Journey to McHacks: The Triad - Food, Venue, and Transportation

Our last blog post addressed the issue of sponsorships which then begs the obvious question, “Where does all that money go?” The majority of the budget is allocated to what we’d like to call the Holy Trinity of hackathon spending: food, venue and transportation.

The McHacks team had no problem being 100% transparent with us as they shared their struggles (i.e. that awkward moment when you get a quote, and it’s way out of your budget), subsequent quick fix as well as their wins.

Acquiring sponsorships was only part one of the equation. Running a successful hackathon requires a few more ingredients:

1. Food to feed your hackers

2. Venue to host your hackers

3. Transportation to move your hackers

With that in mind, we’ll take you through what each of these items actually entails, but first, how does the team decide on budget allocation?

Allocating a Tight Budget

Two words: through experience.

Ashique, Head of Sponsorships, admits to having no idea how the previous people managed to pull it off for the first edition of McHacks. But fortunately for the team this year, they were able to learn from what’s been done in the past, and re-adjust their costs accordingly.

That being said, certain expenses can’t be sacrificed: food and venue. These are the top things that a hackathon can’t go without, and that will likely take precedence over other expenses – even coming ahead of transportation. Extra swag, prizes, and other cool little things that make the event more fun will follow suit once the more important items are taken care of.

With new sponsorship goals put in place, this leads us to June 2015 – a month during which a tentative budget was initially decided upon. The team essentially sets their budget on a per person basis. Well, sort of. Certain expenses like venue are fixed cost but most things like food and swag are calculated based on individual head counts. Considering past experiences, the team also decided to over budget to account for unexpected speed bumps along the way.

Planning a Feast for 600 Hackers

When Hackathon Rhymes with Copious Amounts of Coffee

Despite not being the healthiest of options, caffeine-filled beverages are very common if not ubiquitous on hackathon grounds, and essentially how hackers remain fueled throughout the event. The team’s been trying hard to pull strings in order to get unlimited coffee to keep sleep-deprived hackers running during the entire hackathon.

One way of going about it is by trying to score coffee sponsorships through different vendors. Past years have welcomed Tim Hortons as a proud sponsor – a choice everyone was quite content with. McHacks is heavily focused on showing off its Canadian roots, and there’s hardly anything more Canadian than Timmies. Plus, it’s not too hard on the wallet either! Some student-run cafes also do catering, but for very few events of this scale, so they might not be able handle such a big request. And finally, the more cost-effective option is to simply go to Costco and get coffee in bulk, and then have someone brewing coffee 24/7 during the hackathon.

A Change in Priorities: Accessible Food for Everyone

The team’s not-so-secret formula for calculating how much food to get goes as follow: Number of attendees + 50 to 100 Servings or 15% extra = total amount of food that will cover hackers, volunteers and sponsors.

Food portions are decided on a per head cost for every meal that they plan with prices that usually revolve around $3-5 per meal per hacker. The main strategy is to reach out and get quotes from various catering services and restaurants to find good deals with decent but not too expensive food. Some of their past choices included Vua, Basha, and of course poutine (it’s a Canadian affair after all!). Should that not work out for them, the next best option is again to buy food in bulk.

So far, they’ve been good in terms of providing vegetarian and non-vegetarian options for each dish, but there are definitely a few areas in which they could improve:

1. Not enough vegan and gluten-free meals

2. Food allergies that are exclusive to certain participants

3. Religious considerations and diet constraints

First step towards pleasing the masses is gathering data that’ll give the team more insights into what it is exactly that their attendees want. To collect that kind of info, the team surveyed hackers, and then made a word map out of their answers:

Buses to hackathons

Their most popular demands were for vegetarian options followed by lactose intolerant, gluten-free, peanut-free, and halal requests. These were the main things they kept in mind when deciding on which kind of food to serve at the event.

Latest update straight from Amiel, Head of Board:

Food is mostly confirmed, we’re now planning when our Costco trips will be, and how we’re going to be distributing food during meal times. This is still in the works though, so I don’t have much to say about it yet!

Booking the Right Venue

The Decision to Downsize

When choosing a venue, things being considered were scale, feasibility, cost and comfort. Compared to convention centers and the University’s gym, the SSMU building was the best deal with respect to those four criteria. It’s also nice to have it on campus because part of McHacks is to actually have it *at* McGill. So, instead of switching venues this year, they’re sticking with the SSMU building. And rather than going bigger, the team is instead optimizing for the venue by downsizing its number of hackers all for the sake of making participants more comfortable. Last year, with over 700 people in attendance, they had a hard time fitting everybody in the building and finding tables for everyone. This year, they aimed for 600. Since it makes for a smaller event, there’s more money allocated per person, so attendees get the best possible experience.

The Impact of Running as a Student Club

Accounting for ¼ to ⅓ of total expenses, the venue takes up the bigger chunk of the budget. The main reason why it’s so expensive is that the SSMU is being kept open after hours, so the team has to pay extra for security and to keep the building running overnight. In terms of red tape and bureaucracy, things haven’t been so bad, but there has been a bit of tidying up to do with regards to forms, paperwork, and bank accounts.

Latest update straight from Amiel, Head of Board:

We’ve been scouting out the venue and started on a floor plan, as well as a Google sheet we’ve termed “The Wendy Sheet”, named after an emeritus hackboard member who planned almost all the logistics for the first McHacks three long years ago. This sheet outlines where every organizer and volunteer needs to be at every hours of the hackathon. It’s the cornerstone of our logistics planning! Clare, Mike and Alexandre are working on that.

Finding the Best Way to Get Hackers to McHacks

A Simple and Inexpensive Way to Travel

McHacks needed a simple and inexpensive way of getting hackers to their hackathon. With those two criteria in mind, the decision to resort to buses came easily. The harder part was to figure out how to coordinate all these bus trips. That’s where Sharethebus came into play. In addition to helping the team organize their bus transportation, our Partnerships and Logistics teams also worked hard to negotiate and get them the best quotes from our bus suppliers.

Buses for hackathons

Setting Up Bus Routes

Bus routes are decided based on where McHacks gets the most signups. Usually, the big schools are University of Toronto, Waterloo, McMasters, and Queen’s, so it makes sense for the team to run bus routes from and to Toronto and Waterloo this year.

Past years also featured an extra bus coming from the States, notably from New York and Philadelphia, but due to budgetary constraints this year, and much to the team’s regret, they unfortunately had to cancel that one.

Buses from schools for hackathons

Empty Seats and How to Avoid Them

The main problem that hackathon organizers face is not being able to fill up their buses since people book bus seats, but flake last minute. There are no clear cut and foolproof solutions, but some ideas could be worth the effort. In an attempt to thwart this situation, buses are usually overbooked by accepting more people than there are actual seats on the bus. Another potential fix is to set up a deposit and reimbursement system to make sure that every single seat is filled.

Improving the Bus Experience

We couldn’t help but ask McHacks for feedback on how we could make the bus experience better for attendees. The general theme was to basically create an atmosphere where hype could be easily built up. Hooking the bus up with water bottles, mics and good Wi-Fi for Capture The Flag challenges were some of the standout suggestions. All in all, the team wants to have a really excited bus. Bus rides to hackathons is a great way to figure out who you want to work with. When there’s a lot of hype, people talk more, and that helps with team formation.

Latest update straight from Amiel, Head of Board:

Personally, I’ve been working on transportation. This means assessing travel reimbursement requests and letting hackers know what their travel allowance will be (people contact us with such enthusiasm and I wish I could provide them all with full reimbursements! Unfortunately, this would put us well in the red and also make our event too full…). Additionally, I’ve reached out to coordinators from all of the schools our busses will be stopping at, and they will be responsible for making sure everyone is informed and gets their seat. Once I’ve compiled a list of confirmed passengers and sent it to them, it’s all in their hands!

A lot of these statements are still a bit ambiguous, but we’ll find out exactly how everything plays out when Hack Day comes along, which is officially happening this weekend!

We have a few McHacks-related surprises up our sleeves as well, so keep on reading to find out what we’ll be up to next.