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Notes From SQLSaturday Orlando 2016

This year we held our 10th SQLSaturday, a very nice milestone to hit. I’ll reflect in a separate post on the growth and future of the overall franchise – there’s a lot to think about – but I’ll mostly keep this post specific to the event itself.

This turned out to be a tough year for the organizing team. I think all but one of us changed jobs, half were sick or injured at some point, and we all struggled for time. It helps that we’ve done it before, but it was still stressful to try to get it all done. We made the good decision early on to not try to add more to the anniversary event, we’d stick with our normal plan and if we had time/energy we’d do more in the last couple weeks. Our last couple weeks ended up taking more like seven weeks because we had to reschedule our event due to the hurricane. We worked through that as smoothly as could be hoped, but it still had an impact, not least of which was that the best date we could get (Nov 12) was the end of the week of the MVP Summit, so we lost a lot of speakers just from that alone – speakers we really wanted to attend. We messaged and re-messaged about the change in dates and our final registration count was close to the year before, but attendance was down, somewhere in the 325-350 range. I don’t see any of that as a failure or a disappointment, we did pretty well all things considered!

We tried some new things this year:

  • “to go” containers for those who wanted to attend the lunch time sessions. We didn’t go as far as preparing them or staging prepared ones in the rooms, but we might next year.
  • We killed off the event bags. We’ve seen the content for them go down year over year and combined with the effort it takes to order them, get the materials, coordinate volunteers, etc, it just wasn’t worth the effort. Zero complaints from attendees (I noticed one sponsor gave out the low cost quasi backpacks with their logo on them – smart!).
  • We decreased the number of marketing emails from previous years with no obvious negative impact. We monitor registration weekly and while we saw the expected bumps when we did send an email, overall we tracked to the previous year trends. Not sure if we will do this next year, but it’s good to know that we can do less.
  • We move our pre-cons to a different location that wasn’t a hotel. We’ve done it that way before, but not recently. I think we’re undecided if it was worth the minor savings in food costs compared to more volunteer effort to order/pay/get reimbursed/etc/etc.
  • We ordered a 100 or so event tshirts and gave the speakers tickets they could give out for a good question. Good idea, better than early bird gets a shirt, but not all speakers gave out the tickets. We like giving the speakers something to give away (we no longer get any books), but should we do this again? Don’t know.

Things to work on:

  • I like the idea of SpeedPASS, but printing them for those that forgot/couldn’t find (we SO do not make that obvious) is effort. I think it’s time to revisit that entire stack.
  • For the last few years we have done a bi-weekly/weekly team meeting to check-in. We rarely had everyone on the call and that felt like a failure, but I think we should have just adjusted our approach. Maybe we move to evening calls, maybe it’s individual calls or a status email.
  • We didn’t have enough seats at the after party. Hard to get that perfect.
  • We didn’t nail down the pre-cons early enough [I’m of the mind to NOT do them concurrent with SQLSaturday next year, but treat as a standalone event]

Misc notes:

  • I had my two kids present as volunteers, and I wasn’t the only one. I think the right age for that is probably 9 to 13. Old enough to not need constant supervision, not old enough to want to get paid!
  • Our pre-cons went smoothly. We did breakfast and lunch from a bagel/sandwich place. Logistically we figured out that for we need to give them each a lunch order ticket where they write their name and circle one of a small set of choices. Easy to count to see if we had them all.
  • Lunch went pretty well. We somehow omitted mac & cheese from the order on the new event date – a few people missed it.
  • Tracking speaker confirmations is too manual and we had to do it twice! I long for a “you’re confirmed for x session at time, do you confirm you will be present” email/link. That should happen once the schedule is live and any time a change is made to their session after that.
  • We lost two sponsors this year. Both are smaller firms, both like participating, but struggle to generate the ROI from the event. We’re always open to negotiating price/package, but in practice sponsorship is half or less of the overall cost – it’s travel, raffle prize, swag, and at least the time of one person. I think our job is to help sponsors understand our audience – it’s not decision makers. These were both multi-year sponsors who tried, experimented, tried more, before deciding not a good fit.
  • We ordered 2 years worth of lanyards to get a price break. I miss PASS giving them out, is the price break on ordering 20k at a time worth doing? Dont know.
  • The “opt-in” list seems to continue to shrink and have less perceived value, to the point that I debate the value of including it, or at least doing so without a caution label. One sponsor complained that too many of the email addresses aren’t corporate – nothing we can do about that.
  • For next year I hope to talk the team into a change on the speaker selection process so that we give each speaker 2 sessions. They can do part 1/part 2, two topics, or just request 1. I think this decreases our logistics and costs slightly, gives speakers more value, and I hope does lead to the part 1/2 pattern. It’s a tradeoff, but I see this as a “try one new thing” idea for next year.
  • I’m also losing interest in the pre/post event email blasts on behalf of sponsors. It’s something else to do and one that I think has limited impact. Not zero impact, but limited. I like the idea of folding some of this stuff into SpeedPASS – making it a customized event guide. Better tooling would help, but I think we need to decide if we want to keep doing it first. I think we need to revisit our sponsor levels/benefits. What works, what else can we add that may/will work?

I had one session on the schedule this year, which I think makes me the only person to be on the schedule all ten years. I led a discussion about the career path of the DBA, starting with how to become one, what the job looks like and may look like in a few years, and where to go as a next step. Full room of 30 people, of which maybe half were DBA’s. It’s fun to get the room talking. Perhaps most interesting was when we got to “cloud” I asked which cloud they would choose to learn and the whole room seemed to deflate for a minute – which horse to bet on, Amazon, Microsoft, or Google? Not a simple career choice.

In spite of some challenges the event went well. The goal and what matters is that we provided free training to a lot of people on a nice November Saturday. We sweat the details (and we should), but training those people – that’s the mission, and we’ve done it ten times in a row. With luck we’ll do it for next ten years just as well!


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.

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