Locking down a Venue

Few of your planning decisions will truly make or break your hackathon, but your choice of venue is one of them. It often takes more time than expected to secure the right location, so the earlier you begin scouting, the better! Having a confirmed venue will also prove to potential sponsors and attendees that you’re serious about hosting a great event.

Keep in mind your venue should be free! Most of the time, you will be able to find a university or company sponsored space.

Research Venues On Your Campus

On-campus venues are best because they’re usually free. Research past events at your school to get a sense of each available space’s capabilities. Do they meet your hackathon’s requirements? Make a list of your favorites.

Note: Each venue usually has one university bureaucrat in charge of it; try to find out who that is. One shortcut is to contact students who previously held events at that space and ask them how they recommend you proceed.

Enlist A Campus Advocate To Help You Navigate The Bureaucracy

A university advocate — such as a professor or dean — can make your venue search immeasurably easier by helping you navigate your school’s unique booking process.

In many cases, this person will be your organization’s advisor. If you need to recruit an ally, learn how to sell your event. You should have a quick elevator pitch that everyone on your organizing committee can give ("No, we will not be breaking into your bank account. Actually a hackathon is…"). Find something your administration understands, and relate a hackathon to that.

We have created two guides for school administrators. These guides explain what a hackathon is, why it is beneficial for a school, and why it is beneficial for students. It also includes various resources that will be useful for university advocates to use to convince other faculty members. The guides are available here.

In a short email to potential advocates, you can include:

  • A brief definition of a hackathon. (We like to explain it as weekend long invention competition)

  • Video and/or photos of past events

  • 3 or more reasons students will directly benefit from an on-campus hackathon.

Position your hackathon as a recruiting event with a twist. Odds are, your school already has a career fair and you can position your event on those terms. This immediately aligns your event with your school’s goals.

Note: What to do if you can’t find an on-campus location?

On rare occasions, students aren’t able to find a free on-campus venue. If that’s the case, you still have options:

  • Research venues in your city or town that have held events of similar size: other hackathons, meetups, etc. If you know someone who put on one of the events, ask for an introduction to the decision maker.

  • Approach multiple companies at once that stand to gain something by sharing their space with you, such as a tech company that recruits programmers and designers. Your short email should include the same information you sent to potential on-campus advocates:

  • A brief definition of a hackathon. (Unless it’s a tech company, of course.)

    • Libraries are expanding to more than just physical books. Find one with a Makerspace who might be interested in getting more people to try it out! These are a great fit for any Hardware focused hackathons.

  • Video and/or photos of past events.

  • 3 or more reasons students will directly benefit from using this location.

🚨🚨🚨Warning🚨🚨🚨: Whenever possible, don’t fall into the trap of paying to rent a venue. It could easily double the cost of your hackathon. In addition to the rental fee, you will be responsible for providing all of the infrastructure required to run a large event, including Internet wiring, table and chair rental, and possibly your own security team.

If you really can’t find a free venue, look into renting a coworking space with most of this infrastructure in place.

Make Sure Your Venue Has Everything You Need

Before you book an event space, make sure it has everything you need help you host a successful hackathon.

  • Enough capacity — The average MLH hackathon is around 300 student hackers. Can the venue accommodate the number of attendees you plan to host?

  • The right physical space — Your venue must have space for attendees to hack and listen to speakers, as well as designated areas for hardware, food, sponsors, and MLH.

  • WiFi — Can the WiFi support a large number of people in a condensed space? It should be able to handle 4 devices per attendee. See more info here.

  • Power — Is there enough amperage for hundreds of computers, phones, and hardware devices? (Assume at least 2.5 devices per participants.)

  • AV equipment and staff— What AV equipment is available? Does the space offer staff to help you set it up?

  • Tables and chairs — How many seats and tables do you need? Does the venue provide them, or do you need to rent from an outside vendor?

  • Food— Does the venue offer catering? If it does, are you required to use it? How much will this cost?

  • Accessibility — Can hackers in need of physical accommodation conveniently access the building? Can hackers who need to sleep during the hackathon find a safe place to do so?

  • Security — Will there be a secure space where sponsors, organizers, and attendees can keep their expensive equipment?

If your venue does not have some of these things, but you're on-campus, you may be able to work with other parts of your administration to get them. For example:

  • Talk to your school's IT department about fortifying WiFi during your event or renting access points and switches. This can sometimes be done for free or with a security deposit. If you have a supportive administration, they may also come in and help you set it up.

  • If you don't have access to the venue's fuse box, talk to the school's electricians to see if you can get special access or have one of them on site/on call.

  • If you don't have enough extension cords or power strips, other organizations on campus may have them and be willing to lend them out. e.g. the organization that runs your school's career fair.

Ask About Venue Requirements And Restrictions

Most venues come with their own specific list of rules and required fees. A few questions to ask:

  • Will any prices you are being quoted for be guaranteed not to exceed a certain maximum estimate?

  • Does the building require you to pay for catering, security, a fire marshal, janitors, etc.?

    • Is food required to be from their caterer or can you bring in outside food?

  • Does the venue have a loading dock for deliveries?

  • Are there specific security regulations you must abide by?

  • Are you permitted to host an overnight event? It’s important to let the potential venue know that people will be working in the space overnight. The key word here is "working" -- in many instances, it is against fire code to allow attendees to sleep.

  • Does the venue require you or any sponsors attending to have insurance? Get the details and tell all parties you need this for as soon as possible.

MLH Tips

  • Book early!

  • Watch out for hidden fees and venue restrictions and requirements.

  • Your venue should be free! Do everything in your power to ensure you don’t have to deal with the cost and logistical headache of paying for a space and everything that comes with it.

  • Negotiate to reserve your venue for the day before so you have plenty of time to set up.

  • Make sure your space is aware your will be hosting an overnight event.


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