This past weekend I was fortunate to attend and speak at the first WordCamp Europe. It was amazing: the sessions were interesting and varied and the people were super-friendly. Also, the concept was revolutionary: WordCamps are generally local, tied to a particular city. This conference was for all of Europe, and offered a major WordPress event for those outside of the US.

But as a three-time organizer of WordCamp Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but be awed by how flawlessly it all was organized. The schedule ran smoothly and there were no technical difficulties (except for with the wifi, but I have never been to a conference where the wifi worked well). How did they pull it off?

Zé Fontainhas (I just discovered that Zé is short for José) was one of the organizers of WordCamp Europe (WCEU), and he gave the opening remarks at the conference, which I thought were incredibly appropriate. He talked about Europe’s troubled history, but also the many major contributions that the continent has made to literature, art, and thought. I turned to him with a bunch of questions about organizing the conference, and he kindly answered.

Zé is team lead of the WordPress Polyglots, and organizer of WordCamps and meetups in Lisbon, Porto, and now Europe. He is an expert in the BuddyPress social network platform for WordPress, and used to work for Automattic. And he’s got a hilarious, dry sense of humor (in my opinion). You can find him on twitter at @zedejose.

Zé Fontainhas
Zé Fontainhas

Which WordCamp was it where you guys realized there was a need for WCEU?

I’m not sure it was at a specific WordCamp, but if I had to choose one it would probably be WordCamp Netherlands in 2009. I was invited to speak there and met Remkus de Vries in person, who I already “knew” online since he was and still is the lead translator for WordPress in Dutch and Frisian. We immediately got along extremely well and became very good friends. We may or may not have discussed something similar to a WordCamp Europe idea then; I can’t really remember, but if we did it was no more than a “What about aWordCamp Europe? Cool idea, yeah, pass the beer, please”. It seems that the idea had been floating in both our minds separately and simultaneously, the whole time. Be it as it may, the fact is that we kept running into each other at WordCamps and other events, and the subject always came up, more present and structured each time we talked about it.

More on how it happened here:

Who was involved in that initial process?

Those encounters also involved other people, who became the core of a close-knit group of friends, and who, in the end, became the core organizing team of WCEU. Be it at WordCamps, at WP On Tour, as collaborators on the WP Realm blog, or even at the WordPress Summit in Tybee, we ended up becoming the group that always discussed European “things”, WordCamp or otherwise. WP Realm was probably our first attempt at making that vision public, having from its inception a clear rest-of-the-non-US-WP-world slant to it. Aside from Remkus and myself, Siobhan McKeown, Tammie Lister, Hanni Ross and Noel Tock were the “co-founding members”. Later we invited Xavier Borderie, Ana Aires, Caspar Hübinger, Paolo Belcastro and Marcel Bootsman, to be part of this experiment, each on the personal recommendation from someone in the original team.

How did you guys choose Leiden as the location? Had you considered other options?

Our first concern for this and any WordCamp Europe is that it should be home to seasoned WordCamp organizers (this is, after all, not a trivial task), and be easily reachable, i.e. have a larger airport or be a major hub. Amsterdam was initially chosen as we thought that we needed to play it very safe on the first edition, and all those criteria were met. As it happens, since it was impossible to book a venue in Amsterdam for a reasonable price, we started looking a little further outside the city. Also, both Tammie and Noel had been at a conference in Leiden (at the same venue) and spoke highly of it. After that, it was only a matter of time and adjusting details until we could book the venue. As chance has it, it was our best idea yet.

Is there anything you did this year that you wouldn’t do again? Is there anything you feel was missing that you’d add next year?

To be completely honest, and aside from minor logistics and scheduling details (no panels, ever, as the very last talk, for instance), we think it was pretty close to perfect and that was precisely the feedback we’ve had from not only very seasoned WordCamp organizers in other locations, but also from people who’ve attended a few WordCamps before. We were a little worried about the networking (Europeans are notably more reserved than North Americans at such events), but it seems we had nothing to worry about, quite on the contrary 🙂

[MS – the people at the conference were incredibly outgoing and friendly. No reserved European-ness there!]

What are you particularly happy/proud about with this WordCamp?

Go on Twitter and take a look a the #wceu hashtag 🙂 I mean take a good look at it. We all feel so incredibly humbled by the amount of feedback and the love we’re getting from practically everyone who attended, especially because we would have never dared to anticipate such a marvelous response. We feel proud, yes. And even more so because we’ve managed to bring European (and not only) WordPress enthusiasts together, in such a general tone of celebration. We feel as having built the basic structure of a true community; the amount of cross-conversations and dialogue between people after this event is absolutely staggering.

What do you think could have been done better?

Well, the wifi, of course; we seriously need to work on that, especially since we all very well knew from other adventures that it is usually the one recurrent pain point. Also, we certainly could’ve done a better job at giving the sponsors a little more exposure at the venue, but let me reassure them right now, that this will be done differently in future editions. There were minor failures, obviously, but I think that both the organizing team and the amazing volunteers team did a stellar job at fixing them.

Were there any crises while organizing the conference?

Ah well, I won’t pretend we didn’t all have a headless-chicken moment of “ohmygod-ohmygod-this-is-happening-what-do-I-do-now-700-people-we’re-going-to-break-it” at some point or other 🙂 All I can say, is that we didn’t have that moment all at the same time, thankfully. We were always a solid group tied together first and foremost by a very deep and meaningful friendship and, as a group, never for one minute doubted that we could pull this off. The other crises had probably to do with logistics and deadlines, but we all know from previous WordCamps that the important thing is to have backup plans in place. (Plus we’re Europeans, so in the face of utter despair, we’ll probably puff on the Gauloise, quote Sartre and cooly remain confident that we can fix it :P)

Were there any amazing moments while organizing, where things fell together in a way you could never imagine, and the angels sang?

Aside from the awe I felt when seeing this team at work, I can’t sing enough praises to the amazing work of the volunteers team, led by Marcel and Paolo. They were absolutely fantastic, and to this day I wonder which gods we have pleased to have been blessed with such an incredible and tireless group of people. I also need to mention the whole staff of the Stadsgehorzaal [MS – the venue], who went well beyond a simple client-supplier relationship; most notably Charlotte and Nathalie, who were not only the personification of sympathy, but also of quiet and infallible efficiency. So in short, the angels sang at seeing how this event brought out the best in all of them. I personally feel incredibly lucky for having experienced such a conjugation of good-will. Maybe this is what makes WordPress so unique. All these fantastic people.

WordCamp Europe volunteers.
The magical people who made #wceu happen for us. Thank you! By Japh on Instagram