This weekend, 794 WordPress professionals and enthusiasts from all over the world descended upon Sofia, Bulgaria to participate in Europe’s largest WordCamp to date. WordCampers arrived excited to soak up new information and connect with others in the European community.
Sofia’s graffiti-lined streets are peppered with leftovers of communist architecture, contrasting the Neo-Bohemian culture that energizes the city. The event was held in the National Palace of Culture, a magnificent venue situated in the center of Bulgaria’s capital, designed nearly a decade before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Its halls are lined with murals and dark colors, which created an interesting backdrop for a conference devoted to a bright and growing free software community.
The warm hospitality of the organizers of WordCamp Europe lent an intimate atmosphere to what otherwise might have seemed like an impersonally large event. Attendees enjoyed a world class lineup of WordPress speakers and had the opportunity to try delicious local specialties during breaks and lunch.
Organizing WordCamp Europe 2014
WordCamp Europe is an event that requires many months of planning and an army of volunteers to make it happen. Local organizer Petya Raykovska helped to organize WordCamp Sofia’s 300 attendees last year, in addition to being part of the WCEU organizing team. She commented on how welcoming and helpful the Bulgarian community has been in hosting the event. “We have a bunch of local volunteers who have been amazing. Everybody wants to help,” she said. “But that is WordPress everywhere, not just in Bulgaria. People in WordPress share these same values in common.”
Out of the event’s 950 attendees, 240 were Bulgarian, with the vast majority of others from outside the country. WordCamp Europe is made up of an international team of organizers, strategically chosen to unite the different areas of the Europe. The location of the event changes every year and potential host cities have the opportunity to compete for the spot by submitting a proposal and demonstrating support from the local community, much like the Olympics. This year it was a close competition between Lisbon and Sofia.
“Any local community that has had a WordCamp before has the opportunity to bid,” explained Remkus de Vries, a leader in the Dutch WordPress community and one of the original organizers of WCEU. “They have to have experience and know how to manage everything.”
In its first year, WordCamp Europe was held in Leiden, located in Western Europe. “It’s not just who has the best story,” De Vries commented on the selection process. “We have an agenda, and the agenda is to unite Europe as best as we can and to have open source be the vehicle.
“We picked Sofia because we thought it would be good to have Eastern Europe be a part of it. We have a large WordPress community in Romania, Bulgaria, and a few neighboring countries like Serbia and Croatia,” he said. For them it’s relatively easy to come here and we wanted to have them here.”
No Boundaries: Uniting People Across Borders with WordPress
The European WordPress community has a checkered history of division. De Vries and fellow organizers founded the event in 2013, with the hopes of uniting different languages, nationalities, and cultures in a way that only WordPress can.
“Diversity,” is the one word answer De Vries gave when asked about the distinguishing characteristics of the community. “We’ve had a lot of issues with countries not liking each other in the last seven years, and that, in some regard, is somewhat always there,” he said. “Zé and I had the idea in 2009/2010 that we should have a European WordCamp, for the simple reason that when we went to the other EU WordCamps, we saw that there was the beginning of people looking outside their borders when it came to the WordPress community.”
De Vries highlighted a few of the differences that the EU community has to overcome. “If you just look at the way we write, from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Greek to the Latin ones, that’s a big difference,” he said. “Additionally, there are cultural differences between Eastern, Western, Northern and Southern Europe. Obviously you have stuff like that in America as well but this is truly different in a lot of senses. One of our goals was that the local communities would start looking outside of themselves. That’s exactly what happened.”
Prior to the first WordCamp Europe, many across the continent kept to their own small communities and didn’t often travel to connect with each other. De Vries shared an example of how things have changed:
I would say Germany is a beautiful example. Germany is a very close knit community, one of the strongest running and one of the oldest, other than the US. Earlier this year WordCamp Hamburg had many foreigners in attendance. That didn’t happen in Germany in the past. That’s the big difference. Now they’re looking outside.
Once everyone comes together around WordPress, differences disappear. “There’s a funny thing about the people who enjoy WordPress, in the raw sense of the word, is that they tend to be people who like each other in real life,” De Vries said. “Which is why I think WordCamps are such a huge success. I can’t speak that much for other open source communities but I do have a feeling that that’s something special about the WordPress community.”
WordCamp Europe is so well-supported that within two or three days, every single sponsor package was sold out, despite the fact that they weren’t featured very well in the previous year. Companies are still lining up to offer support, because they recognize the value of a unifying event like this in Europe.
Looking to the Future of WordCamp Europe
De Vries and many of the core organizing team are in it for the foreseeable future. He’s addicted to the high of connecting people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to connect with their peers. “Yes, it costs a lot of time. I have a busy company as well, but I just think it’s worth it,” he said.
Why does he continue to put so much time into WordPress? De Vries put it simply. “WordPress saved my life. It allowed me to come out of a very dark place to make money to provide for my family at a time when I was experiencing something very rough,” he said. He wouldn’t have been able to get there without the community surrounding the project.
“It is the way the software is structured and the way the community is structured around that,” he said. “It makes it very easy to jump in anytime. If you put in the hours and you want to learn and understand what it’s about and translate that into your work, I would say that WordPress is as good as a community can get. So for me, giving back is also part of that. “
The first year WordCamp Europe sold 750 tickets. This year it reached 950, despite the fact that travel to Bulgaria is more difficult for some. With the exception of a few direct flights, most everyone else has two or three connecting flights to make it to Sofia. “To see that the attendance has actually risen, I think is a testament to what we’re doing here,” De Vries remarked.
When asked if they will expand the event’s attendance next year, he replied, “Maybe 1200 would be nice. I think if we pick a location that’s even more of a direct flight, attendance could go in that direction.”
But for De Vries, attendance is of less importance than the unifying power of the WordCamp. “Attendance is not the end goal. The goal is people of different countries and backgrounds realizing that, in this community, there are no boundaries.”