WordCamp Europe 2020: How to Organize a Virtual Event with 8600+ Participants

WordCamp Europe Online 2020 Header mit WCEU-Logo
Interview with WordCamp Europe organizer and global lead Bernhard Kau: How do you organize such a large, virtual event? And are virtual WordPress events only a challenge or also an opportunity?

WordCamp EU is the largest WordPress conference in Europe. Over 8600 participants have booked a free ticket for WCEU 2020. This year, the event took place online due to the Corona crisis like many other events to protect the participants. So, WCEU 2020 was the first online WordCamp targeted at an international audience. 

The organizers of the WordCamp have met completely new challenges for the smooth realization of such a big online event. In an interview with global lead Bernhard Kau, we took a look behind the scenes of the event and talked about the future of virtual WordPress events.

Bernhard Kau: Global Lead WordCamp Europe 2020 and WordCamp Porto 2021

My main job is web development. I primarily focus on PHP and would describe myself most likely as a plugin developer. WordPress is my great passion.

WordCamp Europe Organizer and Global Lead Bernhard Kau smiling with hat

By this time, I have been at about 30 WordCamps worldwide. I’m co-organizer of the WordPress Meetup and WordCamp Berlin and now I’m helping for the 4th time with the organization of WCEU. Last year at the WordCamp EU in Berlin, I was a local lead.

In the organization team of WCEU 2020 Online, I am global lead together with Rocío Valdivia, and one of four global leads of WCEU 2021 in Porto. Our job is basically to manage the other teams so that everyone is running in the same direction.

What tasks and how much time is needed to prepare a big WordCamp?

This is difficult to answer because it depends on which team you work in. In 2017, for example, I was part of the design team at WCEU. At the WordCamp itself, I had the time off, so to speak, because the design theme (flyers, posters, etc.) was already worked out completely. 

In 2018, I was part of the content team. Our main task was to select and supervise the speakers. There wasn’t much to do beforehand, but after the call for speakers was completed, the real work began. We had to choose 60 speakers from about 400 submissions. 

And last year, as the local lead at WCEU in Berlin, I had to check out many locations in Berlin, make phone calls and in the end, because of some unforeseen problems, I had to take care of all the logistics. That was a lot of work that I would have liked to avoid. 

That’s why we decided to choose Production Pool this year to support us. Last year, for example, the company produced the after movie for WCEU and organized the live streaming. 

Corona Crisis: Absolute Fiasco for WordCamp Organizers

The first WordCamp Asia was to take place in Bangkok from 21-23 February 2020. On January 13th, the Ministry of Public Health, Thailand, reported the first laboratory-confirmed case of coronavirus in Thailand.1 In the meantime, the situation in China had already worsened. Would WordCamp Asia still take place? A quick decision had to be made. On February 12, the WCAsia team finally published the news: Matt Mullenweg has decided to cancel WordCamp Asia 2020.

“The next few months will be tough for people, WordPress and the community. WordCamps are being cancelled around the world and we were the first in the chain.” 

WordCamp Asia Team

WordCamp Europe 2020 was actually supposed to take place in Porto and was finally planned as an online event due to the Corona crisis. In 2021, there should be a WCEU in Porto, as originally planned.

How did this decision come about?

In March, we decided during a big Zoom call with all organizers to postpone the WordCamp Europe in Porto until 2021. In February the WordCamp Asia planned in Bangkok had already been canceled. At that time we had a lot of contact with the WC Asia team and tried to help them to manage the cancellation of the WordCamp organizationally. We learned a lot about how to deal with such a situation. 

Until the decision to postpone the WordCamp Europe to 2021, we had already invested half a year of work in the organization of the event. Therefore, the decision was not easy for us. But we saw a clear trend: many large conferences had already been canceled or postponed. 

We also had to think about the people in the community. We had heard of companies that either for security reasons forbade their employees to attend big conferences and events or, despite concerns, forced them to attend. We didn’t want to be responsible for something like that. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate ‒ without risk. It was important for us to react quickly to avoid people having already booked hotels and flights, as in Asia.

Because we didn’t want to cancel WordCamp Europe 2020 completely, we decided to implement it as an online event. So we invested about three more months in planning WordCamp Europe as a virtual event. We were able to use a part of our preliminary work. For example, we had already done a lot of work on the website and selected speakers. Nevertheless, the preparation of an online conference is completely different than for an on-site event. We faced many challenges and problems that we had never faced before.

What were the biggest challenges in organizing such a large online event?

Online logistics has been one of the biggest challenges this year.

The onboarding of the speakers was particularly time-consuming: we had to introduce everyone to the technology used, help with the installation, and also test whether everything worked well. 

In the run-up, we tested more than 40 tools in order to select the best ones for the event. On this basis, we made recommendations to the speakers, e.g. for recording tools for the 10-minute Lightning Talks, which were already recorded beforehand due to their short length to allow a quick transition to the next talk. We have compiled a list of 20 tools with additional information, e.g. on accessibility, so that other organizers can find suitable tools more easily in the future.

Another challenge was the organization of speakers from different time zones. That’s why we decided to schedule the talks in the afternoon to encourage participation from many different time zones. As a consequence, we had to drop a lot of side events like workshops, the WP Cafe and also the wellness sessions this year. It was necessary to reduce the scope of the program in order to keep the schedule clear and not overburden the participants with too many parallel events.

Our overall topic was accessibility.

About 20 percent of people have an impairment and therefore it is an absolute must for us to rely on tools that are accessible to everyone! 

Besides tools that are compatible with screen readers and other supporting programs, the main problem with online conferences is still the Internet connection. For example, even in Germany, there is often no good Internet in rural areas. And many tools do not cope well with a bad connection. That’s why it was especially important for us to use tools that are scalable for such a large conference with many participants

In addition, this year we wanted to continue to offer everything that we had previously established at WordCamp Europe in terms of accessibility. This included, for example, stenographers who translated the spoken word into subtitles.

Field to ask for accessibility needs when registering for WordCamp Europe Online 2020
Accessibility needs field in registration form for WordCamp Europe Online 2020

We had to find new solutions for our sponsors.

Of course, we cannot offer the same scope and quality at a virtual WordCamp like at an on-site event. There could be neither sponsor stands nor the associated passing-by audience. Therefore, we needed solutions to offer sponsors and participants space for communication

For the duration of the WordCamp, each sponsor was given their own zoom meeting where they could do whatever they want (within our code of conduct and guidelines, of course). In addition to this, we set up sponsor areas where the sponsors were given a time slot depending on the package to fill (for example with webinars and demos).

We are glad that our sponsors appreciated the situation and we clearly felt that it is important to them to support the community and the ecosystem even in these difficult times.

We have also found new solutions for Contributor Day

Concerning the Contributor Day, we had a positive effect this year, because of course, an online Contributor Day is cheaper than an on-site event. Also, a virtual event scales better. At WordCamp Europe 2019 in Berlin, we had about 500-600 Contributor Day tickets, in 2020 we had almost 2000 registrations. 

This makes this year’s Contributor Day at WCEU the largest international online Contributor Day. To give everyone a good start, every Make Team created introduction videos. Many of the teams also had onboarding sessions at different times before the event in order to cover all time zones. The Contributor Day was moved directly to Slack for the online event because that’s where most of the action takes place, so we could integrate new contributors right away. Each team also had its own zoom room for discussions and questions. We also created onboarding guides for each team. Our goal is to make the onboarding of new contributors easier and more accessible and to make our experience available to other WordCamps. The guides are on GitHub so that everyone has access and translations into many languages can be made. 

What are the advantages of a virtual WordCamp?

I think the only really positive aspect of an online conference is that everyone can participate. Not only in terms of the locational independence of such an event, but also in terms of the costs for participants. There are no costs for travel, hotel and meals, all that participants need is a good Internet connection.

In this way, people can attend WordCamp Europe who would otherwise never have taken part. This is a whole new level of inclusion! 

By the way, this is also the idea behind the many local WordCamps: It should be easy to participate. Everybody should have the possibility to visit a WordCamp near him or her. This is not the case with supra-regional WordCamps like WordCamp Europe or USA. Although the community supports some people who want to participate, for example with the initiative DonateWC, we cannot support all of them. 

What are the disadvantages of a virtual WordCamp?

The gathering in person is missing. Many in the community say: The most important track at a WordCamp is the hallway track, i.e. the conversations between talks. You meet old friends, get to know many new people and that is a great experience. Of course, this is completely missing this year in this form. Especially people who are new to the community might have problems connecting with other people. Of course, we tried to find ways to cover this in a different way.

It was not easy to find good solutions that are also accessible. For example, we had to discard our plan for a networking area because people who depend on screen readers and the like could not have used it. In addition, there was a major logistical problem, namely the integration into our tight time schedule. In our schedule, there were already up to eight parallel events. Additional networking rooms would simply have been too much.

In your opinion, will WordPress online events be continued after the crisis? 

It will be exciting to see what changes will take place in the WordPress community. I assume that after the crisis WordCamps will take place on-site again. But maybe there will also be online WordCamps. 

There was a long discussion about regional WordCamps. In the beginning, the rule was that WordCamps can only take place locally, i.e. clearly assigned to a certain place or city, to ensure accessibility and to save local events from extinction. Nevertheless, there are events like WordCamp EU and WordCamp US now. I can therefore imagine that at some point there could be a WordCamp Germany Online, for example. And I’m also curious about what changes there might be in Meetups. Online Meetups have the great advantage that you can easily get to know other communities. 

Contributor Day is another format that could be realized online in the future because more people can participate in this way. There are already similar events that run online like the Global Translation Day. Such an online format on a global level could be a good complement to local communities. However, I don’t think that there will be any “hybrid events”. Of course, many WordCamps are already streamed live. But you’re not really there and can’t spontaneously talk to someone you just met in the corridor. It’s like watching a sports event on television. It’s just not the same as being live in a stadium.

I think that pure online events can work and could be maintained in the future.

As organizers of WordCamp EU 2020, we have learned a lot. We have gathered our knowledge and our work and would like to pass this on to other organizers.

Closing Words from Inpsyde

Whether online events will remain in the WordPress world in the future or not: The WordCamp Europe 2020 Online was not only an event but a proof of the strength of the WordPress community. We are overwhelmed by your commitment, your solidarity in this difficult time, and your ability and will to find innovative solutions for complex problems. And we are very proud to be a part of this great community!