WordCamps And Burnout

Yesterday there was some minor chatter around this post “Are WordCamps Still Camps?” by Natalie MacLees. If you’re involved in WordCamps at all, i think it’s worth the read. There’s a post about WordCamp organizers being compensated for their time and i can’t lie – i wouldn’t mind just being reimbursed for my hotel room (I live 30-40 minutes from the event but due to past experiences I choose to be within a few miles of the venue).

There was a part in the post that caught my eye:

First, we could continue down the path we’re on where organizers of WordCamps are under pressure to out-do each other and themselves and make each WordCamp bigger, better, and more amazing than the last one and speakers are expected to be top-notch, well-prepared, professional, and polished. But we can’t keep chugging along down this path while shoveling more and more burden on organizers and speakers without offering some kind of compensation to help offset the costs. It’s unfair, it leads to burn-out, it limits the people who can meaningfully participate, and it hands over ridiculous amounts of value to attendees for $20 a day. If that’s the kind of event we want to put on, then attendees need to be prepared to pay more of the cost.

I know quite a few organizers and outside of some joking around (someone claiming to visit another WordCamp to “steal” ideas) I don’t know of anyone “under pressure” to “outdo” each other. I personally know many organizers that want to do the best camp they can be, but they don’t impose burn-out to do it.

But let’s assume these people do exist. Here’s some advice from someone who’s been involved with WordCamps for over eight years. And yes, it’s my personal advise and opinions so obviously it’s not going to gel with everyone.

It’s Not A Contest

First off, if you are truly someone that is self-imposing pressure on yourself to out-perform another conference, event, or WordCamp… step away. That’s about the best advice i can give you. Running a conference – any conference – isn’t a contest. You shouldn’t be concerned about making your event look enticing to “bring in great speakers” or trying to out-wow attendees (more on this later). Any conference – WordCamps included (yes, even in the early days when they were smaller, more formal) – bring stress. That’s to be expected, and generally I think common knowledge. But being concerned how your event looks to others (outside of obvious safety and fundamental areas) is not a healthy path to be on. Some of us are highly competitive – which in many ways is good. But being overly competitive about a conference is as silly as being overly competitive about how many bugs you can resolve in WordPress vs. other developers.

WordCamps Don’t Have To Be Big

Some WordCamp organizers I know figured this out a long time ago. I personally don’t believe there’s a huge pressure to make all WordCamps big, but the discussion has come up time to time when i’ve mentored other WordCamps. Sure, it’s appealing in the minds-eye if you’re big and awesome… but there are plenty of WordCamps that start off small and haven’t grown much since day one. And not in terms of just attendees, but you can tell that they aren’t trying to out-wow anyone. They just want a simple, straightforward event.

WordCamps are local events – and therefore should best serve your LOCAL COMMUNITY. If your event evolves into something bigger and more “international”, then great. But don’t stress yourself or push yourself (and your volunteers and organizers) in that direction. Some of the best camps i’ve attended were smaller, laid back events. Many attendees just want to either be educated or hang out (network) with other people. This can happen both in a large event or a smaller one, but many times this comes easier to smaller events (for WordCamps, if i had to create a definition I would say a small camp has less than 200 people).

Setting Expectations For Your Attendees

I forgot where i heard this mentioned, but the post above mentions “ridiculous amounts of value”. WordCamps have ALWAYS had more value than the ticket cost. But with some camps offering this and that, it’s easy to be caught in the trap that if you don’t offer those things your event gets a bad wrap.

First off, ANOTHER reminder that your event is LOCAL and that’s where the focus should be. Don’t try to keep up with the Jones’s (WordCamp Version). The important thing is how much your attendees are getting out of your event – and i judge that by (1) how much they are getting out of your talks and (2) how much the attendees are taking advantage of the networking opportunities.

If you’re attendees are truly demanding something at another level – like a parade or individual massages (these are jokes but fill in whatever you want for examples) – then you have a great power that maybe you don’t realize.

Just say no.

Regardless if you’ve been spoiling attendees or not, make clear the expectations of your next event. If you’ve been stressing yourself out thinking attendees, after learning there’s no party bus or huge swag bags the size of small cars, will run away from your conference… then realize that’s not going to happen. And if a few people get sad and don’t come back, your conference is probably honestly better off.

I’ll share an example that i haven’t shared in public before: in WCMIA history, we’ve gotten some attendees approaching multiple organizers asking to get (or even buy) a certain shirt or speaker bag/swag (and they aren’t speakers or don’t qualify to get the shirt). Early on, I would be tempted to cave in… but then realized quickly that word does spread and the following year you have attendees asking for more things. But you know what? It’s VERY rare that happens today… and it’s because you need sometimes to say no and be clear about you’re willing to do or not do. I learned how to say no and set some expectations.

Over stressing yourself for your attendees is going to find you quickly in an healthy (both physical and mental) place. Make sure to be CLEAR on the priorities of the conference, setup the policies early, etc. If you truly have a strong local WordPress community, then you’ll have a great WordCamp and you’ll have far greater stress. I can confirm this by personal experience.

Burnout And Walking Away

There are times when volunteers and organizers – even under the best conditions – experience burnout. I don’t think this is a fault of WordCamps, at least in full. I truly believe that organizers should take a look at themselves and prioritize things vs. saying that “WordCamps have grown too large”. I think stating JUST the latter is taking the easy way out. Organizers should be responsible for their own actions, because in the end it affects their health.

Best advice: take a break. Use this time to relax OR attend other events (personally my “vacation” WordCamp is the excellent WordCamp Orlando). Either way, WordCamps will do just fine without you.

Help Other WordCamps and Organizers

There are a lot of ways to help out other organizers, and that’s a different post to write. It’s important to know when to ASK for help too, and that’s a different post to write.

But if you’ve created something cool – share it. WordCamp Miami made Wapuu Uno Cards (‘Wapuuno Cards’) and placed them on Github. WordCamp Minneapolis shared their coloring book. Event organizers have the right to keep some things to themselves, but WordPress was built on sharing and openness… and WordCamps should follow that same example. WordCamps can use your ideas and materials for their events, and hopefully do so with less stress as they thank you.

Wrapping Up

I’m not sure if this post accomplished anything outside venting some of my thoughts, but that’s ok. If any WordCamp organizer wants to talk about stress, headaches, etc – i’m an open book. But let’s just take care of ourselves and realize we have the power to make ourselves less stressed and determine what’s best for ourselves in the end. Many others have put some honest effort into it – and we can follow their examples.

David Bisset

David is a full-time freelancer who specializes in WordPress (and BuddyPress) for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and everything in between. Organizer of WordCamp Miami for 10+ years.