Bringing the FOSS tribe together: The future of community shows

Given the economy's impact on tech shows, I have to wonder what the future holds for the various Linux shows and fests around the globe. Talking to Ilan Rabinovitch of the Southern California Linux Expo (SCaLE), the future still looks bright -- maybe brighter than the future for the more commercial trade shows.
Written by Joe Brockmeier, Contributor

Given the economy's impact on tech shows, I have to wonder what the future holds for the various Linux shows and fests around the globe. Talking to Ilan Rabinovitch of the Southern California Linux Expo (SCaLE), the future still looks bright -- maybe brighter than the future for the more commercial trade shows.

Right now, I'm sitting in Hobart, Tasmania, attending Linux.conf.au 2009. However, Ilan was kind enough to respond to some questions by email, so here's his take on community shows and how they'll weather the economy.

Q: How does SCALE recoup costs? (Exhibitors, tickets, etc.?)

Ilan Rabinovitch: About 75% of our funding comes via generous donations and sponsorships. This year a few of our top sponsors include IBM, Novell, HP, and Zenoss. The remainder of our funding comes from attendee tickets. Our mission has always to been to provide education and outreach to the community around the topics of Linux, open-source and Free Software. In order to best serve this mission and the community, we do our best to keep our ticket pricing reasonably inexpensive as well as provide free exhibit hall space to non-profit organizations and open-source projects. This is all made possible by our commercial exhibitors, sponsors and donors.

Q: How is SCALE doing compared to previous years in terms of tickets sold so far? Has the price changed this year, or are there any concessions to the economy?

Ilan Rabinovitch: We expect SCaLE to hold steady against previous years. Historically SCaLE has seen around 20% year over year growth both in terms of exhibitors and attendees. However, this year we expect that to slow and for our size to stay even with our 2008 numbers.

So far we are on target with registration, and have managed to keep our pricing the same. It is very important to our mission that we keep our pricing reasonable, and continue to offer group discounts to our local LUGs and other groups that help make SCaLE a success. In order to make this feasible, SCaLE canceled some of the expansion plans we had for 2009. Initially we had intended to move to a larger venue, as in recent years we had reached capacity at the Westin and wanted to set ourselves up for continued growth. However, when the economy slowed, we decided to maintain our current size and focus on improving the conference experience for our existing attendees. We have also worked with most of our vendors to renegotiate pricing, as well as find other measures to reduce costs where possible this year. For the most part this has been a blessing in disguise as we are quite familiar with the ins and outs of our current venue, The Westin. They have been SCaLE's home for about 3 years now, and we have developed a very close relationship with their staff.

Q: What about vendor / exhibitor sign-ups? How is SCALE doing there?

Ilan Rabinovitch: With the slowing economy the team has had to work much harder this year to fill our expo floor and recruit sponsors, but we are expecting our expo hall to be quite full again, if not sold out. At the moment we have 80+ exhibitors signed up, and expect the remaining hand full of spots to fill fast. About 50% of those will be non-profit or open source exhibits run by the community. The real difference this year has been that a few of our recurring exhibitors have had budget cuts or have gone out of business. As a result they have had to reduce their sponsorship levels in some cases, or cancel their attendance. This has been disheartening because some of them have been with us for almost as long as SCaLE has been around, and it is tough to see them fall on hard times. That being said, we still have a very exciting turn out this year with many new exhibitors who have not participated in SCaLE previously. If any organizations out there are interested in helping out this year, ask they can reach us via e-mail at sponsorship@socallinuxexpo.org.

Q: Obviously, SCALE is a more community focused event - but sees participation from a number of vendors. What kind of "value proposition" does SCALE offer to vendors compared to trade shows that focus on generating leads and drawing "decision maker" crowds?

Ilan Rabinovitch: SCaLE's roots are in the community, and we continue to be very community focused. However, all of our exhibitors tell us that they see a much better bang for their buck at SCaLE and other regional community events, than they do at national events. Additionally, many of our community members have grown in their careers to become "decision makers" or in other cases become technical leaders whose advice "decision makers" respect. As a result, we are told most of our exhibitors see strong results from SCaLE.

Our value to exhibitors however isn't entirely in leads and sales. For commercial vendors to succeed in the open-source and free software space its important for their products and projects to have strong developer and user communities. That is something that shows with an entirely business focus cannot offer. The average SCaLE attendee is extremely passionate about open-source, free software and technology in general. This enthusiasm is what companies who want to build communities look for. We have repeatedly been home to the launch of new projects, community forges and developer programs. This community focus has also drawn third party events from other communities to co-locate at SCaLE including the Subversion Community Day, and Zenoss among others.

Q: If I'm not mistaken, SCALE is an all-volunteer cast. What motivates the SCALE volunteers to put in the work on this event?

Ilan Rabinovitch: The SCaLE team is entirely made up of volunteers, without whom SCaLE would not be possible. We have about 10-15 core volunteers who help plan SCaLE for about 8 months each year. Many of those volunteers are listed on our Web site.

However, that list is far from complete. Most of the core team has been involved in SCaLE since its inception, and some of date even further back to the original "LUGFests" that were held in the late 90s. Beyond the core team we generally have another 30~ volunteers who join us in the days leading up to SCaLE and during the SCaLE event. Many of whom have become volunteers, because of how much they enjoyed SCaLE in previous years.

Every team member has their own motivations for participating in SCaLE, but the general theme is that it's a labor of love. We all genuinely enjoy working on the event. It's how we give back to the community.

When we first started SCaLE, we all became involved because there weren't many regional open-source events in general, and Los Angeles seemed especially lacking. We wanted to have a place where the community could meet, learn, and network once a year, but we were putting on the event as much for ourselves as we were for the community. We wanted to bring open-source projects and developers to our town, rather than travel north to LinuxWorld once a year. That same desire to build community is still at the very core at SCaLE and has shaped the event into what it is today. We've grown, and few of the organizers actually get to attend the presentations anymore due to being busy running the Expo, but we are still eager to bring educational opportunities to our fellow community members, as well as to provide outreach to potential community members who have never used Linux, open-source or Free Software.

Q: What kind of work goes into SCALE? Could you provide a bit of an overview on what it takes to put on an event like this?

The list of tasks and projects associated with SCaLE each year is so long we could probably write a book about it. Running SCaLE involves everything from community outreach, to accounting and sponsorship. We spend about 8 months of the year planning the event, although the last 3 months are the busiest. SCaLE's parent organization is a 501c3 non-profit organization. As a result a few team members serve on our board of directors, and ensure that we have all our accounting, filings and other legal filings in order. Like any organization we set a budget each year, and do our best to stick with it. In a typical year we recruit over 80 exhibitors and read through 150 presentation proposals from our call for papers. We have a "tech" team which builds a network with over 20 switches, and 800+ clients on our wireless and wired networks. Other teams focus on expo floor layouts with the local fire marshall to ensure our attendee's safety, artwork for our conference program, and last but not least promoting the event in the media and community.

If you are interested in starting a similar event in your neck of the woods please feel free to reach out to us. Other similar events to SCaLE which can likely offer advice as well are: Linux Fest North West, Ohio Linux Fest, Ontario Linux Fest, South East Linux Fest, and more. There seem to be new fests popping up around the country due to the strong success of regional shows.

We hope to see everyone at SCaLE in February!

Obviously, I believe pretty strongly in community shows and SCaLE in particular. I've been attending since 2006, and was even lucky enough to be offered a keynote slot at this year's event. I've also been involved in organizing the Ohio Linuxfest in past years, and attend and speak at quite a few shows.Bringing the "tribe" together is, in my opinion, crucial. Lots of work gets done when developers and contributors get together face to face.

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