As I sit here reading the notes from the Future LCAs birds of a feather at LCA2011, I’ve come to the realization that most of the conversation was about the mechanics of what is required for an LCA bid. It can be daunting to know what needs to be done in order to have a successful bid for an event as complicated as LCA, especially if you’ve never been an organizer before. Its not clear that Canberra will have a successful bid for 2013 yet, but I think its a good idea to share what we’ve done so far if it helps others develop high quality bids.
The first thing to think about is your team. At the BoF, it was strongly suggested that you need around five to six people for a good bid. I’ve seen conferences run with fewer people than that, but it is risky. LCA is a large and complicated event these days, and with a planning horizon of around two years, you need to be prepared for there to be a fair bit of churn in your core organizing team. Some people will move away, or change jobs. Others might have a new child and discover they’re much too busy for a conference as well. So, remember when you’re putting that initial team together to pack in some extra folks in order to handle the churn. Most Australian capital cities have former LCA organizers in them these days as well (we call them ghosts in the Linux Australia community). You should try to find one or two of these people to be involved as well. For example, the Canberra bid committee currently stands at 14 people, seven or whom have been on a LCA core team before, 3 of whom have served on Linux Australia’s national committee, and at least two of whom have run their local Linux User’s Group at some point in the past.
Let Linux Australia know that you’re interested in submitting a bid (firstname.lastname@example.org seems like the right place to send this). They can provide you with sample bids and budgets from previous conferences when the bid process starts. They can help you plan your bid, and assist with modelling the cost of the conference. Linux Australia also has a few online references you should read early and often, including public bid guidelines and a how-to for running the conference (although the latter is a little dated now).
Next you need to starting filling in some of the details for your conference. Where are you going to host the main conference? In Canberra’s experience it is getting quite hard to find venues which can host a conference for 700 people, especially when you take into account that people really like to be all in the same room for keynotes and closing sessions. Canberra is lucky in this regard because we have at least three venues which can scale to this size event, but that might not be true of all cities. So, find a conference venue as a first step with your new team. Don’t forget when talking to venues to ask how much the venue will cost — a significant part of the conference budget can get spent on the main venue. Note also that many venues require that you use their catering and audio visual companies if you’re using their rooms. This can be a hidden expense that’s painful to discover later.
Your local city probably has a Convention Bureau that can start to be helpful now. The Canberra Convention Bureau has been very supportive for our bid, starting out with a meeting to get a feel for the event, running a familiarization tour of possible venues for various components of the conference, and helping us with the actual content of our bid. The venue tour was a particularly interesting exercise — it was a three day non-stop tour of possible venues and while quite tiring I learnt heaps. These tours are generally run with other potential conference organizers from around the country, so you also get to learn from seeing what questions other organizations ask. The Canberra Convention Bureau don’t just do this because they’re lovely people (they are). The Bureau is funded by the various tourist attractions in the city, who obviously have a vested interest in bringing events to Canberra. The Bureau is also staffed with people who have worked in the hotel, hospitality and conference industry for many years, which means they have plenty of experience to share when you need advice.
You’ll also need to start working out what venues you want to use for the various other events. There is an open day, as well as a variety of social events to organize. At this point you don’t need to pay deposits for these facilities, but you do need a reasonable idea of what they cost and whether they’re available. Again, most venues have signed exclusive catering deals, so you need to make sure that you understand who is providing those services, how much they cost, and if that is already included in the venue cost.
Accommodation can be hard to work out as well. It is now traditional to offer a student style accommodation option for the budget conscious, and this can take some negotiation with nearby student residences. For example with LCA 2005 we moved the conference to April, and then discovered later that our preferred student residences weren’t available at this time of year because despite being during a university break, students often stay around. For our 2013 bid we’ve been talking to the owners of some very fancy student residences that are brand new. It took a little bit of talking before that residence became available because our intended week for the conference is the week before the normal student move in time. We worked it out in the end, but you can’t just assume that student residences are available for your conference.
During all these conversations you should be “penciling in” your bookings to ensure your chosen venues are available if you do win the bidding process. Remember not to make a firm commitment though, because you don’t want to pay a deposit for a conference that might not end up happening! Additionally, collect some form of confirmation from venues that they are available. In some cases our documentation is as informal as email chains. In other cases we already have formal written quotations. What you’re trying to do here is reinforce to the Linux Australia national committee that you’re well organized, and serious about hosting an excellent conference. There is a lot of money involved with hosting LCA, so you really need to reassure Linux Australia that you can be trusted with the financial obligations.
One final point — one of the best ways to develop experience at bidding for LCA is to actually bid. Even if your bid is rejected you’ll end up with a bunch of useful feedback about how to improve it in the future. You’ll also get to see how the winning bid compared with yours, which gives you an important data point.