Since I'm often a conference organizer, I wanted to approach this issue from a conference organizer's perspective. Prepare yourself for a long, rambling post about drunken parties, brogrammers, conference organizing, teetotallers, pgCon, SCALE, and middle age.
Why Limit Drunken Partying at Conferences?
I drink. I like beer and wine, a lot. I enjoy going to parties, and have been known to attend parties at tech conferences where I got more than a little buzzed. More than once I missed Friday morning sessions at OSCON entirely. The fact that I don't do this anymore is almost entirely due to changes in my life: I'm now 41, married, and CEO of a company.
So, Ryan's feelings aside, what's wrong with loud, drunken parties at conferences? Ryan doesn't have to attend them if he doesn't want to.
Well, first, Ryan isn't alone. The career of programming in general appeals to people who don't like parties, and I think if you did a survey of any large, general developer conference you'd find that 25% to 50% of the attendees either didn't drink, didn't like parties, or both. So if boozy parties are the only form of evening entertainment at your conference, you're deliberately excluding a quarter to half of your attendees. You're encouraging them to go home in the evening, and if they do, they're liable not to come back to the conference the next day.
Speaking of the next day, large numbers of hung-over conferencegoers make for very poor attendance at morning sessions at the conference, which makes scheduling hell. Do you schedule unpopular talks first thing Sunday morning and basically write them off? Or do you schedule popular talks in hopes that it'll get people out of bed, and risk offending an important speaker?
Secondly, the parties have taken the place of the BOFs we used to have. Many conferences used to have great Birds-Of-a-Feather informal sessions in the evenings. These offered a great opportunity for projects and vendors who couldn't get on the regular session schedule to reach their users, and for group discussions as a follow-on for the sessions during the day. However, I've generally given up on trying to hold PostgreSQL BOFs at most conferences now, since I'm always head-to-head against some party with free food and beer. The last time I had a BOF at OSCON, for example, eight people attended.
Finally, there's the liability. Whether or not your conference is officially sponsoring or hosting the party, if you put it on your schedule and announce it, you are liable in the eyes of the court for bad things which happen there: property damage, alcohol poisoning, accidental injury, and sexual assault. Frankly, I'm surprised that there hasn't been an alcohol-related death or felony arrest at a major tech conference yet; it's only a matter of time.
Why Have Boozy Bashes?
Of course, there's quite a few reasons why we have loud parties at conferences. Among them:
- Unmarried 25-Year-Olds are a large minority of the conference population, and do a lot of partying. It's part of being 25 years old.
- The Brogrammers are desperately trying to prove to themselves that, while they may be programmers, they're not geeks. Drunken parties are part of this self-deception.
- People Want To Blow Off Steam after having their brains crammed full all day. Many/most don't want to extend 9 hours of hacking into 14.
- Some Vendors/Sponsors Prefer Parties as their way of reaching your attendees, and are willing to pay for it.
- It's Easier For Overworked Conference Organizers to arrange a party than other evening activities which actually require planning.
Where this becomes a problem, though, is when the high-octane parties are the only things to do in the evening, or when they are emphasized as the main point of going to the conference. This is where the last reason above is important.
It's certainly easier, as a conference organizer, to get a vendor to sponsor a bash near the conference center than it is to plan other activities. All you have to do is connect the vendor's PR person with a nearby restaurant or hotel, and your work is done. Sometimes you don't even have to do that much. However, that's really not good enough; if you're too overworked to plan the conference activities after 5:30pm, then recruit a new volunteer who likes planning social things. You'll be pleasantly surprised to discover that your community does, indeed, have such people, and that they're thrilled to be able to contribute something meaningful.
Some Alternatives to Loud Parties
Not all conferences are selling Party-Only tickets like JSConf is. In fact, some conferences have done a very good job of providing interesting alternatives to loud, hard-drinking parties for evening activities. Let me provide a few as examples you can emulate:
Bring Back The BOFs
Unlike the O'Reilly conferences, Usenix LISA has kept their BOFs, going all evening each evening of the conference. Rather than help vendors sponsor parties, they encourage vendors to sponsor BOFs with refreshments. As a result, the BOFs at LISA are very well attended; I'd estimate that 2/3 of the conference attendees stay all evening for the BOFs.
Due to my lack of academic credentials, I usually can't get a PostgreSQL talk into the main program at LISA, but this doesn't bother me because the BOFs are so awesome. Last year there were more than 60 people in the PostgreSQL BOF, and I was able to present all about 9.1.
Parties Don't Need to Be All About Drinking
LinuxCon 2011 decided to have a big "20th Anniversary of Linux" party. So they rented a dance hall and had a 1920's-themed party with a swing band. Further, they encouraged attendees to bring period party clothes, and had a costumer on hand for those who didn't own any. The party had ersatz gambling, a photo booth, a raffle, and dance lessons. It was terrific, and I don't say that just because I won the raffle. For the first two hours, the music was low enough you could easily talk.
More importantly, the party was fun even if you didn't drink. Compare that with the common conference party, which has a bad DJ in a big barren hotel ballroom with all the free booze you can manage. At parties like that there's nothing to do but drink; it's too loud to talk and there's nothing else to do. Even as a drinker, that fits my definition of a sucky party and I'll go elsewhere.
Shall We Play A Game?
The most incredibly awesome party alternative of the year was provided by SCALE10x, who booked a Saturday night "games night" after the Weakest Geek and the end of the BOFs. This included head-to-head hackable FPS games (for the hackers), vintage arcade games, board games and RPGs, including a brand-new board game there for beta testing, Nerf weapons, and a Lazertag arena. Local attendees brought their whole families, including kids to the event. It was the best time I've had after dark at a conference in years.
Sure, there was alcohol at the event. But since it was a no-host bar and there were so many distractions, nobody drank very much. I had one beer; any more would have gotten me creamed by the 12-year-olds in the Lazertag arena. And even the 25-year-olds and the brogrammers had a good time.
SCALE has, if anything, led the way in party alternatives. Friday night they have Ignite talks, and Saturday they've always had The Weakest Geek, a pseudo-game show on stage. While their Games Night may be a bit elaborate for smaller conferences, you can reasonably plan fun entertainment which doesn't require getting soused.
So this is my call to conference organizers: the professional world of programming is not a frat house. We can provide evening activities at conferences which are either an alternative to alcohol and loud music, or which are still fun even if you don't drink. Yes, it's a bit more work, but it's worth it.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't have loud parties. Parties are fun, and in demand by a large portion of your attendees. Just that we shouldn't only have boozy bashes to the exclusion of all other evening activities. It's called "moderation", and a good thing to practice in all portions of life.
And then we'll all have more fun.