Running a Workshop July 13, 2013Posted by gordonwatts in Conference, UW.
I ran the second workshop of my career two weeks ago. There were two big differences and a small one between this one and the first one I ran. First, the first one was an OSG workshop. It had no parallel sessions – this one had 6 running at one point. I had administrative help as part of our group back then – that luxury is long gone! And there were about 20 or 30 more people attending this time.
In general, I had a great time. I hope most people who came to Seattle did as well. The weather couldn’t have been better – sun and heat. Almost too hot, actually. The sessions I managed to see looked great. Ironically, one reason I went after this workshop was to be able to attend the sessions and really see how this Snowmass process was coming along. Anyone who has organized one of these things would tell you how foolish I was: I barely managed to attend the plenary sessions. Anytime I stepped into a parallel room someone would come up to me with a question that required me running off to fetch something or lead them to some room or…
There were a few interesting things about this conference that I thought would be good for me to write down – and perhaps others will find this useful. I’d say I would find these notes useful, but I will never do this again. At least as long as it takes me to forget how much work it was (~5 years???).
First, people. Get yourself a few dedicated students who will be there from 8 am to 8 pm every single day. I had two – it would have been better with three. But they ran everything. This conference wouldn’t have worked without them (thanks Michelle Brochmann and Jordan Raisher!!!). It is amazing how much two people can do – run a registration desk, setup and wire a room for power, manage video each day, stand in a hallway and be helpful, track down coffee that has been delivered to a different building (3 times!)… I suppose no one job is all that large, but these are the sorts of things that if they are missing can really change the mood of a conference. People will forgive a lot of mistakes if they think you are making a good effort to make it right. Something I’m not totally sure I should admit.
The other thing I discovered for a workshop this size was that my local department was willing to be so helpful! Folder stuffing? Done for free by people in the front office. Printing up the agendas? No problem! Double checking room reservations? Yes! Balance the budget and make sure everything comes out ok? You bet! They were like my third hand. I’m sure I could have hired help – but given the total hours spent, especially by some high-end staff, I’m sure it would have cost quite a bit.
The budget was crazy. It has to be low to get people here – so nothing fancy. On the other hand, it has to be large enough to make everyone happy. What I really got tripped up by was I set the economic model about 3 or 4 weeks before the start of the conference. I had a certain amount of fixed costs, so after subtracting that and the university’s cut, I knew what to do for coffee break, I knew how much I could have and how often, etc. And then in the last two weeks a large number of people registered! I mean something like 40%. I was not expecting that. That meant the last week I was frantically calling increasing order sizes for coffee breaks, seeing if larger rooms were available, etc. As it was, some of the rooms didn’t have enough space. It was a close thing. Had another 20 shown up my coffee breaks would have had to be moved – as it was, it really only worked because the sun was out the whole conference so people could spill outside while drinking their coffee! So, next time, leave a little more room in the model for such a late bump. For the rest of you who plan to go – but wait till the last minute to register? Don’t!
Sound. Wow. When I started this I never thought this was going to be an issue! I had a nice lecture hall to seat 300 people, I had about 130 people in the end. The lecture’s sound system was great. Large over-head speakers, and wireless microphone. I had a hand-head wireless mike put in the room so capture questions. And there was a tap in the sound system that said audio out. There were two things I’d not counted on, however. First, that audio-out was actually left over from a previous installation and no longer worked. Worse, by the time I discovered it the university couldn’t fix it. The second thing was the number of people that attended remotely. We had close to a 100 people sign up to attend remotely. And they had my Skype address. I tried all sorts of things to pipe the sound in. One weird thing: one group of people would say “great!” and another would say “unacceptable!” and I’d adjust something and their reactions would flip. In the end the only viable solution was to have a dedicated video microphone and force the speakers to stand right behind the podium and face a certain way. It was the only way to make it audible at CERN. What a bummer!
But this lead me to thinking about this situation a bit. Travel budgets in the USA have been cut a lot. Many less people are traveling right now; when we asked it was the most common reason given for not attending. But these folks that don’t attend do want to attend via video. In order for me to have done this correctly I could have thrown about $1000 at the problem. But, of course, I would have had to charge the people who were local – I do not think it is reasonable to charge the people who are attending remotely. As it was, the remote people had a rather dramatic effect on the local conference. If you throw a conference with any two-way remote participation, then you will have to budget for this. You will need at least two good wireless hand-held microphones. You will need to make sure there is a tap into your rooms sound system. Potentially you’ll need a mixer board. And most important you will have to set it up so that you do not have echo or feedback on the video line. This weirdness – that local people pay to enable remote people – is standard I suppose, but it is now starting to cost real money.
For this conference I purchased a USB presenter from Logitech. I did it for its 100’ range. I was going to have the conference pay for it, but I liked it so much I’m going to keep it instead. This is a Cadillac, and it is the best working one I’ve ever used. I do not feel guiltily using it. And the laser pointer? Bright (green)! And you can set it up so it vibrates when time runs out.
Another thing I should have had is a chat room for the people organizing and working with me. Something that everyone can have on their phone cheaply. For example, Whatsapp. Create a room. Then when you are at the supermarket buying flats of water and you get a call from a room that is missing a key bit of equipment, you can send a message “Anyone around?” rather than going through your phone book one after the other.
And then there are some things that can’t be fixed due to external forces. For example, there are lots of web sites out there that will mange registration and collection money for you for a fee of $3-$4 bucks a registration. Why can’t I use them? Some of the equipment wasn’t conference grade (the wireless microphones cut out at the back of the room). And, wow, restaurants around the UW campus during summer can be packed with people!