All three of us who run Southwest Fox and Southwest Xbase++ are experienced conference speakers and we know how big a role feedback plays in getting better at presenting. So, it’s no surprise that when we first started running a conference, we spent a lot of time and energy discussing what we wanted on both session evaluations and the overall conference evaluation. We’ve tweaked those contents (especially at the conference level) over the years, trying to extract more and more information from our attendees.
Two years ago, we moved the session evaluation system online. With most attendees carrying at least one Wifi-enabled device, we felt that using a web-based evaluation system would make things easier for attendees, speakers, and ourselves. Overall, that transition has been quite successful. Among other things, it allows speakers to review evaluations from a session before they repeat the topic. (A big benefit to us is not having to hand-enter all that data.)
This year, we moved the overall conference evaluation online, as well. While we wish more people had chosen to submit conference evals (fewer than half of those present did so), the evaluations we got seemed to contain more information. Knowing how I feel about writing on paper, I suspect using a keyboard instead freed many people to write more and longer comments. We’re thinking about ways to get better response in future.
We added one section to this year’s conference evaluation. We asked each person to rank five conference features as to their importance. All of these features affect the cost of running the conferences (though some of them do so indirectly). The five items were:
- Breakfast and Lunch Provided
- Dinner Party Included
- White papers for Every Session
- Multiple Simultaneous Sessions
- Meeting Rooms on Conference Hotel Property
We weren’t surprised at all that white papers (that is, session notes) for every session was far and away the most important item, with more than 2/3 of respondents ranking it #1, and another 1/6 ranking it #2; that is, 5/6 of those surveyed considered white papers as one of the top two items.
Since we consider providing white papers for all sessions a major part of the value proposition of a Geek Gatherings conference, we were glad to see that our customers do, too. Today, it’s rare for a conference to provide papers for all sessions; in fact, it’s rare for there to be papers for any sessions. So, we think our conferences stand out.
On the other end of the spectrum, people were even more unanimous that the dinner party we hold on the Friday night of the conference was the least important of the five; 80% ranked it last. We got the message. We’re already talking about alternative ideas.
As for the middle three items, your order of importance is multiple tracks, having the conference sessions at the hotel, and then having breakfast and lunch included. We’ll keep all that in mind as we plan for the future.
As I noted earlier, we got many more comments this year than in the past. They ranged from simple thanks to some detailed suggestions. One theme throughout the comments is how many of you come to the conference to see friends. Answers like that popped up in response to “What did you take away from the conference?” (this year, no one said “the towels”) as well as to “What did you like best about the conference?”
Because we were frank about the financial risk we take in running the conferences, and expressed our concerns about the future, a number of people offered us concrete suggestions, including changing the location and time of year, selling shares in the conference, and charging more, while others simply said that we should do whatever it takes to keep going.
We’ve already spent several hours face-to-face (thanks, Rainer Becker, for inviting all three of us to the German DevCon) discussing this year’s conference and what you had to say. We’ll continue to review the evaluation data as we determine our 2015 offerings. If you have additional comments or you couldn’t join us this year and want to share your thoughts, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.