I have been leading or helping user groups in West Michigan for a while now. The West Michigan .NET User Group was a great group when I moved to Grand Rapids in 2006. The group was the conduit for the developer community in West Michigan to network, share ideas and meet friends in a social setting. I enjoyed the group and the function they provided for the community.
As the years went on and new social engagement techniques were taking shape for people to connect online (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) along with the rise of the great day long free or very cheap community conferences (Ann Arbor Day of .NET, Codemash, StirTrek), we saw a decline in the attendance of the monthly user group here in West Michigan. We tried to bring in some visible speakers on the hot topics of the day to get people to show up but number only increased slightly. We tried to reach out to the local colleges and universities to attract students with modest success.
One of our issues have been getting a location that would be a central meeting place along with having close and free parking. Coming to a user group each month is an investment of time and money and we at times did not keep that investment affordable for our members. We either had to push meetings too late or at locations that were not convenient for the members. We had to do something or the group was on the verge of dying a slow silent death.
Last year a few of us met to discuss this matter and how we could bring a new energy to the West Michigan developer community. There are many user groups in West Michigan (SoftwareGR, West Michigan SQL Server User Group) that each work to attract people to their meetings. We did not want to compete with these groups because we want everyone to succeed. We came up with a great idea!
Why not have a meeting format that allows people to choose, have a great way to meet others in person and keep it exciting? We love doing the GRDevDay events once a year on a Saturday for the West Michigan community. We get great speakers, session topics and also tasty food for the people who attend this great once a year event. We thought we not do it a few times more in the year but in an evening? What we came up with is GRDevNight.
GRDevNight is a hybrid-conference that is scheduled three times a year. We will have GRDevDay in the first or second quarter of the calendar year on a Saturday and the three GRDevNights in the remaining quarters during the week after work. We wanted to take the great aspects of a user group meeting and merge it with the strengths of a community conference and see what would happen. What happened on May 23, 2013 was wonderful. We had a great event with great speakers while selling out and having people begging to get in.
What is the format of our Hybrid-Conference?
We love having food at our events. You have to feed people to win them over. That and allow them to visit with their friends and meet others that they may have only come into contact online. We started the first GRDevNight at 5:30 so people could put a full day into their jobs but give them enough time to make the meeting without rushing. Our meal was heavy appetizers along with drinks. Really wen over well. We had a few tables but also had open space for people to stand and mingle.
Next we wanted everyone to come together and enjoy a single topic but nothing too heavy. We enjoyed having our great keynotes to kick off GRDevDay and previous Saturday events in the past and thought that others would also for GRDevNight. You need a keynote that is delivered on a topic that everyone can relate to but also from a respected person in the community. For our first keynote we hit a homerun with Brian Prince covering gamification. Everyone had a great time and Brian delivered a fun keynote that everyone enjoyed.
Finally we had 3 sessions concurrently that people could choose from to attend and participate. This was the key to our wants from the hybrid-conference. People might not come to a user group because the topic that month did not resonate with them. We wanted to provide 3 choices and let them decide. We have ideas that the 3 sessions (along with the keynote) could in future GRDevNight events cover a theme but we are testing that idea with members of the community at this time.
The event wraps up by 9:00PM so everyone can get home to rest and get excited for the next day of work.
How did we do? From the feedback we had a very positive response from the West Michigan community along with our generous sponsors (who we could not have had the event without). We are tweaking the model a little and looking at different locations to host the future events but the core of the idea is more than we anticipated. We think we have discovered a method of providing a valuable format for people to gather and learn while also not taking away from other technical groups in the area.