We're three weeks removed from the first annual SQL Saturday Dallas event, so I've had a little time to gather my thoughts on our successes and shortcomings in this inaugural event.
This was the first SQL Saturday event held in Dallas, and we expect this to be an annual event moving forward. We started planning this some 8 months ago or so, after Trevor Barkhouse and I caught the SQL Saturday bug after attending events in other cities. After sharing the vision with the rest of the North Texas SQL Server Group leadership, we scheduled our event (after much handwringing about the event date and location) and got to work with the details. We put out a call for volunteers, and received about 45 positive responses, several of whom were eventually recruited as part of the SQL Saturday planning committee. Our call for speakers was fruitful as well, giving us plenty of sessions to choose from.
Everything seemed to come together well on the day of the event: the weather was cooperating (we had plans for an outdoor lunch, weather permitting, though we had a backup plan just in case), we had plenty of volunteers early in the day, and there were no major technical issues. When all of the speakers, attendees, and volunteers were counted, we had over 400 people in the building during the event, which was short of what we had hoped for but still a strong turnout for our first event.
Excellent venue: The location that hosted our SQL Saturday event was almost perfectly suited for this purpose. The Region 10 Education Service Center facility is a training center for various school districts throughout the north Texas area, so it already had the amenities (spacious classrooms, microphones, projectors, hundreds of chairs, lots of parking) required for such an event. Plus, Region 10 arranged to have on-site support throughout the day, which proved to be helpful on several occasions.
Engage volunteers early and often: We started with a core team of five people (which dropped to 4 at one point), but we quickly realized that we would have more work than this handful of people could accomplish alone. So, we added another four people to our planning team, and empowered them to recruit others from our large pool of potential volunteers. This volunteer engagement so early in the process was a key component in our success.
Communication with speakers: We were expecting to lose a couple of speakers – every SQL Saturday event I’ve been to has had at least one speaker that had to cancel at the last minute, or just didn’t show up at all. We established a dialog with our speakers fairly early, including gathering their cell phone numbers, and we followed up by phone with most if not all of them the week before the event. I didn’t get any feedback from the other speakers about this, but I hope it brought a more personal touch to the whole speaker recruitment process, which is often done just on the SQL Saturday website and over e-mail.
Great signage: One of our volunteers, Dave Stein, did a superb job of mapping out our indoor and outdoor signage needs, going so far as to create a composite Google map showing where each sign should be placed. We blanketed the block surrounding the event with directional signs, and covered the venue’s main sign out front with a professionally made sign of our own. As a result, we got many compliments on how easy the event was to find because of excellent signage.
Sponsor management: We had a single person in charge of sponsor relations. Ryan Adams really stepped up to the plate and knocked this one out of the park: several sponsors remarked to me that our group was the most organized group they’d worked with, in that we clearly laid out expectations and provided the logistical information they needed. He may not know it, but he’s already got this job for next year too :)
Food: Vic Prabhu did an outstanding job of planning and implementation of breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Several of the team members went on lunch tasting trips to sample several options, and the one they chose was very good – I had the turkey sandwich and it was excellent, and I heard several people going on and on about how good the chicken salad sandwich tasted. I think we were a little short on bottled water in the morning, but that’s an easy fix for next year. Vic and the rest of the team were aggressive in managing the food needs, and their efforts paid off handsomely.
Feedback: We got a LOT of feedback. In one of my sessions where I had maybe 75 people, I got over 60 session evaluations returned. That’s an 80% return rate, significantly higher than the 20-25% I was expecting. I haven’t aggregated the numbers for all sessions, but I’ve heard that other speakers got a very high rate of return on their session evals as well. I think this feedback ratio is due to several factors:
- We used the session evaluations for entries in the end-of-day drawing. More completed evaluations = greater possibility of winning goodies.
- We had a nearly anonymous method for submitting feedback. Each attendee was given a numbered ticket at the beginning of the day, and they were asked to write the ticket number on each evaluation. That allowed us to incentivize people for turning in the evaluations, but kept them from having to write their name on the form (which usually yields more honest feedback).
- We really pushed the attendees during the opening session to complete the evaluations, and a number of speakers (this one among them) specifically asked for session evals during the session.
Adding an extra track: We added a 7th track relatively late in the planning process, calling it “bonus track” or something along those lines. Although this track was potpourri, the sessions in this extra track were well received, and adding the additional bandwidth helped to alleviate concerns about having overfull classrooms (though we still had a few standing-room-only sessions anyway). It also allowed us to accommodate a few more speakers.
Ice cream in the afternoon: Who would have thought that an ice cream cart would be groundbreaking? Team members Sean and Jen McCown came up with the idea of having a local ice cream vendor serve up frozen dessert during an afternoon break, and it was a big hit with the attendees. They even gave us a break on the price in addition to adding them to our list of sponsors, so it was a win for everyone.
Engaging nontechnical people as volunteers: The only problem with having eager volunteers is that they often miss out on taking part in the training. We were fortunate that we had a few non-techie spouses, mine among them, who were willing to come and help out during registration and lunch. We didn’t have to worry about making room in their volunteer schedules to attend sessions, since they didn’t particularly care about the content. I’ll take this opportunity to say thanks to the spouses who came and helped us out, because they did so purely for the benefit of others without getting anything but a free lunch and a shirt in return. Having them there made a big difference.
What I wish we’d done differently:
The event date: We inadvertently scheduled SQL Saturday Dallas on the same day as SQL Saturday Portland and Indy Tech Fest. I don’t think this cost the event many attendees, but there were several speakers who said they’d like to have been in Dallas but were already committed to one of the other events. Also, having the event in late May risks a conflict with high school and college graduation events, which eliminated at least one potential speaker from our short list.
Maximum number of attendees: I think we spent too much time overthinking this. We had a specific cap on the number of people that could be present in the building, and we tried to separately calculate the estimated attrition of people who had paid for lunch, those who didn’t pay for lunch, and volunteers/speakers. It was a complicated formula, which unfortunately turned out to be quite wrong, and we ended up cutting off event registration at a much lower number than was required. Next year, I think we should plan on losing a flat 20% of registered attendees to attrition, and plan our capacity limits according to that. It should help us get more people in the door for some outstanding [hoo-ah] SQL Server training.
SQL Bingo (or something similar): This is popular at the PASS Summit and other SQL Saturday events, but we opted against this for lack of available remaining cycles. This sort of forced networking helps to break some of the more introverted people out of their shells and sparks a few conversations between attendees that might not otherwise happen. It’s potentially high return with minimal investment, so I think we should implement this next year.
Create a buzz around Twitter feeds and #sqlsat35 hashtag: Some people were tweeting from the event, but we could have done more before (include it predominantly in our e-mail communications) and during (Twitter feed monitors at various places) the event date to increase our Twitter presence on the day of.
More publicity about the after party: We had a bullet about this in the session guide and a verbal mention during the closing assembly, but I think we could have done more to encourage more people to attend. It may have simply been the chosen venue – it was a restaurant with no pool tables or any other non-networking attractions – so we might consider changing the location of the after party for next year’s event. Still, I think had we worked a little more at creating some buzz around this, we’d have had a bigger turnout and by extension a better networking opportunity for all. To reiterate the previous point, I think better use of Twitter could have helped with this.
Faster, more coordinated opening and closing assemblies: Although we didn’t do a bad job here, there’s room for improvement next year. If it felt like we were winging it during the opening and closing dialog, it’s because we were – we had a rough idea of what we wanted to accomplish, but we had no script, no rehearsal, and I think that showed in the final product.
PASS representation: I’m not going to beat up on PASS for not sending someone this year, because I know they have budget constraints and, frankly, I think they’re probably still trying to figure out exactly how to handle SQL Saturday events. Because we’ve got a large community of SQL Server people in this area (which translates to a large pool of potential PASS members and future summit attendees), PASS should strongly consider sending a representative to future SQL Saturday Dallas events.
See you next year!
Are we doing this again next year? Oh yeah! We haven’t set the date yet, but there will be a SQL Saturday Dallas 2011 – probably a little earlier in the year. We expect to make an announcement about next year’s event sometime mid-summer.