Recently I posted about making sponsorship work to lay out some ideas for events that are seeking sponsors. My friend Shawn Weisfeld manages the Orlando .Net group and he posted his thoughts on sponsorship yesterday. The Code Camp Manifesto is where it all started and it definitely focuses not just on free, but no cash outlay. I think that's realistic if you have 5-20 people meeting, but after that I'm not sure it's practical. Orlando Code Camp has more than 400 attendees, the South Florida Code Camp more than 600. The problem isn't that those two events have strayed from the manifesto but rather than are a different animal - call it a mini conference.
On a good year perhaps 2000 people attend the PASS Summit, and maybe 11k attend Teched. I've attended at least one national conference each year since 1999, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that many people never get to go to a conference. Conferences are different from classroom training, they exist to help you explore new ideas quickly, to let you network with peers (especially valuable for us DBA's who often have no peers at work), and to just recharge. We need more of these conferences at lower prices!
I think calling it a Code Camp just lets users know that it's less formal, less likely to be perfect. Our own SQLSaturday was an attempt to be just a little more formal, to come as close to being a real conference as we could on a limited budget (about $4000) and I think we did pretty well. It's definitely important to set expectations, nothing can sour a day faster than to expect one thing and get another.
Which brings us finally to the should it be free portion of this post. I like free. It let's people come that just couldn't afford to any other way and I think they have more of a grass roots feel to them. But take SQLSaturday for example. If we had charged $20/person would they have been less happy with the event? They received coffee & doughnuts for breakfast - call that a $1.50 in value, and a nice boxed lunch from Jason's Deli - $7 value, and as much soda/water as they could drink - variable, but let's round to $1.50 to make their real received value $10. The other $10 would have paid for speaker shirts, signs, trash bags,and all the other little things needed to make things run. Would charging $20 raise expectations too high? Would it shrink attendance because many people don't want to pay anything out of their pocket?
Let's look at the choices:
100% free, no sponsors. Probably best for small groups but good for you if you can make it work!
100% free, sponsors. Good for larger groups assuming you can get businesses to give you money (see my earlier post above as well) - it's a trust issue, do they find you credible? Track record helps.
$20, no sponsors. Good for any size event, no selling to sponsors, one less customer type to please. Arguably attendees will miss out by not meeting sponsors (remember few of them go to the big events).
$20, sponsors. Good for any size event, assumes you see values in having sponsors on site (could invite them for free even!)
I think all of those are valid choices and people looking at one of these events should really consider which model fits them and their community best.
The final point worth discussing; what happens to money left over? I think the best use is to leave it in the hands of the local user group to help subsidize bringing speakers in, but a pleasant alternative would be to donate any 'profit' to a local charity.