If you have never run an event before, it may surprise you what the highest cost of running most events are. It’s not the venue, and (unless you are bringing in a lot of overseas speakers) it’s not the travel. No, for most conferences, it’s going to be one thing that most people will need and complain about the most: the food.
Food, or catering if you want to be all sophisticated about it, is typically the largest budget line item for any conference. This is why most events of any size either charge a large registration fee or, in lieu of a fee, let people fend for themselves.
The organizers of DevConfCZ, which is a free-of-charge event in Brno, Czech Republic, have a unique problem to solve. The venue for the conference, Brno Institute of Technology, is located a fair distance from the city’s center, and there are few food outlets in the vicinity of the campus.
For Petr Mahdalik, a project coordinator in Red Hat’s Brno offices, this posed a challenge. DevConfCZ draws thousands of attendees over the course of three days, and people gotta eat. BIT has its own establishments for university students, but Mahdalik did not feel they were adequate for the load.
The solution? Bring the food to attendees.
DevConfCZ invites local vendors to bring their food trucks onto campus and park in a campus courtyard adjacent to two buildings where sessions are held. Vetting the trucks was easy: they are the same trucks that visit the Red Hat Brno campus during the work week. With the gastronomic seal of approval already given, all Mahdalik has to do is arrange the contracts and provide the trucks a place to park and a stable power supply.
Food trucks at conferences are not a new idea. FOSDEM in Brussels has had them for quite a few years, as one example. DevConfCZ’s trucks have the added advantage of being culinarily diverse (where else can you get such a good burrito so far from Mexico?) and consistently good. Attendees do have to pay for their own meals, but the convenience and variety of food offsets having to try to find something off campus. Speakers’ meals are reimbursed with vouchers.
Beyond the food for main meals, DevConfCZ also provides fruit, water, tea, and coffee through the day in the larger public areas of the conference.
Planning for Special Events
Another big planning challenge for the tech conference is the event’s attendee party. This is complicated not just by the expense, but also by the fact that Brno is a mid-sized city and there are not a lot of large, affordable venues to choose from. Historically the venue chosen holds 800-900 people (well under the total attendee numbers), so it has to be invite only. For this event, Mahdalik has to use yet-another catering company to provide the food, service staff, and serving ware. The venue usually provides the drinks.
For all of these food channels, Mahdalik’s most time-consuming task is getting the contracts done. This can take many weeks to complete, and he and conference organizer Dorota Volavkova are already deep within the process of wrapping up the contracts for the 2020 edition of the event.
For other event organizers, this was the advice that Mahdalik emphasized the most: start at least three months ahead of the event to get contracts settled, in order to ensure expectations are set for both sides and there are no surprises. Because food and surprises are two things that do not always go well together.
Photos by Brendan Conoboy, under CC BY 2.0 license.