Two conferences aiming at a similar audience at the same time in the same city – that’s what just happened in Berlin. One being in its 16th year, supported by “the authorities” (read, the European Commission) and a corporate sponsor, with a mission to be Europe’s largest tech conference. The other being a first-time effort, running on a crowdfunding campaign and some local sponsors, with the goal to be an event for the community, by the community.
While the starting points of Campus Party (CP) and Tech Open Air (TOA) were as far apart as could possibly be, they had one thing in common. Content-wise, they both relied on the willingness of many people to contribute their time, expertise, and showmanship free of charge. Neither Campus Party with its funding of (possibly) a few million nor TOA with its five-digit budget set any money aside for speakers. Instead, they both put forward that the experience, the outreach, the value of stage time in front of a relevant audience and, most of all, the feel-good factor of committing your time to a Good Cause should be payment enough.
Both conferences struggled in their ramp-up phases. CP did a startlingly bad job in setting up a local team and outreach only in early June, ultimately leading to a situation where, when the conference finally started last Tuesday, German news magazine Der Spiegel called it “a festival out of nowhere”, noting that for its ambitious scope, only a few protagonists of the local scene seemed to be involved or even interested. While Der Spiegel blamed that on the fact that CP has a history only in the Spanish-speaking world, and that the uber-presence of its corporate sponsor Telefonica O2 tainted its image as a credible geek community event, many protagonists of the Berlin tech scene will tell another story.
Disappointing to the Point of Annoyance
Personally, I will make no secret of the fact that my attempt at cooperation with CP representatives was disappointing to the point of annoyance. Having been asked to work as a local “evangelist” for CP in early June – at a time that I thought was already too late in the day – the CP guys urged me to make a proposal. I came up with one to include CP in the communications I’m doing for Berlin Startup Academy, talking about it at conferences inside and outside Germany, running events and talks at CP, and then some more.
Ten weeks later, I have still not received an answer to that proposal. As it turned out, I was lucky. A friend of mine had been asked to get involved in the same way, and been invited to an interview in Munich. This came to nothing, too – and she’s been waiting for a refund of her travel expenses ever since. For six months now.
Nonetheless, we promoted CP on the BSA website, and even helped bring in a celebrity speaker from the US. In return, as is customary, we received VIP tickets, the main benefit of which supposedly was free catering. As we arrived at the former Tempelhof airport on Wednesday, we were soon looking for a place to have a coffee, some water, and maybe a sandwich. We were pointed to a hall on the first floor, where we met a group of other VIPs laughing at and taking pictures of the scenery that was laid out beautifully in front of our eyes. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the buffet that CP graciously provided us with in return for our efforts to further the Good Cause.
However, this was no surprise anymore. In the weeks and days before the CP kickoff, when talking to companies and people from the Berlin digital industry, it had become a bit of a running gag to exchange stories of bewilderment and irritation at the organizers’ sheer incompetence. Hence, upon leaving CP on Wednesday afternoon, it only provoked a shrug when an an email reached us that another event intended to give something back to the communities that helped bringing people to CP, the Communities party, was hereby canceled for organizational reasons. It had been set for that very same evening. By that moment, my personal low point was past anyway. Thirsty to the point of dehydration, I had begged an O2 Wayra guy for one of the half-liter Telefonica-branded water bottles they had piled up in the fenced-in, exclusive Wayra developers area. He blankly refused: “This is for Wayra people only.” I ended up grabbing an empty bottle and filling it up again and again at the toilet washing basin faucet.
For full disclosure, I’m friends with TOA’s initiators Niko Woischnik and Lutz Villalba and was marginally involved in the conceptualization of the event (and spoke and hosted events at the conference proper). That’s why I can safely say that the TOA guys, too, made it hard for themselves to organize their conference. The crowdfunding campaign that determined if TOA would actually happen or not only ended only on July 6, with things hanging in limbo until the very last moment. That left six weeks for properly setting up TOA, with a team that had never created a comparable event before. A point that was discussed controversially among organizers was the conference’s functional purpose. Inspired by Austin’s SXSW festival, it was clear that TOA should have a community feel and encourage people to do satellite events. But the claim to “bring together Europe’s tech scene” sounded fanciful – for that to happen, there could have been an organized exchange between TOA and the international developer crowd CP brought in, for instance. There wasn’t.
Leaving Your Comfort Zone
Instead, it was a happy day by the Spree, with friends and colleagues chatting, bottles clinking, the usual suspects manning stages and microphones, and a sunny, self-assured atmosphere. Yes, it’s fun to be part of this crowd. But as bad as CP was in my experience, at least in one point they achieved a more valuable goal. They didn’t just celebrate themselves as a happy family – they brought in strangers from all over Europe, teaming them up, making them leave their comfort zone (as described above, they certainly achieved that with me).
By contrast, taking place at a renowned, picturesque nightclub that many attendees were very likely to frequent also in their private lives, TOA was placed in everyone’s comfort zone more firmly than any conference I’ve ever been to. More specifically: For CP attendees it was sleeping in minuscule tents on concrete hangar floors; at TOA it was sipping Club Mate in the shade while the river Spree rolled gently by.
Partly through CP’s organizational shortcomings, partly through the nature of the former Tempelhof airport location (terrible acoustics, lots of concrete and steel), partly through the frugal amenities (no alcohol on-site, rather expensive and un-varied food on offer), I imagine holding out there for five days must have been a bit of an ordeal. TOA, by total contrast, was an event the pleasantness of which was a grand achievement of the team, the many volunteers, and the speakers and performers. But in terms of relevance, of having created moments and encounters able to start something new, my feeling is that CP may have been the better conference.
Naturally, they had unfair advantages – being able to give away tickets for free, for example. I don’t know a single person who actually paid for their CP entry, while TOA had to sell each and every ticket to make ends meet. But in my view, they failed to leave goodwill, establish positive local connections – and hence, missed a chance to achieve what both conferences claimed to be about: to bring the European tech scene together in Berlin, on eye-level, and with a chance to make a change.