Talking Conferences with Ben and Cat from ConfConf - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

Heart Internet is happy to be sponsoring ConfConf, a one-day conference on 30 January 2015 focused on helping you create innovative and supportive events in the web industry. This fantastic event is taking place at the Custard Factory on Gibb Street in the centre of Birmingham, and we recently sat down with Ben MacGowan and Cat Clark, organisers of ConfConf, to get their opinions on conferences and what ConfConf can bring to the digital world.

Could the two of you provide a bit of information about yourself?

Ben: My name is Ben MacGowan and I am primarily the UI Evangelist for Creative Jar, a digital agency based in Reading, UK. I have nearly a decade’s experience working with front-end technologies to deliver beautiful user interfaces and bringing designs to life. My passion for the technologies and the industry has led me down many avenues over the years and has to date has found me speaking at numerous conferences, organising Breaking Borders and now ConfConf.

Cat: I’m Cat, and I’m the Senior Events Manager at Smashing. I kind of stumbled into the world of tech events at the very start of 2010, when I began work with Carsonified, running The Future of Web Design conferences in London and New York. I knew precisely nothing about web design at that point so it was a steep learning curve, but the community had me hooked! Fast-forward four years and I was offered a job with Smashing, where I am currently enjoying expanding their conference offerings across the world.

There's nothing quite like ConfConf out there. What prompted you to organise and run 'a conference about conferences'?

Ben: It’s a funny story actually.

Cat and I met a number of years ago when I spoke at Future of Web Design London, an event that Cat organised. Since then we have stayed in touch and been very aligned in our thinkings as to how events should be run and how everybody involved in an event should be treated; attendees, crew and speakers.

Fast forward to Smashing Conf Oxford in March and Cat and I were discussing the conversations and dramas which were occurring on mediums such as Twitter around conference organisation, speaker lineups and meetup saturation. We felt that there was a platform needed for event and conference organisers to discuss these opinions, but also learn how collectively we can improve the standard of events in the industry.

After a few more cocktails, we laughed and joked around with the name ConfConf. Domain names were bought, Twitter handle registered and venues scouted. It stuck and suddenly turned from 'napkin idea' into reality.

What do you hope people will get out of attending ConfConf?

Cat: We’re very keen on bringing out the community element of event planning. There are a lot of us out there doing this, and we hardly ever talk! Organising an event is hard work, and often pretty stressful, so the tendency is to get your head down and push through. There aren’t too many times when planners come together to share tips, successes, failures, get second opinions etc. ConfConf will provide a really wonderful opportunity for this. We also want people to leave feeling enabled to improve their events with a range of new tools, tips and techniques, inspired by a clearer view of their motivations and contributions to the tech industry.

You’ve both worked at several events, including Smashing Magazine and Breaking Borders. What’s the best thing about running an event?

Ben: For me it has to be the atmosphere and overhearing positive feedback about the event. Not only is it self-validation that what I have tried to achieve has worked, but people are walking away from the event more informed, committed and re-energised about the industry we work in.

Cat: The people! Attendees, speakers, volunteers, team mates; I couldn’t have dreamt five years ago that I would have met so many fascinating, hilarious and generous people through this line of work. I also love working out what makes folk tick. My talk at ConfConf will focus on the psychological elements of event design – how to make a roomful of people feel happier, more inspired and more excited about the web than when they entered.

Why do you think events are important for the digital community?

Ben: Collaboration and inspiring others. It’s important to give people the platform to help each other out, push each other forward and feel safe in the knowledge that they are part of an exciting industry.

Cat: Because too often we run the risk of being solely that; a digital community. Coming to an event and hanging out with real life people, having long, rambling conversations that are not limited or misconstrued by a 140 character limit, letting your guard down slightly realising you’re all facing the same issues – I just think it’s so important to get away from that screen and interact as real human beings from time to time. Events to me are the analogue foil to the chaos of social media. Taking web design as a metaphor, digital tools are great, but sometimes it’s picking up a pencil and paper that lifts you out of that creative rut.

In your opinion what's the biggest challenge people face when running events?

Ben: Differentiation. There are a lot of events out there, so how do you make your event stand out amongst the others and get people to come along to yours?

Cat: Diversity. It's a very thorny issue and one of the driving factors behind ConfConf. Events keep coming under the same criticisms, Twitter keeps blowing up with same arguments, nothing changes. We're looking forward to digging deeper into this recurring challenge, and asking what events the community and the wider industry should be looking to do differently.

What advice would you give to someone who's thinking of running their own digital event?

Ben: Does the location you are looking to run your digital event already have events that you would be competing with? Often there already are. If you find that your audiences and subject matter are similar then ask to see if you can offer to help and grow the event rather than creating a competitor.

Events are not easy to organise, especially if they are occur every month or so. Organisers would welcome help and a fresh energy of working on the event.

Cat: Come to ConfConf! All joking aside, you won't find a better grounding in how to elevate an average event to a fantastic one.

We're sponsoring ConfConf and regularly sponsor other events. What can we, as sponsors, do to help fledgling event organisers?

Cat: Keep doing what you do! Sponsorship really is the lifeblood of smaller events (and most big ones too!) We'll be breaking down event budgets at ConfConf, and showing just how expensive conferences can be to run. Sponsorship literally makes them possible; when we thank our sponsors, we really, sincerely mean it!

But beyond the financial side of things, just knowing you have the support and weight of a well-respected company, such as Heart Internet, behind you is fantastic. Contacts and help with promotion are also wonderful, and it's also really nice when sponsors are able to attend in person and see how everything they've helped make happen has come together.

What's the one tool event organisers should always have at hand on the day?

Ben: Checklists / notes. Especially if you are MC'ing. I've had it happen lots of times when I have walked off stage and suddenly remembered that I meant to mention something to the attendees! Having a flash card of prompts can really help.

Cat: I wouldn't be without my bag of tricks; a magical wheeled suitcase that comes everywhere with me! It contains VGA adaptors, clickers, batteries of all shapes and sizes, string, sharpies, white labels, sellotape, spare name badges, a first aid kit… And I'm adding to it all the time! You don't have time to go looking for this stuff when the event's up and running, so it's a no-brainer for me and have saved my skin on many occasions. I also recommend printing out a contacts list for your team; it's good to have phone numbers for everyone (from each speaker to the catering team) to hand as you never know who'll need them.

And finally, where's your dream location for holding a conference?

Ben: For me, I'd love to organise a conference out in the countryside. A retreat almost. We can often try to do too much at once, and I myself have been one of those people who is multitasking and trying to deliver project work whilst attending a conference. It would be great to create a space where people can take a holiday from their requirements, so that they can focus on the content and get to know their fellow attendees.

Cat: I'm currently working on something pretty special for next Halloween… I can't say too much but the words “haunted” “ghost” and “ship” are quite possibly involved.

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