7 Things I hope conferences change for 2019 and beyond

As a conference speaker, attendee, organizer for GR8Conf, and developer advocate for an organization that sponsors conferences, I get to see a lot of different sides of tech conferences from small, community-run events to large for-profit companies.

No matter the size of the conference, there are some trends I've noticed over the years that I really hope we can change:

1. Stop making excuses for a lack of diversity

There are now countless articles on how to make conferences more diverse. Really. Just search for it. Yes, there aren't as many women to speak/attend your event as men, but they do exist so at least make an effort.

  • Your conference should at least have a code of conduct. This is the least you can do.
  • Reach each out to speakers early in the conference cycle.
  • If you want to have a diverse speaker lineup, be prepared to pay up!  Don't invite someone to speak and then expect them to foot the bill especially for a flight from a different continent. Providing a conference ticket, hotel, and flight/train ticket is quite normal. If you want a high-profile speaker, you may even have to pay an honorarium.
  • Offer diversity tickets (preferably with travel). There are ways to do this fairly like with DiversityTickets.org or you can manage it yourself. Make sure to include students, the unemployed, and be inclusive to all underrepresented minorities and not just focus on straight, white women. If you don't want people to feel strange applying for it, offer a discount code or different ticket type for people to self-select.
  • Do your own research to find more suggestions. 

2. Make events more accessible

Getting a diverse group of attendees to the conference is step one. Making them feel included is the step often missed by conference organizers.

To make people feel more welcome, you could:
  • provide a quiet room
Advertise this for people who wish to pray or neurodiverse individuals who need a break from all the action -- preferably one for each. It's not just an accommodation though. As with many accessibility measures, other attendees like speakers may also appreciate a place to calm down before their big moment on stage. The key here is to advertise it in advance and don't make people feel awkward asking you where it is. I know I've personally left a few events when I felt overwhelmed, but if there was a quiet room I could have come back.
  • add live-captioning
Captions are not just for the hard of hearing. Some speakers have a thick accent or speed up when they get nervous. Having live captioning done during the conference helps the live attendees understand what was said and can even improve the quality of the videos you release. If you need a recommendation, try White Coat Captioning.
  • Check how far the venue is from public transit. Not everyone drives or gets a rental car when traveling.
  • Last, but not least, make sure there is an email address clearly listed on the website where people can ask questions and that someone is actually responding to it. As an example, one of the conferences I help with has fallen during Ramadan for the last several years.  We've made accommodations, but only after someone was kind enough to ask for it.

3. Stop hosting super bro-y alcohol-focused events

Not everyone appreciates sitting in a loud pub drinking cheap alcohol at the end of a long day. If you advertise activities like this, people who don't feel included may leave.  In particular, many women in tech feel uncomfortable when they are around their coworkers drinking alcohol. Sometimes, people say and do things while drunk that they normally wouldn't when sober. The unfortunate reality is that society tends to blame women for "getting themselves into these situations" so there is a growing trend for women in tech to skip alcohol based events altogether.

If you do have alcohol at your event, make sure there are multiple options (not everyone likes domestic beer!) and enough non-alcoholic options especially if the majority of your attendees are driving home. Providing food to counter the alcohol can also help as well as having a group activity like bird-of-a-feather(bof) sessions or a paid performer/comedy act.  That may help keep everyone engaged and talking about the conference rather than creating awkward situations.

4. Be aware of the cost for local developers

The price of conference tickets has been going up and up each year. At least in Europe, some conferences cost nearly a month's take-home pay.  That really makes it difficult for independent developers to attend and to convince smaller companies to send their devs.  When you add this to the discrepancies underrepresented people in tech face like lower pay and fewer advancement opportunities, this might explain why your conference is mostly white dudes and losing attendees year over year.

5. Book less-expensive venues

A lot of conference centers are expensive and require a lot of additional setup for wifi and a/v equipment.  This applies to cities too. If your conference attracts a lot of out-of-town attendees, some cities are just way more expensive. It's not just the cost of the ticket to the conference to consider, but the total cost to your attendees including for airfare, hotel rooms, and food.


Universities are great because they often have all the tech in place to host presentations and have much lower costs than traditional conference venues. We do this for GR8Conf EU and I've helped with other conferences that use universities too. Just be careful with the catering since many have exclusive contracts with one or a limited list of services approved for their space. For small events, check the local libraries. They often have lower-cost meeting rooms and also have tech services.

If you are hosting in an expensive city, try to empathize with your attendees and get a discount code at lower-cost hotels and/or offer to help organize flat sharing.

6. Consider the catering

Although a 4-course sit-down lunch/dinner is a nice perk, it's completely unnecessary to subject the entire conference to it. It also gives people very little choice if they don't like the food or have dietary restrictions. On the other side, I've also seen conferences skip food and/or coffee breaks leaving attendees hangry and leaving sessions to find sustenance.

  • Provide a buffet option where people can pick and choose what they want and serve themselves. 
  • If you want to save money, end the sessions a little early so people can explore the city for dinner options. Unless, of course, you are in a city with high food costs.
  • If your event starts after 9 (at least for the US and EU), go light on breakfast. If it's before, consider having something to eat. Many hotels provide breakfast or attendees can pick something up on the way so coffee/tea and pastries and/or fruit is often enough for the morning. However, if you are starting the day before 9 am, consider serving something more substantial for breakfast since your attendees may have to wake up before the hotel breakfast starts and local cafes may not be open yet(I had this happen to me once in Madrid).
  • Don't forget the coffee/tea throughout the day. Non-coffee drinkers may not realize this, but some people like/need coffee throughout the day. It's pretty standard to have it available in the early morning, at a mid-morning break, and during at least one afternoon break. If you can't provide catering for that amount of time, check if there is a coffee shop nearby to refer people to. People like myself can get very irritable without caffeine so it's best to keep them happy. :)
  • Make sure there is enough vegetarian and vegan food and that food allergens are noted on the menu cards. And if the catering is bad, watch out for the veggie food. If the vegetarian option looks better than the meat option, people may switch leaving the ones with dietary restrictions without anything to eat. There have been times I had to order some vegan pizzas after the prepared meal was gone or the catering company didn't provide enough food for our attendees. Now, I try to be better prepared.

7. Try going swagless (or at least less swag)

The #goswagless movement makes a good point that a lot of our conference swag sits unused. I have way more printed t-shirts than I can wear in a month maybe even a year. I tend to wear my favorites over and over again and the rest just collect dust.  Same goes for notepads, flash drives, and all the other giveaway items. And although I'm a big sticker fan, I have thrown quite a few in the trash that I either don't like the company or just don't relate to the product.


Rather than stuffing bags with sponsored swag, let attendees pick which items they want and when it's gone, it's gone. This could also help reduce costs for community events which have had to raise ticket costs. 

To try this, add an option on the registration form to skip the t-shirt and donate some money to charity (or even a diversity ticket) instead!

8. Stop buying/selling attendee data

Sponsors ask for it so conferences provide it and then more sponsors ask for it. It's a vicious cycle. However, these generic lists of data aren't even that great. A lot of times people like myself provide personal emails or have junk-mail filters to send conference spam. I even tend to use Gmail's
'+' feature to track exactly where the business got my email address from and therefore which companies and conferences I should avoid in the future. Especially if your conference costs attendees more than 200 € a day, you shouldn't also be selling their data too.

This also goes for the "free" raffles at booths. I prefer it when the conference gives out books or other prizes instead of having to fork over my personal data to a bunch of random companies who don't follow good data security practices and leave the contact data on an unsecured server or even on paper. Companies also use this data to sign me up for a bunch of crap I never wanted and I spend the first week or two after a conference unsubscribing and reporting companies for unsolicited spam.

Setup a booth and actually talk to people.

By actually talking with attendees of the conference, you can gain their trust and let them know they should expect a followup email from your company. You can even skip sending out emails to people who won't be interested in your product or have no buying power to purchase your services.


I know a lot of conferences have already committed to many of these things, but I hope for the ones that haven't, there is still time to change. Conference planning is tough, but there are lots of other tech conferences doing it inclusively. It makes a big difference for attendees if you are willing to put in the effort.