When to have an Unconference or Conference


Perth Massive 07

It’s an interesting point you want to organise a professional event; do you go with the traditional conference / seminar format or the more relaxed popular unconference (aka barcamp).

Well having attended and been involved with organisational aspects of both it is clear they have their places. There are a number of points that you have to consider before committing to one over the other.


  • Unconference – It’s very relaxed, informal, embrace it, attendees control the proceedings.
  • Conference – Very formal. The attendees will have little if any say in proceedings.


  • Unconference – No control over the speakers, but you can try and suggest that certain people you want to speak attend.
  • Conference – You are going to have to hunt and call for speakers. You are going to have to know who is good and who is not. Who is repeating an old topic and who is new fresh blood. This is where you need to have industry expertise.

The Venue

  • Unconference – More than likely will not be holding the event in a fancy hotel or conference facilities. Its usually (unless you have lots of sponsorship) going to be at an educational institution or any free hall you can get. However note this may influence sponsors or attendees unless you have a proven track record. I know it’s a chicken and an egg thing.
  • Conference – The venue will be judged on the quality of the event by your audience. The local bowls club is just not going to look that impressive or professional to an end of the line corporate manager approving their staff to attend.


  • Unconference – You will need to provide audio and visual equipment. But that can usually be arranged with the attendees before the event.
  • Conference – Depends on the venue, for the most part basic audio and visual equipment will be provided in the room hire, but its a good idea to check.


  • Unconference – Allow for an open timetable. Some people will want to speak and will come prepared, if it’s too constrictive on timetabling, constrains may stop this.
  • Conference – You will live and die by the program listing you produce pre conference. Get the wrong speaker mix and you will loose audience segments.


  • Unconference – They are usually on the weekends. This will attract a distinct audience. Usually the more independent, career focused or those looking to break into this industry. Don’t run the event conflicting with any major seasonal event (like the Christmas shopping rush).
  • Conference – Seeing you are looking at a corporate audience; depending on the industry, the event should be during the working week. That way you will attract the 9 to 5 working professionals who wants to attend, but only if the boss is paying and they get a day off work. Sad but true these people will make up most or your corporate audience. That’s not to say you won’t get any independents. Don’t run the event conflicting with any major seasonal or sporting events relating to the industry cultural demographic.


  • Unconference – Food will usually be cheap or free, if you provide it at all, no fancy lunches and dinners.
  • Conference – Coffee, lunch, food in general, ensure they are the highest quality you can afford. Expect to be locked into a list of preferred suppliers by the venue, and this will restrict and price as well. Again it’s image. However you also really need to be aware of the dietary requirements of you attendees especially if they are paying for the event.


  • Unconference – No marketing budget. You really have to work with word of mouth and leverage you network to get the word out about the event. If you are not good at this then this maybe a problem.
  • Conference – You need a marketing budget. Adverts in the related industry information sources (print, news, web, blogs), discounts for professional organisations. Getting the word out is critical. Still you should also leverage your network as well. You need as many people as you can get to pay up and attend.

Sponsors and Attendance Fees

  • Unconference – There is little outlay cost involved, especially if you can get a few local sponsors to support the project then these will offset your costs. Attendance fee is usually free or very low cost.
  • Conference – You only have two income streams, from paying attendees and sponsorship. So sponsorship is critical, you have to prove to the sponsor that they are going to get a defined ROI (Return on Investment) for their dollar value. Is it going to be worth them spending money with your conference event or the one down the road. Be prepare for large sponsors to sometimes demand control of the speaker list and often reject speakers from rival vendors. Whether you allow them this control must be stated very clearly in the sponsorship agreement.

Presentation Style

  • Unconference – The presentation style is different than expected. It’s not just a straight presentation delivery. It’s more an open discussion with a moderator up front.
  • Conference – The audience will not expect discussion, they will expect it to be all one way. So barcamp style audience interaction just isn’t going to happen without a fair degree of work from the speaker.

Other Services

  • Unconference – Podcasting or vidcasting the event will rely on the time and technical skills of the attendees. Good point on this none of the vidcast of my presentations have every surfaced (besides the rockin’ webjam – update – yes it is alive and well).
  • Conference – Everything has a price, you want a service it will cost, unless you can get friends to assist. There maybe very little in terms of volunteers available, this varies from industry to industry


  • Unconference / Conference – Same rule applies here. Allow for networking time. Any event can tend to restrict and separate the audience sometimes and detract from allowing people to network between, during and into the evening.

As you can see in someways they are directly opposite easy other in terms of delivery of information and structure. It is important that you brand you event a conference or unconference or camp distinctly. Making it a conference style but part camp style is going to send confusing messages to your audience. That said given the popularity and effectiveness of the Barcamp model is there a place for a hybrid of the two?

Tags: , , , ,

Looks like there is no conversation here yet, why not start one.