The real backbone of any event is its volunteers. Without being able to pay people in-kind, most events simply wouldn’t be economically viable. So there’s a good reason why every event is looking for volunteers… but is it worth your while? In most cases, yes, but there are always trade-offs to be made. So if you’re thinking of volunteering, already volunteer regularly, or you’re an event organizer looking to up your game, there should be something here for you!
The following tips and tricks will cover everything from LAN parties, to expos and conferences. It’s a collection of my own experiences as a volunteer and volunteer manager, as well as those from people who I’ve volunteered with or offered their thoughts via social media.
If you’ve got any advice for people that I haven’t touched on here, feel free to add it in the comments at the bottom.
For most starting out, cost saving is the primary reason. Your time as a volunteer will most commonly be repaid with a free ticket to the event and some food and drink; probably a t-shirt of variable quality thrown in for good measure. If you’re a student or an indie developer, it can be a great way to get your foot in the door.
Additionally, If you’re new to a scene or city, volunteering is a great way to get to know people and make friends. Attending an event as a lone individual can still be fun, but it’s hard to meet people despite being surrounded by hundreds or thousands with similar interests.
Volunteering makes you part of a team with a common goal, and will often give you shifts in pairs where you can chat away the hours. If you’re attending in a more professional capacity, networking horizontally (i.e. with people on your level, as opposed to vertically, with people more senior to you) with other volunteers can provide you with connections that are very useful later in life.
Some people I spoke to echoed my own sentiments for why working on events can be so special. Looking around and seeing so many people having a good time feels great. Knowing that you had even a small impact on someone’s experience, or knowing that someone’s experience with a volunteer leads to a positive anecdote, can be incredibly gratifying.
Lastly, there is an incredible amount of insight to be gained if you are interested in running your own events. I work as an event manager and still volunteer at other events to see how others run things; I make notes, applying what I like to my own work. After moving country, I volunteered as much as I could and all the work I now have has come through making a name for myself. If you want to peek behind the curtain, there’s no better way.
The Trade-Offs of Volunteering
The first thing to work out is why you want to be at a particular event. I’m not going to call volunteering an “incomplete” version of the intended experience, but it is a different version from that of someone buying a ticket.
When you’re looking at the schedule for a conference and want to attend every talk, or want to compete in a primary tournament for a LAN party, maybe volunteering isn’t for you on this occasion. You will often have no control over when your shifts are; trading with another volunteer is a possibility, but not something you can rely on.
If the cost of a ticket is prohibitive to you attending in any other capacity, then absolutely go for it and make the most of the trade-offs. If your goal is networking, making friends, or insight, then volunteering is absolutely worth doing.
Making the Most of it
Here’s where the real meat of what I wanted to cover comes in. I’ve scoured my own thoughts and those of other volunteers to give you our collective knowledge on how to have the best experience possible.
First and foremost: make sure you take care of yourself. There are plenty of guides already written for what to pack or be aware of when attending an event. As a volunteer, you’re still attending the event, so make sure you’re prepared!
When you’re filling out the form to be a volunteer, be as clear and concise as you can. The volunteer manager will need to go through so many of these, and if you’re inconsistent or confusing they may just not accept your application. If you have certain skills then sell yourself!
The base level shift will be checking badges or operating the bar, but if you can do bigger things then let them know and you might get more interesting shifts! The same goes for repeat volunteering, if you’ve already helped in the past then you may get prioritised for better shifts, but don’t expect the volunteer manager to know that just from your name!
Join whatever facebook groups, WhatsApp chats, etc that are set up for volunteers. Introduce yourself! Take a look through and if you’re a veteran volunteer, maybe you’ll recognise some names. Otherwise, this is a great way to start making connections before you even get to the event.
See if it’s possible to stay with other volunteers. Sometimes, although rarely, an event will offer accommodation for those helping out (LAN parties being the exception as usually sleeping arrangements are part of the ticket). See if the organiser is taking requests to book a hostel on behalf the volunteers, and if not, reach out in advance to others and book something together. It makes it way easier for getting to know people and stops the experience from being lonely.
There’s often more than one way to volunteer at a larger event, so take a look around. A few people I spoke to had all helped on the booth for the game Spy Party at PAX West, and I’ve helped via an esports team on a booth in the past. If you know a particular game (aim for the indies, big titles will be covered with staff usually) or team will be exhibiting, then consider reaching out to them and asking if you can help.
Educate yourself about the event as best you can. You might just have shifts on the bar, but chances are you’re going to get asked all sorts of things by guests. Strive to be the person that solves problems. Make sure to read any documentation sent in advance, attend the volunteer briefing if you can (and catch up if you can’t), and take a wander through the event when you arrive so you know where everything is.
Learn to recognise when and when not to escalate an issue. The core team of an event will most likely be all hands on deck at all hours of the day. If you can solve small issues without bothering them, it helps to make life a lot easier. However, that’s not to say you should handle everything yourself. If you’re uncomfortable doing something, or if an attendee is giving you grief, say something to team member and they can take over. If you haven’t understood what you were told to do, ask for it to be repeated. I apologise now on behalf of stressed production teams shouting vague orders, but we’d rather be asked to repeat ourselves than come back and see something done wrong.
Know what you want to see from the rest of the event. Every event will expect a different amount of hours from you in terms of shifts, but in most cases it will be a reasonable chunk of your time. If you’ve only got a small amount of time to see everything it can help a lot to prioritise and see those things first. Otherwise you’re stuck with analysis paralysis once you’re off shift.
One of the best things to throw in your bag is a multiplayer game. Bringing something like a Nintendo Switch, a pack or cards, or Werewolves/Mafia can be great for killing time between shifts. Sometimes you’ll be free when there isn’t much on, which is unfortunate, but you’re at a gaming event! Clearly everyone else here enjoys games too! (Bringing a deck of Magic: the Gathering normally works pretty well too if you play).
Find out what is offered specifically to volunteers. Sometimes this will be explicitly stated, for example at Quo Vadis this year there was a panel about getting into the game development industry, and it was also possible to exhibit your game. Other times, this might not be so explicitly stated, but by volunteering you now have a contact on the inside, so take advantage!
Send an email and ask if there’s any space for you to show what you’re working on, or if volunteers get priority access to open screen sessions. Don’t expect this as a given, but if the production manager already knows you’re there wanting to do something, you’re in a better position than just being some stranger approaching out of the blue. For expos, sometimes you get a day ticket for a friend too.
Sometimes, but not always, a volunteer thank you party will take place. Depending on the style of event, and how local the volunteers are, will affect whether or not this is worthwhile as an extra effort for the organisers. However, if there is a thank you party, attend it if you can! It’s a great way to catch up with people (and especially the organising team) in a less stressful environment.
Please fill out any feedback surveys or forms that are sent out after the event! This is incredibly useful to the team, and as volunteers you had a very particular insight that most attendees didn’t. The organising team can’t be everywhere all the time (much as they might try), and so your observations are very helpful in terms of making the volunteer and attendee experience even better the next time.
— Thorsten S Wiedemann (@ST0RN0) April 30, 2018
With all that said, honestly, just have fun. There will plenty of things to dive into, so just be there with an attitude to make the most of it. You’ll come away having learned something, made some friends, with some great memories.
Things to Look Out For
Not every event is equally good at managing its volunteers, and sometimes an event is a great attendee experience but a rubbish volunteering one. Being critical of your time as a volunteer is important, as if you’re not being valued then maybe your time is better spent elsewhere. Let’s say you’ve just volunteered somewhere for the first time and you’re now considering whether or not you do again next year, here are a few things to consider:
Did you have a good time? If you were made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, make sure the organiser is made aware in a polite way. If it was because of certain people then don’t be afraid to say something, and see how the organiser deals with your issue.
How much work did you have to do compared to how much time you had to enjoy the event? It’s unlikely to change for next year, so if you think you had to do too much for what you got in return, take that into account. I would suggest trying to discount the experience of a “boring shift”. Sometimes this just happens, as the work needs to be done by someone, but volunteering again should put you in a position for a better shift.
Are you still wanting the same things out of the event? With developer conferences, as you build up and become more secure, you may wish to have more time to actually enjoy the talks and be in a better financial position to do so. If you’re going to LAN parties, maybe you want to compete now. Sometimes your personal trade-off within the event will change, so keep track of your priorities.
I hope you’ve learned something from all of this, and I would thoroughly encourage you to try out volunteering whenever you can. If you have any extra tips you think would be useful for people, drop them in the comments below or you can message me on Twitter.