10 months, so it could get a little tiresome and you could get a little bogged down. So, it’s really helpful to have a partner like Cheeky Monkey that makes it exciting and fun throughout the whole thing. [We didn’t pay her to say that, honest.]
Start with what you want to highlight and the feelings you want to convey
Amanda: The original deliverables start when we find out about the city, which like I mentioned is a secret and there are only a few people from the local community who know. When we tell them, they get really excited, and then we have them put together this document that sort of explains how they feel about their city, things that they want to highlight, and the kinds of feelings they want to convey about their city.
Work with the designer and stakeholders to turn essence into concept
Amanda: Then we give that document to Chris.
Chris the designer that we work with at Cheeky Monkey, he is our designasaur, um and he’s fantastic.
Chris takes all the words from various people in the community and he somehow translates them into these amazing concepts.
Don’t make just one concept. Brainstorm a few different ideas.
Amanda: Chris delivers multiple different concepts that we share with the local community to kinda make sure we are getting the vibe they would like.
For example, for Baltimore, the community put together this document and Chris saw all of their words and made these fantastic concepts.
We had one about pirates because Baltimore is a very seafaring town. [So, Chris tried to incorporate Clipper Ships instead]
And, while we loved that one, we decided piracy and the tech conference was probably not the best way to go. But it was awesome, very creative.
The community also noted things about the show Hairspray, which was hilarious and lots of fun.
There is also a museum there that’s called the American Visionary Museum that is just really quirky and crazy.
And, of course, the one that won out in the end, is the Poe/raven concept.
So, just to be able to go from all these words to really these concrete themes and concepts is really a huge process in of itself.
Get buy in for your stakeholders (all of them)
Amanda: Once we have the concept dialed and we get buy in from the community and then our team at the Drupal Association, we move forward and sort of set what it’s going to be looking like for the whole con.
Amanda: When we get buy in, that’s kinda where the overarching brand comes in and it’s more than just a logo.
Be ready to put your project management skills to the test
Amanda: At that point we go into a really long project management process.
- First we need to design a website.
- Then we need to design everything that you’re gonna see at the conference. Be that signs or program guides or speaker pins, things like that.
To put that into perspective, if you’ve ever been to a DrupalCon you probably noticed but definitely didn’t count, unless you helped us put out signs, that we have about 150 different signs to make sure you know where you are going, when things are happening.
When you attend an event, you see these things, but you probably don’t ever think that someone has designed all of those.
I mean there’s just so much going on, so it’s really nice to have worked with Cheeky for quite a few conferences now. They get it and so its really helps to make the plates spinning definitely not fall.
[Could she be any sweeter?]
Picking a Design Partner: What you should look for…
After we talked a bit about the event design process, I asked Amanda what she looks for in a design partner.
Amanda: When we have our call for designers we are really looking for two things:
1. We want to know the team
2. But, we also want to see what they have done.
Personality: Your design partner needs to be someone you can build a partnership with.
Amanda: We like to see their personality show through, because we really really like to build a partnership as opposed to a client/vendor relationship. We like to see past work that they have done cuz that really shows a lot of their personality.
Experience: Does your event design partner know what they’re getting into?
Amanda: It’s a huge plus to see past conference work they have done. It shows you that the designer understands what they are getting themselves into.
Not everyone knows how much work a conference is. It might be cool to have the brand of the website or something, but knowing that 150 signs are coming, um it’s nice to know that they are prepared.
Don’t forget to meet with prospective partners
Amanda: Once we move past the initial round, where we look at the responses to our call for designers, we like to have an interview (like a video call) with them. We want to meet them and see the interaction between us and them as well as how they interact on the team.
It’s a really long project management process, so we want to make sure that we’re having a good time because at the Drupal Association, we have a lot of work, but we have a lot of fun doing it. We want to make sure that the team we are working with also has fun and that we want to work with them.
What is the most important factor in a client/vendor partnership?
Amanda: When you work with a vendor, there is always this apprehension: are they going to deliver on time, did I explain my needs well enough that they are going to give me exactly what I needed, um, they’re not answering an email, is it because they’re behind?
We’ve worked with Cheeky for a number of Cons now, and we’re really continuing to build on this really good communication base. I don’t worry about anything with Cheeky. [Phewph!] You guys always deliver. Everything is fantastic. We have a blast working with you. There’s a real peace of mind working with you.
It’s that trust. We want to want to work with these people. We don’t want to dread these meetings or feel like we’re pulling teeth to try and get a deliverable. We want to enjoy the working relationship. It’s important that we like the people.
Knowing that they’ve done events of this scale is also important. And that goes both ways. The designer knows that we’ve done events like this in the past, and they can trust that we are not going to be asking for outrageous things and that we do have processes. And then for us, as the Drupal Association, it’s nice to see that they’ve executed something like that before, and that we can have faith that everything is going to come together in the end.
Open communication Don’t forget communication.
Spela: For other event planners or marketers, or anyone that’s working on putting together a brand, be it for an event, or their organization as a whole or they’re trying to make their event brand fit and flow with the rest of their brand, what kind of advice do you have for them and for choosing a design partner?
Amanda: I think a lot of it comes down to communication. Cheeky has good processes so we are never worried about them delivering. We do our best to have our processes of the event and our waterfall working backwards from the event date, so that’s all solid to start.
But then really, it’s just the open communication. As the project lead from the Drupal Association, a lot of it falls on me to make sure that I’m communicating what we need and why. A lot of it is the why, because a lot of the how, Chris would know better how to do it than I would.
These are things that we’ve done multiple times now. I like the fact that they kind of jump in now and go, “hey, have you thought about trying it like this, or maybe it could be more efficient if we did it this way.”
As long as we can get to the final result, I’m happy with however we can do it.
It’s really more about the partnership and this open communication: why we need it, or who needs to sign off on it, or what it needs to include. Just making sure we are sharing all of the information up front so that it really can be collaborative.
That’s really what’s made us most successful as a team and for our events: having an open avenue of communication.
Spela: So really finding a team that you can trust, and collaborate with, and brainstorm with.
Amanda: Exactly. And have fun with as well.
If you’re apprehensive to talk to the person you need to talk to, you’re not going to share, and kind of kick the back story, or what your final goal is.
Sharing all that information, it might not be the most important thing for that one tote bag that you need, but having it as this overarching understanding of what the goal of the conference is.
It’s really about sharing what our mission is and what [you’re] trying to achieve so that [you] can partner with the designer and make that a reality.
The bonus question: What do branding and design mean to you?
I live and breath DrupalCon in three different ways, so I experience branding and design in three different ways.
- From a community standpoint, I want to make sure that they’re happy with the logo, not even the logo, just the brand. They want their city to shine. We want to make sure that we are conveying something, and giving people a bit of information about the city, even if they don’t know anything about it. I want to make sure the local community feels like their local community and their local culture is valued and shines through.
- For the Drupal Association, we use DrupalCon as a marketing vehicle, so I want to make sure that the Drupal brand is strong, and it communicates that this is the Drupal conference.
- The lastly, very event planner specific, when I look at a logo, I can say that’s an amazing logo, but if it can’t work on a big screen and a three-quarter-inch pin, or a presentation or a T-shirt, it’s not going to work. It needs to be very versatile. The brand needs to be very flexible.
It’s about communicating what Drupal is and the conference that is to come.
Wow, that was a lot of information.I owe a huge thank you to Amanda for taking the time to chat with me about the ins and outs of DrupalCon and how event design and branding fits into the overarching process. Thanks, Amanda! We love working with you too!
If you have any thoughts on the subject and would like to contribute to the conversation, please include your comments below.