So you want to run a Rails Camp?

Bikers with tents and beer

I’ve had a few people ask me lately about what’s involved in running a Rails Camp (I’ve had the honour/naïvety to run a few), so I figure it’s worth writing down all of my thoughts here as an easy reference.

First, for those not familiar with Rails Camps - they’re long weekends for Rubyists and Ruby-curious to gather, socialise, hack on side/open-source projects, build cool things, listen to talks, and just generally have fun. They’re usually held at pretty low-key venues - sleeping arrangements are dorm rooms with bunk beds.

They began in Australia in 2007 - Ben Askins organised the first, many others have stepped up to run more since (two every year in Australia), and they’ve played such an important role in bringing the Australian Ruby community together and helping us grow bigger, stronger and smarter.

The general format we’ve followed in Australia and New Zealand is as follows:

  • Arrive Friday afternoon, depart Monday morning - so there’s two full days for people to enjoy, plus a decent afternoon/evening to settle in.
  • We usually organise buses from the local airport and city centre to take people to the camp on the Friday, and then take them back again on Monday morning.
  • Some camps have been as small as 30 people, and others as large as 150 people. There is no ‘correct’ number - starting at the smaller end of the scale is probably wise for the first event in an area.
  • A very relaxed schedule - sometimes talks are sourced beforehand, though more often it’s left until the camp happens. People can go to talks, or hack, or socialise, or sleep, or whatever they like. Talks usually happen on just the Saturday and Sunday - there’s definitely no time on Monday (that’s just breakfast, cleaning up, and goodbyes), and Friday night the focus is very much on socialising and hacking.
  • Generally food is catered - the first few in Australia we organised food ourselves, which went well enough, but it’s another level of stress, and since we switched to paying for caterers, that’s worked really well for us.
  • Venues are generally a big hall or two (ideally one for hacking, and one for talks - if there’s a third spare for werewolf and other games, or for dining, even better, though we often have food and hacking in the same space, which isn’t the end of the world), plus dorm rooms for sleeping. Often at the Australian camps there’s a handful of people who opt to sleep in tents, but the majority opt for the dorm bunk beds.
  • Often there’s a chance on the Sunday evening for people to show off what they’ve hacked on over the weekend - prizes are optional (sometimes we have them, sometimes we don’t - it’s certainly not a competition, just a chance to do cool things and share them).
  • We don’t provide Internet access, but do we set up a local wifi network to allow everyones’ computers to talk to each other. Back when we first started, it was pre-iPhone and the idea of tethering for the Internet was unheard of. These days, at most camps - if there is cell phone reception - people will tether when they need to get online, but sometimes camps are in locations where there’s not even cell phone reception, and it’s arguably even better :)

Rails Camp

This is most certainly the AU/NZ model - and it’s what the previous UK and US camps have followed too. From what I understand, the other European Rails Camps (particularly in Germany) are closer to a BarCamp model, which is a more structured unconference style. As far as I know, the AU & NZ camps are the only ones still regularly happening - indeed, we’re coming up to #17 in June here in Australia.

From a cost perspective - Rails Camps in Australia and New Zealand are generally somewhere between $200 and $350 (AUD/NZD) per person, which includes all meals and accommodation. Discounts are often offered for women (the upcoming Rails Camp in Australia has 20% off for women, because women in Australia sadly are generally paid about 20% less than men), and for students.

Philip Arndt offers the following expense breakdown from the recent New Zealand camps:

Typically, for about 80 people, the venue costs about $5000-6000 and the food costs about $8000-9000. Drinks (alcoholic, and non alcoholic) end up costing about $4000 but I’d recommend avoiding this for the first event and just getting people to bring their own. T-shirts end up costing about $20 for each person but this is often sponsored too.

Mountain DJ

Keep in mind that those values are in New Zealand dollars, and alcohol there and in Australia is more expensive than many other parts of the world.

And while getting sponsorship is super helpful, I’d recommend aiming for ticket costs to cover food and accommodation - thus, sponsorship isn’t so critical (and if you find support, then that just makes the event even better).

When it comes to collecting money, it’s nice to have an organisation backing you (and taking on the insurance as well, ideally). This was not the case for the first several camps in Australia and New Zealand (they were run from people’s personal bank accounts, and any profits were passed onto the next organisers), but that provided part of the incentive to create Ruby Australia and Ruby New Zealand.

Alongside all of this, I recommend noting having a read of my thoughts on running events and creating welcoming spaces - things like Codes of Conduct are highly recommended for Rails Camps. Just because they’re more relaxed compared to proper conferences doesn’t mean you should skip such key elements to create safe events. Better yet, read what people like Ashe Dryden have to say.

I’ll try to keep this post up-to-date with any other thoughts on the matter (and certainly, I welcome input both from other organisers and those considering organising). If you’re interested in organising, it’s highly recommended that you attend a Rails Camp somewhere first - it’s much easier to get a feel for the event that way.

Finally: at the time of writing, there’s plans afoot for Rails Camps in California and perhaps Belgium - talk to Bobbilee and Christophe, respectively, to stay in the loop for those. One happening somewhere near New York is also a possibility. As mentioned, the next Rails Camp in Australia will be in June near Sydney, and some plans are taking shape for the November camp too. New Zealand Rails Camps are generally in the first quarter of each year, so keep an eye out for news of their sixth outing later this year.