I’ve had this idea for some time. It’s been bugging me, but I haven’t really been pressured to write, nor inspired. That changed a bit with the announcement of the rules change for SQL Saturdays, as well as a few discussions I had with people.
I dislike the announcement for a few reasons, which you can read if you like.
Of What does a SQL Saturday Consist?
Like my grammar? I was desperate to avoid the preposition at the end. However, I’m wandering away from what I want to write about.
What does a SQL Saturday consist of each week? I think this is a high level view of the tasks that have taken place at many of the events I’ve attended in the last few years.
- Get a venue
- Sell sponsors some advertising/exhibition package
- Perhaps put together pre-con events (get more space and manage logistics)
- Get speakers to come speak
- Market the event
- Put together a speaker dinner
- Have some sort of speaker gift
- Order shirts for speakers and/or volunteers
- Contract for some sort of lunch
- Get volunteers to help with logistics
- Buy some prizes
- Teach people in sessions
- Have a closing and give stuff away.
- Get people to come to an after party, often providing some food and drinks.
Now, what do we need to have a SQL Saturday?
- Get a venue
- Get a few speakers
- Market the event
- Teach people in sessions
The core of this event is teaching people. It’s about touching many people that may never go to the PASS Summit, or DevConnections, or SQL Intersection. It’s about helping people get inspired in this business, learn something, meet colleagues. It’s about building a community.
Everything else is gravy.
Let’s be clear. I have no issue with events that can put on a fancy dinner for speakers, or give nice gifts, or cater lunch, or give away XBOXs to an attendee. I have no issue with any of that, and if you can, do it. However, please don’t feel you have to. Please don’t compete and build an event based on the budget you want, or have seen elsewhere. Please don’t make this event about stuff.
Remember the attendees.
Money is Tight
Money is tight with product vendors, and it’s tight with recruiters, and it’s tight with venue sponsors. I have been worried about this for a few years now, as I think vendors have gotten caught up in the SQL Saturday excitement as much as organizers, speakers, and attendees. There has been lots of easy money, and as a result, I’ve seen competition and effort put into making a SQL Saturday more like a mini-Summit than a free, grassroots, one-day event.
I am not complaining about anyone’s efforts. Many of you have done amazing jobs putting on events, and I’ve been impressed, and also quite humbled by your efforts. You really care and do a great job.
The easy money isn’t sustainable, and I want many of you to be cognizant of that. I want you to ensure that you run another event next year, based on the budget you have, not the budget you want.
Most of all, I want you to feel successful with your event because attendees came and learned something. Attendees don’t care about the extras that much, at least not overall. Someone will always complain. Extras are nice, but people come to learn and interact. They come because they’re hungry to be better at their jobs.
Please don’t expect that you need to raise, or spend, $10,000, or even $5,000. Raise what you need, but build the event that suits you. I won’t think any less of you if I need to buy my own breakfast, coffee (yes, that’s a separate meal), dinner, and drinks.
I promise you, the attendees won’t think less of you either if there’s a room, a speaker, and a slice of pizza for lunch.
This is the perfect time for this post as I am just starting to put together a plan for a SQL Saturday in an area of Wisconsin that has never had one before. My biggest concern is being able to live up to the larger SQL Saturdays that I have gone to while not being able to raise as much money via sponsorships.
We run a very small SQL Saturday in the South West of England, we don’t try to compete with any of the others, people comment that we should grow, but we don’t want to, we don’t think we’d get the people, we like the venue, it’s cost effective and it works for us. Do what works for you, don’t do what people think you should do and don’t compare to other events. If you want any more information/advice please feel free to get in touch.
Glad to give you some hints. Go small, go simple, make the event good for learning and ignore everything else. Don’t live up to other events. Make it yours, make it easy on you. I want it to be easy, so you’ll do another one.
An interesting perspective I got today in regards to this is a lot of money is spent on speakers: gifts, shirts, snacks, etc. Speakers don’t pay for the food and usually we get a dinner and maybe some drinks. It’s extremely generous. However, on the flip side it seems like we’re not doing similar things for the attendees, such as offering water and sodas.
I’m not sure what the middle path is here, but I think sometimes events go a little overboard on impressing/thanking the speakers, where that money could be spent on making the event better for the attendees. Getting a shirt is not a make/break proposition for me as a speaker, I’m showing up because I like to talk and I enjoy the experience (and a little it of self promotion, to be fair). I don’t want events feeling like they have to convince me to be there.
I agree. I don’t speak because of dinner or a shirt.
I don’t think there’s a middle ground. What I think is that events shouldn’t feel like a failure, or that they can’t get speakers without offering lots of amenities. Or that attendees won’t come without getting prizes.
Offer a space with content and people will come.
The other point I was trying to sneak in there (might have failed) is that I’d also rather see events focus resources on the attendees than on the speakers. If an event is trying to decide between offering drink service at the event and getting speaker shirts, please get the drink service.
As a speaker, I would be perfectly happy without a speaker dinner, speaker shirt, etc. That’s not at all why I show up.
I enjoy socializing with other speakers, but I’m able to do that at the event itself. It’s not a problem if attendees are around, too, that’s a *feature*. I think at most events, speakers and attendees could successfully organize a “night before” event that’s pay-your-own-way, and it’d be a lot less trouble and money for the organizers.
I suspect a lot of other speakers may feel the same way, but organizers may feel obliged to continue the tradition.
Well said! Thanks, Steve for adding your insight and reminding everyone about the spirit of what SQL Saturday was meant to be. You echo many of my personal beliefs around these events as well. Thank you!
You are welcome, Wendy. Glad you liked it.
Jen McCown wrote a very good piece along similar lines a little over a year and a half ago. Well worth adding into the mix: http://www.midnightdba.com/Jen/2014/11/just-an-idea-bare-bones-sql/
I think lowering expectations on the events is a good thing. For Relay, I got caught up in the idea of increasing the social aspects for a while before realising it’s not why people attend, it’s hard to demonstrate value to the sponsors, it eats our time up to organise, and it takes away focus from what the event is about.
I still try to treat speakers quite well, not least because I like them all as friends, but cynically they are the product and you want to get the most bang for your buck out of them. Of course, treating them well isn’t all about cash dropped on them – there’s a lot of things you can do that don’t cost anything but make the conference better for speakers, like great comms & processes, advice on sightseeing, easy access to essentials (water, caffeine, power, food).
Thanks, Steff, and for the record, I very much appreciated how Relay was run for me. However, I’d have still come if you had merely given me an address and time on which to speak. It’s nice to make the event easier for speakers, and if you can, great.
I think there’s an ocean separating us right now – you don’t have to be scared and say what you think I want to hear 😉
It’s not cash, it’s time that pays to spend on speakers IMO. I love that Niko and gang make life easy for me by picking me up from the airport when I speak at Portugal. I think that’s something most SQLSats could do: help with transport organisation, improve accommodation booking etc.
Events should esp. put in effort for new speakers, whether new to speaking or to that specific event. There’s so much to know as a speaker and we forget as organisers and experienced speakers that it can be a daunting experience. A lot of new speakers end up as only one time speakers because they tank their session or they don’t feel comfortable at the event. An offer to dry run the presentation, a decent briefing at the beginning of the event, maybe a speaker buddy – they improve session quality and the speaker experience and it doesn’t cost at all.
Ha, I’m the last person that’s scared of saying what I think. Not always a good thing.
Spending time on speakers is fine, but I’ll say this. Time is the most precious resource I have, no matter what my role. If speakers can do this, or find volunteers to help, great. If not, it doesn’t deter me from coming. I’m a big boy. I don’t need my hand held, and if you do, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t need to come.
I appreciate your efforts in the UK, and think helping speakers is a great idea. It’s a good addition that plenty of speakers would appreciate.
Good points all. As a speaker for whom the company doesn’t always pick up the tab, those little things – not cash – make a HUGE difference. Picking me up at the airport when I’m in another country? GOLD. Knowing which hotel is cheap but not scary? GOLD. A public bus pass to the event with a little map showing me how to get around? GOLD. If you want to brand the event, t-shirts are good enough for the speaker, or just a pin or something to designate them. People will find their own food – or a few pizza’s laying around is good enough. It’s the content, not the flair. 🙂
Mike, I wouldn’t presume to tell organizers how to run the event. If they want to get speaker shirts instead of more drinks, it’s their call. For the record, I agree with you, but that’s my opinion.
I just don’t want people to think they have to do any specific combination of things.
Interesting post, Steve. I agree that the event should be focused on the attendees, learning and networking – heck even for us guys, that’s important among ourselves as speakers, and with the attendees (who could be future event speakers, MVPs, etc.)
One aspect I wanted to chime in here is the part you said about “easy money”, as all events rely on the generosity of sponsors. Usually a win-win situation, but your point about “vendors have gotten caught up in the SQL Saturday excitement “, I have seen this first hand, and as each year went by, I noticed it was harder and harder to get sponsors to sign on, especially in the Gold/Platinum levels. I think they’re seeing the ROI is not as flush as they had hoped. I still think vendors get a unique opportunity to market to a specific niche audience – to which their products and services cater, but they have been more cautiously optimistic in this regard, as of late. That’s what I noticed as one who worked several events soliciting sponsors….Anyways, I know YOU don’t need shirts, unless they were Hawaiin print 🙂
P.S. We’re finally planning one for NYC next May 2017, hope you’ll make it!
Thanks, Robert. Always want to get to NYC if I can.
Certainly vendors are questioning the ROI, but they’re also overloaded. Pick and choose, and work local vendors/companies more than the large national ones.
I hope no one’s obligated to continue tradition. That’s part of why I wrote this. I don’t want anyone obligated on my behalf.
Oh, I hate to be the one but I enjoy the trappings and I’m not sure the sponsor money is drying up. I think as long as you put a bunch of data professionals in one place for a day you should be able to get plenty of sponsorship. We broke even (almost) this year and I know we could have sold more sponsorships. The speakers deserve the dinner and gifts for volunteering and traveling, etc. That said, 600 miles is too far. The AtlantaBI and Nashville events were on back-to-back weekends and both were packed. I think there’s room for slim and not-so-slim events. IMHO.
Money is absolutely drying up as a gross number. It might not be for an individual event, but for the large number, it is. I think ATL, Orlando, San Jose, some will be able to sell more and more. They’ll be fine.
It’s the Sioux Falls, the Omaha, the Louisville, those are the ones I worry about.
I’ll also say that “a bunch” is relative. I can tell you that the value of smaller events is very suspect for a few vendors.
Great points, Buck. Little things are nice, and very much appreciated. However, if you can’t, don’t have time, or don’t think of them, I’m fine.
I do want to see more local, and always a few new speakers. Heck, I’d even be happy to help mentor some speakers at events or do joint presentations.
Dear Steve, thanks for the post hitting on all the right points, and thanks for worrying about us!! As you probably know, Louisville is among the older events. Our first event was in 2009, I am so grateful for the mentoring Andy gave me during those early years – that it was about bringing free learning to local community. All the rest, as you say,are gravy.We’ve worked very hard at building interest in the local community – i recall getting so many emails from attendees saying things like ‘i can’t take a personal day off to learn’, ‘my boss won’t pay me for the precon’..i don’t get them any more. And every place i have known and worked at people ask me when the next event is. This did not happen by itself.You say you are not against events with big giveaways, sorry to say but that is the only point i beg to disagree. I am. This is not exactly a party,it is a learning event. Have some fun with it, treat speakers well, eat and dine well, but if you have money to buy big screen tvs and such, consider small events. John Magnabosco from Indypass actually sponsored our fist sql saturday out of their funds. It might be the only event that was actually sponsored by another chapter/event. There are things you can do with that $$ that go towards what it was intended for. That is my humble opinion atleast.I’ve done this event with more and less.Our funding has varied from 15k to 3k. We have good local sponsors. We can still do it. I hope we are allowed to, thank you, Mala.
Congrats on Louisville. This year is 8, right? That’s incredible, Mala.
I think big giveaways are a waste, but I’m not going to say they are a bad idea. I have met plenty of people that have been excited by them, and remember them. My thought is that most attendees don’t make a decision based on this, or that it has little influence, but I accept I might be wrong.
I do like your idea of using that money elsewhere. Quite a few organizers use extra funds for supporting their UG for the year. That’s fine. It would be great if they worked with other groups, especially nearby, to support them. I’ve actually suggested to a few close quartered groups they work together and share some funds. I think helping others is a fantastic use of funds.
I hope you’re allowed to continue. I’ve been twice (or 3?) and I’d like to come back. I’m sad to miss it this year.
Steve, it is not ‘wrong’ at all. But there are lots of people who attend events for giveaways, believe me. There is even a group in town here that does talks with fancy give aways and they get 3 times the crowd our ug does. We have worked very very hard to promote learning for one’s personal growth and career improvement, and big gifts like that sometimes bring in people who don’t care about that at all. Again nothing against it, just that it pushes the wrong ideas at times. I have given whatever we have over and above a reasonable fun learning event to the user group. I think that is a fair cause. We still hope we can go on. I was so looking forward to celebrating our 10th event.
I’m sure people will come for giveaways, and that’s fine. But I’m not going to make that a requirement for an event.
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Good timing on the article Steve. I’m reading this as I’m preparing for my 2nd SQL Saturday for Lincoln (actually between Lincoln and Omaha to cater to both areas) in November. I’ve felt like I should treat the speakers well since most are coming from quite a distance at their own expense. It’s great to hear from the speaker perspective on what they’d really like or what helps them out. I like being able to provide a dinner, some small thank you gifts and a shirt/jacket, but I worry about costs since I don’t get a large amount of sponsorship and getting a free or low cost venue that will serve the purpose seems next to impossible.
The give-aways can be fun, but I feel if that’s all someone comes for then then they’re missing the point. I essentially stopped having raffles after my regular user group meetings because most people indicated that didn’t drive them to come (yay). The fact that I had little operating cash was a bit of a driving force as well.
At my first SQL Saturday I had 3 pre-con sessions and that was the difference for me for being in the black or the red. Fortunately I was able to run my user group on the surplus (plus meeting sponsors) for 4 years. I plan to do the same this time and hope to have the same or better results.
As far as the 600 mile rule goes I have mixed feelings. Being in the center of the country it can be hard not to have another SQL Saturday within 600 miles. To get a Saturday without another event within 600 miles AND get a venue lined up can be a real challenge. On the other hand I depend on speakers to come from surrounding states or further so not having to compete with another event is golden. I can operate on a tighter budget, but I can’t run an event without speakers.
Personally, I think “User Group” sums it all. As a public employee, I have learned to turn away from what is considered “gratuity” when I am drawn for a prize! I am not there for the prizes, I am there excited to learn new things, and meet awesome people, Data Professionals and presenters.
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