SQL SATURDAY LESSONS LEARNED
After attending the PASS Summit SQL Saturday round table discussion, it became clear that there are a lot of user groups out there that want to hold SQL Saturdays. A lot of the issues I heard were they either don’t know where to start are don’t have any good resources to make them more successful for future events.
As a user group leader and the chairmen of 3 SQL Saturdays I thought it would be a good idea for my first true blog posting be on this subject.
Obviously these are my experiences and these are the things that have worked for us in the past, but you know your area and your people. We’ve had lots of lessons learned and gotten a lot of help from the NTSSUG along the way, so hopefully this can be just as helpful.
It’s truly best to have your board in place before proceeding on to the next steps. You need to clearly define who will be taking on what roles. Also make sure that these are people you can rely on and will always keep the others in the loop. Things come up and there’s always something at work so make sure you have extra time to dedicate to your SQL Saturday.
These are the roles and responsibilities that I would recommend.
- Chairman – Jack of all trades and oversees all aspects of the other groups and handles the budget
- Speaker Coordinator – A person that is a point of contacting for relaying information to and from the speakers. This is an extremely important job and can mean the difference in a great speaker wanting to return to your event.
- Venue Coordinator – This person will handle the back and forth between the group and venue. Depending on your venue requirements this person’s role could overlap with the next one.
- Food Coordinator – Some venues require you use their catering where others allow outside food. This person will take negotiate prices for food and drinks and submit a budget to the Chairman.
- Prize Coordinator – This person will take the budget from the chairman and make it stretch as much as possible, hunting down deals and negotiating prices for prizes. This person will also work with the Sponsor coordinator for swag and its distribution.
- Sponsor Coordinator – This is a very important role and can mean the difference between a good event and a great event. Whoever fills this role will need to be able to try and get more sponsors and interact with them once they sign up. They will coordinate sponsorship levels and location information to the vendor. I can’t state enough how important this role is, it’s much better to have an event with too much money than not enough.
When are you wanting to put on your event? Keep in mind local and regional events that might conflict with yours. Things like local sports team schedules, holidays, spring break, etc.
This is another area that I can’t stress how important it is! The venue can literally make or break your event and your budget.
If you can it’s best to find some sort of technology campus (typically a school of some sort), they tend to be more conditioned to these types of events.
- Is the Venue large enough to accommodate the estimated number of people you expect to attend?
- Is the venue within your budget? If you truly like a venue you might be able to haggle on price a little bit. Offer them a sponsorship for your event to help bring the cost down.
- Does the venue require you to use their food vendor?
- Do they charge a fee for outside food (some venues don’t have a catering vendor but they will charge a fee for cleanup or possible mishaps).
- How much do they charge for drinks? (This may sound trivial but hotels can be extremely expensive on this part. You don’t want this to be a surprise when you get charged $30+ for a gallon of coffee.)
- What are the lunch charges? Do they fit in with what you expect to charge for lunch for your event?
- Are you required to spend a certain amount of money on your event? Be extremely careful with this language in the contract. For example, if you are using a hotel they might offer you the better lunch options to help with your budget but they will do this “on the restaurant side”. These types of gotchas won’t go against the required amount of money to spend. You don’t want to be 2 weeks out from your event and the hotel tell you that you haven’t met your required spending level because you didn’t spend money on “the event side”.
- Are you going to provide a continental breakfast, snacks and/or drinks for your event?
- Is there plenty of parking? Is it free?
- How many tracks call you handle at one time?
- Is there enough open space for vendor booths?
- Does the venue support screens and projectors or does a 3rd part company come in and handle this (which can be a separate charge)?
- Does the venue take care of setup/teardown of chairs and tables? If not then you’ll need to make sure you have plenty of volunteers to help out with this effort.
- If you can, also try to target the weekend before and the weekend after because a venue may bump your event if something more profitable comes along.
- Have a backup venue just in case the previous step happens (talking to several other organizers this tends to happen more often than you’d think).
Now that you roughly know how much your event is going to cost you need to start putting those cost figures into how mu you’ll need in sponsorship. Can you offer several higher level sponsorships and give those sponsors a lunch session? Do you want your sponsors to sponsor just certain portions of your event (i.e. a venue sponsor, a shirt sponsor, etc.)? Or are you wanting just a bulk amount of money and create a budget? From past experiences it’s best to use on average 8-10 sponsors at the mid-tier sponsorship level as a baseline on what your expected budget COULD be. Use it as a rough estimate of what your event could potentially handle or be short by.
SUBMIT TO PASS
Once you’ve got these steps figured out, you now have all the information you need to submit to Karla at PASS. There could be some other show stoppers that you may need to account for so make sure you can be flexible with your dates because there are certain rules for having a SQL Saturday. You have to give an 8 month leeway for your event to PASS (can be overridden on a case by case basis). There also can’t be any other SQL Saturdays scheduled the same day as yours within a couple hundred mile radius.
A large reason why I say get the previous steps figured out first is, once your site goes live, you don’t want to be figuring out your sponsorship levels and such. You’ll want to be able to have as much information loaded up front as possible, to give your event the best chance at success as possible.
If this is your first time hosting an event, I highly recommend not having a precon. The SQL Saturday alone is a lot of work and until you’re more comfortable with the process don’t add the extra burden to yourself.
If you are hosting a PreCon, having a great topic is key. DO NOT focus on who is delivering the material. The trap a lot of people get into is they try to get the biggest names possible instead of getting what is relevant to your community. Also just because someone has a big name in the community does not necessarily mean they are a great presenter.
Once your SQL Saturday site goes live, the presenters that want to do PreCon’s will most likely come to you. Ask them for a session outline and what the goals are. Does it fit into the theme of your community and event? (i.e. if you’re having a BI only event, it may not go over very well promoting a basic DBA course)
You have the capability to charge for a lunch. I highly recommend you use this, it allows for people to cover the majority of their lunch expenses if not all of it. What type of lunches are you going to serve? Boxed, plated, catered, etc.? These all have different costs and values associated with them.
DO NOT budget your event like you would a household budget. You want to make every penny count but don’t stretch it to the very last penny. I would suggest holding back 5-10% of your total budget as your rainy day fund. Trust me, things happen and stuff comes up and if you’re completely maxed out on budget these things will have to come out of your own pocket (this is a very big lessons learned). If there’s any funds left and you aren’t trying to make money off your event (as in research your tax burdens for keeping that money) then turn around and put it back into your user group. Things like books, Amazon gift cards, headphones, etc. can go a long way in driving new people to your group.
This is one area that tends to get overlooked. I know what you’re thinking “Why does a conference with a bunch of us nerds need insurance?” The short answer is S#!t happens and the venues pass off any liability to you. You wouldn’t think about it but slips and falls happen and you are liable for them, so protect yourself. It’s really not that expensive (typically no more than a few hundred dollars) and it could save your butt.
Event bags are a nice and simple way for you to distribute swag and flyers to your attendees. It also gives them something to put any items they receive during the event in. These don’t need to be fancy and you may want to talk to your sponsors as a lot of them have bags with their logos on them that you can use at no additional cost to you.
It’s a good idea to have some sort of grand prize, or set of prizes, to raffle off on behalf of your user group. Things like gift cards, toys, and tablets are always huge hits.
Once you’re about a week or so out you’ll want to go into your SQL Saturday Admin page and enable SpeedPASS. Once you enable it you’ll want to go generate your SpeedPASS content. This will be your best friend and will keep your sponsors happy and your registrations table from becoming your event bottleneck.
What SpeedPASS does is give your attendees the ability to print out their registration admission ticket, sponsor raffle tickets (the sponsors love this because it gives them a QR code that they can scan in and it’s a printed document which is much easier for them to read), and their lunch ticket (if they bought one).
You can set up a SpeedPASS line for those that have already taken advantage of it and came prepared. All they have to do is drop their admission ticket and move on.
For those attendees a little less organized you can’t print out blank SpeedPASS forms and allow them to fill it out themselves (kind of a pittance). Some even go as far having a printer on site and printing out attendees SpeedPASS’ for them but remember this can be costly and both solutions end up being bottlenecks at the registration line.
It’s become a staple of SQL Saturdays to give your speakers and board members a shirt with the events logo on it. This is not a requirement but it does help the attendees know who is responsible for the event and who the speakers are. Plus it’s a nice gesture and you’ll start building a collection after a while.
THANK YOU GIFT
This is not a requirement but in the past I’ve always gotten are speakers a little something as a thank you for their hard work and miles traveled, usually on their own time and money. Something as small as a $25 Amazon gift card goes a long way to showing your appreciation.
Typically the night before the event, you hold a little get together for your speakers, event committee and if funds allow, your sponsors. This doesn’t have to be a large sit down meal with all expenses paid (although those are nice!) but maybe buying some appetizers and some drinks just to keep something in them. You’ll want plenty of space as you’ll find that a lot of us speakers know one another and we love to hang out, BS and talk shop with each other. Keep the environment open and relaxing and everyone will have an awesome time.
Now it’s time for the opening remarks, don’t freak out. Gather everyone into a large room and keep it simple. Write down some bullet points to keep you on track. Make sure to make it a point to thank the attendees for coming, the sponsors and the venue. Stress the importance of these types of events and how they’re helpful to the community. Also make sure your attendees are talking to each other, challenge them to network and make new contacts while they are there, these relationships can prove to be invaluable later down the line.
A typical event layout with 1 hour sessions
Registration open 7:30-8:00am
Opening remarks 8:00am-8:30am
Session2 10:00am- 1100am
Lunch 11:15pm – 1:00pm
These can obviously be changed to fit however you want your event ran but I offer this up as a suggestion.
Typically we like to do 15-minute breaks in between sessions. This allows for speakers that are running long, attendees to use the restrooms and for them to interact with the sponsors.
You’ve gotten your lunches figured out, so where’s everyone going to eat? This is where it’s a great idea to offer a sponsorship level that gives a sponsor a lunch presentation. Let them show off their latest and greatest wares while the attendees eat their lunch. More times than not the attendees get something out of it, it’s a win-win.
Providing snacks and extra drinks throughout the day is not a requirement, but it’s a nicety. I’ve spoken at some SQL Saturdays where they Provide tea and coffee in the morning with some muffins or pastries and a drink provided with lunch. Anything that you would like to eat or drink other than that would be the responsibility of the attendee. Some venues may give you the option of having a concession stand (these have been a big hit in the past).
When it comes to snacks that you’re going to provide, keep it simple. You can provide things like cookies, brownies, ice cream and popcorn has always been a big favorite (I mean honestly who doesn’t love fresh popped popcorn?).
PHEW! Your event is coming to a close, it’s been a lot of hard work but it’s been oddly fun, right?
At this time (an hour or so before closing) you’ll want to talk to your vendors (or sooner depending on whether they’ll be staying for closing or not) and have them start drawing names. Figure out if they are giving out a physical prize that will require the person to be present to receive it. It’s often a good idea to have them draw several names in this scenario.
For those sponsors that are going to contact the winner directly, make note of it so you can announce them as winning during the closing remarks and how they’ll be receiving their prize.
Depending on your sponsorship agreement, you may want to allot a few minutes per sponsor to give a quick speech and to give their prize away.
Now it’s time to start gathering everyone into a room. If you have prizes to raffle off yourself at the end or the person must be present to win you might consider handing out coin-tainer raffle tickets at the door. This can be a huge time saver when you’re standing up there calling out names for people that aren’t there or you might not be able to pronounce.
Your event is over and it’s been a rousing success right? Now it’s time to unwind and treat yourself to a beer or two! This is pretty much like the speaker dinner but EVERYONE is invited. You don’t have to foot the bill for the whole thing. Once again maybe just offering something simple like appetizers. Make sure it’s a fun and stress free environment, your attendees and speakers have been cooped up in a classrooms all day and they’re going to want to let loose.
Hopefully this posting has been some help for you but the absolute biggest piece of advice I can give is, YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALONE!!! Lean on your peers, your PASS points of contact, you’re Regional Mentors and the SQL Family. You would be surprised to find out that the SQL community is a true community. We truly want each other to succeed and lift each other up. If you don’t know what to do, ask. I promise no one will turn you away!