The week before DebConf has been traditionally been DebCamp. This has been advertised as a time for core teams to come early to work on their projects together, and this post will talk more about what that means.
At DebCamp, there is not much infrastructure set up yet. We have (unfurnished) hacklabs, accommodations, and usually food from the very beginning. We'll have Internet access, but the network and power distribution isn't set up yet. People find what they can and make their own space to work. The DebConf team works on setting up hacklabs starting on day 0 or 1, and the DebCampers serve as the test subjects to make sure that everything works.
There intentionally aren't many scheduled activities during DebCamp. The organizers have too much else to do, and events aren't the main purpose of DebCamp. If some people wanted a place to meet, they could probably find a place, though. Some years, there have been one or two workshop type events on the DebCamp schedule.
DebCamp has frequently been explained by "Development teams like debian-installer and debian-edu also have the possibility of meeting beforehand for undisturbed collaborative work. ... Interested teams should contact the organizers upfront to make special arrangements." (From the DC10 website) Also included in DebCamp are the DebConf organizers - we desperately need that time to pull organizers from over the world together to get us on the same page locally. Furthermore, anyone without a workplan can attend DebCamp by paying their actual costs.
However, saying that DebCamp is limited to these groups of people doesn't reflect reality: Anyone can attend. Thus the DebCamp description doesn't necessarily reflect the actual limits for attending. This has the appearance of resulting in (and some people believe it has) a DebCamp which is biased towards those who well-connected with organizers, since they know that basically anyone can go and get a free extended holiday with Debian people. In fact, getting anyone to review the submitted workplans has met resistance in the last few years.
For DebConf10, we did manage to reach agreement to filter out possible tourist-like people, but it was a similar (or only slightly more strict) criteria than DebConf itself. This was done very late, too late to be fair to force adjustments in travel plans of too many people. The difference between the DebCamp listed criteria and who has gotten sponsored for DebCamp in the past caused contention among some new organizers this year. Why didn't they know that they would have qualified for DebCamp past years? The moral of the story is that we need to be more clear on the purpose of DebCamp and make the actual qualifications for attending concrete and well-known so that it remains fair.
Of course, it's also true that non-core developers and other interested people to attending DebCamp is a good thing, since it is a strong motivator to get more involved in Debian. Local people are encouraged to attend and learn/hack/volunteer. DebCamp isn't meant to be exclusive, just to reflect the realities of a limited budget.
DebCamp is a very important part of DebConf, both for Debian development purposes and for DebConf set-up purposes. However, since it is a week of limited attendance with mostly the same people attending year after year, we need to ensure that it remains transparent to the rest of Debian.