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SQLAndy

I'm Andy Warren, currently a SQL Server trainer with End to End Training. Over the past few years I've been a developer, DBA, and IT Director. I was one of the original founders of SQLServerCentral.com and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.

PASS Update #51-Summit Site Selection

In November/December HQ requested that the Board to send in suggestions for possible sites for the 2013 PASS Summit. I sent in a few, and at the recent Board meeting we then reviewed the preliminary research by HQ to narrow it to a list of serious candidate cities. I was so excited at the start of this that we were beginning to consider a new site that I didn’t think it through, we don’t have a good set of criteria for selecting the site. The rest of this post is about what I think should go into that decision and where I stand on some of the issues.

Let’s start by looking at some of the criteria I think we should use in the decision:

  • Ease, cost, and time of travel
  • Cost of meeting space and nearby hotel rooms (and making sure there are enough rooms)
  • Availability of after hours options, ideally with walking distance, or at least via low cost public transit
  • Things for family to do in the area and family friendly (safe, secure, fun)
  • Weather
  • Risk of natural disasters
  • Layout of meeting space (we prefer that everything be clustered so that walking time between room is minimized)
  • Microsoft presence
  • Additional expense/risk required for HQ to manage an event at a new location
  • Visiting various areas of the US to give our members who can’t afford the time and/or travel a chance to head our best event

None of these is simple. Is it always the cheapest location? Do we rule out anywhere on the Eastern seaboard (and New Orleans, etc) because there might be a hurricane? And that might not be all the criteria, just the ones that I think are at least worth getting into the discussion. In our Board discussion we covered some of these, but the problem is that even with the Board we weight these things differently. For some, any type of risk is unapproachable. For others any reduced Microsoft presence is a deal breaker. It is, to put it mildly, complicated. I think we erred in not having this conversation first, and fighting our way to better guidance that might have given us a different set of candidate cities, and then we would be re-applying that to the list as we narrow it down. It’s not quite too late for that, but we won’t meet again in person until May and that means it will just be a phone discussion, never as deep and never as satisfying, because we expect to decide in March. I’ll also say it’s not always as simple as a scorecard, though it’s worth the effort to score the options. Intangibles are hard to score.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about whether we should move the Summit. Some are on the East coast and won’t go because of the time/cost. Others don’t care about time/cost. Some like having it the same place, comfortable as old pair of shoes. Others don’t like that. Some people don’t care about after hours, or family, or ….whatever.

How do I, as a Board member, decide what to do? I’ve heard some on the Board suggest that it’s only a noisy few who want it moved, that we don’t hear from the many that are happy with the current location. Do I listen to the the squeaky wheel? Launch a poll? If I do that, who are the “right” people to respond? The ones that want change? Those that don’t? As an elected representative I try hard to understand the various views, but I can’t decide based on polls. I’ve got to decide based on what I think is fair and good for the members as well as a sound business decision for PASS. I think it’s possible to balance those.

Within the Board, and among those I talk to, most see it through a filter. Part of what I hope to get you to think about as you read this post is that we don’t all value the same things in the same amount. Just because you don’t mind the cost, the time, the weather, or whatever, others do. I may not agree with someone who cares about those things, but I can’t disregard it either.

It’s not a simple decision. Lots of reasons to do this, or do that. To change, or to not change. No way to know what is the right answer from a business perspective until after the event, and maybe not even then.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and then some more. My position is still that I support moving in 2013, preferably to the East coast but something in the Central time zone is also possible. I also support going back to Seattle in 2014, winding up with a strategy much like we had in earlier years, rotating from Seattle to one or two other cities. Maybe it should be the same one or two cities (easier, less risk), or maybe we should make it different ones, a good discussion to have in itself. I’m confident that we can move the event, maintain the quality, and grow attendance, in large part because of our HQ staff – I know they will get it done.

As it stands I hope we’ll move in 2013, but that is by no means a done deal. As I said earlier, I’m trying to decide based on what is far and good for our members and that is a sound business decision for PASS.

Finally, we listen to the people that care enough to engage. We may not decide the way you want, but we listen. Make your case for moving, or for a particular city. Blog it, or email any or all of us on the Board. Make a logical argument, tell us how you weight various factors, and before you hit send, ask yourself – are you considering what’s good for the one, or for the many?

Comments

Posted by Peter Schott on 1 February 2011

I mentioned it on Tom's blog, but I think Nashville is worth considering. (I'm still 12 hours away by car so this isn't necessarily selfish.) Having been to a convention downtown, I think they have a good downtown for tourists, reasonably nice weather, a good convention facility, hotels nearby, and the city is very accessible for travelers. There are a lot of nearby tourist attractions, though maybe not all within walking distance. I don't know about an MS presence, but I'm one of those willing to forgo a strong MS presence every once in a while - we have a great community.

I think it meets a lot of the requirements excepting possibly the strong MS presence and the staff knowing the venue.

Posted by wendyp on 1 February 2011

A few points:

1. Risk is going to happen no matter where the Summit is hosted. There ARE volcanos in the Seattle vicinity that could just as easily shut down the Summit in a given year. That argument to keep it in Seattle due to no natural disaster risk is, at best, uninformed.

2. The other big argument I hear for keeping the Summit in Seattle is the Microsoft Presence. To that I say - bugger. The MS sessions I have attended have often NOT been the best. Sometimes it feels like MS sends new people who they are looking to ramp up in their speaker pool or something. It's often disappointing. Plus, those sessions end up being more marketing than anything else. WE ALREADY USE THIS STUFF. SQLCAT...maybe...but do we need 70 SQLCAT people? Love the team, but more often than not I see them sitting around with each other - NOT the attendees.

Many (including myself) have commented that we would rather have sessions by reknown community members, book authors and MVPs - these people understand what we do day in and day out and we learn valuable things from them.

3. Seattle is expensive. Flights are NOT cheap - if my company didn't agree to pay the costs, it would be much more difficult to come up with $450+ for my airfare alone. The hotels are NOT cheap - $150 per night? Are you joking? For Seattle? These hotels are preying on the convention attendees. At least when we were at the Gaylord properties, I expected those prices since there was Zero competition to be found, and it was part of an all-inclusive experience.

4. Weather should not be a consideration. Sure, people like to go to places that are 'nice', but it's all relative. I'm in Chicago - Seattle IS nicer than here in November. People might be just as excited to be in the ski areas of Colorado.

5. So very few people come to the Summit with their families in tow, that should also not be a deciding factor.

6. Part of the fun of attending a tech conference is seeing new places. So many other conferences move around from year to year. I feel like I'm missing out....

The Summit doesn't have to be 'perfect' every year, just fun for everyone and worth the $$$ and time spent to attend.

Guess I should have written my own blog post, eh?

Posted by Andy Warren on 2 February 2011

Good response Wendy! I think that indeed might be a post of its own:-)

On the families, is that chicken and the egg? Would more bring families if it was a more family centric destination?

Posted by Andy Leonard on 2 February 2011

Hi Andy,

  Thanks for your efforts to try to find the "right answer". I know you're sincere and want what's best for everyone.

  I blogged about this last year but it bears review: sqlblog.com/.../on-pass-summit-locations-time-will-tell.aspx.

  The PASS Board seems determined to hold the Summit wherever they want. In my opinion, the Board has escalated one or two criteria to the fore - access to Microsoft being chief - and the blinders are affixed and unmovable. It's ultimately the Board's decision, and it's not an easy one.

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Posted by Glenn Berry on 2 February 2011

I am perfectly happy with PASS being in Seattle. It is comfortable and familiar. Unless the Summit is in your home city, you will have some travel time and expense involved.

Air fares are sort of random, based on whether you live near a hub airport and what games the airline computers are playing when you book your tickets. I don't see how you can satisfy everyone there.

I would also argue that if you want to travel and see different places, you will probably have more fun if you do it on a vacation. Can you really see much of an area in a day or two, before and after a conference?

Isn't the primary value of a conference like PASS supposed to be learning new things and making stronger connections with your peers in the community?  If that is the case, does it really matter what city the conference is held at?

Posted by Andy Warren on 2 February 2011

Andy - I think a good half of the Board actively wants to move, the other half want to make a good business decision. I don't know if it's a case of blinders or not, but it's why I tried to show that it's hard to know which thing to rank as most important, maybe it's gets them (and me) thinking about it from more than one viewpoint.

Posted by Andy Warren on 2 February 2011

Glenn, what do we do when others like Wendy see it entirely differently? I don't know that any of us so far have come with with a home run reason to move or stay, most of it what we each prefer. Can't satisfy everyone is right.

As for vacation, I like trying to combine the trip, especially since for me it's an unpaid week to start with. I've taken my family to Seattle a couple times, but there's not a lot new to see, and it's cold. If the Summit were somewhere else I'd bring them this year (most years), but doesn't make sense for my family to do Seattle year after year. I also know not everyone would do that.

Posted by Glenn Berry on 2 February 2011

Andy W., I don't know the best answer, that's for sure!  I live in Parker, CO, so pretty much anywhere is going to be about the same for me, in terms of distance and time.

The people who want the conference to move will probably not be satisfied until it does move.  

Maybe a well-written (without leading questions) and transparent poll might settle the issue. Do a majority of PASS members want the Summit to move to a different city on some set schedule?

Posted by jcrawf02 on 3 February 2011

Small tweak to your question Glenn, "Do a majority of [respondants] want the Summit to move to a different city on some set schedule?"

I'm sure you meant the same, but there is a difference.

Posted by John Allman on 7 February 2011

Hi Andy.  I must be in the minority.  I feel I have to get on an airplane and fly somewhere to attend PASS.  It might as well be in a venue where I have access to Microsoft people.  During this last PASS I was able to network with folks who provided knowledge and information for me in many places other than sessions.  This is invaluable. I hope we decide to make Seattle a permantent location.

Posted by Andy Warren on 12 February 2011

John, I don't know that you're in the minority, but regardless it's fair for you to know what's important to you and I appreciate you sharing your views.

My job is to try to serve all the members as best I can. I think I do that by voting for rotating venues. We all value different things, but my hope is that even those that prefer Seattle every year understand that we want to have a strategy that feels fair and interesting to all our members.

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