A lot of you know, that event management is a challenging business. "You need to be a little bit crazy", says Šárka Štrossová, a Director of WebExpo, the largest technology conference in Central Europe. She is currently preparing its 12th year with her team, and I am super happy she found a time to give us an interview. Continue reading and get inspired!
Hello, Šárka. Could you please briefly introduce yourself for the readers?
A difficult question to start with (laugh). I am the Director of WebExpo conference. The reason why I started with WebExpo is that I love technologies, I have been interested in this topic for a long time, I am curious about all innovations and so on, I also see the future for these technologies. So, one half of me loves technologies, the other half loves organizing. That is why I direct WebExpo, it is the connection of technologies and my passion for organizing. Moreover, I am interested in education. I used to help Edufórum (a company which supports innovations in education), I'm still actively tutoring there and conferences are another aspect which suits into the theme of my interests. Besides all of these, the work with the WebExpo community is really important for me. I love it, I love helping the community to grow, I love connecting Czech people with people abroad - that is why I organize international conferences.
Besides WebExpo, I co-founded Machine Learning Prague 4 years ago. MLP is a conference about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and deep learning applications. Also, I occasionally help others with organizing conferences as a freelancer.
And what about my hobbies? I love traveling.
Could you describe the journey you took to end up directing this huge and successful conference?
In 2010, I started working as a hostess for WebExpo and I fell in love with it. Actually, I think that being a hostess is one of the best jobs in the world! You are at this cool event, you can talk with the people there and help them at the same time, plus you don’t have a whole lot of responsibility so you can enjoy the event alongside the attendees. Afterward, I started working as an assistant for the WebExpos founder. I helped him with organizational stuff and so on. After some time, I was assigned the role of Event Manager. When the founder decided to leave the company and sell it in 2015, I have finally become the Director.
What do you think are the necessary skills for an Event Director?
I think you need to be a little bit crazy (laugh). To be serious, I think you need to have several skills. As for the event management - it is important to take deep care about details. Details make all the difference between ordinary and extraordinary events. Secondly, you need to be able to finish tasks you planned out, you can't be a quitter. Another really important skill is time management.
Generally, the must-have is deep knowledge about the theme of the event. That is why I always recommend having at least 2 people direct the event - the one who creates and delivers the agenda and the second one who manages the whole event. As for myself, I love creating the agenda. As I said, technologies are my hobbies. I constantly read technical books, articles, I love talking with people from our community and that’s the reason why each year is different for me - I learn something new every day.
To be honest, I cannot say whether you can learn to be an event director or not. The best thing you can do is to just try it out and see whether it works.
It sounds like a perfect job for me! Could you describe your typical workday?
Sure! I wake up and start reading the first emails during breakfast. Then I get slowly into the office and I handle my emails for another 2-3 hours. After lunch, I usually do my weekly tasks. I plan these weekly tasks based on my whole year plan. Certainly, I need to count on dealing with some unexpected problems, but at least I have some basic schedule. I am managing these tasks until dinner. After dinner, I usually continue managing my emails for approximately 2-3 hours. But I always try to get my 8 hours of sleep.
Could you please tell us more about WebExpo itself? What are the theme and the goal of this conference?
We have more than one goal. Since the beginning, the main idea behind WebExpo was gathering people with different job positions into one place where they can meet. For example, if you would work on some web product, you would need designers, developers, someone who understands the business, someone who does marketing, etc. WebExpo would be a great place to come and meet them all. Or from the other side, you could learn all this knowledge by yourself. We want to open people’s eyes and help them see the bigger picture. Moreover, we support people to found their startups right at WebExpo - it actually happened a few times, for example, Naučmese was founded here.
Besides all of the above, there is also my personal goal - connecting the Czech community with speakers and attendees from abroad. To make it easier for Czech people to find a job abroad and vice versa. I want to give them the space to learn from each other - to learn about new tools, new ways of doing things, etc.
Is the concept of WebExpo continuously changing?
The concept stays, the topics are changing - the times change and so do the technologies. We try to present the new things in technologies every year but at the same time, we host lectures about the good old things that work for years. Innovations are great, but we shouldn’t forget about proven tools that just work. When there is a new technology on the market, it doesn’t mean everything should be rebuilt from scratch.
What do you think is the key difference between WebExpo and its competitors? What are the things that make WebExpo successful?
I consider Web Summit as our competitors and I will explain the differences. Web Summit is more focused on a huge crowd of people, which is fine, but it also bears some downsides. For example, they cannot go deep into the topics and they cannot have an as detailed program as we have. In comparison, we want to keep our 2000 attendees and have the event more focused. We are targeting designers, developers, project managers, marketers - the people who actually work in these areas, Web Summit is more for the people who are curious about these topics and are thinking of working in this field. Besides, unlike Web Summit, we try to avoid having the agenda based on just famous speakers (we usually have just a few of them). We are more focused on the people who do some interesting work, but are not well-known, and thus can pleasantly surprise the attendees.
WebExpo is a two-day event, why did you choose this format?
I think it mostly depends on the type of conference. We experimented a lot with that, for example, we’ve tried two days during the workweek and two days during the weekend, but we found out that the current format works the best for us. I am saying two days because not everyone goes to the Sunday workshops, they are attended by a small number of people. It is usually a very intense experience and it is extremely fun. A “regular” attendee only visits Fridays and Saturdays lectures.
We usually start with an opening party on Thursday. On Friday there is also a party after the program and Saturday ends with after party. It may not look that way, but it is really challenging - that’s why we have decided to have the agenda on Friday and Saturday, as for Sunday, people can decide whether they want to attend the workshops. We think it is a nice compromise and nobody needs to be stressed by getting up to work on Monday.
Who is your target audience by default?
We have more than one target audience. Generally, it’s people who are technologically proficient, people who work in the field for a while and understand it at least a bit. Our focus is mostly on designers and programmers. Also, we are focused on other professions such as marketers, project/product managers or even people from startups, but they have to know some basics, it is not intended for beginners. As for nationalities, I would say 70% are Czechs and Slovaks, and 30% are people from all over the world.
Is your content different every year to keep your attendees coming back?
Yes, we offer a different program every year. Sometimes there is some overlap (for example when there is an update of a previously mentioned technology), but we are really trying to have different topics and different speakers. Some of the speakers repeat because you just cannot say no to them (they are so amazing!).
As for the attendees, I think that the trend in the event industry is that people are rotating between different events, there are not many who come to the same event every year (but of course they exist). Once there are a lot of events on the market, people tend to try out different events every year. We also have a group of people who come back every year, but it is definitely less than half of the attendees.
So are you focused more on building a community around WebExpo that comes back every year or on hunting new attendees?
We are trying to be focused on both of them - the community around because it is important for us and we see all the benefits not just for us, but for the community itself, the community is a really important part of WebExpo. At the same time, we welcome new attendees, for example, people who founded their business recently, or younger people who are just starting their careers. We have also been trying to get way more participants from abroad in the last few years.
You said you have been dealing with the agenda for a long time. What do you think is the key to a successful and well-built program? Could you advise the readers on how to achieve that?
The program is a very individual question. Even for me, it is really challenging every year, because each of us likes something different. Generally, it is important to clarify right from the start what do you want to achieve with the agenda. I always devote half of the program to lectures (even on older topics) usually with practical demonstrations, and half of the program to the trendy topics - what is new, whether they are worth to use, etc. The concept itself is really important. If you are not sure, it is necessary to approach the target audience and ask what is their opinion on the subject. Once I have the concept, I continue to clarify what topics do I want to be mentioned. I do really deep research in advance by reading books, watching talks from other conferences or reading up-to-date articles. I either decide by myself that some topic is interesting and worth to have or if I am not sure I try to get feedback from others. To create a good agenda, it is necessary to spend a lot of time with proper research and, above all, to self-educate on the topic.
At the same time, I absolutely avoid partner lectures. I mean, we do not mind if a partner has a lecture, but it should never be their requirement for supporting your event. I wouldn’t do that simply because it could really spoil the program. You usually have no control over those types of lectures and most of the time their purpose is solely for marketing that doesn’t bring much to the table for attendees. It is definitely not worth it.
How long does the preparation of WebExpo take?
It’s a little bit more complicated in our production team right now, there is just me and my two colleagues who are on maternity leave. Usually, I start to work on WebExpo around August, which is about 13 months before the realization of the event. It is mostly due to the speakers. If you want to get interesting speakers, you have to approach them in advance because they are busy. Secondly, it is because of the venue - we do not have many choices in terms of the venue, we have a lot of demanding requirements (such as multiple halls, location near the city center, etc.) and I care a lot about making the attendees feel good in the venue and feel the positive emotions from the place. That’s the reason why we always choose central Prague because there are beautiful buildings and a nice atmosphere.
When you book the speakers in advance, I wonder if you pay them for the participation? Also Is their participation promised by an agreement?
Honestly, I would like to pay everyone if I could, because I think all of them deserve it. But unfortunately, there is not enough budget for that. it’s quite balanced actually - we have a couple of speakers to whom we pay a higher fee and then we have speakers from abroad who we compensate by covering their expenses like flight tickets, accommodation, etc. (it is still a high amount). Some speakers do sign a contract with us, some of them not. Some of them ask for a contract themselves, and we are happy to provide it, but it is not a standard. The truth is, that speakers canceling on last minute happen sometimes, but I have to consider these things. That’s why I have always prepared 4 to 5 speakers as substitutes. These speakers expect to be able to start their lecture at any time.
So are they already at the venue waiting for the instructions?
Yes, they are, we always agree on that. If necessary, they can get to the stage and give lectures within 5 minutes.
During your career, you have certainly seen a lot of speakers in action. Could you tell us what is the basis of a successful lecture?
First of all, it is really important to clarify with the organizer who the audience is. It can help a lot to prepare the talk that fits the attendees. There is also a problem that many speakers are afraid to go deep into the topic as they are worried that the attendees are not familiar with the topic enough. They always try to give an introduction, but the attendees are usually not very interested in an introduction. It is helpful to do a short introduction, for example from one to three minutes long, but not 5-10 minutes. We are trying to communicate with the speakers and advice them not to do that. I would personally always recommend avoiding that. On the other hand, what works well for us are case studies and live coding. As for the live coding, I understand that it could be very stressful, so it is nice when there are two people - one is speaking and the other one is programming. The one who speaks takes up most of the attention and stress, thus the other one doesn't make mistakes coding. And lastly, I always recommend not to underestimate the preparation. Paradoxically, shorter lectures with a limited amount of time are more challenging, people can easily underestimate them and insufficiently prepare for a short time.
We always have feedback seminars about a month before the event. We see the lectures, give the speakers feedback so that they can rework the lectures, if necessary. However, nowadays a lot of speakers have their coaches, and the difference is really noticeable on their performance. So that is pretty nice. :)
Since I am a marketer, I am a little bit curious about the way you promote WebExpo. Which social networks do you mostly use for that? And could you explain why?
So far I think that Twitter works the best for us. In general, not only do we have a problem with social networks in terms of a decrease in engagement and interaction - people see the posts, but they do not respond, they do not communicate. However, when you talk to them personally, you find out that they actually read the posts but just do not respond. I think it is a global general trend these days. And back to the question - we use a lot of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and lastly, we have also started using my personal LinkedIn profile. So it is a combination of these four social networks.
Since you are using our Eventee application at WebExpo, I have one related question. Can you give the readers some tips on how to promote the application among the attendees?
Certainly! About a month before the event we send a newsletter, where we mention this information. Furthermore, we always have an FAQ on the websites, where we also mention that we have an application and that people can download it. In the past, we also had leaflets with QR code and short info about the application. In my opinion, it is very important to highlight all the benefits of the application and communicate them. The MCs then repeat during some breaks that we use the app and that the attendees can download it.
PS: Do you want Eventee for your event? Start your free trial right now!
Let's move to the final evaluation of your conference - what are the criteria for a successful event for you?
Above all, I measure success based on the satisfaction of our interest groups. Firstly, the speakers - we always have a program for them from the first day they arrive till the end of the conference. At the same time, we try to connect them and to motivate them to talk to the attendees. Secondly, the attendees - we talk to them each evening at the event, and always get a lot of feedback. Furthermore, we also try to make our staff have a good time and be happy, to be excited to work for us again the next year. Then also partners, without them nothing would be possible - we take care of them a lot and we try to give them tips on how to reach out to our audience at the event because we know them well. Last but not least, I consider an event to be successful if it’s not in a loss - a very important aspect.
How specifically do you work with feedback from participants? Do you pass the feedback to speakers afterward?
We are collecting more kinds of feedback. Firstly, feedback on the lectures - we forward the feedback to the particular speakers and then I also evaluate it - I recognize what topics did the attendees liked, whom to invite or not to invite next year, etc. Secondly, we collect offline feedback directly at the venue - I always meet with my team in the evening after the program and solve things that can be solved and improved for the next day. Moreover, we also have feedback on social networks - again, we try to solve the points as fast as we can if it is possible. Lastly, we send a final questionnaire after the conference and remind our attendees several times to fill it out.
Generally, it is really important for me to react to the feedback and explain the things that for some reason can't be changed and make the attendees understand why. More often than not they will eventually agree with you and acknowledge that you did the best thing you could have done. :)
I have one last question for you. What is your vision for WebExpo in the future?
I see the future for example in what we are preparing for this year - a slight change of the target audience. A few years ago, there were not so many conferences and there was not such easy access to information on the internet like nowadays. Therefore, I think that it is not only the educational part that matters at the conference but also the overall impression. I will give you an example - this year we are preparing more smaller workshops (which creates the experience more intense), also we have a competition for coding masters “Code in the Dark” and we want to introduce new overlaps in hardware. Education is still a big part, but we also want to be focused more on creating an impressive experience and giving the attendees "something more". Newly we are also focusing on children - not only through workshops at the conference, but we are also preparing a whole year program for children who are curious about IT. Unfortunately, this area is not well-covered in schools, so we want to help the children to learn more. Hopefully, we will succeed. :)
That sounds amazing, Šárka! Thank you for your great answers full of inspiration, I wish you a lot of success with all of your plans!
Thank you, Nikola!
PS: The 12th edition of WebExpo will take place on the 20th-22nd of September in Prague and the tickets are still available, so check it out!