A lot has already been written about the unfortunate happenings surrounding Modern Frontends Live and its organizer Gen Ashley. I have a voice and I need to use it and hopefully other conference organizers read this and the other posts and take note.
Not paying for flights
I speak at too many events to pay for them myself, so I don't go to events where my travel is not covered. I understand that travel is expensive so (in the past) I will offer to give workshops to help cover some of the cost as well.
When I found out my workshops weren't selling well three weeks in advance, I cancelled my workshop and adjusted my travel so Gen could save money on my hotel. However, I was on the hook for the extra amount of my flight. I was ok with this because I was expecting to stand on a stage like this one in front of 3000+ people:
I figured that would be good for my business, so it was an investment I was willing to make. Also, I felt it would be disappointing for some who had told me they were attending the conference to see me speak.
Workshop cancellations happen. Luckily I had pro-actively reached out to Gen to ask how ticket sales were going so I could adjust my travel plans. But workshop instructors shouldn't have to do that, and the vast majority of the 25+ workshop instructors were informed of their workshop cancellation days before their workshops. This is super not ok. Some of those people had already made the trip to London and now faced more time away from their homes/families than necessary. They may have been stressing over preparing the material only to find they didn't need it at all.
Not to mention attendees to the workshops who had made plans of their own.
Major communication failure here.
Oh, and the cancelled workshops were still listed on the website. As well as the speakers who cancelled their attendance due to not being able to make the trip without the workshop. Using people's faces and clout to continue to sell your event is not ok.
All marketing materials and sponsorship packets expressed the conference would be 3000+ people. The venue itself was definitely large enough to hold that, but not the tiny corner the conference was held in. It's possible Gen made some venue adjustments to save money, but not a single adjustment was made to any marketing material and I was told sponsors were not informed how poorly ticket sales were going.
Again, no communication.
Bad ticket sales happen. It was an ambitious conference. Just let keep us in the know of what to expect. When I showed up, I saw more like 300 people there. A tenth of what was promised. As wonderful as the people are, I'm afraid the investment I made in my company (by paying the bulk of my flight) was not justified. And I talked with sponsors who were frustrated that they sent as many people as they had to the event.
Honestly, the lack of communication at this point felt deceptive. But I'll try to avoid assigning intent, but when I asked Gen about it she dodged the question with "I don't know how many people are here" and "there are quite a few of unclaimed badges at the entrance." Give me a break. I've been a conference organizer before. You know exactly how many people purchased a ticket and you certainly know the difference between 300 and 3000 people. You also know weeks in advance how many people are going to be attending. She definitely could have and should have communicated early.
Having just a few people in attendance is not a huge issue if there are good recordings. I expect recordings of my talks for almost all conferences I speak at. It's a big part of the value I get from speaking. It's content. It's a way to reach people who aren't in a privileged position to attend.
I expected recordings because Modern Frontends pushed the "virtual" ticket very hard leading up to the conference. While those tickets were definitely sold, there were no cameras in any of the rooms. Most of the time I saw Gen, she was joking about people complaining online. I'm afraid I didn't understand all the context and assumed the people complaining were in the wrong (as is often the case on the internet) and encouraged her to let it "slide off like water on a duck" and told her to just focus on the people who paid for a ticket and make sure their experience is great.
Later that evening at dinner after I got a better picture of what was going on, I talked to Gen and she said the cameraman (note: singular) had a family emergency and couldn't make it. I asked about the other rooms and she said she planned on having speakers join Streamyard and doing the stream that way. Speakers were not told that at all so I would be surprised if that was really the plan ever. On top of that, ummm..... Streamyard? Really?
On top of all of that, she had tweeted that morning that they were still hoping to get the live stream going. I have no idea how she planned on getting things worked out without a camera man and without telling the speakers to join a Streamyard.
I asked her why she hadn't communicated that to those who had purchased virtual tickets and she said she planned on reimbursing them and giving them a free ticket to the next year's conference (if that does happen, I will definitely not be participating).
I was shocked to find she still hadn't let anyone know this yet. I told her I understand that these kinds of mistakes happen, but it's critical to communicate with people. I told her point blank: "If I were in your shoes, I'd pull out my phone and send that email right now." She just chuckled and said she'd get to it later. I again said "you should do it now." And she brushed it off.
Later that evening she DMed me screenshots showing that she had sent the reimbursement and:
As I expected, majority of people will be reasonable
🙄 The one person's message she had screenshotted was certainly more reasonable than she had been, that's for sure.
Not paying for speaker's travel
I found out later at the conference that some speakers had to pay for their own hotel and/or travel. Holy smokes. What a mess! These people have been taken advantage of. That's super not ok. Ugh.
In the communication that did happen, Gen repeated how expensive an event like this was to run. She made excuses instead of taking ownership of slip ups. Joked about people complaining. I honestly felt gas lit.
No credit to the team
I was told that the team was made up of volunteers. The code of conduct indicated that the team would be wearing branded shirts. They were not. Not even Gen. I haven't seen any credit given to any team members.
The lack of refreshment was frustrating. When lunch turned up, it was simple sandwiches, chips, and fruit. There was plenty of it at least. But on day 2 when it was exactly the same thing I went downstairs to Subway instead. Not a huge deal, but just another example demonstrating the lack of care.
Where I delivered my keynote was a fine room, but the other rooms were arranged in a way that didn't fit enough people. Also, due to what appears to be a lack of a program committee, talk room/time assignments resulted in some talks having very few attendees and others having standing room only. Imagine flying across the world to deliver a talk to 5 people. That happened to some people. Yikes.
Not all bad
I met some wonderful people. Many for the first time in real life. I had a great time. I went to "Back to the Future, the Musical" with a friend and had an awesome time.
Gen also checked on me on my way home to make sure I woke up in time to catch my flight and was very proactive to reimburse me for the portion we had agreed to which I really appreciate.
I wish things had gone better. I feel like a social contract has been broken and now I have to be even more careful than I already am about the events I agree to participate in and the agreements I make. I'll certainly not participate in an event with this organizer again. I hope that by me speaking up about this, other organizers can take note and treat people better.
There have been several other posts about this event feel free to read theirs: