Organizing a Judge Conference – What can go wrong

David Záleský L2, Czech Republic

David Záleský L2, Czech Republic

Last year, I was one of the organizers of the Czechoslovak judge conference. And even though the conference went quite smoothly with about 40 participants and 18 seminars over 2 days, it was not completely problem-free. So, I’m writing this article describing some of the issues we have been dealing with in order to prevent someone else who reads it from repeating them.

There is a lot of thing that can go wrong and lots went wrong. Things that can go wrong before the conference, during the conference, and even a few things that can haunt you after the conference itself. I will try to list those things in some order, but since they don’t necessarily need to follow it, you can just go through them in any order you want. (And even ignore some of them if you get too bored)

The following article focuses mainly on organizing a regional conference (i.e. conference aimed primarily towards judges of specific region or sub-region), not an event-specific conference (i.e. GP conference). Although some of the following points of advice still stand true (mainly the “before conference” part).

Chapter I – Before the Conference

1. Set the date AND book the venue well in advance.

It might seem to you that this is just too obvious and isn’t even worth mentioning. Of course you know that some people need to know the date really soon in order to plan their vacation, and can’t just decide to go to the conference last minute. You also know that if you don’t book the venue early enough, it might not be available or it might be too expensive. I don’t want to bore you with these facts. I’m mentioning this for two other reasons.

Firstly, what I meant to say is that these two decisions (date and venue) should be decided at the same time if you want the best possible attendance. They also depend on each other. Some people don’t want to travel too far or don’t like the venue for many different reasons, some people can’t participate on specific dates. You also don’t want to rent big venue for small amount of people and vice versa. You can’t satisfy everyone, but you can try satisfy the most. And the more options you give them, the bigger are the chances they can make it.

That’s why we privately contacted all L2+ judges from our area (about 12 at the time) and found their their preferences regarding the date. Then we put these information together with important tournaments in the region (GPs, PTQs, WMCQs, we even tried to aim for minimum of PPTQs that weekend) and came up with two possible weekends. These two options we then presented to all local judges and we let them vote.

Secondly, deciding on (and booking) a venue unbreakably commits you to the conference. Until that, you can just cancel the whole thing without much fallout. This is what happened with our planned Winter Conference 2016. We did have a date fixed, and we already discussed the schedule, but then some other affairs came up in of the organizers’ life and he didn’t have that much time for Magic and judging. And none of the other two of us felt the need to step up and take care of it themselves. And I believe it was mainly because we didn’t have a venue yet, so it didn’t felt like quite a big deal.

2. Get topics and presenters as soon as possible!!!

I can’t stress this enough. (That’s why I used three exclamation marks, and I think I could have used even more.) There is never enough time when you have to communicate with people.

When looking for topics and presenters, we have opted in for using the conference application form on JudgeApps. When applying for the conference, judges were faced with two questions, “What topics would you like to see at the conference?” and “Would you like to present a seminar? If yes, do you have some specific topic in mind?”

It was a very wrong idea to use this system. Since judges generally tend to apply at the last possible moments, we weren’t quite sure how many potential presenters we had, and what topics were participants interested in until the application window was closed, which happened a month before the conference.

So we did only have a month to decide which topics will be presented, and who will be presenting them. It was not enough. There were many complications on the way: There were some popular topics which were requested by multiple judges, and there were topics which no one wanted to present. There were judges who wanted to present something, but didn’t have a specific topic in their minds.

Ultimately we had to readjust the schedule several times during the conference, changing the order of the seminars and changing the presenters as well.

With this in mind, for the next conference, we are going to ask the presenters to volunteer much sooner (preferably two months before the event), so that we can have the preliminary schedule prepared by the time the application window closes. And after that, only minor changes might be needed.

Asking participants for their topic suggestions proved to be useful, and we are going to try it again. But, since the programme will be created much sooner, we will need to make sure people now, that they need to post their suggestions sooner. Therefore JudgeApps might not be the best way to do so, and we’ll need to look for another medium (perhaps Google Forms might me feasible.)

3. Don’t rely on email, nor Facebook, and especially not on JudgeApps.

Using these channels for any kind of effective communication with multiple people is almost impossible.

Some people won’t even read these messages. (Email spam filters, disabled JudgeApps notifications, et cetera). Some people will read them, but won’t reply. Some people will reply incorrectly, because they didn’t read it through, but merely skimmed the text.

In the end, if you wanted to get some information from the participants (i.e. about dietary preferences, or their possible time of arrival) you won’t get nearly enough information as you expected. And if you wanted to broadcast something to them, you will never be sure, who actually read it.

So, when gathering some important information, try using as many channels as possible. Also make yourself very clear that this is an important message, and that you need a response to, preferably at the very beginning of the message). Also state a deadline. When someone doesn’t reply in time, contact them individually. This way, your success rate should greatly improve.

Chapter II – At the Conference

4. Enforce time limits.

If you are on the tight schedule with only short breaks between seminars, you need to ensure, that they begin on time and end time. And to ensure that, you mustn’t be afraid to sometimes “be the bad guy.” It’s not very popular to interrupt the general atmosphere of fun and recess, some casual games of magic and perhaps even some snack-eating, and force people to pay attention to the staring seminar. But it needs to be done. You can’t just tell yourself, “five more minutes,” and keep delaying the seminars.

Even if it might seem to not cause much harm, to delay a seminar for five minutes, it leads to many problems:

1) You can’t just cut the same time off of the presentation or the next small break, so you basically delayed the whole day’s schedule.

2) These delays snowball as hell, and can easily end up cancelling a seminar for there not being enough time. Because, apart from these easily avoidable delays, there are many other sources of delays (problems with preparing the food, problems with projectors, unexpected prolonging of some seminar’s discussion, etc.), which also need to be taken into consideration.

3) Consistency. It’s the same as in judging. If you give someone extra time to finish their game of Commander, others will demand it too. And you will either end up unreasonably delaying the conference, or will appear biased.

From our own experience, I also would like to point out an interesting revelation that came up in the feedback form: People liked the strictness. We didn’t have any single piece of a negative feedback speaking of too strict adherence to time limits (although we had a few complaints that stated it was not strict enough.) Even the judges who complained about it during the conference, conceded in the feedback that it was necessary in order to keep the conference running!

5. Oversee first-time presenters.

When assigning a seminar to someone in whose knowledge or presenting abilities you don’t completely trust, you should watch them presenting it. It is useful both for the other participants (so you can correct potential errors), and for the presenter themselves (so you can provide them with a useful feedback afterwards.)

Even though we were three organisers at our conference, we have all missed one of these seminars. Then after the conference we got some negative feedback on this seminar and we were not able to do much about it due to the lack of information.

It’s also a good idea to ask these people (or all of them if you have the time) to sent you some information about their presentation (i.e. slides and notes) beforehand, so you can get help them fix the potential mistakes before the actual conference begins.

6. Don’t use the generic feedback form.

The generic form contains some completely useless questions and some almost useless ones. Feel free to replace them with something you are more interested in knowing. It is not required to use that form in unchanged condition.

To be specific, the first question (“Did you feel this conference was well organized?”) gave us absolutely no information and was just a waste of space. Everyone answered it with “Yes,” and even when judges had some comments regarding organizational mistakes, they wrote them in the “Additional Comments” section, rather than to this one.

Next two questions (“What were your favorite presentations? Why/why not?” and “Did you learn anything new or useful? What was it?”) brought a lot of redundancies. The answers were usually very similar, sometimes we even came across “See above.” I think these two questions can easily be merged into one, creating more space for some more local-oriented questions.

Chapter III – After the Conference

7. Do the required stuff

If your conference did receive an official support (i.e. shiny foils), you need to send some important people some stuff (specifically, you need to send the Conference report to your RC). Just do it. ASAP. Good.

8. Share the output with the community

Not everyone can attend the conference and not everyone will remember its whole content. Therefore it’s probably a good idea to remind them somehow. With the presenters’ agreement you can publish the slides and other materials for the presentations. The conference sphere will probably welcome them, but even if you (or the presenter) don’t feel sharing them with the world, you can at least make them available to your local judge community (supposing you have some private communication forum, like a Facebook group, or whatever.)

But presentations are not the only thing that happens at the conference. In some cases (especially in policy or community topics) the post-presentation discussion is even more important than the presentation. Interesting ideas and proposals can manifest into existence. Some judges might also benefit from more experienced judges’ opinions regarding a controversial rules or policy topic.

At the previous conference, we had one of the participants writing a record of all the presentations and seminars. It was a good idea and it was appreciated both by participants of the conference and other local judges. But this year, no one was very enthused to continue the tradition. Probably because it would take a lot of time, and due to the fact that we did have parallel seminars this time, we would need more people writing the record, or the record would be incomplete.

I think that the answer lies somewhere in between. There is no need to record the whole presentation (since it would probably be available anyway), so the record should include only a brief description and interesting points of each presentation and some highlights of the discussion. This can be easily accomplished by one of the organizers making notes during the seminar. So the only thing needed is for the organizers to keep this in mind and put it together when writing the conference review.

9. Start organizing next conference

Everything is done now. And unless the conference was a total fiasco, or your community is really mean, you should now be filled with positive energy and will to do it again. Let’s channel this energy into preparations for the next event.

You don’t need to start looking for venue now, or putting the schedule together, but at this point you should be filled with lots of ideas regarding what went well and what should be improved for the next conference. WRITE THEM DOWN. It’s same as with reviews, if you don’t write them down, they’ll start slipping out of your mind and you remember them again at the next conference when you screw up again, in the same way. But if you write them down, you have a good chance for learning from them, and screwing up in a different way. Yey!

And that’s about it. I hope you enjoyed this collection of my thoughts. And if you find the advice useful, you can think of inviting me to your conference. Or not. That’s up to you.