Finding Your Venue
Sounds simple right?
It can be one of the most difficult things to do for something the size of a SQLSaturday with the budget you may, or may not, have.
If you can find a local education establishment to partner with is usually a good choice. Always check with your local Microsoft reps or any local vendor that has direct ties to SQL Server. Don’t be afraid to ask! If you don’t ask they don’t have an opportunity to help you in this endeavor. If someone says no, ask if they have any contacts or possible leads for an inexpensive or free venue for your event.
It will take time. I initially put in 15 hours over the course of a month to get the first venue that fell through. After that I spent over 40 hours over a month to find the next viable venue, 38 venues were investigated. I toured 5 of them personally. After the venue was chosen it was another 10 hours of time securing, negotiating and signing contracts. Even then, I think we may have rushed things at the end and overestimated the amount of space we would need. This shaped up to be a 400.00 mistake. We used the space but we didn’t need the space.
There are several key things about a venue you must keep in mind, lets step through the ones I personally worked through.
If you are planning 150 people or less you are much more likely to find a venue that may be free. The bigger the event the harder it is to find space that won’t break the bank.
Remember, most of the people attending will be within 30 miles of the venue in most cases. If it is in a part of town that is hard to get to that can be a problem. Locate all the local hotels around the venue and see if they are acceptable. Having to drive across a city you aren’t familiar with at 7am in the morning isn’t ideal for most of your traveling guest.
Capacity of rooms
Generally, a good rule of thumb is 50 people per room. If you are planning for 250 people attending, that is 5 rooms. You should also plan on having a space where everyone can congregate in the morning and evening for announcements and give a ways. This may or may not be a separate room. Depending on the type of venue, class room style or hotel banquet room style, you may be able to join your rooms together to get the space you need. If you do require that rooms be joined together build it into your schedule!
Number of rooms
Again, if you are planning on 50 people a room then you need 5 rooms for the presentations. You should also plan an additional room for speakers/volunteers to prep and recover in. You can also use this room to store stuff in, if you do make sure it is secure. Most of the time speakers are looking for someplace that has power that they can work on stuff as needed. This also implies internet connectivity. Lastly, if you can have a projector in this room it can act as a backup if another room has a failed projector. It also lets speakers test out laptops on a projector before they get up in front of people.
Vendors, Vendors, Vendors! You need to make sure that the vendor area is in a very accessible area with plenty of foot traffic. Remember they are funding this. They are here to make contacts, meet people and generally socialize. If you hide your vendors you make that an impossible task.
If you can combine your vendor area and the dining area that is also a big win. It allows people to eat and mingle during the part of the day they have the most time free to talk. You need to make sure there are places for folks to sit down and enjoy their break as well. If you can’t combine vendor area and dining area see if you can get the food line to pass the vendor area, that’s also a good time to have chats with people as they cruse by vendor tables.
This is a hard one. Depending on the venue you might be stuck with using their on sight caterer. This can limit your options dramatically and drive costs up as well. Food is the number one single expense for your SQLSaturday. If you look at hotels you get the rooms for free since you will be paying 45.00 or more per person. Also, if you have to go with an onsite option they usually will bundle a breakfast and afternoon snack along with the main lunch. If you can cut them it is a way to keep a handle on the costs. People may not be happy that there aren’t snacks or bagels, but you have to make the hard choices where the dollars go. Keep an eye on the little things. They may have a good rate for things like coffee and water but ding you several dollars per bottled or canned refreshment. Read your contract carefully, they probably have a clause about outside food or drink brought in by the event, and can charge you a percentage of your entire bill as a penalty. I’ve seen them range from 5% to 35%. This means if you think you are going to get around the $2.00 a soda problem by bringing in your own coolers with wal-mart cola, think again. One way or the other you will pay them. The venue has costs as well. Staffing, equipment and cleaning just to name a few, those are fixed costs the venue has to make up some way.
Some venues may rent rooms in increments as small as an hour. If your venue rents by the half day make sure you can get access an hour before and an hour after the event to setup and breakdown. Sometimes they bill you for this extra time. You need to be very clear with your venue about setup/breakdown time needed.
Check to see if projectors are included in the room rate. If they aren’t check to see if you can have the cost removed from the rooms you don’t need a projector in. It may only be one or two rooms but every dollar saved is a dollar you can spend on something more important.
If your venue has a main theater or something similar where you will be holding your opening and closing see if there is an additional fee for the A/V in those rooms. If a room is wired for sound and mic’ed it probably will have an additional fee. You may also have an A/V person as a requirement if you do opt for the A/V equipment.
People think it is rare not to have internet access at these kinds of events. In reality it is the exact opposite. You may be able to secure access for speakers for a fee but not the whole event. We took a novel approach for that and actually use Clear WiMax 4G wireless. It took two units to cover the whole venue but it did work. I’ll cover this in detail later. Just be prepared to have limited or no access and ways to work around it.
The venue may have mandatory staffing the day of the event. Sometimes they have an A/V or facilities person there for 8 hours they have to pay. Generally this is a line item cost that isn’t included in your room rate. If they don’t require a person on site be aware that there may be a deposit required to protect the equipment and facility from damage.
Security may not be needed for your event but required by the venue. Again, this isn’t included in your room rental and is almost always a separate line item.
This is a public event and should be insured in some way against accidents. Your venue can confirm if they have a general liability policy covering your event build into the rate or not. This also goes for your after party!
Venues have different fire codes and policies they will have to adhere to. This may affect your ability to post signs directly on the walls or have free standing easels. If you do have some hard restrictions make sure you have an alternative place to post all the rooms and schedules that is easily visible and accessible by your attendees. Make sure to have your volunteers announce where the schedule is posted as well.
Things I ranked in order of importance:
Number of Rooms
Capacity of Rooms
I know it may surprise some that cost isn’t number one. Simply, if you can’t find a venue with the capacity to hold the event and house the vendors who are paying for it properly cost is moot at that point. I’ll have an event on the edge of the city if it meets the top three and the cost is near free.
Always get a full sheet of expenses up front for every little thing that they rent and what you can or cannot bring in from the outside. These “little things” can easily be a third of the room costs alone.
Head count needs to include not just attendees but also speakers, volunteers and vendors.
A free venue that requires their caterer isn’t free.
Check for everything else you may have to rent from the venue, it can add a significant amount to the bill.
Read every letter in any venue agreement, you don’t have to be a lawyer but you should apply common sense and ask questions.
Feeding The Masses