The way many EA events are run is unsustainable for event organisers and does not leave sufficient slack for running excellent events and experimenting for learning.
We share our models for better event planning and highlight some key challenges with current approaches to event operations (event ops). We make the case that hiring early, finding a venue and outsourcing logistics will create more capacity to invest in the most important (but relatively neglected) aspects of event ops - content, structure and stewardship. More capacity can also allow organisers to deviate from defaults and innovate with new event formats and styles, and engage in more resource-intensive programming.
We aim to set realistic expectations and provide practical guidance for newer organisers to better prepare them. Good event ops people are not easily replaceable. We’ve observed a trend of event organisers being put under a lot of (unnecessary) pressure due to a lack of planning and capacity. We give a bunch of real (anonymised) examples throughout this post to illustrate our point.
We don't go into specific suggestions because it's very event-dependent, but we'd estimate that adding ~20-40% of lead time and/or capacity would help achieve these goals.
We’d love to hear if you're an event organiser and don’t find this helpful or actionable. Although we're only talking about events, we think it's possible there are similar trends in other areas -we’d love to hear about them if you've got observations!
The Hierarchy of Events Planning
In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. Our pyramid is similar - components lower down in the hierarchy are more basic and are necessary for an event to exist. The exact configuration of each component affects the ones above it (e.g. if your venue only has 2 rooms, you probably can’t have an agenda with 3 tracks of events running simultaneously).
However, influence is not strictly linear - so the structure of the event might influence which venue you choose (e.g. if you want to create an informal atmosphere, you might choose to host an event in a smaller, more casual venue instead of a formal one, or if you need a lot of stewardship for newer attendees, you might hire a larger team to manage those needs).
If you could invest 1-10% more resources (time) for 10-30% return, this seems worth considering. In the following, we’re going to try and point out the highest leverage points of each step of the pyramid - the places where spending that extra time could make a big difference and open up more possibilities.
Work backwards from specific goals
aka don’t start with “I want to run a conference”
It may sound trite, but no event makes sense without specific, concrete, and measurable goals - you need to know the who and why, and then work backwards from there. Start with a specific goal like “I want to facilitate peer- to peer bonding for my local university group” and then list all the ways that could achieved, (host a social dinner, a retreat, a 1-day hike, a group project etc.), rather than do an event format because it's been done before and seems effective.
Here are some goals an event might have - note that these goals are pretty different from each other, and it’s pretty hard to create events that could excel more than a couple at once:
- Networking - participants form important connections with others - either peers or mentors
- Learning/Skilling up - participants learn from each other or experts on a particular topic
- Idea sharing - participants learn industry best practices, cutting edge research and
- Talent coordination - candidates are matched to potential employers
- Project launchpad - participants found new projects
- Bonding - participants form bonds, become more motivated, feel part of the community
- Reflection session - reflecting on past actions, decisions, efforts etc for the purpose of growth and learning
- Targeted learning about what is impactful (see below)
- Reflection session - reflecting on past actions, decisions, efforts etc for the purpose of growth and learning
- Targeted learning about what works and what doesn't (see below)
We think that targeted learning should always be a goal. EA is a young movement - we’ve made, are making, and will make mistakes. We have a lot to learn about what works best. The ultimate goal of any event is first and foremost to have direct impact, but secondly it’s to experiment and share how it went (with high-quality templates & guides) to benefit other groups. If it goes terribly - that’s super valuable too!! There isn’t systematic research on this topic, things are more of a mess than they seem.
Hire early & onboard quickly
I think people are the most important factor in determining the success of a project. Charity Entrepreneurship factors the availability of talent when thinking about how promising a project is.
Hire early so that you have a realistic sense of your capacity and ability to be ambitious, and your team’s competency. Teams often hire late and the shorter your planning runway, the less likely it is that you’ll do a good job of people management. Many people running EA events are junior and have limited management experience as is - adding additional constraints like a short planning runway will only exacerbate this. You could require team members who are very autonomous - but that will narrow the talent pool you can draw from. Hiring early can also help with allowing for sufficient risk mitigation, pre-mortem planning, and booking speakers (if needed) in advance.
Here are some anonymised examples from a variety of different events ran in the past year.
An event that had hiring issues This was a 200 person 2-day event. The core organiser got a grant and oversaw the whole event and hiring process. They ran multiple hiring rounds, but ended up not filling many positions. Ultimately, they were left hiring team members much later about a month before the event which meant that the team was behind schedule. This ended up really impacting the quality of the event (subpar programming, messy logistics, venue and catering issues, etc).
An event that did extra hiring well One EAG(x) conference did a great job with hiring. They a) hired early (about 3 months before their event for core team members and 1-2 months for support contractors, b) had very clear communication about the roles, the hiring process, timelines and more, c) had work very well divided into team (ex. by content, admissions. communication, venue and logistics) with clear communication within and across teams. This overall lead to a really successful event that was planned well and not overly burdensome on any one organiser.
An event with semi-decent hiring At one weekend event, organisers hired one good person but that person needed more support. Everything ultimately ran smoothy - but they could have done a better job with communication, management, and managing timelines. One area for improvement is to make sure someone with managing experience is consulted or overseeing the process because one key need with hiring and having a larger team is managing. And managing is not easy and requires learning.
The Pineapple Operations directory has a list of people open for ops roles. You can also ask around to trusted community members for references or look for previous event organisers.
Secure a good venue & outsource logistics
Without a venue, you can’t start planning the event.
Like physiological needs, the venue is necessary but not sufficient for an impactful event. The general advice here is to lock-in the venue early - because it shapes and if well-chosen, can boost efforts in other domains - like content and structure.
Finding a brightly lit restaurant with vegan options and large tables was great for creating a warm and friendly atmosphere at EA Philadelphia monthly socials. Retreats in the country side provide lots of nature to explore which can be good for creating a focused environment (see more on retreats). Conferences with lots of smaller rooms and breakout spaces can be great, but if they are physically remote (e.g. long corridors) you may get a less serendipitous encounters or impromptu conversations. Chill, hangout rooms are usually always a good idea.
One of the venues at EAG London has a conservatory that’s a lovely break from the normal conference venue. It’s quiet and peaceful, and can be less overwhelming.
The EAGxBoston retrospective identified a number of things that could have been done sooner: deciding the conference date, securing the venue, launching Swapcard and schedule, and organising hotel and accomodations.
Logistics are critical, but can be outsourced.
What can the venue take care of work for you? Some important areas a venue can handle include catering, cleaning, AV, room set-up and security. We advise working with as few external vendors / agents as possible because it saves on hiring, vetting, and coordination time. Although it will typically cost more, when you account for all those costs, we would expect this to be worth it.
The less time your team spends on these tasks directly (or on managing others to do the tasks) the more you can invest on things higher up in the event planning hierarchy - content, structure & stewardship - the pieces that are really unique to your event, and that are harder to delegate.
“For parts of EAGxSingapore and the EA SG Unconference, we had a venue provided operations staff, vegan catering, drinks, wifi, security/first aider and AV support. Getting logistics in-house makes the process smoother and means that there is already some kind of structure in place.
This venue also had in-house operations staff. In some places you can hire people or recruit volunteers but in non-hubs where EA contractors are less readily available, this is an easy way to outsource simple tasks like stocking water bottles or cleaning up cups. On the second day we shifted over to another venue which had no in-house staff, and the difference was clear. Most of the team was involved in the clean-up for 300 attendees and it was hard to coordinate and keep track of volunteers since the venue was also spread out over three floors.
For the Community Builders in Asia retreat, the venue provided accommodations, catering, operations staff, water, supplies bean bags, AV support, signage, security/first aider. I just needed to confirm pax, room type, and the venue room. My team could just go up to the counter and they would sort out the problem for us. This meant that two team members could add value by improving the overall epistemics of the event, while the other two were able to participate more in the event and network. We saved at least 40 people hours because of this.” - Dion Tan, EAGxSingapore organiser
Invest in high-quality content & thoughtful structure
Content is any kind of programming that you organise - before, during and after the event. One of the reasons we think it’s valuable to delegate as much of the logistics is possible, is that we high quality and intentional content and structure based on the goal(s) of your event can make a difference on the impact of your event. We think there are opportunities to exploit your (team’s) unique counterfactual advantages, and find areas to leverage your effort and resources. The following are some (debatable) opinions we have:
Not enough experimentation
We don't think there's enough experimentation happening right now to create high quality, engaging content. Partly because of the short planning timelines, partly due to default bias towards well known, less organiser-effort formats like talks (it can be easier to ask speakers to plan a talk rather than run more time-intensive formats).
Another reason is that we don’t think content is seen as very valuable. Many EA events focus a lot on 1-1 interactions and common advice is to skip programmed events to meet people - while that's definitely a valid option, we think that perhaps we should be going harder on one thing or the other - making engaging content people want to go to or restructuring events to be more focused on networking.
Less is more
Given this, less is more. Engaging content takes time to develop, and it’s okay for an event to have fewer sessions, and/or repeat valuable sessions. Typically, interactive events with small groups (workshops, discussion groups) will be more engaging and valuable than talks or lectures. These kind of activities probably don’t need big name speakers - you could recruit and train good facilitators who have more time. Senior subject matter experts can definitely add a lot - like career or research advice - but their time is limited. You could design a program in a way that the senior person could be pulled in to do small pieces of it which don’t require preparation (e.g. doing a few 1-1s, answering questions, giving feedback). An expert’s time can be leveraged if it’s paired with really good structure so that participants use their time valuably.
Some organisers ran a career 1-1 training workshop for community builders in 2020. The workshop itself was run by a non-expert (Vaidehi) who conducted research & interviews with community builders who had conducted lots of 1-1s, and then developed a multi-week workshop that covered the basics of 1-1s. Each participant was paired with a mentor to get specific, targeted feedback. Not only was it often a counterfactual mentor match, but it seems like both the structure & the mentorship was beneficial.
There aren't enough peer-to-peer activities
There's a lack of activities that empower people to become better independent thinkers, help each other and build close relationships with each other - such as peer-to-peer feedback, personal support sessions, and epistemic activities. Leaders and more senior EA community members cannot (and perhaps should not) always be heavily involved in shaping someone’s impact journey. We think that more focus should be given to building and empowering thoughtful, curious people, but don't feel like much serious thought has been given on how to do that.
There needs to be more opportunities for practicing core values and norms
Events are usually not very long - usually a few days. This length of time is not suited to make lots of progress on a specific issue, but instead well suited to expand someone’s option space (novel ideas, perspectives or opportunities), build (new) relationships, practice core values or norms, get advice or inputs and feel a sense of belongingness to the community. There aren’t enough opportunities at events for people to practice core values or approaches to doing good. Topics we think are especially important and feel neglected are epistemic rigour, reasoning transparency, and good decision-making. The benefit is two-fold - creating a space for people to practice and learn (or relearn) about those topics, and signalling to attendees (especially newer people) the importance we place on those values or norms.
If someone goes to an event and does a complete 180 and makes a huge decision, that makes us slightly-worried. On the other hand, if they were already thinking about it and this pushes them over the edge, or sets them on a path of exploration, or helps them question an assumption they had, then that’s awesome!
Make the conference easy to navigate (virtually and physically)
Structure is the set-up of the event - both physical like space design and virtual like the conference app or communication channels - that encourage or discourage particular behaviours, interactions and atmosphere. Events focused on participant-driven interaction (e.g. 1-1s, group discussions) need to pay more attention to structure.
With more time and planning, you can invest more time in developing a good structure, which could address:
- Think about issues in booking meeting rooms before the conference. Unfortunately, the conference apps have bad UX and it's difficult to change the meeting location after a meeting has been booked, so it's easier for people to just book the right room to start.
- Often, attendees will default to "meeting room 1" because it's the easiest place to meet. Can you add limits to meeting rooms, randomize the meeting room order, or add some simple descriptions to the rooms e.g. "SOC210 - furthest down the hall"?
- What are the entrance points, and are they hard to find? If so, make sure to include some context in the pre-event emails, and schedule a notification on the conference app. Make it easy for attendees to have a contact person to help them if needed.
- You can never have too many signs to help navigate a large space.
- Signs should be large, with plain simple backgrounds so they can be easily read from a distance. It often happens that someone walks for a minute to realise they are at the wrong spot.
- Conference centers are often large and labyrinthine - it can be helpful to distinguish different rooms or areas with giant signs, unique names (e.g. not North & South/1 & 2), straightforward descriptions (near the giant angel statue) and more.
- Large floor maps near registration and key meeting points with large "you are here" stickers can also help.
- The day before the event get a somebody who's never seen the venue to do a walkthrough before the event, and see if they can find va,rious rooms based on signage and maps you've prepared.
- What are the expectations and norms around what to do, which activities to attend and how to prioritise time?
- With existing events (e.g. EAGx) it might be harder to change existing norms since attendees may hear about event norms from previous conference attendees. In those cases, you'll be more likely to nudge people, rather than totally change their view.
- With newer participatnts, some norms (e.g. booking 1-1s) are hard to establish and need more concerted effort - that's where stewardship comes in.
- If attendees lack shared context or are strangers, how can we ensure they are able to communicate effectively with each other?
- If you're hosting an event which brings together newer attendees with less shared context
- How can we make sure that attendees interact with people they don’t already know? You can set up open areas with seating charts intentionally designed to let you meet with new people (cards that say “join me”, or blocking 1-1s being scheduled during mealtimes).
EA NYC uses stickers on their name badges which indicate different cause area preferences or interests, so people have natural icebreakers if they see someone at a picnic.
- How can we facilitate coordination that will be particularly difficult without this event - e.g. it would be hard to get this specific group of people in the same place at the same time? Can you make better interactions than the default (what is the default)? Have you set up the conditions for people to coordinate themselves? Would people coordinate themselves, even with the right conditions?
The conference app during EAG London 2019 allowed for self-organised group events during the conference. I (Vaidehi) was able to organise a few meetups including one for the local career advice network, and and a number of fun activities were also planned, which allowed a higher degree of coordination than previous EAGs. I think this format worked well for an EAG, where many participants were already deeply engaged in EA and had specific (overlapping) goals and interests they wanted to meet about. Conferences with Slack Workspaces have also been helpful for coordinating meet-ups and connections around shared interests.
- How does space facilitate interactions? What is atmosphere? How does it work? How do we want attendees to feel? Are you catering to the lowest common denominator of attendee, or are you more interested in creating specific experiences for specific people? Vaidehi talks more about "vibes" in the context of retreats here.
Stewardship and the Attendee’s Journey
Stewardship is the top of the pyramid, not because it’s not important - but because it can be the most costly. Vaidehi’s day job is spent trying to automate stewardship in a personalised way as much as possible, and we think there are ways to do stewardship more intentionally without losing time.
Firstly, stewardship isn’t just one thing. Stewardship is about creating a cohesive user journey, and is infused throughout the event. It’s related to who your attendees are, what the structure of your event is, what the goals are, etc.
One of the main goals of EA Global is to facilitate as many meaningful connections as possible with people who are currently or seriously considering making decisions based on EA-aligned work. The idea behind connections is that you don’t need to do a ton of facilitation outside of making an introduction for people who are already in very engaged. To help know who to introduce, the EAG team asks attendees to refer others who might need help expanding their networks, and then help connect them to more senior people.
Lots of Onboarding
Newer attendees often lack context around norms and expectations of events. If you've attended a few EAG (x) conferences - think about all the internal knowledge it took you a conference or two to figure out. Why make others wait?
Onboarding is very event dependent. If it's an EAG / EAGx - it could be hosting pre-conference prep sessions, it's sharing resources around doing 1-1s, it's preparing an all-inclusive attendee guide, and more. If it's a retreat, it's likely clear communication, goal setting, and planning for comfort and familiarity.
There are also elements of social onboarding, and logistics coordination which can help attendees get prepared for the conferece. We think a lot of this can be outsourced to local groups, and list low-effort ways to do them in a follow-up post.
You want attendees to come in with a clear set of goals & intentions; and a similar baseline of knowledge and expectations so that everyone is equals and everyone is participating. Here are just a few suggestions that we came up with for EA conferences:
[edit: we updated this list by adding hours it could take and suggesting simpler ways of doing this, thanks to feedback]
|Virtual Q&A||1 week before||5|
|In-person or virtual planning sessions||Virtual: 1 week, In-person: up to 1 day before|
2-4 (if self-hosted)
1 (if others host)
|Comms with creative CTAs to encourage planning / reflection||2 weeks before||1 (to write + schedule 1 emails)|
|Firs-timer Onboarding drip||2 weeks before||5-10 hours (to write the first time + schedule)|
2 hours (to reuse)
Guidance and support during the event
Supporting attendees during the event will likely lead to them having a more enjoyable experience and getting more out of the event. This could look like:
- Social support - helping attendees feel comfortable and included
- Scheduling meetups, paired 1-1s, event buddies, socials / speed friending, games, and more!
- These events shouldn't take additional effort than a standard conference agenda, it's more about shifting the composition of the event agenda.
- Networking and getting advice support - helping attendees get more value
- Having a 1-1 suggestion service, having cause area 'guides' / mentors, facilitating spontaneous 1-1s, cause area meetups
- (more time-intensive) For events in non-hubs, or with relatively few senior people, consider a program to identify ~20% of attendees who could most benefit the most from ~1-3 connections with EAs doing direct work in their cause area(s) of interest, and make connections.
The general expectation is to schedule heavily at the beginning of the event so people feel comfortable earlier on.
Post Event Follow Up
We think this is super neglected right now. We haven’t seen much happening for most conference and retreats. We think it's important for all events doing something to this effect.
Some of the key questions on the long-term impact of events are unanswered:
- What is the long-term benefit of X event type? What was the impact?
- What do people want after an event ends? What community supports do they need?
- How do we leverage excitement after an event to get sustained involvement and action in EA?
🧪 We're trying to answer some of these questions from EAGxBerkeley 2022. We’re in the process of collecting long-term data on the benefit of the conference on attendees over time on their impact and involvement in the community.
The Side Pyramid to the Main Pyramid You Shouldn't Ignore: Satellite Events
We cover specific examples of satellite events in a follow-up post.
Days / weeks before and after events (especially conferences) seems particularly high leverage. There’s a fixed cost to planning in-person conferences & retreats (or similar). People are already making an effort to travel or change their routine, and might be more likely to opt in to other events during this period. Satellite events during EAG SF had ~500 attendees over the course of the week preceding and after the conference. This was unusually highly leveraged because of early, clear planning, and open communication.
The value of these events (afterparties, pre and post event dinners, pre and post event planning / next step sessions, etc) comes from a chance for people to continue to meet each other, network, and work together. Put a bunch of EAs in a room and magic will happen. You can add food, a nice space, some whiteboards — but the connection is where the value comes from. Satellite events not only extend that time frame, but they have the potential to unlock new connections - (ex. conference attendees mingling with community members who didn’t attend the conference).
It’s worth singling out social events. Socials are fairly easy to organise and can help accelerate someone’s introduction to community. Something that hasn’t been discussed in as much depth or as systematically (and plausibly shouldn’t) is the value of social events. Although there are real, important challenges with mixing personal and professional relationships (as is true in many small communities or fields), there are many benefits as well - on a personal, a community, and arguably for impact related reasons.
The EA community is a lot of things - it’s a social movement, intellectual movement, work community, social community, and more. It would be a disservice to not recognise for many how feeling part of the social community is helpful or necessary to continue to engage with the work and professional field.
Doing EA things can be hard and it’s often easier with friends who care about you, understand the challenges, and are invested in you. For both of us (Vaidehi and Elika), individual connections and getting involved in EA as a social community is what made us invest more time in EA, get more involved, and ‘take the leap’ into working on / in EA full time. It’s led to more personal growth, exploration, and confidence to do things.
Creating closer connections also means you can be more vulnerable around people. Feeling safe apart of a community means you can be wrong, share uncertainties, and be challenged / challenge others with a shared context of trust and understanding. Lastly, we all need a break! We’re not robots. We want to promote healthier community norms around relaxing and enjoying life, and enjoying the people in your life.
This post is part of an ongoing series: Events in EA: Learnings and Critiques.