An emotional adventure

Excitement gave way to fear, but hard work and a positive community made everything worthwhile. This is what it felt like to bring back New Adventures after a six-year hiatus.

NA 2019 gets underway. Photo: Stefan Nitzsche

New Adventures doesn't end when everyone goes home; there's much to be done in the following weeks. And so, we rested over the weekend and then, well, we continued to rest until Spring.

I exaggerate. We did take care of some stuff. Invoices were paid as quickly as possible because I wanted to know if there was any money left. We started collecting material from speakers and coverage from attendees. We began packing, sorting and recycling. We ate many surplus cupcakes. We liked a lot of kind tweets. But mostly, we began to relax. I've tinkered with a few personal projects this year, but now realise that I've pretty much just taken three months off; a sort of rest and recuperation period, ever so slightly post-traumatic.

I was never arrogant; never assumed any edition would be a breeze. It's always hard work — especially in the last few weeks before the event. But, as I noted in my magazine editorial, our return proved difficult, and even before launch, I started to question if bringing it back after six years was wise. By late-September, I was working every spare hour, and by Christmas, I was running on fumes. My mood grew darker, and I was consumed by the push to break even. I spent the holidays under a cloud.

Flatlining

On launch day we moved 150 tickets in the first hour, and I expected those sales to persist through the day (there'd been a lot of hype in all the right places), but instead, it just flatlined. Better tomorrow then. Well, no. A few days later I was accompanying my Mam to a hospital appointment, sat in a beige waiting room, and it all hit me like a ton of bricks: this is not going well, I'm scared. For about a week, I was lost somewhere inside myself. I did some work (I was tweaking copy and massaging every detail) but I was in mild shock. I've been a free agent for over a year, and these days I lack a lot of sought-after digital design skills, so I tortured myself wondering what sort of regular job I'd have to get in the new year. Short on key targets, we considered pulling the plug.

The original trilogy of events sold out — the 2013 event in just a few days — but a lot has changed since then. People are more likely employed and in-house now, no longer masters of their own calendar. Some don't expect to get much return from these kinds of events and don't appreciate the value of community. Many had not heard of us at all. A lot of the extra effort went into specific ticket transactions, responding to feedback, providing every little persuasive detail that might convince a manager to allocate time off and pay for someone's experience.

We had to get noisy, deluging every feed with tweets and retweets and methods of engagement. We did an absolutely insane amount of marketing. I think marketing is often strategic lying, and I hated the pretence of urgency — "Got your ticket yet?", "Don't miss out!" — and pimping discounts here, there, and everywhere. Alongside all of that, it seemed like nobody was able to reply to an email, and many suppliers seemed unable to do straightforward things like supply.

I could go on and on, but let's just say it was a bumpy road. We spoke to lots of fellow organisers and potential attendees and learned plenty about the state of things and why they're the way they are. Also, I think we were guilty of believing our own hype, that the constant requests for us to return and the buzz, once we'd announced, might guarantee another success. We were wrong.

Get it done and survive

We worked through the Christmas break and by early January we'd sent the new look magazine to print. We'd got most of our ducks in a row but were forced to pull a bunch of necessities and features as we realised we'd have around 400 guests rather than the capacity 650. We had a terrific roster of excited sponsors contributing valuable financial support, but with low ticket sales, our overall budget was much smaller than expected. We did our best to cut corners without diminishing the overall experience, and it was a financial and logistical relief the day our budget suggested we stop worrying about childcare for just one confirmed parent. Next time, hopefully.

Our first event for six years was like starting from scratch, the path strewn with obstacles. As the day neared our mode was "let's get it done and survive, then pack it all away forever". We settled into the final sprint and accepted what we had, and realised everything would be ok. We relaxed into the eye of the storm — it's oddly easier when you go into autopilot at crunch time, when things simply have to be done in a very specific order. Everything was slotting into place, and the weather forecast was stable. Ethan Marcotte arrived first, and as more speakers and attendees started to arrive in town, our spirits began to lift.

Our traditional private welcome party was a great opportunity to catch up with some of our favourite web people. The workshops ran reasonably smoothly, and the warmup events filled up quite nicely (the bowling was not as busy as previous years, but still fun for all involved). Everything came together on conference day, and I was relieved that even with two-thirds of the predicted attendance, The Great Hall looked quite full (probably because people distributed themselves evenly). The mood was incredibly positive and supportive, even more than any previous event. Rizwana's introductory poem set the right tone, and the Women in Tech takeover was packed!

The speakers really delivered — I mean, really; every single one — and the themes blended perfectly into a valuable and precise series of messages. We curate to a certain point, but they still have to do the hard work. Ethan had been writing about the changing nature of our work and the threats imposed by the web, so I'd tasked him with speaking about these issues rather than his signature responsive design or systems, and he'd jumped at the opportunity (then probably regretted it). I knew we had something exceptional to close with, but even so, it was an extraordinary keynote. I could say so much about Ethan's talk — that it was a career highlight for me — but Jeremy Keith sums it up perfectly: "This might be the best conference talk I've ever seen. It's certainly the most important." Go watch the video.

I still had a lot of running around and sweating to do before the big after party at Nottingham Contemporary, but that too seemed to go well, and although I was losing my voice I noticed I was starting to wind down, and the beer tasted especially tasty that night. Next morning I was up early for the 5K run, then venue pickups while Geri led the coffee tour, then football, and then a meal in the evening. It's perhaps thrifty to use just a couple of paragraphs to describe everything that happened in the three core days, but it's all I got right now.

Beyond expectations

Geri and I were very emotional as the positive responses rolled in on Twitter and elsewhere. The feedback was overwhelming and beyond expectations. Sure, we'd fallen short in many areas including sales, and on the day a few technical hiccups had caused some visible problems — oh, and the stage crew totally murder-cropped the logo, which I am still angry about —  but it had all been worth it. We even made a small profit to live off for a little while. We did good.

I'd like to again thank those that supported us and made this possible, not least our generous sponsors and the team at Nottingham Albert Hall. The main event ran smoothly thanks to our incredible volunteers, and as ever, Relly Annett-Baker was the glue that held conference day together. Above all, Geri was — alongside her design and organisational responsibilities — my partner and therapist throughout, and I'm a very, very lucky man.

We've umm-ed and ahh-ed a lot over the last few months, but we feel strongly that we must not let all that goodwill dissipate, as there is much progress for us to make, together. I've no idea if we'll live to regret it, but we will go again in 2020.

Don't miss out!