This week I’m in Chicago, IL – US attending DrupalCon ’11. This conference is different than most of the conferences I attend in several way, the most important being scale. This conference is huge. It is on the scale of OSCON as opposed to most of the conferences I attend, which are on the scale of ZendCon and smaller.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with very large conferences like this. I’ve met a lot of people and made some new friends. I’ve even managed to hold some small group conversations that have been both intimate and informative. However there are logistical issues with a conference of this size that just can’t be glossed over.
Feeding the masses
One of the biggest problem centers on lunch. The food is fantastic, not your usual conference fare, but the buffet lines are almost intolerably long. On the main hotel floor, there were no less than 5 lines and at least an equal number in the exhibit hall. Even with that, the average attendee waited 15-20 minutes in line. Given that lunch is only an hour long, that’s significant. Also, for the sake safety, they were regulating the number of people that can be on the escalators at any given time. This creates huge knots of people on the main conference floor (the Ballroom level) trying to fight their way through two chokepoints.
Make Room or else
Mind you, this is not a complaint about the conference itself, or even about the hotel, this facility is fantastic, it’s just too small. You know you’ve outgrown a facility when users routinely leave sessions early to queue up for a seat in the next session. Even with rooms as large as they have here, most sessions are packed so full that yesterday; a representative from the Fire Marshall’s office was policing them to make sure the isles were clear. They made it very clear at the beginning of each session that if participants didn’t comply, the Fire Marshall would close the conference down.
I am never one to grouse about conference wi-fi. Any time you get a large group of technology oriented people together, there is never going to be enough bandwidth to go around. The organizers behind DrupalCon have done a great job of managing the network but even so, during the breaks, you can kiss it good bye. Something I personally found interesting was that they reported that with 3,000 attendees, there were more than 4,500 devices connected to the network. 1.5x is respectable and most likely larger than most non-technical conferences, it still less than I usually anticipate at PHP conferences where we can easily run 2x-3x IP addresses to attendees.
The final downside to a conference of this size is that it’s just difficult to communicate things to everyone. They do a great job of making announcements at the keynote talks but if you miss them, you miss more than just a great talk. I don’t have any concrete suggestions for solving this problem as I don’t deal with conferences of this size. I hope in their debriefing, they look for ways to get the message out.
This has been a great experience for me. From what I’ve been told, the DrupalCon in Europe is much smaller and a totally different feel though. That’s fine if you value the small and intimate conference experience; however, don’t discount the opportunities available to attendees at large conferences like these. As a conference organizer, I’ve taken away some new ideas that I want to implement in conferences I work with. As a PHP developer, I’ve learned an awful lot about how people are using PHP to build not only a great tool but an entire ecosystem. As a user of the web, I am excited to see so many people interested in helping others build something great. This is my first DrupalCon; I sincerely hope it is not my last.