Small group dinners

AdaCamp was a two-day unconference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. This page is part of the AdaCamp Toolkit, which helps you take AdaCamp’s tools and practices and apply them to your own event. You can re-use the text of this page under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license with credit to the AdaCamp Toolkit.

Six AdaCamps featured our signature social event, the small group dinners, where we made restaurant reservations for groups of 10 people and had attendees sign up for each dinner through a shared link.

Small group dinners mean that people have a chance to spend an extended period of time with a small enough group that they can get to know each other. AdaCamp small group dinners often had a shared topic or identity so that people could find the best dinner for them. It also saves people from spontaneously forming huge unwieldy groups of 15 or 20 hungry people who go searching for a restaurant that can seat them at short notice; and can save organizers the need to put together a large group catered meal.

Thanks to Sarah Stierch who shared her extensive DC food wisdom with us by setting up the original AdaCamp DC dinners.

For organizers

What to look for in restaurants

Essential. All restaurants should:

  • accept reservations
  • seat groups of 10 people
  • accept reservation cancellations with 48 hours or less notice
  • have reasonably low noise levels
  • be in areas where it is safe to travel alone at night

Good to have. You should have at least some restaurants that:

  • are cheap to middle-range price for the area
  • are close to the event venue
  • are close to most people’s accommodation
  • are wheel accessible
  • have vegetarian and vegan meal options
  • have meal options for other known dietary restrictions from the registration information
  • have high chairs for babies

How many people to expect

At AdaCamp, around ⅓ to ½ of our attendees signed up for a dinner.

How to take signups

Create a Google Spreadsheet (or other shared document, such as an Etherpad). List each restaurant with:

  • name
  • address
  • link to restaurant website/menu if available
  • rough guide to transit time from the main venue (eg “5 minutes walk”, “15 minutes on the metro”)
  • phone number
  • name the reservation is in
  • price range for main courses
  • features such as wheel accessible, vegetarian dishes, high chairs, and so on

Create space for participants to add:

  • Up to 10 names of people going to dinner (in columns of the spreadsheet, for example)
  • (Optional) The name of the person or company who will pay for the table’s meals
  • (Optional) The theme of the dinner, such as “knitters” or “kernel hackers” or “horror fans”

Make it really clear when a dinner is out of room, with, eg, a red column in a spreadsheet reading “NO SIGN-UPS PAST HERE” or 10 numbered lines and then “NO SIGN-UPS BEYOND 10”

Make it really clear that all children and babies must be listed in one of the slots.


  • 4 or more weeks before the event: research local restaurants against the “What to look for list”
  • 3 weeks before: choose the restaurants that best fit the criteria, and make reservations for 10 people at each of them
  • 2 weeks before: open sign-ups to your attendees
  • Every 2–3 days: check for dinners with too many sign-ups, people who’ve signed up to multiple dinners, and similar misunderstandings. Resolve them.
  • 48 hours before: review the sign-ups and cancel reservations that haven’t attracted any sign-ups and that need 48 hours notice. Consider combining very small dinners (less than 5 people) into whichever restaurant of the two has the most of the “good to have” features.
  • The morning before the dinners: give the attendees a “2 hours to go” verbal reminder to sign up for dinners that are still available.
  • Noon on the day of the dinners: close sign-ups. Call the restaurants to cancel any remaining empty bookings and to advise them of any groups that are smaller. Mark the dinners as closed in the sign-up document.
  • Before the end of the day’s activities: if there’s a closing session or similar, remind people of the start-time of the dinners and ask people to be there 15 minutes early. If dinner is soon, suggest that each dinner group meet in different parts of the main venue and then travel together.


Organizing the dinner sign-ups is not set-and-forget: attendees need several reminders to sign up, and you need to review the dinners to make sure that there aren’t numerous teeny dinners of one or two people.

It’s very common for people to want to join an existing dinner group rather than sign up as the first person on a new table. Don’t let anyone do this: you’ll end up with, say, 3×15 person dinners rather than 5×8–10 person dinners. Your options are:

  • Ask your conference staff who want to go to dinner to distribute themselves among the dinners, say, 2 staff members per dinner, in order to not have attendees need to be the first sign-up.
  • Find the people who have signed up for an already full dinner, and move them to another dinner based on your judgement. Let them know you’ve done this so that they can move themselves to a different dinner if they like.
  • If it seems that one restaurant is super-popular for some reason, contact the restaurant and ask for a second 10 person table. Move the overflow sign-ups to the second table.

Sample announcement email

Subject: DAYOFWEEK night dinner – sign up to attend or sponsor!

Hi all,

At EVENT, we have a DAYOFWEEK night dinner in which groups of up to 10 attendees go to a local restaurant together. Each dinner has a topic, and we already made the reservation for you at a variety of restaurants, most of which have good vegan options and are relatively cheap. It’s a fun alternative to a giant reception with only one type of food.

We’d love some of the outings to sponsored by an attendee who pays for the whole dinner and submitted it as an expense to their employer. The cost is usually less than AMOUNT; ask your manager if you aren’t sure you can do this. You can set the topic to something relevant to your company (like [add examples of topics relevant to your event here]) or to something entirely different. It’s an incredibly targeted and cheap sponsorship and recruiting opportunity.

Everyone: please take a minute to look at the options in the SHARED DOCUMENT below and sign up for a dinner, become a sponsor, or suggest a topic.

Keep in mind that if no one signs up to be a sponsor for your dinner, you will have to pay for your own dinner! However, we tried to find inexpensive places where you can get dinner for under AMOUNT; check the menu to see if it is in your price range.

Reservations are for 10 people. Children and babies are welcome to attend dinners, but each person should register their attendance separately, including children and babies as separate attendees. Dinners are for EVENT attendees and their children only — don’t invite other adult guests! Please don’t ask if you can bring non-attendees to one of these pre-organized dinners.

Sign-up link: LINK

Dinner sign-ups will close at TIME.

If all the dinners fill up, we will add a few more locations.

We look forward to seeing you there!
The EVENT Organizers

Sample FAQ

What time does dinner start?

All reservations start at TIME and should finish around TIME. Please aim to be 15 minutes early; most restaurants will not seat the party until everyone has arrived, and may cancel the reservation if not everyone has arrived by 15 – 30 minutes past the reservation time.

Who is paying for dinner?

If a company name is listed in the sponsor column, then they will be paying for dinner, within reasonable cost. Otherwise, you will be paying for your part of the cost. Some sponsors may not be able to pay for alcohol, ask before ordering.

How can I be part of a dinner?

Look at the sign-up sheet, find a dinner with an unfilled attendee slot, and enter your name. You’re set.

Can I go to a restaurant not on the list?

Yes, we just made these reservations to make it easier for EVENT attendees to go to dinner together.

You are welcome to add your preferred dinner to the document so that it is easy to organize other people to attend. Please make your own reservation, and keep an eye on sign-ups so that you can cancel or adjust it if needed.

I want to go to a dinner but there’s already 10 people signed up! Can I still go to it?

Please choose another dinner. Groups of above 10 people get unwieldy and make it hard to get to know everyone.

I want specific people to come to a dinner with me but there’s not enough slots left for us all!

Please choose a dinner with more slots or make a new reservation if need be.

When I arrive at the restaurant, what reservation do I ask for?

Reservations are mostly under the name “EVENT” Check the field in the dinner document to confirm yours.

How do I get to the restaurant?

The address of each restaurant is in the spreadsheet, along with suggested ways to get there. Check the EVENT website for information on public transit, cabs, etc.