Mar 17 2014

SQL Saturday: You can’t have it all.

SQL Saturday’s are awesome! Let’s get that clear up front. The organizers of SQL Saturday events are glorious individuals. Let’s get that clear too.

I want to be up front about those things because, well, I’m going to be critical.

First though, I want to establish my bona fides for what I’m about to say. I helped organize two SQL Saturday events and two other local events before those. I also help Red Gate Software run half-day seminars all over the country. So, I have some idea what goes into the organizational side of these things. I’ve presented at eleven SQL Saturday events in just the last year. I’m on the schedule for, I think, 6 more between now and August. So, I think I have some idea what it’s like to be a speaker at the events. And, I work for a vendor who puts money and swag up at the events in order to get some advertising. Which gives me some ideas behind what makes the vendors happy too. Further, I’m one of the community. I attend the sessions, talk to the sponsors, take part in the after events, the whole magilla. I don’t think any of this makes me an expert or makes my voice more important than anyone else, but it all comes together to show that I’m not utterly clueless in my opinions (which, I know the adage, opinions are like certain body parts, everyone has one, and they all stink).

Organizers, I’ve seen this issue a lot and it’s just getting worse. This issue is going to hurt you with, in no particular order; speakers, sponsors and the community. What are you doing? You’re trying to have it all.

You want sponsors, right? The sponsors frequently ask for one thing… please, please, please, let us do a presentation so we can show off how wicked awesome our products are to the most motivated people in the region (yeah, the people who are giving up a Saturday to learn technology for their jobs are the best people in the area where that SQL Saturday is taking place). So, you agree to letting the sponsors have a talk… ooh, but when to schedule it?

You want BIG NAME speakers, right? Although I’m absolutely convinced that big name speakers don’t really draw people to your event. Good sessions, usually defined by good session titles, draw people to your event (and good communication on your part through various venues and… well, that’s a different discussion I’ll leave for Karla). But, the belief is there, so people try to get Brent Kline and Kendal Ford and Jes Misner to come speak at their event. BUT, you also want to meet the needs of the local community so you can grow new speakers, so you’re going to take in a bunch of new people too… ah, but how do you schedule that?

And you’re committed to your community too, right? And one of the best ways to show your commitment to your community is to host a panel at lunch. The most common panel is Women in Technology, but I’ve also seen or heard about panels on educating young people, charities, user groups, and all sorts of things. Great stuff really and a big part of why the SQL Family is so wonderful. We really do try to help each other out. We really do care, and those panels give people a chance to communicate what they’ve done to others who may want to contribute in the same way. Ah… but when can we schedule this panel?

By now, I’ll bet many of you know what I’m about to say. But, before I say it, let me point out one more thing. SQL Saturday’s are all day affairs. And if anyone goes to the entire thing, they’re in the building from 8AM to 4PM (or so), so, we’re going to feed them something at mid-day. That really bites into our schedule too.

When can we put all this together? A WIT panel, sponsor talks, new speakers, experienced speakers and lunch…. Hey, hold on. Let’s put it all at lunch. That’s just a gaping hole in the schedule begging to be filled.

And there lies the problem. Putting all this together, all at the same time, hurts something. And, putting it all at lunch, pretty much hurts all of it. It’s hard to get your food and then find your way to a room to eat it in, or, conversely attend the session you want and get your food later, or, try to eat and then go into a session half way through. You can’t do it all. And then, when you think about the audience mix you just created, you’re hurting new speakers because people may skip their session to attend the sponsor session or the WIT panel. The WIT panel is going to suffer because you scheduled an experienced, known, speaker at lunch because you just ran out of room to put them anywhere else. And the sponsors… I’ll be blunt. We want eyeballs. And you just gave them alternatives, and we know they already have alternatives with our competitors doing a session at the same time, but did you have to clean out everyone for the WIT panel too?

In short, organizers, you need to start to pare it down. Don’t try to do it all. You want to support sponsors at lunch? Cool, do that. Schedule the WIT panel to 1/2 hour before the prize drawing (I’ve seen that done, it worked well). You want to have sessions at lunch? Fine. Don’t schedule the sponsors for then. Extend the day and have sponsor sessions before or after lunch. Want to get eyeballs to the local speaker or the big name speaker? Cool, but leave the sponsors out of it. Can’t work out how to fit ALL this in? Then don’t. Don’t even try. Give up on some of it. Pick and choose to make your event yours. But don’t try to cram so much stuff in that you basically make it difficult for the speakers and the community and the sponsors and the attendees.

27 Comments

  • By SQLRockstar (@SQLRockstar), March 17, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    Grant,

    This past weekend in Silicon Valley the vendor sessions were done at the end, in between the final session and before the raffle. I had 40 people show up just to listen to a vendor talk. I thought it was brilliant the way the organizers used that time.

  • By Jes Borland, March 17, 2014 @ 11:12 am

    Thanks for the message Grant. As a long-time event organizer, it can be a daunting task to try to please everyone – especially as annual events get bigger by the year. Thanks for the reminder to keep it simple.

  • By Joey D'Antoni, March 17, 2014 @ 11:22 am

    I thought the way Silicon Valley did it was really great. There were sponsor sessions over lunch as well, so it was a mix. I think the key with doing sessions over lunch is to have a long lunch, and to try to market the sessions to attendees as not sponsor sessions.

    I am thinking about moving the sessions to just before the raffle. And allowing a sponsor giveaway in their session.

  • By Stuart Ainsworth, March 17, 2014 @ 11:35 am

    I’m a big believer in giving sponsors (particularly the upper-tier sponsors) the lunch session, especially at events where eating space is at a premium (our events don’t usually have a single large room, so we have to spread people out at lunch). However, not all sponsors want that slot, so I’ve suggested that we have the WIT panel be sponsored; kills two birds with one stone.

  • By Steve Hood, March 17, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    I agree completely. I’ve been to two SQL Saturdays and used two lunches to get a break from the amazing amount of information I took in that morning. Both times the vendor sessions were at lunch, and I didn’t attend any of those sessions.

    I took in a SQL in the City that you put on the day before because it wasn’t at lunch and I was in town already. That just goes to show that it’s more of a scheduling thing than a lack of wanting information.

    Speaking of “in town already”, I agree that we should just extend the day and make a dedicated sponsors time slot. I drove several hours to get to my last SQL Saturday, as probably half the attendees do. My whole day is used up already. So, do I want 8 hours of ideas and techniques, or the same 8 hours plus an hour of tools?

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 17, 2014 @ 11:42 am

    Tom, that’s a great idea. I hope more organizers follow along.

    Jes, you can’t please everyone, so all you can do is pick the audiences you’re going to please, but you know that already.

    Joey, Silicon Valley SQL Saturday has been one of the best I’ve seen over the last several years. I’m not at all shocked that continues to be the case.

    Stuart. Any way you want to work it is fine. I’m just saying if you try to mix it all together, it’s not going to work well.

  • By Robert Pearl, March 17, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    From the title Grant, I thought the blog would be much more controversial ;-) Something to rock the commmunity….Seriously, as an organizer/speaker/sponsor solicitor, I agree with you. We had our WIT panel I think later in the day, as one of the options against the other sessions – more choice offering. We left the lunch slot totally to the high-level sponsors (and of course they had all day at their tables to hawk their wares at passer-byers).
    We also did the event(s) by track, so regardless if the speaker was a known quantity/MVP, the session content was evenly divided. Yes, in reality, the known speakers would get a bigger room & draw, but at least we did our best to divvy up the time fairly.
    Perhaps an official SQLSaturday guideline suggestion doc on scheduling?
    It is definitely a skill to coordinate and organize an event that is ONLY 1-day (unlike PASS :-)

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 17, 2014 @ 11:47 am

    Hey Steve. That’s an idea. I’m sure there are lots and lots of ways to solve this. I just don’t want to see the overloaded lunch times any more. It’s getting really crazy.

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 17, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Hey Robert!

    I think there are guidelines, but I suspect they’re just that, guidelines. I think people could probably use a bit more direct guidance.

    And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all events have issues, but I’ve been seeing this particular issue a lot.

    And, if you think a multi-day event is easy, you should go organize the Summit. I’m sure they’d appreciate it. Ha!

  • By Peter Shire, March 17, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    Grant, You hit the mark here. Organizers should feel comfortable setting reasonable goals for the event. Better to nail those now and then try different goals for the next event.

    Attendees and sponsors should appreciate that too. It’s tough being an organizer. Many thanks to them for their hard work and devotion.

    Finally, I gave you bonus points for use of “whole magilla” :)

  • By Karla Landrum, March 17, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

    Robert – good idea, I’ll update the Scheduling page of the SQLSaturday wiki. It has lots of suggestions, but this particular problem isn’t really discussed there.

    I agree with Joey for one of the options, extending lunch. For the past two years in Orlando we’ve made lunch 1 1/2 hours long, 45 minutes to eat and network, second 45 minutes for vendor/sponsor sessions. No regular speaker sessions during that time. Last year we only had two sponsors want to speak at that time, so they managed to get some very full attendance at them. (versus us filling those up with other sessions from the speakers) http://sqlsaturday.com/232/schedule.aspx

    Thanks for blogging about this Grant. Very important message here!

    Karla

  • By Karen Lopez, March 17, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    I’ve run dozens of WIT Panels for SQL Saturday organizers over the years. I’ve even run Rogue WIT panels. I think, for the most part, we’ve reached the end of their value add to the schedule, so that’s why I’ve stopped asking organizers for a slot.

    Sure, we have new attendees every year, but for the most part, the panels aren’t inspiring people to make changes or take action.

    I think that “slot” (even though there aren’t really and slots for WIT), should be tailored to the local community, tied to what issue is impacting the IT community or the entire community. And instead of a panel, it should be more like a 15 minute chalk talk focused on the issue, sharing data about the issue, and having defined call to actions. All in all it should take less than 20 minutes. The issue could be WIT, diversity, jobs, education, environment, Open Data, whatever.

    Or maybe organizers should give PASSWIT and all those other community issues people booth space. Let them do their outreach that way.

    I also find it very difficult to get to the lunch sessions. Usually feeding 300+ people just takes time. And vendors get screwed out of quality time with attendees. Attendees don’t get to see a good demo of a tool. It’s a lose-lose. I agree.

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 17, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

    Peter – Thanks! Although, evidently, I was corrected on spelling. It’s supposed to be megillah. That’s what my Saturday morning cartoon education does for me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magilla_Gorilla

    Karla – More awesome ideas.

    Karen – Side note to my discussion, but I agree with you. Regardless of the panel, WIT or not, I’d love to see some type of call for action, or report on past actions & proposal for new ones or something. Every one I’ve been to has been pretty devoid of next steps.

    Other stuff, again, great ideas. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing at the events.

  • By Tobiasz Koprowski, March 17, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

    Agree with You Grant. As organizers of few events (yeah, about fifteen and UG MeetUps are not counted) I saw (and sometimes made) same mistakes. We – organizers – want to Do All Best For ALL! And I know it’s not working: we should remember about all of Your points: speakers, sponsors, panels, lunch and even about attendees (and attendees’ confort). We can compress as much session as possible, making short break, quick lunch, but we sometimes forgot about… Fun and Joy of the SQL Family Events. With this kind of guidelines we can try to do it in better (even not best, but better) form. Thank You Grant. I’m still learning.

  • By Mala, March 17, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    Agree with you. Generally. That said, after 6 sql Saturdays – I’ve faced this issue with only two. And in both of those we have had abundant funding and a ton of good speakers to choose from. It does not happen that way all the time. Funding is a big non predictable and is hardly based on our treatment of sponsors, if that were true I would have a dozen lined up now and I don’t. And I completely agree with Karen on WIT value add – after the last one we had with just two people we are not doing them any more. We try to give sponsors any time they like, more often than not they prefer lunch since they simply get more people then. That was worked really well. Other things are just practice with what works best in that community. Learning new things about that every year.

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 17, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

    Tobiasz – Agreed. It’s the “we need to do it ALL” mentality that’s hurting the events.

    Mala – Funding, good or bad, shouldn’t dictate how overloaded lunch gets. I’m not questioning the choices made by any SQL Saturday in general. But there has been a strong tendency to load down lunch with too much stuff from a checklist somewhere. Vendor sessions, check. WIT, check. Squeezing in lightening talks or new speakers or the experienced speaker we just didn’t have room for or the “fill in the blank here” session that just goes better at lunch… It’s a trend. Not saying you’re doing it, but your peers are.

  • By Mala, March 17, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

    I agree with you on the lunch time sessions, and we made that mistake too once. But learnt not to later.

  • By Rick Heiges, March 17, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

    Great Points!

    As I have been involved with a lot of events, it is important to keep in mind the value prop for all involved and strike a balance.

  • By SQLDBAwithTheBeard, March 19, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

    Absolutely right it is a difficult thing to get that balance right.

    I would add to your post.

    Ask for input before and get feedback afterwards and act on it

    I’d probably get all shouty (but thats because the developers have wound me up today) and say things like

    How do you know what is right for your sponsors if you don’t ask them?
    How can you do it better next time if you don’t understand what didn’t go so well this time
    Communicate and interact with all of the people involved in your event – Sponsors, Speakers, Volunteers, Delegates, Venues

    I hope we have done enough of that as we approach SQL Saturday Exeter this weekend and I am certain we will do it for SQL Saturday Exeter 2015 (Yup we are planning that already and there are things on the lessons learned pile)

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 19, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

    Yeah, that sounds like the way to get things done right. Nicely done. Wish I could be there for the event this year, but I think I’ll hold out and make the improved one next year. Ha!

  • By Brent Ozar, March 21, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    Great post. Wanted to mention one line though:

    “Although I’m absolutely convinced that big name speakers don’t really draw people to your event.”

    I used to totally agree with you, but my recent East coast tour really opened up my eyes. In Philly, DC, and Richmond, all 3 UG leaders reported that turnout for my session was about double their highest attendance, ever. In 2 of those 3 cities, the meeting wasn’t even on their regular night – they moved the meeting around to accommodate my schedule. At SQLSaturday Lisbon next month, my pre-con registrants are something like twice as high as they’d expected for any precon – and the registrations are still coming in.

    I don’t know if these one-off events indicate a trend, or if they’re just outliers, or if it involves our email list promotion, or what. There definitely does seem to be something there, though.

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 21, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

    I could certainly be wrong (like that doesn’t happen on a regular basis). Then again, maybe it’s just you. I mean, not all of us have, hang on… checking… 16,000 followers on twitter and however many on the other communication mechanisms you have.

    But, you know what, if it is true, I still think my point holds, maybe it even holds better. If you do want the big name speakers, you should schedule even more carefully to avoid sucking the air out of the vendors room by having them compete with Tom Ozar or Lynn Lopez.

    By the way, nice job on getting out to user groups too. I’m sure they appreciate it. I was very grateful when you helped us at SNESSUG.

  • By Brent Ozar, March 22, 2014 @ 10:18 am

    Heh. When I worked for Quest, I really wanted to buy a whole track at a conference. I wanted a room for ourselves, the entire day, where we could talk about anything we wanted. We’d have to publish the abstracts ahead of time just like any other room, and it would be totally up to the attendees to decide whether to come or not. I’d love to compete on the merit of the sessions, rather than force all other sessions to stop just to shoehorn the attendees into my advertising.

    Quest’s “Pain of the Week” webcasts were all about this – we spent 45 minutes talking about a problem DBAs faced, and how to fix it with the native tools for free. We spent the last 15 minutes talking about how to solve it much easier with paid tools. There’s always a way to get by without tools for free, and no sense ignoring that fact. We tracked attendee dropoff, and we gauged webcast success not just by attendee counts, but by low dropoff counts. The webcast had to be good enough to compete just on the native portions alone, and then the sales pitch part had to be good enough that people didn’t hang up.

    It’s not easy. It’s hard as hell, and it means that you only get a limited time to “spam” as opposed to the entire hour. I really believe it paid off, though, and I think the same technique would work at regional conferences like SQLSaturday. I’d sit in a one-hour session to hear Grant Jones talk for 45 minutes about the pain of encrypting backups, hear how 2014 solves that problem, and then hear 15 minutes of how Red Gate SQL Backup solves the problem. That’s a perfect trifecta: it has a big name speaker, talks about a real DBA problem, and even pays the bills.

    I’ve been hooked on this concept ever since I heard KRS One rapping about edutainment. Audiences understand and appreciate a hybrid format done well – think Mythbusters’ mix of science and entertainment. The scream format of 100% marketing just doesn’t sell with audiences, and the days of push marketing sessions are dwindling to a close.

    Heck, think about it in terms of your TV consumption. Do you own a DVR? Watch shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime? When was the last time you sat through an entire commercial – much less an entire infomercial? And while marketers are loudly complaining about why you’re not doing it, that ship has sailed, and it’s all about pull marketing now. You’re even in the perfect position to take advantage of it – Steve Fritchey is a hell of a draw when marketed right. ;-)

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 23, 2014 @ 4:43 am

    Well you’ve just outlined the way I like to present our stuff. Real world problem with real solutions AND ours.

  • By Brent Ozar, March 23, 2014 @ 6:24 am

    Exactly! And I bet you could position a sponsored slot like that in with the normal sessions (making it clear in the agenda that it’s a sponsored session, of course) and draw good attendee numbers. Why bother competing with lunch? Sure, it’ll have less attendees than a lunch session, but only qualified people will be sitting in there (the ones facing the pain point) and no one will be presenting about the same pain point at the same time.

  • By Grant Fritchey, March 23, 2014 @ 6:34 am

    Entirely possible. But, the only issue around it would be that people have had the stupid old approach of long, boring product demos etched into their brains. You’ll have to market the session aggressively, at least at first, to get through to people that they absolutely will learn things in addition to seeing something that will make their lives easier, but they may have to pay for. But, I’m in total agreement, it’s the right way to go.

    Shockingly enough, that’s what we’ve tried very hard to do with our SQL in the City events, especially the Seminar events we’ve been running. We are educating about a common problem and showing good solutions as well as Red Gate solutions so that people walk out with more knowledge, period. It’s not simply a product demo.

    In short, I agree. So, I modify my statements above, slightly. Maybe it should be up to the vendor to approach this in the right way. I still don’t think it changes the overall issue that people are trying to overload their events.

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