The Decision to Attend

Atheist conferences can be lots of fun to attend. We have a plethora of entertaining speakers. Being in the majority instead of the minority can be a very pleasant change. Meeting and speaking with activists is incredibly inspiring.

However, as great as these events are, they’re out of reach for a lot of people. Even a conference like Skepticon, which has no entrance fee, involves travel, lodging, and time off of work for a large percentage of the people who attend. That can rule out people with children, people who work weekends, people who simply don’t have much disposable income.

Whether trying to be more inclusive or just meeting a rising demand for atheist activities, more groups are starting local conventions and other types of events. This requires a remarkable amount of work, usually supplied by volunteers (often college students) who have never run a large event before. At the same time, the proliferation of events means that there is more expertise available to be shared.

In order to facilitate that sharing, I decided this spring that I wanted to start a project that would collect resources for event planners. The end product will be specific to atheist and skeptical events, but it will draw on expertise from other types of events as well. The following is a quick overview of the types of topics to be covered.

  • Communications
  • Delegation
  • The purpose of the event
  • Picking a date
  • Picking a venue
  • Setting fees
  • Working with venues
  • Working with hotels
  • Planning for emergencies
  • Setting a schedule
  • Selecting speakers and topics
  • Transportation and parking
  • Coordinating volunteers
  • Registration
  • Running tech
  • Feeding an audience
  • Opportunities for socializing
  • Care and feeding of speakers
  • Making Q&A work
  • Working on the cheap
  • Sponsorships
  • Advertising and promotion
  • Social media

The decisions made in many of these areas affect who will attend your event. Others are simply administrative necessities for making your event run smoothly, which determines whether people will have a good time and want to come back. The guide will provide best practices from events that are considered well-run, and it will identify trade-offs in decision-making.

For example, while a bar provides a low-cost venue, it is not welcoming to parents with children, those who desire to avoid alcohol, or people who have mild hearing impairments. Campus locations allow you to seat large numbers of people cheaply, but they may limit food options or opportunities for socializing in the evening. Certain hotels may be very accessible to public transportation, but they will increase the overall price of your event. Events in cities that meet the needs of underserved populations may be far from major airports.

There will always be trade-offs. The point of this project is to make it easier to identify them and make conscious decisions about them. It is also to encourage more people and groups to run events, so a wider variety of populations will be served.

Where will the information for the project come from? Lots of places, not all of them what you would expect. For example, there are a number of highly successful science fiction and fantasy conventions that are affordably run by fans rather than professionals.  One of these, WisCon, helped to inform the team that made the Madison Freethought Festival a success this April. The unconference model has also been used to create affordable events under the Skepticamp label.

Eliza Kashinsky, Chief of Staff of the Secular Coalition of America, and Lauren Lane, part of the committee running Skepticon, are also going to be working on this project. Each of them supplies an expertise in this area that I sorely lack, but there will definitely be room for more. If you have event-running experience and want to be a part of this, use the email button in the sidebar here to contact me.

Otherwise, keep your eyes open. Only part of this project is collecting best practices. The other part is determining the effect of these decisions. For that, we’ll need input. I won’t be shy about asking, starting with a survey fairly soon. Hopefully, you won’t be shy about answering. Then we can encourage events that meet your needs.

To that end, let’s start now. What did I leave off my list that’s important to you?

The Decision to Attend
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16 thoughts on “The Decision to Attend

  1. 3

    How about accessibility? As a topic it informs other considerations. There’s an interesting thread on accessibility here:

    which includes conference considerations such as fragrance-free policies, quiet rooms, and having first aid available in case of, say, seizures or asthma attacks.

    Also some suggestions from PZ’s about having not just videos, but live streaming of conference sessions, using internet tools and moderators for interaction with people who can’t attend for whatever reason: finances, distance, or disability.

    One such comment:

  2. 4

    while a bar provides a low-cost venue, it is not welcoming to parents with children

    Or the kids themselves.

    But more seriously, transport is a major issue to attending such events. Often, the only affordable means may be Amtrak or something similar. Overnight stays are difficult as well. Bars are no-go for anyone under the drinking age.

  3. 5

    An alternative to a pub would be a restaurant with a separate room. They are usually accessible to the mobility impaired and people are able to order anything from a full meal to a coffee or pop. If it’s licensed, you can have your beer.

  4. 6

    In warmer weather, consider outdoor venues with pavilions or other shelters as low cost places. Picnics, potlucks, or barbecues with volunteer help are low cost ways to feed hordes.

    Think about all the county fairgrounds that are unused much of the year and many have quite reasonable rental costs – many in my area have facilities for camping. Some towns have pavilions in public parks that are free to use for community based organizations — they usually just require making a reservation.

  5. 7

    To touch on Child Care.

    I’ve always wondered how this works at events, the probable pool of volunteers are likely to be people who actually want to attend the event itself – making it difficult to attract volunteers to run the Child Care room.

    So that has me thinking, why not pair up with the local College / University ECE (Early Childhood Education) program? Send them a letter basically stating:

    “Dear ECE Program Director,

    I’m so and so of such and such group, we’re running a conference between this date and that date for year and we’d like to offer free child care to our guests, we were wondering if it would be possible to partner with your program?

    By partnering with our event it will provide your students a unique volunteer opportunity to attain practical knowledge of the concepts being learned in your program. If you so desire, you could also provide extra credit for volunteering and we’d be happy to provide the necessary documentation stating the student volunteers have completed their assignments satisfactorily.

    Thanks for you consideration, So and So
    Director of such and such group.”

    Don’t know if it’d work, or if it’s even possible, but its an idea I figured didn’t hurt to share.

  6. 8

    On Making Q&A work:

    A fan run sci-fi convention I attend puts a pair of mikes out on the floor. At the beginning of every panel / guest lecture we’re told where the mikes are and that *all* questions are to be directed to mikes. Guest are actually told to refer shouters to the mikes rather than take their question.

    The mike locations have lots of space around them, to facilitate lines, and are manned by security / volunteers to ensure everyone gets one question at a time and to keep the ramblers from rambling.

    It works surprisingly well and in all the years I’ve attended the Q&A portions of the talk run fairly smoothly and there hasn’t been too many problems.

  7. 9

    For thunk – Bars are fine for underage patrons IF (and this is a big IF) the people in the bar are there to socialize and have interesting conversations andot to gnaw on women’s limbs. DaughterSpawn arm wrestled JT in a bar at Skepticon without getting noshed on by random fools, and the hotel bar after Women in Skepticism was great fun with nary a leg gnawer in sight. It also helps to have someone who can act as Official GrownUp Parent Type, which I will be glad to do for thunk, in addition to the Spawns.

    It’s astonishing how many places will let reasonably well behaved teens in with an OGUPT.

    (Note – there are plenty of teens whom I wouldn’t feel comfortable chaperoning. But the ones attending atheist conferences are most often just in search of continued conversation.)

  8. 10


    It’s astonishing how many places will let reasonably well behaved teens in with an OGUPT.

    If everyone underage can have access to an OGUPT of some sort and if they allow that, then I’m cool with bars. Just make sure those are considerations.

  9. 11

    Thinking about the after conference bar scene, I realize that the biggest problem I have is actually noise – it’s unbelievably difficult and even aversive for me to be in noisy social settings. I don’t drink and haven’t for decades, but I can be around intoxicated people without much discomfort, as long as it’s not a noisy setting.

    I would love to seem more outdoor events. Public parks often allow non-profit groups to camp for low or no cost in exchange for a volunteer project (often fairly minimal). Having an atheist weekend in a park would be fantastic.

  10. 14

    For thunk – Bars are fine for underage patrons IF (and this is a big IF) the people in the bar are there to socialize and have interesting conversations andot to gnaw on women’s limbs.

    In this state, at least, it’s illegal for them to be in there whether there’s an OGUPT or not.

  11. 16

    “…or people who have mild hearing impairments”

    Thank you so much for mentioning that! I do enjoy visiting bars, and sometimes with other atheists, but not as the “Social Hour” location. When I go to a bar, I resign myself to shouting and standing close to others to make up for my deficient hearing. I don’t want the free time after the sessions to be in a loud place where I can’t understand what people are saying. It’s fine to have some bar-hopping scheduled in later, just so long as some of the “Social Hour” or discussion time is scheduled at a quieter place beforehand. And aside from hearing issues, it’s also just awkward to have an intellectual discussion in a bar. Bars are for laughs, stories, darts, billiards, karaoke, and so forth, which should happen (IMHO) after a discussion in a less-noisy environment.

    I’ve often felt at conferences rushed to the “second location” before I’ve had time to chat with everyone in the lobby. The CFI Leadership Conference in Amherst had a great solution to this: meals were on-site, which provided the *perfect* environment for extended discussions inspired by the day’s sessions. The meal setting meant that at any given time, some of the people at the table would have food in their mouth so that interrupting someone while they were speaking was less easy. Conversation flowed well, yet stayed on the topic of the day’s sessions. I loved it.

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