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Reflecting on WordCamp Phoenix 2024: Struggles, Successes, and the Road Ahead

Seven months ago I registered for & scheduled a trip to Phoenix Arizona for a non-WordPress-related event! Crazy, right? As luck would have it, four months later, WordCamp Phoenix had announced that their event would be for that same weekend I was to be in town. How lucky was I to have both of my passions collide? 

I packed up all my necessary items for the non-WP event earlier in the week, hopped on my flight on the Thursday before camp (WordCamp was scheduled for Friday & Saturday), and headed West. 

Though I could only attend for a half-day on Friday due to my other commitment, I did notice a few things that were different from past WordCamps.

I reached out to the lead organizer Raquel Manriquez and we discussed the overall event compared to years past, struggles, and the future of WordCamps. Below are the questions and answers from the interview. 

AS: Can you provide a brief overview of this year’s WordCamp Phoenix 2024, the theme and you coming back as the Lead Organizer? 

RM: There’s a loaded answer to that question! The theme question is quite interesting. At the beginning of the summer when we started planning we kind of tossed out ideas but we couldn’t come to a consensus. Some in the team threw out this idea of the “Joy of WordPress.” Like a Bob Ross sort of idea. Full disclosure, I was like, no, I don’t see it. What does that mean? And the team replied with, “You know, everything will be happy little websites”. I then said, “Happy little websites? Okay, that’s one thing. What else?” Someone added, “We’ll all wear Bob Ross wigs.” And I was like, “What? No, it’s gross!” I just couldn’t visualize it, so we kind of shelved the idea for a while. 

Then back in December we brought on Amber Pechin as Content Wrangler. She’s an incredibly talented writer. She asked about our theme and I mentioned we really didn’t have one but we were kind of toying around with this idea of the Joy of WordPress. 

The theme crept back in after our WP community starting fighting. And so, we kind of thought, let’s bring the joy back to what we fell in love with. You know, with the community, with open source, with democratizing publishing. She took that, ran with it, and created this entire like slide deck of what it means to have the Joy of WordPress being WordCamp Phoenix’s theme. So come full circle, our theme ended up being the Joy of WordPress. Our Wapuu is Bob Rosspuu and it’s really cute. And we included an art theme around it. I think last summer Matt Mullenweg tweeted, that he’d like to see more art at WordCamps. That inspired us.

On me being the lead organizer,… yes I was the lead again. I led in 2018 & 2019 but didn’t want to lead again necessarily, but we didn’t have someone else to lead. A struggle of mine is when I’m misunderstood, misread, or misjudged. Like if someone is judging me for being loud and silly, I don’t feel offended because I know I’m that way. But when I’m judged for something I’m not, well, I really struggle. I didn’t want anyone to think that this is the Raquel show but at the end of the day, I can’t control what others think.

AS: Do you feel that the camp was successful? 

RM: Well, that’s a two-part answer, and it would be yes and no. By my standards, and by WordCamp Phoenix standards in the past, it wasn’t what we expected. We have typically sold out every WordCamp since 2009. In the early years, 2009 to 2014, we were pretty much the biggest local camp. The only one bigger at the time was WordCamp San Francisco, which became WordCamp US.  

In Feb 2020 we had a 500-person event and then the pandemic hit. When we brought it back in March 2023 we sold 400 tickets and things felt good. The vibe of the event had great energy. But starting with planning this iteration in 2024, almost from the get-go it was hit with so much shit happening against us.

WordCamps are changing with the future of WordCamps reiteration. So there’s that. That was a hard pill for us to swallow because we’ve always been more of a SuperCamp. Even in 2009, we had a huge event. We had huge sponsors like Uber and Cox Internet. We had a panel with Matt Mullenweg and Josh Strebel, etc… so small events are not our jam.

And our 2023 March event gave us good reason to think that this is our community. This is how we show up. So proceeded to have the same #wcphx style event. We submitted our budget. It was denied. Basically due to it being too costly, they wanted us to get a venue that was sub $10k. 

I sort of get it, but then again, we have a proven track record that we raise enough money. Even in 2023, we raised almost 30k and that’s a lot compared to a typical WordCamp. So, we were just put into a really hard place. Which is really what it comes down to. That happened early on and we were left scrambling to find a new venue. 

I found a new venue at Phoenix College but it just wasn’t the same, as we’re used to being in actual event spaces. We’ve never been in a school/college, though I have been to many WordCamps held on campuses, and it was always a blast. So we weren’t opposed to it and figured it would be fine. But what became clear is that to create that true camp a good chunk of it would be outside. For me, sponsors are the most important aspects of a camp because camps need a lot of money and these sponsors come in knowing that there’s not going to be an ROI on their monetary investment. It’s going to be a different ROI, right? And now our Hallway Track/epicenter of WordCamp Phoenix would take place outside which is risky. 

And we were delayed in announcing BY OUR VENUE! And we had a third of our speakers drop. The team got emotional. There was drama. Heartache. Broken friendships… I’m not even touching everything that went wrong. Murphy showed up in full force.

AS: How was the engagement of the attendees?

RM: We sold 200 tickets which was embarrassing for me. I guess it was beyond our control. But my biggest thing is like, why? I feel like a lot of the hiccups and the hurdles, if not walls, that were placed in front of us (that I decided to hurdle-nay, bulldoze over), greatly affected our attendance. So, yeah, we sold 200 tickets when we sold 400 in 2023, so that’s quite a difference. In our metrics, Fridays always get the most amount of people so Saturday was sad panda.

AS: Oh, really? Back at WCLAX Saturdays were always more popular and Sundays had a large drop-off. 

RM: I think people tend to look at Fridays like a work day and think “I’m gonna go to this work conference”. Then Saturday comes and they’re like, I want to hang with my fam. 

And then the other thing was the weather. The highs were in the low 50s, and it was raining! Then we had to find awnings for the sponsors, just in case it actually rained when they were there, which thankfully never did happen.

If I’m being honest, I felt guilty. I felt guilty that we had these two incredible keynote speakers who have been pivotal in the startup and entrepreneurial community in Phoenix from day one. They’ve always been supporters and sponsored our entire WordPress community and have hosted plenty of our meetups at their co-working spaces. To not have a full audience for them… The same thing with some of our speakers. I know we had a lot of feedback afterward regarding Quinn Tempest, Tanya Moushi, and Perry Collins and how incredible their talks were. All local women to Phoenix… but there weren’t hundreds of people to watch them. 

AS: Have you gathered feedback from the event?

RM: Not yet. For the first time ever, I feel burnout (I didn’t think that could happen to me). The team is burnt out. And I have bragged to the world about how amazing our team is, how we don’t get burnout, how we have each other’s backs, and how if somebody drops a plate, someone’s there to help. It just didn’t happen like that this time around. And it’s really hard not to blame myself, even though I know and my head knows it’s not my fault. But my heart feels shame.

AS: Word on the street has it that you toss out the idea or you have the idea to do a regional WordCamp.

RM: Anybody who knows me knows my why. That is human connection. The reason I fell in love with WordPress is because there was this group of humans that genuinely wanted to connect for no reason other than we’re in this space together. So let’s connect. And I’d never experienced that in my life. So I fell head over heels, absolutely in love with this community, and made a career out of it. I love it. I love putting events on and I could do it in my sleep. I could plan an event off the top of my head, you know, a conference. It’s a labor of love.

I’ve had this idea of a regional for a long time. This dates back to pre-pandemic as I knew the rules: you had to have a local camp and you had to have several local camps in an area or region to have a regional and I was like, how cool would that be to have a Southwest region of the United States WordCamp. I remember approaching Matt Cromwell at Pressonomics 6, the very last one in September 2019.

I was like, I got this idea. Because we qualify, and we all love each other, because we’ve all kind of rotated at each other’s camps and stuff, and like, it kinda feels like we’re all in the same neighborhood. What if we had a regional? And I remember he liked it, but mentioned having to get WordCamp San Diego back up. And then he moved to Germany and the pandemic happened. 

So, then fast forward to now, and we were just, like, gungho, let’s get Phoenix back, and we did. Then 2024 happens, and kind of coming back to the question you asked earlier if I regret 2024. I do not regret it at all. I love our community. I love my people so deeply. But it was not what we expected. And now I’m reflecting and know that we need to start doing something different. If everybody’s burnt out, then we need to change. The pandemic caused a lot of emotional burnout before we even did anything in person. Our community hasn’t fully recovered.

You know what I mean? A lot of the community is just burnt out. Traveling to multiple cities from SoCal to Nevada to Arizona to attend a 1/2-day camp is less attractive. We got used to just chilling in our homes. 

I’m on board with the future of WordCamps and the mission that’s now being laid out, but I want really cool, magical WordCamps still. Maybe it’s a dream? And I’m cool with it being one larger one (regional) versus a bunch of little ones than to have nothing at all. Which, might be where we end up. Personally, I don’t want to see a world where WordCamps are essentially a hackathon. That’s great to have a bunch of those, and I’m not against it at all. What I’m against is that only being it. And I’ll just come out and say it. I don’t want that to be the only existence of a WordCamp.

AS: What’s the status then and what are the next steps for a regional WC to be approved? 

RM: Well, back in the day, you had to have several meetups to then have an actual WordCamp. And then you had to have several local WordCamps to have a regional. And it really wasn’t an issue to a US-based camp. It was more of a Europe situation as my friend, Remkus wanted to have WordCamp Netherlands and had a journey getting that going. And now we’re seeing WordCamp Canada, right? When I saw Canada was announced, that rekindled my flame. 

Phoenix is tired. I’m not tired, but I’m tired of everyone around me being tired and we need more leaders. We need more help. And I love my people. I love my team. We have true friendship with each other.

We deeply love each other. I care about them deeply. And I’m like, I can’t keep us going like this without actual help. So my hopelessly endearing self came up with the idea to officially have a WordCamp Southwest Regional.

The Southwest region has that magic like Phoenix has. THe Phoenix community loves each other,  and all these communities of the SW US love each other too. 

I am a 13-year-old girl, metaphorically speaking, who always has these big wide eyes in the way I view the world. Full disclosure, I definitely have this nostalgic attachment to the days when we went to each other’s WordCamps in the 20-teens. I’m working on it. That nostalgia that is.

Is it naive of me to think that everyone’s going to be on board? Probably. But, I’m still going to go for it and be that all-things-are-possible Raquel. 

AS: What’s your timeline for a regional? 

RM: Honestly, I want to start conversations now! But it won’t happen if we don’t have everyone on board.

AS: Final question, what are your key takeaways from this year’s WordCamp. 

RM: The key takeaways are:

  1. The community at large is going through a split in emotional ways that are affecting us physically and it sucks.
  2. WordCamp Phoenix needs more help to continue.
  3. I want to have a regional. I would like our next iteration to be a regional, whether that’s spring or fall 2025 I’m not sure, but a girl can dream.
  4. Turns out, I do have a capacity so I am going to take some time and not volunteer so much. (famous last words)