My first ever conference was DrupalCon in Copenhagen, 2009. It changed my career and after that I attended a lot more Drupal events. Last week it was my first time at Web Summit and my first conference of that scale. It may sound like comparing apples to oranges, but since it’s the only two I know, I don’t have a choice.
Networking was harder
Web summit had 20.000 attendees which goes way above my (and Dunbar’s) number, that is 150 people. First impression might be, that with more people you will get more conversations and you would meet more people. That is absolutely true, I never gave away so many biz cards like I did last week, but only had handful really meaningful conversations.
First reason is that at a event with just 150 people, attendees would have more things in common (professional niche, geographically, language). Second, they would have more time for each other. At the summit I had 4 seconds for each attendee, compared with a smaller event where I would have full 10 minutes. In reality it was impossible to meet the same person again in those 3 days.
Sessions were less specific
I don’t really attend sessions, because I think it’s a waste of time when all the sessions get recorded (and this is something everyone is doing last couple of years). I’ve been at some of them and they were focused at not being focused. That makes sense, since the public is very random and to please everyone you have to make the session as general as possible. At DrupalCon you get to hear very specific topics and actionable information . It
Session were mostly self promotional
I haven’t seen a lot of them, but the ones I did, speakers talked about themselves. I got the same feedback from other attendees. And there were a lot of panels where, again, people were asked about themselves and their companies. Unfortunately, they weren’t revealing anything new. We didn’t came all the way to Dublin just to hear you say: “Sorry, I can not say, wait for the official announcement”.
Speakers were more skilled and prepared
I have to be honest, speakers were awesome. You could tell they practiced and that it’s not their first time on the stage. If you consider that they were observed by 3-4 cameras and 3000 people you can just applaud them for not freaking out. This is where DrupalCon fails, where most of the speakers are not very good at public speaking, some of them even have trouble with English.
Exhibiting at startup booth worked
So this is something that might not work on DrupalCon, since the point of exhibiting at Web Summit was to attract investors. But a concept of having a small table for one day, where you can tell what you do, is great. My friends at Gotoky told me, that they meet so many investors and got feedback, that will drive them forward. It was also just a simple way to network, since there was no awkwardness to approach people at the stand and start talking.
Night life was well organised
Sooner or later you would bump into Web Summit attendee even in big city like Dublin, but the organisers made sure we were all on the same street at a specific day. There were also pub crawls organised, where some magic (based on data from attendees) was introduced when building groups. Not sure how successful that was in general, but definitely a nice effort.
Wifi didn’t work as advertised
If you were at the Summit you saw this one coming. I never really believed wifi would work well, but that was not enough to get backup mobile internet.
No place to work or meet
I am used to have my labtop with me, to do some work, reply emails etc. At the web summit the only place you could sit down was the session. Unfortunately the sits were too small for two grown-up male to comfortably sit next to each other, without working on a computer. At DrupalCons there are always chair and tables available where people get together and code. If Summit does not need that, it certainly needs a place for people to meet.
Free coffee available, like all the time
What I learned from organising two Drupal camps in Slovenia is that people need wifi and coffee. If Summit failed at Wifi, they sure did a good job with coffee. It was not the coffee, yes, but considering how far from Italy we were, it was still OK. I remember that at DrupalCons coffee wasn’t always there which is similar to Wifi working just sometimes. Kudos to Web Summit to have infinitive cups of coffee for 20.000 people!
I wont end the post saying which conference is better, since I always preferred camps with 150 people anyway. If you want to get the most of the conferences, try to find smaller, niche conferences where you will be buddies with all the attendees after three days.