Last May, James Forrester announced to the world that London had been awarded the 2014 Wikimania conference. Functioning as the Wikimedia movement's annual conference, it is separate from the chapter-focused Wikimedia Conference. The first Wikimania conference took place in 2005 in Frankfurt, with 380 attendees. London, the tenth, in August, is expected to attract 1500. With Wikimania ambition, attention, and attendance rising significantly over the last nine years, how have this year's monetary costs come to be?
The London organizers had a head start on 2014 after a failed attempt for 2013, as they were able to reuse much of their previous bid's content and formatting. It also discouraged potential competitors from bidding. Still, the first plan put to the selection committee overseeing the bidding process was extremely large, featuring an £804,500 budget. Initial estimates in the proposal pegged the attendance at 8,000 (with 6,000 coming in a "public track", the manifestation of a "Wikifest" aimed at non-Wikimedians), when the largest Wikimania to date had been about 1400 in Washington, D.C. (2012).
Other estimates seemed to go even higher, to 10,000, though conference director Ed Saperia told the Signpost that "the 10,000 figure was actually 'delegate-days' rather than delegates. ~3000 delegate * 3 days = ~10,000 delegate days. And the venue can comfortably hold that many, though of course I can't guarantee how many tickets we'll sell." The exact planned total is murky, but in a March 2013 question and answer session with committee member James Hare, Saperia said that there would only be "4000-4500 people in the venue at any one point." However, these numbers were privately derided; we previously asked an individual familiar with the organizing team's preparations (but very critical of how they handled them) about these projected numbers. They told us that they had "seen absolutely no evidence that that figure is anything close to realistic" and commented that "the main auditorium [cannot hold] that many people, so there would be a thousand people milling around outside during Jimmy's address".
Revenue was pegged at £860,000, with £500,000 from corporate sponsorships, £300,000 from the Wikifest ("6000 [2000 daily passes per day] at £50 each"; more on what happened to the Wikifest is below), and £60,000 from the registration fees for Wikimedia movement attendees.
The selection committee forced the London team to sharply reduce their budget. Serious consideration was given to re-opening the bidding process to different cities who could provide a less "costly and complicated [conference with a] simpler core budget and lower-cost options for attendees." Hare wrote to the Signpost that "their original proposal was sweeping in scope, calling for a huge outreach component attracting 10,000 people over the duration of the conference. We had doubts about the feasibility of such a proposal, so we asked them to produce a more realistic budget in the event they did not hit their revenue targets."
The London organizers responded by offering three separate budgets: "core", "basic", and "luxury". They were awarded the conference on the basis of the first, with projected revenues of £214,000: £99,000 from the WMF, £85,000 from sponsorships, and £30,000 from 1500 registrations. Costs would be £211,882, including a projected £40,000 for the Barbican Centre.
Since then, the Wikimania team has faced several recent troubles, including being two months late in deciding what programs to include, registration payments being accepted only via credit cards, and problems with the official hotel. Ellie Young, the WMF's conference coordinator working with the organizers, responded to these issues: according to her, being late is "not uncommon for large events like these, and it doesn't appear to have deterred people from registering", and PayPal is now being accepted for the registration costs.
Furthermore, the plans and costs of the conference have changed greatly from the "core" budget and certainly from the grand initial proposal. The Wikifest, which was a separate conference in the same venue geared towards non-Wikimedians and initially intended to be on the same scale as Wikimania, has been whittled down to a series of keynote speakers. Stevie Benton of Wikimedia UK (WMUK) wrote to us in May that the two are "one and the same", and that the "themes" in this Wikimania "are also focused on outreach beyond the existing Wikimedian community", though without clarifying where the focus would manifest itself, as at the time of his comments, the conference's programme had not been released. In a similar vein, Saperia stated that "we are still having a two-in-one conference, but of course it won't be billed as that; to do so would undermine the whole point of trying to do a more inclusive, outreach focused event."
Young and Garfield Byrd, the Chief of Finance and Administration at the WMF, told the Signpost that the total budget for Wikimania 2014 is around $500,000. This includes the cost of the Barbican Centre, which jumped from £40,000 ($61,000) in the initial proposal to £120,000 ($205,000), though it started even lower; when asked about it in the March 2013 Q&A with Hare, Saperia replied:
The venue is owned by the City of London corporation who are backing this bid. The venue has a tentative reservation on it until June 1st and has provisionally been given to us at cost, we are currently in the process of drawing up an MOU which we hope will be done in time for the bid decision. This is a high level agreement, including dates, estimated costs and includes things such as the Lord Mayor (Head of the City of London) opening the conference. Once this is complete we will be at the point in negotiation where we are debating over who will pay for things like security, on site medical, disposable items (trash bags, toilet roll etc), this is surprisingly time consuming and requires legal input from both sides, as such there is a reluctance to move any further until we get confirmation one way or another if we have won the bid. So in answer to your question we could have it signed off within a month of getting the go ahead.
By "at cost", Saperia was planning for a total venue expenditure of £20,000/$34,000, though one person with knowledge about the preparations wrote us that it was "absurd" to think that could ever happen. While it's not clear what caused the price to increase, Saperia told us that the center is now "being generous in return so we're getting more staff and space than we expected, allowing us to make savings elsewhere." In essence, it is a matter of necessity: they are locked into spending 40% of the budget on the Barbican, so they are attempting to host as many events as possible there to slash costs elsewhere. An example of this could come from what was going to be the closing party at Tate Modern, an event highlighted and emphasized in a presentation given at Wikimania 2013, but canceled due to what Saperia said were "complications" in using the building.
Future Wikimanias may turn out to be less expensive: according to Wikimania 2015 organizer and president of Wikimedia Mexico Ivan Martínez, the WMF directed them to have a budget that was as close to $300,000 as possible.
Everything is on track and it's going to be a great event. ... We're looking forward to seeing the community there.
What about revenue? According to Young and Byrd, the London Wikimania will receive an outlay of around $300,000 from the Wikimedia Foundation. This is $200,000 higher than Wikimania 2011 in Haifa, Israel, though that conference had only 650 attendees. However, it compares very favorably to Wikimania 2012, which cost $554,422.51 and was held in Washington, D.C., another expensive city.
An additional $200,000 is being raised from the five corporate sponsors: Google, Ask.com, Wikihow, MathWorks, and Tupperware. While the bid listed 22 possible companies and organizations, and only one of them (Google) signed on, Young chided us for focusing on the dichotomy: "it is a very difficult conference to promote to corporate sponsors." For its part, Wikimedia UK will be spending £38,500 from its reserves for "printed materials, merchandising, and to pay for three temporary members of staff to help with the conference", according to Benton.
The bottom line, however, is whether the conference will be ready for its debut in a month. Praising the organizing team and WMUK, Young assured us that it will be:
My job as conference coordinator is to make sure everything is executed, and all the required tasks are being handled. We're doing this in London, and we'll do it next year in Mexico. We are on target. ... Everything is on track and it's going to be a great event. The volunteer program committee and our Wikimania team and the staff has been active, engaged, and instrumental in making sure we will have an exceptional event next month. We're looking forward to seeing the community there.
Still waiting on Wikimania 2013's budget
In a recurring postscript, the financial report from Wikimania 2013—due last August, or eleven months ago—has still not been released. Byrd advised us in April that the WMF had received the required documents from Hong Kong, and they are now waiting for the final audit cost before publishing them.
Something hampering the London organizers, and possibly those of the 2015 Mexico City event, is that previous budgets still remain opaque to the public, with limited information on expenditures and income (if both are even listed). James Hare wrote us that "It does frustrate me that Wikimania has not been standardized enough ... but I think it's going to gradually get better and you can never be too perfect at predicting the cost of something like a conference, given the economic inefficiencies of event planning at this scale." Such missing materials can create a "systemic incompetence stemming from a lack of rigorous documentation for most of the conference's existence".
This article was edited after publication to clarify the introduction and add the expense total for Wikimania 2012.