Meetups are Hard Work

If you've never really thought about it before, you may think that running a meetup group is pretty easy. You find a speaker on Twitter, tell your employer that you are using the meeting room on some day, order pizza, and you are done!

It's just not that easy.

The hidden cost of meetups can be quite high. Let me tell you a story.

Chicago Ember.js at Groupon

Trek Glowacki is a member of the Ember.js core team, organizes the Chicago Ember.js meetup, and is a software engineer at Groupon. I felt that Groupon could do more to help promote Ember.js via the meetup.

Phase 1: Planning

First, I needed to get approval to host the meetup in the Groupon offices. I contacted the appropriate members of management, but was told that our budget for such things was still being determined. After some back and forth, I received approval and a budget of $300 for the first event.

Meanwhile, Trek was working with Luke Melia to figure out what the topic and description would be. Luke was presenting a similar talk at RailsConf, but it turned out that a lot was changed for the Chicago Ember.js version. He had to spend time making those changes before the event.

Now that the event was approved, I needed to schedule the venue. There are really only three spaces in Groupon that will work for meetups. The ideal location is a room that we call Corky Romano. However, it is on a floor that is not entirely owned by Groupon. Why does that matter, you ask? It matters because the building security requires that you hire extra security for events after normal business hours on floors where you do not own the entire floor.

We had a budget problem. The extra security cost would be $200, leaving us with only $100 for food. That’s not enough money to feed the 65 or so people we expected. This forced us to move the event to the fourth floor atrium. Because we owned the entire floor, we didn’t have to hire additional security.

However, the atrium isn’t set up for events like this. There is very little seating and no presentation setup. I then had to contact the facilities department to have the chairs set up. I also had to contact the media team to have the presentation system set up. Each conversation lasted for a few emails, but we managed to figure out the details.

With our reclaimed $300 budget, we were able to order some food for our attendees, but it was still going to be tight. I placed an order through Fooda, our catering service provider at Groupon.

This also involved several emails because we had to pick something that fit in our budget. We choose a vendor and moved on. However, it turns out that the vendor didn’t have a specific insurance document on file with our building security. I was told about this the day before the event. So, on the day of, we’ll have to meet them in the lobby with a cart of our own and transport it upstairs and set it up ourselves.

After that was all figured out, we acquired an extra $400 from Groupon’s RailsConf budget because this event was related. A few more emails with Fooda landed us a stronger food order. The total cost was $600.

On the night before the event, after RSVPs closed, I gathered the names of the attendees and sent them to building security. This permits those people to enter the building on temporary passes. The event clearly states that we need your full name in order to attend, but several people don’t provide it. There’s not much we can do about that.

Phase 2: Implementation

The day of the event is stressful. Even though we’ve done a lot to prepare, we have to make sure everything is set up correctly.

Throughout the day, there is a trickle of would-be attendees asking Trek or I if they can still RSVP for the event. We add everyone who asks to the list up until about 2 hours before the event.

We had a keg donated from another organizer in Groupon that couldn’t use it in a timely fashion. We had a keg, bucket, and tap. We just had to find some ice to chill it before the event. Trek and I heard that a local restaurant would help out if we asked. Fortune smiled on us and the restaurant filled our bucket for us. We hauled it back up to the venue and set up the keg.

A couple hours before the event, I go down to the atrium to make sure the chairs and presentation system was set up. The chairs were fine, but the presentation system wasn’t complete. I was sure they were coming back to finish, but I wanted to make sure. I went to the media team office and verified that it was going to be done.

Trek and I then went in search of name tag stickers and found them at our internal mail room. We set up a table with the name tags and some sharpies. We figured people would know what to do with them.

Shortly before the event started, I went to the lobby to pick up the food. I was told that I could retrieve a cart from the underbelly of the building by building security. I searched for this cart for several minutes, but never found it. Giving up on that, I went back to the lobby to meet the food vendor, but was intercepted by Trek. The food vendor had already set up the food where we wanted it when we weren’t looking! I forgot that the vendor had changed during our planning process and the new vendor did have the insurance document on file with the building.

The time for wasting time was over. People were starting to arrive!

Phase 3: The Actual Event

As organizers, Trek and I made an effort to direct people to the food, drink, and bathrooms. Trek made sure the speaker was set up to present, I greeted attendees. When it was time to start, Trek gave an intro and Luke gave his presentation.

During the Q&A, Trek brought a secondary mic to each attendee with a question so that everyone could hear. How nice!

This phase intentionally left short. This is what most people see, leading to the assumption that running a meetup is easy.

Phase 4: Cleanup

After the event ends, Trek and I go about cleaning up. We throw away garbage and recycle what we can.

With the help of some attendees, we moved the uneaten food upstairs to a kitchen where we stuff it into the refrigerators.

We then met some attendees in Motel Bar, downstairs. Trek and I were finally able to relax.

The next day, I start thinking about next month’s meeting.

Thank Your Organizers

Rough estimates of the steps described above lead to the following total person-hours spent planning and running this event.

approval:           2
coordinate speaker: 2
schedule venue:     2
facilities:         0.5
media:              0.5
food:               0.75
names:              0.5

keg:                1
verification:       1.5
event:              2.5
cleanup:            1

total:             ~14.75 hours

That brings the total cost up to 14.75 person-hours and $600 real money dollars.

But it’s all worth it when attendees come up to me and say “thanks for organizing this”.

Remember: thanks are free!