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360Flex:Milan – A Critical Review

Firstly, I should note that I believe in the 360Flex concept. I flew all the way to San Jose to attend the first one, and even purchased replacement plane ticket when the first one went wrong due to booking complications. I was the first person to buy a ticket for 360Flex:Milan, before the tickets were even publicised. Also, I can see the need for a purely technical conference in contrast to more designer focused conferences. And finally, I can only commend their complete and utter transparency towards all aspects of their business including traditionally taboo subjects such as money.

Secondly, I should note that there are two factors that were completely outside the control of the 360 Conferences team:

  • OnAirTour conflicts – It is really unfortunate that Adobe scheduled the Brussels and London legs of the OnAirTour when 360Flex was in Milan, and the Milan leg for several months later. This is in complete contrast to the way Adobe arranged the USA OnAirTour which coincided the Atlanta leg of the tour not only with 360Flex but also with the Flex 3/Air 1 release date.
  • Heathrow Terminal 5 – Even British Airways and BAA didn’t expect the complete shambles that was the Terminal 5 launch. John Wilker mentioned that they were expecting merchandise, such as session posters that have been lost within the disaster that is the baggage system of Terminal 5 – up to 15 000 bags have been misplaced so far.

However, with those mitigating factors out of the way, in my opinion 360Flex:Milan was a failure. Financially by their own figures revealed in the keynote, they lost about EUR 9 400 (EUR 15 900 with refunds issued for the first day). As far as the conference itself went, I don’t think it worked either – and it certainly did not meet the high standards already set by previous 360Flex incarnations.

There were minor problems with things such as Internet access, buffet food or even bottomless coffee, but you can always have those sorts of problems with any organised event. Specifically, as far as the conference went I feel there are three main areas where Milan did not match up to previous conferences: speakers, attendees, and less importantly, added-extras.

  • Speakers: Previous editions of 360Flex had a breadth and depth of world class speakers, talking on topics from complete entry level to extremely advanced. 360Flex:San Jose in particular benefited from being near the head quarters of EBay, Google and of course Adobe, but even the other US based variants were able to leverage a good cross section of speakers. 360Flex:Milan on the other hand had very few advanced sessions and a plethora of introductory ones.
  • Attendees: The attendees that did turn up were good value. It was good to see people from all over Europe – I met people from Croatia, Romania, Italy and Switzerland – however there simply weren’t enough of them. By my rough count, there were only about 100 people at the keynote on the first day. While this did make the conference more intimate it also dramatically reduced the critical mass for cross pollination of ideas and networking opportunities.
  • Extras: Finally, one of the things 360Flex has become known for are its added extras. For example, at Seattle, there was an internal video system, FlexTV, rebroadcasting sessions from throughout the day and at Atlanta, they gave away free training and copies of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Milan didn’t have any of those sorts of extras – sure, they made the first day free but I have to say that this really felt like a last minute attempt to boost numbers, and it did not have any direct benefit to existing attendees.

These three issues, in my opinion, boil down to problems with speakers and advertising. Speakers directly drive attendee numbers – attendees go to conferences to see speakers’ sessions. Attendees know about the conferences via some form of advertising, whether grass-root or more traditional. And of course, with enough paying attendees there hopefully can be enough of a profit to be able to have nice-to-have added extras.

On the final day of 360Flex, I noticed the large amount of Twitts from world touring UK based speakers attending the OnAirTour event in London. Why didn’t these people attend at least the first 2 days of 360Flex?

In a similar vein, why did I not hear any official mention of 360Flex:Milan at either the London Flash Platform or Flex London user groups? The London Flash Platform group has attendances between 50 and 100 people every month. The Flex London user group has 428 people signed up for the MeetUp.com group, a good proportion of whom are UK based. Where were these people?

I can only assume that the decision to only partially compensate speakers for their expenses meant many European speakers were unable to attend. I personally know of one speaker who decided to dramatically cut down on speaking engagements and concentrate on direct paid work, due to the amount they were out of pocket through speaking at conferences around the world – I fund all of my conference attendance directly out of my own pocket, so I can complete appreciate their position. And as far as US based speakers go, at least one of the scheduled ones was unable to attend, simply because his company just didn’t do business in Europe.

I can also only assume that 360Flex:Milan was not publicised as widely as it could be. Whenever I spoke to other Flex and Flash developers about attending 360Flex:Milan, I was either looked at in surprise, or they hadn’t even heard about it (and then I gave my spiel based on my experience as San Jose)

360Conferences stumbled a little when it came to Milan – I certainly don’t feel that the 360Flex team put as much effort into advertising and organising 360Flex in Milan, as they did for Seattle or even Atlanta. The sad  consequence of this of course is, using their own numbers released in the keynote, if they’d managed to increase the number of attendees, then they probably would have ended up in profit, and other benefits would have flown from that.

In summary, I think that the core idea of a transparent, developer based, community focused conference is a good one. I also think that in Europe at least, the rest of the equation (speaker policy, choice of on-site location and subsequent costs, advertising) needs some reworking.

Sadly, I’ve now changed my opinions of 360Flex conferences. SanJose:2008 has too many things in its favour not to succeed – but my conference dance card is now full up for the year. I might attend Europe:2009, but I certainly won’t be signing up on day one, sight unseen.