I had my first Úll nightmare over the last weekend. I forgot to book an AV company, so there were no microphones or lights. A gang of immature folks ran riot. One of the main speakers complained about the food.
There are so many things that can go wrong organising a conference, one wonders why we do it at all. But very little comes close to the joy of seeing hundreds of people captivated by a single voice. Being part of an electric group of people making new connections, meeting old friends, sitting around, listening to someone with years of experience tell stories for hours on end.
It’s always worth it.
A great chef always starts with the best ingredients, and a great product always starts with the best tools. A great conference starts with the venue.
This year, we’re headed to Killarney, to the fabulous Europe Hotel, overlooking Lough Leane and Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, Ireland’s only mountain range. The first two Úlls were designed around the idea that Dublin is the perfect conference venue: a small city with so many interesting things within walking distance.
For last year and this year, we wanted to put Ireland as a backdrop, but it’s really more than that. Booking out a single venue and hosting the conference there means that everybody is together. There’s no exclusive bar that some people won’t know about. Choosing a venue that’s a little bit out of town is part of this too. Everyone together. That’s important to us.
Next: the structure. We’ve been refining this over the past few years and we think this year will work really well. We’ve thought a lot about how the different pieces of Úll should sit together.
The first new thing that we’re introducing this year is opt-in before-and-after dinners the day before the conference and the day after. In my own experience going to conferences, these always happen, but they’re not necessarily pre-planned, or, again, you have to know about them. Every year at Úll, we’ve hosted a formal dinner the day before and there has always been an informal dinner on the evening of the day after. This year, anyone who wants can buy a ticket to either of those dinners: an easy opt-in for folks who are arriving early or staying a day later. Personally, I find that these extras bookend the conference nicely.
Something we’ve had since day one is a late start on day one. I still love this idea, particularly in a venue that’s outside the capital and one of high natural beauty. Having a late start on the first day means that everybody arrives fresh. Those who have flown have a chance to recover a bit from jetlag. Those travelling from afar have ample time to make a car journey on the day without missing anything.
Next is single-track. This is important to us because it gives the conference more of a family feel. There’s nothing to feel like missing out on. Short speaking sessions and long breaks also give people a good chance to do one of the most important things (for some) at a conference: chat with other interesting folks.
In addition to single-track, we also wanted to explore the spaces that booking a resort hotel provides. The Europe is no different in that its conference centre has many rooms, and the hotel itself is full of interesting nooks and crannies: a library, a spectacular lobby, a lounge. To introduce the feeling of exploration, last year we introduced special features that ran on a loop in various parts of the venue, a bit like a museum or a gallery. We’re aiming to create a sense of adventure, and a sense of many things going on, and aiming to avoid a fear of missing out.
The final piece of the puzzle is the evening sessions. Last year, we introduced “The Úll Show”, a late-show style interviews session, hosted by Jason Snell and Guy English, complete with house band. This worked great: a fun, informal gathering with a great sense of occasion.
The evening of day two brings us John Gruber’s dinnertime speech, a highlight for me for the past three years. We’ve tried various approaches to dinnertime catering and we’re looking forward to working with The Europe this year on getting the tone just right. Live music is important to us, so we also introduced an Open Mic last year that’s definitely coming back. Too many good memories to miss.
Hopefully this explains some of our thoughts on how and why we put Úll together. But it’s only a taste. The other consistent feature of Úll each year is that we never quite give everything away, and we never produce videos of the sessions. You have to be there, and we like it that way.