Planning a Sideshow

 This text originally appeared in the Toxic BBQ Retrospective Zine, Grow your own Sideshow.

The path from “there’s this thing we do...” to conference-legend can be rocky. We’ve collected tips from our notes and interviews into a firehose of recommendations for you and your team. We hope these will nudge you from `wishing` to `holding` your “thing-apart” for everyone’s enjoyment.

- the_bozo and DuncanYoudaho


  • Where?

    Make yourself easy to find. Stick close to your parent venue. If off-site, provide relative directions from the venue. Also give out an absolute location/address for taxis, an information desk, or maps app.

  • Control the Space

    Reserve the site for your group’s exclusive use. Whether a con booth, suite, or off-site, ensure you can enforce crowd size limits, CoC, closure, and clean-up.

  • Understand the Rules

    Be an expert on the rules of your venue so your guests don’t have to be. Is glass allowed? How loud can we be? When do we need to be gone? Where does the trash go?

  • Prepare for a Crowd

    Plan for a larger group than you expect. If possible, choose a venue into which you can grow over time. If venue costs are a burden, find other groups to add and grow with.

“How many people do I think would be there and was the space the right setup so we could have a blast?”
- Sc0tland

Organizers and Organization

  • Get a Partner

You will not be able to plan an event of any significant size alone. Find a trusted partner or two and share your plans, expenses, and passion for.

  • Know the Locals

If you are from out of town, find someone who is local and add them to your inner circle. They can store equipment, obtain permits much easier, have transportation for supply runs, and know who to call for emergencies.

  • Centralize Planning

Have a clearinghouse for info, deadlines, tasks, costs, and contacts: Trello, Asana, Basecamp. Record how and when to reserve the venue, produce swag, and contact volunteers. Take notes during the event (you won’t remember later), and do a postmortem after everyone is home again.

Equipment and Supplies

  • Memento Mori

    Anything you borrow or bring to the venue can be lost, taken, or broken. You can’t watch everyone, and you can’t predict everything. Especially not possibly inebriated strangers at a once-a-year gathering. Leave Meemaw’s tea service for a home soirée.

  • Rent First

Renting equipment is cheaper, short-term. Take storage into account when you buy equipment for your party. Don’t buy into your own hype. Until you can guarantee you will reuse it year after year, borrow before you buy. Ask the venue, ask locals, rent as needed.

“Did you know you can just rent velvet rope, brass standards, and  fancy walnut pillars? Perfect for displaying your recreation of The Internet from The I.T. Crowd in a fitting manner.”

- DY 

  • Plan for Setup and Tear-down

Prepare to get there early and leave late. Even if you are soliciting help from attendees, it is your responsibility to make sure everything is cleaned up and rental items are returned on time. You are the only one that can ensure you get your deposit back.

  • Share the Costs

    One organizer should not be expected to shoulder all the costs of the event. If you take donations, a little transparency goes a long way. Remember that labor is a cost. Taking off work to get a permit is a cost. Be prepared to say no or “maybe next year”. Be realistic with yourself and others about what you can deliver, and delegate whenever possible.


  • Start by Word of Mouth

When your shindig grows by word of mouth alone, you might be ready to advertise. Decide who your audience is and target them: Post in forums or pass out fliers. If you want everyone to come, get in the conference program.

  • Create a Brand

    Reusable glyphs and themes are good for fliers, venue signage, and swag. Keep these in a place all organizers have access to. If you’re not talented, throw money at artists in your subculture or on Fiverr. They can whip up an eye-popping array of choices that will tie your event message and community together through the power of art.

  • Swag

    Giving stuff away is the most powerful weapon in your organizer arsenal to stoke cohesiveness and growth. Everyone who darkens your door should walk away with a token. Volunteers should get something different. Pins look great on lanyards and can be mass-produced for under a quarter. Stickers can be even cheaper. Shirts are expensive, but can be walking billboards that last multiple years. Plan with production lead-times in mind. You don’t want to be stuck with 100x “Fyre Festival” shirts because you forgot to order them in time. Beware of logistics if you decide to sell swag: cash, transport, storage, and inventory all eat into money for staging the event itself.


  • Placate the Law

This is not the time to “fight the power”. Obtain permits. Pay fees. Head off any hard lessons before your guests have to learn them. Offer security deposits, donations, and clean-up services to nervous venues wondering why 500 nerds in black want to meet on a Thursday in 110° heat.

  • Closed Events are Manageable

Fairs that charge admission are usually permitted differently from family activities or clubs. Emphasizing to venue administration that your sideshow is not open to the public can help them understand the scope and danger when renting to you.

  • Everybody Gets Home Safe

Sometimes, the trouble comes from within. Make a short list of event rules, and adopt your parent event’s CoC. Make a plan for how to deal with harassment and hostiles. Have a contact at the main event and escalate issues that could spill over to become their problem. If attendees don’t feel safe, they will stop coming.

  • Emergencies

    Know the fastest way to reach emergency services in the community where the event is held. Stock and replenish first-aid kits in your supplies. Have appropriate safety measures for your featured activities (fire suppression, stranded guests, security contacts, etc.)

All Good Things

  • Prepare for Cancellation

Family emergencies, sudden venue unavailability, and power outages can all affect your event. Have a plan on how to relocate or shut down. Think about how you would notify people of such for off-site events. Account and plan for inclement weather through shelter or alternate sites.

  • Call a Dud Early

You only have so much time during a conference. Keeping people waiting at an event that is falling flat is a disservice to them and you. That being said, if those that did show up are having fun, lean into it. The first DEF CON was built from the ashes of a going-away party. We’ve turned a board game meet-up into a crypto-puzzle confab. Be creative with what you have.

  • Don’t be Discouraged

Learning how to organize takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself as you learn through mistakes. Sure, no bathrooms mean everyone dances whether they like it or not, but it will soon be a funny story. Begin planning for next year the moment your guests arrive. Keep an eye out for what needs to work better next year.

  • Let Go

Culture is built together and does not depend on one person. Prove it. When emergencies arise, let others step in and finish the job. The best outcome is that your event doesn’t need you at the helm.

Popular posts from this blog

Toxic BBQ at DEF CON 31

Toxic BBQ at DEF CON 32

The Odyssey of HackBus