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Making Our Events More Inclusive For Those Under 21 (and Also Everyone Else)

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On Saturday, Benjamin Hollway, a 16 year old front-end developer, wrote a post about his recent experiences attending industry events. He’s been coding since he was eight, and earlier this year he was shortlisted for Netmag’s Emerging Talent category. Yet none of the people in this category are able to participate fully in the sort of activities most of us take for granted.

Last week, Benjamin attended an event I spoke at in London. He’d saved up to buy a ticket and travel up to the conference, and after the event he followed everyone to the after party to chat about the conference and meet some of the speakers. Everyone was allowed in, but he was turned away at the door and had to head back home early.

This isn’t the first time he’s experienced this, and I remember far too well the same happening to me as well. Four years ago, I wrote about some of the difficulties I’d experienced as a young developer when it came to attending events. A lot of the meetups I wanted to go to were held in bars, and if there was someone checking IDs at the door, I couldn’t go.

After parties are a really important part of a conference. They’re where we get to network, ask speakers questions about the talk they’ve just given, and generally have a good time meeting like-minded people. But so many of these after parties, and even events, are held in pubs and bars, meaning they’re completely off-limits to young people.

I feel lucky that I live in a country where I could access most events when I turned 18 (although I have been prevented from going into others that are held in 21-or-over bars). In other countries, I wouldn’t be able to attend some events until I was 21.

I know a lot of amazingly smart designers and developers who are under 18, and many of them are physically prevented from attending an industry event or after party after traveling all the way up and forking out often hundreds of pounds out of their own pocket to attend. The more young people we encourage to join the fold, the more we are excluding from these events.

Holding events in age-restricted venues doesn’t just exclude those under 21. It also turns away people who don’t drink for medical and personal reasons, or because of their faith, such as Muslims. They can’t simply wait until they get older before they can attend, some of people will never be able to attend.

If you’re an event or meetup organizer, please don’t exclude young designers and developers by holding your event in age-restricted venues. When London Web Standards realized that young developers who wanted to go couldn’t attend, they switched to holding their events in offices, making them accessible to both young people and people who would be excluded because of their faith, or for other reasons. They were delighted when young developers started to turn up to their events.

There are a lot more creative things to do around an event that don’t involve hanging around at a noisy bar, which is something Rachel Andrew wrote about last year:

Photo or history walks around cities can be attractive to a lot of people in our industry and need no more organizing than someone who knows the area and can take attendees around local landmarks and interesting spots for photographs. New Adventures earlier this year had a photo walk, and a typography walk round Brighton was organized around Ampersand conference.

Finally, how about taking Benjamin’s suggestion and asking young people to speak at your event? They have a huge amount to offer, and will help suggest ways to make your event more open, not just to those under 18, but also to groups of people you may not have even considered.

Oh, and if your event is open to young people, please add it to the Lanyrd list I’ve created for events open to those under 21 so that others can find it.

16 Reader Comments

  1. I can definitely relate.

    One thing I fear at this point is if a conference organizer would think like “Well there is only one or two Muslims / under 18 people attending, so we don’t wanna deprive the entire conference of drinking/bars because of them”, so they would either
    1) ignore the entire issue, or
    2) provide a secondary option for those of us who don’t drink / don’t attend bars.

    If they ignore the issue, it will continue to be a reason why a lot of people cannot attend conferences, especially in the case of under 18, because a Muslim can attend the conference and simply not attend the parties (which is what I personally do), but a person under 18 who cannot afford the conference tickets, will be deprived of the entire learning experience.

    In the situation where there would be no-drinks option rises another fear (yes, I worry too much): being the only person in that place, because I can imagine that many people may prefer the bar over a quiet coffee place.

    It’s worth noting that I’ve also heard people who do drink complain about the loud music in parties, that makes it almost impossible to properly connect with people and have a conversation without hurting their ears.
    I’ve also had a discussion with other people in the community who seem to agree that sometimes other events like a city tour or something similar may be more enjoyable than a party, especially that attendees/speakers get to enjoy the city *and* communicate at the same time. Just a thought.

    My current preference is the coffee and lunch breaks during a conference — that’s when most of my communication with people happens, and I like that. 🙂

    Thank you for writing this article, Anna. I hope more conferences start to cater for the variety in their conferences, and—if there is no variety—open a wider door for it in the future.

  2. These are great arguments for keeping professional events dry. I’d like to add these are professional events meaning many attendees go because they want to learn and grow their network and the drinking part gets in the way of that. When I bring up the possibility of dry after-parties and going to somewhere without alcohol after Meetup I am often criticized for not being “fun” or trying to restrict the “culture”. My response to this is that we have a pretty serious problem of peer pressure in our community where alcohol consumption is concerned. Want to be with the cool kids? You better drink beer. The young people who want to join the community must fee a pretty intense pressure to keep up with the drinking to stay on top. That is a problem.

  3. This is a great post and brings up some points that I think many of the organizers of events in our industry need to think about a little bit more.

    My wife, Val and I run a yearly conference in Pittsburgh, PA called Web Design Day – and we made some changes to our after-party a few years ago that were a huge success to all of our attendees and the feedback we have gotten since we have made these changes has been nothing but positive.

    We put as much planning and organization into our after-party as we do out conference (well, ok maybe not *that* much but you get the idea.) We put a considerable amount of effort to create something besides the usual bar meet-up with a bunch of folks drinking beer and eating appetizers. We’re not against that – we just want to do more. Besides, most of the attendees can do that in the hotel.

    The last few years we have had a hosted party at the headquarters of our friends at Commonwealth Press, a t-shirt printing company who also have an in-residence letterpress studio. Our parties consist of:

    * Hosted at a unique place that is *not* a bar. No one is excluded from attending.

    * Catering from local restaurants as well as a food truck or two.

    * Beer & Wine (of course we still have it) and plenty of non-alcoholic beverages. Pepsi, not Coke! 🙂

    Here is where things get fun…

    * Open Spotify/Rdio playlists. People can add any tunes they want to it.

    * Letterpress demos where people can learn about and print their own letterpress items!

    * T-Shirt silkscreen demos. We have 2-3 different options for people to try. Not only does everyone get a free t-shirt (or 2 or 3) at our conference, but they also learn about and print their own shirt!

    We try to think up new items every year, but the point is that we want to create something memorable and *different* than the usual after-parties. So far it’s been a big success for us – and I hope that everyone that attends has enjoyed it as much as we enjoy planning it.

  4. I agree pretty whole heartedly with what Sara said. The conferences aren’t a problem it’s just the socialising afterwards or even before the main event. I went to one of the FOWD conferences a few years back and yes it was expensive but it was good. Was it worth it, nope. I just sat there listening, I can get that now with Treehouse. Nobody wanted to talk, even when I went to say thank to various speakers they just brushed it off with “Hey see you at the after party” which seems dot be the norm. So yeah, I just headed home. Food was nice though which ironically was halal so that was awesome.

    What I don’t want to fall into though is the moaning masses where we just bitch and whine about what should be and as Sara mentioned it’s just not worth it to most organisers when it’s for such a small percentage.

    The change has to come from within. I mentioned to Anna on Twitter about being the ones who make the change or at least the option for something different. We need to make our own ‘after parties’ for those who don’t want to participate in the alcohol side of things. We aren’t being all ‘righteous’ or anything like that, we just want to have fun too and most importantly, lets be honest here, help our careers by networking since that’s the main thing about conferences.

    Also YAY! I’m on a List Apart post – Whoop to me! Now to celebrate with a non-alcoholic beverage. 🙂

  5. For the last year, I have been trying to get into the many events held at Brighton University. As it turns out, a number of seminars and the like have to be made open to the public, but they’re rarely advertised and trying to get in touch with lecturers has provide difficult.

    There is a connection here. The idea of an industry conference shouldn’t be for back patting because so and so works at somewhere, but sadly, a lot of the time that’s how they feel to me. The learning, and ideas are what should be important and those great ideas don’t always come form ‘10,000 hours’.

    I would rather spend time with a 14 year old with some passion, than an adult who’s gone to a conference to get the day off work and has no intention on taking that knowledge and driving the banner forward.

    The teenagers out there creating things right now are far more important to the future of the web than any single adult who is currently working in the field, writing a book, talking at every other event, or plugging their services on a podcast.

    Very happy to see a number of people taking up the mantle and offering student discounts or even free tickets but, let’s make sure this doesn’t become the next so hot right now topic and then it’s gone in a month.

  6. One medical reason people don’t often think about is people with hearing/vestibular disorders. Bars are often noisy with people competing with music to be heard. For someone hard of hearing, this is very problematic. For someone like me, I have a vestibular disorder, the cacophony literally will knock me down and prevent me from being able to think, converse or network. It could in fact lay me out for the rest of the conference.

  7. I find bars to be quite unconducive to conversation, and I don’t have a hearing disorder. I can’t imagine how bad it must be for someone who does. I like the idea of local companies hosting the after parties, hosting it in a creative atmosphere is more likely to encourage on-topic discussion.

  8. I agree. When I was 20, I was fortunately able to go to an after-party at a bar since I was in a mob of people walking in.

    I ordered a Coke for 2.50. I don’t think anybody noticed or treated me different, which was a bonus. Also, there wasn’t music, though I was at a networking event with loud music. I could imagine it being burdensome to those with disorders.

  9. I completely agree with most of what is said in this article. I turned 18 last month and know that the price is very off putting. Furthermore, bars and clubs are intimidating if you don’t know if you will get in and don’t know anyone there.

    I was lucky enough to volunteer at a conference a couple of months back, and absolutely loved it. I personally think this is the best way to get young people integrated into the community, as it provides a starting point to meeting people and also ensures that only people who are really interested turn up to the event and will not be disruptive. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know what events will need volunteers and whether or not it would appear rude to approach them directly.

  10. Another way to look at it, if the event isn’t in a restricted access venue (i.e. a bar or pub) will less people attend? Probably not. So what are you really losing from hosting your event at an all-age venue? Maybe some comfort and coziness, but is it worth it to exclude those who cannot attend?

  11. I don’t drink (just a personal choice), so I’ve had a lot of surreal experiences at bars following conferences or events. The venues are usually fine, and I don’t mind being the only one not drinking (I’ve had years and years to get used to that). What I do find a bit annoying is how often alcohol dominates the conversation. What are you drinking? What would you like to drink? Y’know, if you really want the best [alcoholic beverage], you need to go to [European country].

    There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about wine or IPAs or whatever, but it’s surprising how often I walk away from the bar or after-party thinking to myself, “I learned more about regional craft beer than I learned about design or development today.” It’d be like going to Comic Con and discovering that everyone discusses professional football after 5pm.

    For multi-day events, the problem’s a bit more severe. I’ve seen speakers take the stage while visibly intoxicated. I’ve attended morning talks that are virtual ghost towns as attendees sleep off their hangovers from the night before. On the plus side, witnessing that while sober makes it ridiculously easy to continue abstaining from alcohol. So… win?

  12. I grew up with brilliant designs and ideas in a town of 400 people in rural south Georgia, 100 miles away from anywhere remotely large enough to have meetups or industry get-togethers. Was that fair? No. Did I still get by with what I had? Yes, but probably not as well as what kids growing up in Silicon Valley would have.

    You make a valid point, but there are so many inequalities that it’d be impossible to hold an event taking them all into account. Alcohol is a social lubricant — one that is often necessary for lots of folks who are normally shy to get the guts to go pitch an idea to someone important. Perhaps the larger issue at hand is the fact that, stateside, you can legally be an adult but unable to consume alcohol legally.

  13. “there are so many inequalities that it’d be impossible to hold an event taking them all into account.”

    But we can do so much better, and we should. Also, it’s really not that hard with a little imagination.

    “Alcohol is a social lubricant—one that is often necessary for lots of folks…”

    Plenty don’t drink but don’t have a problem socialising. It’s sad that people would rather exclude the sorts of audiences I’ve mentioned just so they can consume alcohol.

  14. There’s no reason to prohibit a 16 year old person entrance to a bar. Especially when he’s invited to whatever meetup is taking place.

    Quite simply, don’t serve the person anything alcoholic. I would think in most countries that would be completely legal.

    This is, of course, the bar owner’s fault. Not (neccesarily) the organizer’s fault.

  15. There’s no reason to prohibit a 16 year old person entrance to a bar.

    In the US, and perhaps other places, people under the legal drinking age (21 in most US states) aren’t even allowed to be inside a bar without a parent or legal guardian.

  16. In the US, and perhaps other places, people under the legal drinking age (21 in most US states) aren’t even allowed to be inside a bar without a parent or legal guardian.

    A lot of places in the UK ask for ID at the door. Most are for under-18s, but some bars are over 21s only.

    This is, of course, the bar owner’s fault. Not (neccesarily) the organizer’s fault.

    The bar owner is doing their job to risk breaking the law and getting fined. It’s the organiser’s responsibility to choose a suitable venue for the audience.

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