Ed Pollack

Planning a SQL Server conference – Diving into the details

September 19, 2016 by

Many of us have been given the opportunity to run or help plan a SQL Saturday or another SQL Server event. This conclusion will dig much deeper into the nitty-gritty, such as planning food and budgeting. No two events are the same, and as such, not everything here will be the same for you. Consider these experiences a tool and list of ideas to pull from when deciding how to structure, divide, and conquer your conference!

Introduction

We began this series with an overview of what goes into a conference, the main players, and some ideas for planning and organizing an event. The conclusion will tackle some of the more complex challenges, as well as try to organize many of the logistical decisions that can often bog us down during the planning process.

While I will keep my cheesy development analogies to a minimum, continue to consider the process of planning a large event as being similar to designing a software application. Success is best attained when different aspects of the process are divided into distinct tasks amongst a team, and that there are resources available for code review and QA. Equally important is to find the right people to handle those tasks that may not come as easily to us, such as marketing and PR.

Some discussions here are optional, such as speaker dinners or precon events. If you do not plan on hosting these, then feel free to continue ahead and ignore them. In no way does an event need to be complex to succeed, and some of the ideas thrown around here may not be applicable to your locality or venue. Equally important—if you think of anything I haven’t mentioned here, please try it out! Creativity is important, and will lead to more unique and worthwhile events for everyone involved.

Budget

As with any sizable event, planning a SQL Saturday requires a budget. You will have money coming in from sponsors, attendee fees, and possible precon events. There will then be the inevitable bills to pay that will cover food, supplies, venue costs, printing, and anything else that comes up along the way. Keeping track of the budget accurately is critical to ensuring that the event doesn’t accidentally lose money, thus draining the user group’s bank account (or yours!)

The financial goal of a SQL Saturday is to neither make nor lose money, but to provide enough funds to adequately cover the conference. If any money is leftover, it can be put towards user group expenses, such as food, training, or networking opportunities.

Head count

The first step in budgeting is to determine how many people to plan for. This number will change as time passes and your event becomes closer. Many attendee estimates will not be needed until within a month of SQL Saturday, when bags, supplies, food, and other per-person items must be accounted for. Speaker numbers will be needed in order to budget for any speaker gifts/events. Having a simple schedule of when items need to be ordered or committed to will ensure that deadlines aren’t missed and that you get the most accurate estimates.

Since it is nearly impossible to guess with perfect precision the number of attendees that will show up, you need to guess the maximum number that are likely to attend. Don’t over-order any items unless you know they can be afforded, can be reused, and won’t become a burden after the event. Optimism is admirable, but can lead to piles of leftover subs or hundreds of pounds of unneeded supplies. Non-perishable leftovers and supplies need to be stored after SQL Saturday is over, and the most likely place for this will be your house 🙂 Buying too many supplies, even things that seem small, such as shopping bags, can lead to your basement turning into permanent user groups storage. Perishable leftovers can be donated to a local soup kitchen or saved for events in the near future. While leftovers are guaranteed to some extent, waste should be minimized as to prevent excessive work at the end of the day, lost funds, and stuffing your house with unneeded supplies.

If another conference is held not too far from yours (whether a SQL Saturday or another), consider sharing supplies and costs. Many of the most expensive items, such as attendee bags, lanyards, soda, and chips, can all be shared across events. Branded items come at a bigger discount when ordered in larger quantities. Similarly, hand cards, battery chargers, video converters, and other utilities could prove invaluable for other events. Sharing supplies and information will make your life easier, reduce costs, and allow you to make some friends and allies in the world of event planning!

The lunch fee

You have the opportunity to charge for lunch, and this is generally a very good idea. The lunch fee is minimal (often $5-$15), but provides the needed funds to cover your food costs. A bigger bonus of this fee is that it gives a more significant to attendees to register AND attend. Free registration comes with no downside for attendees, but knowing that skipping out on SQL Saturday will mean lost money does improve the percentage of preregistered guests that show up. $10 may seem small, but it is still an investment and reminder that something has been paid for and that attending is worth it. Someone that may have registered for free will think twice before paying for an event they could potentially skip out on.

Be flexible

In addition to the attendance count, which will change over time as more guests register and the event gets closer, many expenses can be adjusted. If a month before SQL Saturday you realize that money is tight and you risk not breaking even, consider changing some of the food options to be a bit less expensive. Other line items, such as raffle prizes, speaker gifts, drinks, and post-event party details can be adjusted to ensure that money isn’t lost. Conversely, if you get a few extra sponsors, that money can be used to improve lunch, add a new raffle prize, or plan additional training events in the future. Always start conservative and only add optional expenses to your budget when you are certain funds will allow for those changes!

Accounting

Our first events are often run directly from our personal bank accounts. We rack up charges on our credit cards, pay them off with attendee and sponsor fees, and at the end square up with the user group. This is convenient up-front when you’re figuring out how everything works, but becomes a huge burden later on. There are many reasons why it is worth separating ALL professional activity from your personal finances as much as possible:

  • Some sponsors will not feel comfortable, or be allowed to send money to an individual. They will request a PayPal account for the user group or an organization to pay instead. Two sponsors in our first year were unable to join us for this reason, as they were not allowed to accept tax forms from a non-organization for events.

  • Taxes become complex afterwards. The next time you file taxes, the IRS will want to know about money that you accepted from sponsors, and you will need to declare those funds and their usage. This is not a bad thing, but it means additional paperwork for you, and an increased chance of your taxes getting audited if you make any mistakes or forget something.

  • When the event is over, your bank account becomes the makeshift user group account. This is a bit awkward and as with sponsorship, there is a chance that user group members or partner organizations may not be comfortable with this arrangement.

In order to simplify accounting for SQL training events in the future, the following steps can be taken to segregate all operations into distinct entities separate from your own:

  1. Get a bank account for the event. It may not seem obvious, but accounts can be created for one-time or recurring events when needed. If you have a local user group, look into creating an account for them or using theirs, if one already exists. A tax ID number can easily be requested online, or at the bank while setting up the account. Be sure to give another officer or leader within the group signing power on the account. This prevents scenarios where money is needed and you are on vacation. It also prevents the need to write yourself checks for reimbursement of event costs, which can be awkward. Finding a bank that provides free/no-fee accounts for non-profit entities should not be difficult. Be sure to sign up for online and app access, which will save time when verifying balances or depositing checks using a mobile app.

  2. Order checks for your bank account. Vistaprint or a similar site can do this very inexpensively compared to ordering directly from the bank.

  3. Get an event email address. All event correspondences can be made to this email address instead of yours.

  4. Set up a PayPal account for the event. This will allow electronic payments to be made in order to cover lunch fees, sponsorship payments, and some expenses that can be paid this way. Keep in mind that PayPal, while convenient, is not free. Each transaction has a small fee applied, often 2% – 5%. If a sponsor is OK paying by check, then you can save some money from transaction fees. For example, a silver ($500) sponsor that paid for our event this past July used PayPal and the amount we received after fees was $485.20.

Having these steps accomplished, you can completely separate group activities from your own and greatly simplify the financial management of your SQL Saturday event.

Budget line items

Your budget will be made up of many line items that cover all of your expenses, income, and track details, such as how an expense was paid for, when a sponsorship fee was received, or where you ordered those delicious donuts from. The following is a list of ALL line items on our SQL Saturday Albany budget. I’ve included ballpark dollar amounts whenever I was able to, with the caveat that these can vary greatly between city and rural areas, as well as in other countries.

  • Income: Sponsorships. This is where most of your funds will come from to run your SQL Saturday. This can range anywhere from $2000-$10000 or more, depending on the size of your event and costs.

  • Income: Attendee Fees. Any money collected for lunch fees can be used to pay for food at your event.

  • Expense: Event insurance. You will likely be required by your venue to have event insurance. Even if not required, it’s a good idea in case anything unfortunate happens, however unlikely that may seem. A site such as theeventhelper.com can allow you to purchase insurance quickly and inexpensively. Verify with your venue exactly what sort of insurance is required and any details on the liability limits that they need. Depending on location, insurance could run $100-$400 or possibly more. One reason that alcohol is rarely served at events in the US is due to the massive insurance increase that occurs once that decision is made.

  • Expense: Breakfast. This is relatively inexpensive and having breakfast gets everyone off to a good start. Donuts and bagels are common, but you are free to get more creative if funds and time allow. We’ve spent about $300 on bagels, donuts, juice, and coffee for 200 attendees.

  • Expense: Coffee, tea, juice, water, soda. This is very customizable. Needless to say, caffeine is greatly appreciated by attendees. Water is also very good to have as not everyone will want soda or coffee.

  • Expense: Lunch. This is the more expensive meal, but you have many options available, depending on your budget and resources available to you at the venue. Subs are the common choice, but you can cater a hot meal or BBQ if convenient. Lunch has generally cost $800-$1000 for subs, chips, and cookies for 200 attendees.

  • Expense: Printing. Schedules, raffle tickets, SpeedPasses, information about the event, sessions, the venue, the local area, and more can be printed and included in the attendee bags or handed out at your event. Evaluations can be done via paper or electronically, depending on your preference. We have spent $50-$200 on this in the past. Using electronic evaluations and online event guides will reduce this cost greatly! Some SQL Saturdays like using GuideBook as a way to organize their event for attendees and provide easy access to event info. It also allows for last-minute changes to be applied, without needing to reprint documentation or post changes/reminders at registration.

  • Expense: Speaker Dinner. This is optional, and very flexible. If you have a nice local place to host it at, then this dinner can become a very special event. It can also be done as a catered event, or even at a user group member’s house, if room allows. BBQ is also a possibility, if weather and facilities allow. I budget about $20-$25 per speaker, but you can easily adjust up or down based on sponsorships and the number of speakers.

  • Expense: Post-Event Party. Also optional, and very flexible. No need to include drinks or fancy steaks if the budget doesn’t allow for it. This is the only expense that will be realized after the event ends and the budget is near-finalized, providing you with exactly the funds available for it. Depending on whether drinks are included, this can be put on for a few hundred dollars, or much more as it is very flexible.

  • Expense: Raffle Boxes/bowls. These can often be found for free, but if not, be sure to save them for future events so this does not need to be an expense every year. I got a deal at Staples on these several years ago for $2 each and have not bought new ones since!

  • Expense: Shirts. If you buy shirts for the speakers and/or volunteers, then the cost is based on the number of speakers & volunteers you end up having. Athletic shirts are nice over the summer when it is hot out, while polos or dress shirts can look nice during the cooler months. I’ve budgeted $10-$20 each, though these are optional and other creative giveaways can be considered, too, such as umbrellas, aprons, hats, shorts, etc…

  • Expense: Lanyards, Name Badges, and ribbons. These are generally inexpensive. No need to brand them if you don’t want to. They can also be reused if you have leftovers. Ribbons are the labels that go on name tags that indicate “volunteer”, “speaker”, or “sponsor” and are very much optional. The costs here are typically under a dollar per attendee.

  • Expense: Supplies. Buying supplies for events and the user group with extra funds is not a bad idea. Hand trucks for moving large volumes of items to and from SQL Saturday, coolers for ice and drinks, coffee makers, whiteboards or easels, and other items may cost some money up-front, but save time and resources in the future. For example, making your own coffee is significantly cheaper than buying it from restaurants, and allows you to manage it and keep it hot all day. Amazon and Target offer coolers and coffee makers under $30 that will serve your events for years to come! Cosco makes a variety of very portable and inexpensive hand trucks that can be ordered online for $50-$100, if needed.

  • Expense: Dinner for volunteers. We held an event at my house a week before SQL Saturday in which we used an assembly line of ten volunteers to quickly assemble all of the attendee and speaker bags. This was an immense time-saver, and to show our thanks for the help, we bought everyone dinner. It’s a small thank you, but one that your volunteers will definitely appreciate!

  • Expense: Venue. If your venue charges for use of its facilities, then this will be on your budget. Our venue costs us $250 per lecture hall room used, but costs here will vary wildly between free and much more expensive. Be sure to shop around and find a combination of facilities and costs that meet your needs!

  • Expense: Tables & Chairs. There is a chance that your venue may not provide enough tables and chairs for registration and sponsors. If this is the case, you’ll need a line item for this. We had to rent them, though the cost was about $8 per table and $1 per chair…not a significant expense, but one we couldn’t overlook.

  • Expense: Attendee Bags. Reusable bags are useful for stuffing with sponsor swag/marketing materials, as well as pens, paper, and other useful info on your event. They can also be branded with sponsor logos if you’d like. $1-$2 per attendee will adequately cover this cost, and cinch sacks and other smaller bags can be had for less, if desired.

  • Expense: Speaker & Volunteer gifts. We gave out some thank-you gifts to all speakers and volunteers to show our appreciation for their time and energy. We’ve given out chocolate and gift cards before, as well as many fun branded items, such as SQL Saturday umbrellas, rubik’s cubes, grill mitts, ice scrapers, and beach balls. What to give out is 100% at your discretion. Have fun and include whatever fits your budget 🙂

  • Expense: Precon. If you run precon events, then there will be expenses associated with this, such as meeting space, meals, and A/V supplies. These costs vary greatly depending on the facilities that you use. Be sure to shop around and adjust the precon attendee costs based on what you decide on here.

  • Income: Precon. If you run precon events, you’ll be able to charge enough to cover all costs of the events. See the “Precon” section below for more information on this. We have charged $150 for entrance to our precon events in order to more than adequately cover costs. If you are hosting a precon, it’s important to charge enough to ensure you will not lose money, even if only six people show up! Budget to break even for the absolute smallest number of attendees you could imagine showing up. This will remove any budgetary stress from your precons, if you choose to host them.

Taxes

Once your user group has its own bank account and tax identification number, it will be expected to file taxes. You won’t need to pay anything as your receipts will be likely be too low for that, but you will have to document income and expenses, as well as the purpose of the organization. The 990EZ form is what we used, and can be used by any tax-exempt organizations with receipts under $50,000.

If you have any questions about taxes, or are uncertain about how to file, please ask a tax professional for advice, or a financial representative from a partner company or organization. As an organization with very little profit, you will not be expected to pay tons of money for your activities, but if you fail to file or the IRS audits you, then it could cost your group time and possibly money. Better safe than sorry, as always!

Marketing

Getting the word out about your event is critical to getting good speaker selection, attracting sponsors, and drawing a sizable crowd. This is an area where delegation and enlisting the help of others in a variety of roles can greatly help! Not only do you not need to do this all yourself, but many other organizations are willing to help—look around your local area for these marketing possibilities:

  • Venue: Your venue may be willing to poster, email, and otherwise advertise SQL Saturday. A school, technical institute, college, or company stands only to gain by getting their employees, students, and faculty to attend.

  • Sponsors: Sponsors have a vested interest in your event and will help advertise, often without your prompting. Encourage representatives of sponsors to speak and keep them up-to-date with information on the schedule and precons (if you are holding any). Provide all sponsors with any marketing materials you use and encourage them to spread the word!

  • Speakers: All speakers, regardless of who they are affiliated with, will want to draw a nice crowd to their session and get the most out of SQL Saturday. While some speak for fun and education, others are consultants and rely on conferences as important networking opportunities. Provide speakers with marketing information and encourage them to blog, tweet, and otherwise talk about your event.

  • Libraries and Other Public Places: Any educational institution provides a solid source of interested folks. Hang up a few posters at local libraries and you are guaranteed to pull in at least a handful of attendees that otherwise would have had no clue that your event was occurring. Coffee shops, parks, taverns, companies, Bistros (such as Panera Bread), government agencies, and schools are also great places to poster and call/email about SQL Saturday. Always ask permission before postering!

  • Volunteers: Typically, these are the strongest members of your user group and are going to be there for you throughout event planning, execution, and wrap-up. They will be happy to advertise to their workplaces, friends, and colleagues. If any take a particular interest in marketing, ask if they wouldn’t mind doing some more planning and coordination of PR efforts. Marketing is the one area where you cannot have too much help! If someone volunteers to help with marketing and ends up not having any free time, the loss is negligible, but if they end up finding a few key speakers or sponsors, then they have added significant value to your event!

  • Tourism/Convention Bureau: Most cities and towns have local agencies whose sole goal is to increase tourism and draw people into the area. SQL Saturday is an opportunity for them to get visitors to travel into town for a weekend, book hotels, shop, and enjoy what the area has to offer. The cost to them to help you is small, and the potential gains are quite huge! We contacted the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau and they were immensely helpful in creating connections with agencies and regional areas that we simply had no visibility to. We appreciated their help and they were happy to gain visibility into our annual event—an all-around win-win!

  • Other User Groups: Feel free to contact other professional groups, including groups specializing in SQL, software development, QA Automation, UI/UX, and more! If you know anyone that attends other professional groups, ask if they could hand out some fliers and say a few words about your event. SQL Server user groups exist all over the place, and attendees are generally OK with driving up to 2-3 hours to attend an event, if they think it will be worthwhile. Therefore, even if a group is located an hour away, it’s possible some members commute to get there and may be closer to your event than you think!

  • Online: It goes without saying that you should be posting periodically to any social media sites that you use about your SQL Saturday. Create events on Facebook or Meetup and encourage everyone you know to invite everyone they know to join. The reach of these actions, even if you don’t pay for any additional advertising on their sites, can be immense! Ask anyone else involved (volunteers, speakers, sponsors) to do the same.

  • Other Events: If you speak or attend other events, or if anyone you know does, bring some handouts along and take the opportunity to briefly advertise your event. Speakers can include a slide at the end of their sessions with info on your SQL Saturday if they’d like to. The organizers are also likely OK with you leaving some marketing materials at registration or somewhere else central at the event. These are events full of people that are the exact demographic that will attend your event, and therefore will be more interested than the average person off the street.

Whenever you are selling your event, be sure to mention the need for sponsors and speakers early on. Very often, a single contact can result in many positive experiences at the big event. For example, a sponsor advertises the event to its employees. Some attend and one decides to speak. The speaker begins advertising their session and in the process finds out about your precon events and draws an additional four employees to the precons. Any one person or entity can help market your event!

Maintain a contact list for everyone you meet, talk to, or that gets involved in your SQL Saturday. This list will get long quickly, as you’ll ad dozens of potential speakers, sponsors, volunteers, user group leaders, colleagues, professors, teachers, and so on. Keep everyone’s contact information up-to-date and don’t feel shy about offering your help as well. Many of the best conferences are the product of collaboration by many groups that work together, rather than individuals. I was recently approached by our convention bureau about advertising a local Star Trek convention, and given my love of Star Trek, would I ever say no to that!? BTW: NORTHEAST TREK CON 2016

Food

Learning about data is tiring and makes us hungry! Ordering, delivering, and setting up food & drinks for the event is very important, and is one of the most logistically intensive portions of planning an event. This is an area where delegation is very important—find one or two people that are responsible and can manage the entire process, from ordering food to coordinating payment, delivery, set-up, and clean-up. As the event coordinator, doing all of this yourself will be very stressful and distract you from every other issue that comes up and will require your attention.

Breakfast

As the first meal of the day, breakfast requires early set-up. Ideally, it will be ready to go as attendees start arriving. Find a few additional early-birds that can help get everything together, brew coffee, manage waste and leftovers, and keep things clean. If your breakfast is catered, then your efforts here are minimal. Be sure to start as early as possible! It can take a while to get everything fully ready for attendees, and if you brew your own coffee or tea, that may take 30 minutes or more for a very large coffee pot.

Leftovers can remain out for much of the morning as late/hungry attendees will appreciate it.

Lunch

This is the easier of the two meals to plan as you will have all day to get ready for it. I definitely recommend having lunch ready early. For example, if lunch officially starts at 11:30, have it ready at 11:15, or maybe even 11:00 if it is being delivered or you are concerned about timeliness. It is far preferable for lunch to be ready early than late.

Drinks & snacks

Be sure to have plenty of drinks available for attendees and volunteers. Water is a necessity, but you can also have juice, iced tea, soda, lemonade, and so on. Keep some drinks in the speaker room so that your speakers can quickly grab something to bring to their sessions for while they are speaking.

Snacks are also a nice touch for lunch, and also for the speaker room. Chips, cookies, candy, and other snacks can be gotten inexpensively at wholesale clubs, and ensure everyone is happy throughout the day.

Leftovers

You will invariably end the day with extra food. Cleaning up the leftovers and deciding what to do with them can happen earlier in the day in order to minimize your effort at the end of the event. Breakfast leftovers are generally easy to transport and give away, whereas lunch will pose a bigger challenge. If you can donate to a local charity, feel free to do so. If you are unable to, or there are not enough leftovers for a donation, see if any speakers, volunteers, or local sponsors, are interested in taking some with them. A local company with a fridge can also hang onto food for a few days as well.

Non-perishables, such as soda, water, coffee sweeteners, and so on can be kept for next year (if the expiration dates allow), or brought to user group meetings in the near future. Either way, everything can go to good use and waste can be avoided without much effort on your part. As a bonus, everything that gets used or allocated at SQL Saturday becomes supplies that you do not need to lug back to your car and stuff into your basement 🙂

If you are able to figure out where leftovers can potentially go before the event, then you could recruit a volunteer to manage the delivery of everything so that there is no need for last-minute decision making to figure out where and how things will get taken care of.

Scheduling notes

Building a great schedule is not too difficult, but requires some time to make sure that everything is correct and your speakers are happy with where they end up. The following are some considerations when building a schedule:

Breaks: Having short breaks in between sessions is very helpful for speakers and for you. Invariably, some speakers will use all of their time, go slightly over, have AV issues, or otherwise push up against other sessions. 10-15 minutes in between sessions gives speakers time to wrap-up, clean up their belongings, and allow the next speaker to set-up without any need to rush. This also provides buffers in the event that lunch, raffles, or other plans run a bit late. Be sure to include enough time for breakfast and lunch, so that attendees can mingle with speakers, sponsors, and everyone else that is there. SQL Saturday is as much about networking as it is sitting in sessions all day 🙂

Tracks: Schedules are typically divided into tracks and slots. The tracks are the vertical columns on your schedule and can follow particular topics. For example, a track could focus on BI sessions and that single room will have primarily sessions on business intelligence. Attendees that have a very strong interest in this topic can attend all of those sessions and focus heavily on the area that interests them most.

Time slots are typically 60-75 minutes long. Be sure to let speakers know ahead of time how long their sessions are. Some will specifically plan their presentations to be a certain length and will need to adjust a bit to fit your time slot. The number of time slots will determine the length of the day. Typically, 4-6 time slots are common, though you are free to structure your schedule in whatever way fits your event best. Consider the overall length of the day, and try to avoid your SQL Saturday from becoming a marathon. Attendees love free training, but will grow weary as you approach 4pm-5pm, so save them from exhaustion and don’t let things run too late.’

Raffle & Closing remarks are a nice end to the day, and provide a way to thank everyone that helped you out while giving out some fun prizes. Be sure to set the room up ahead of time so that you can start on time. If the room can be kept empty during the last session, then you’ll have more than enough time to get everything ready. It can be frustrating for guests if they need to wait an additional 15 minutes for things to get organized here.

Fun Sessions can be a bonus, when scheduled. Consider adding a few during lunch or near the end of the day. Ask an MVP, war stories, and other sharing sessions can be great networking and destressing opportunities for everyone involved. There are always speakers available that are willing to help make these sessions entertaining and successful!

Lightning Talks: While standard sessions at many conferences range from 60-90 minutes, lightning talks are intentionally short, anywhere from 10-15 minutes. You can schedule 3-4 lightning talks in a single session and provide the opportunity for attendees to learn a variety of short & sweet topics all at one time. Speakers enjoy these as they tend to be more informal and off-the-cuff with little or no Q&A. Attendees enjoy the variety and the ability to relax a bit and not need to concentrate on a single topic for too long. One or two lightning talk sessions during the day is enough, and will make your event far more interesting and fun for attendees!

Speaker requests are a guarantee to hit you the moment the schedule comes out. Be flexible and expect a few speakers to have requests for their sessions to be during certain parts of the day.

Cancelations are an unfortunate fact of life. You’re going to likely get one or two speakers cancel. If you are fortunate, they will do so ahead of time, but if it is last-minute, don’t feel obligated to fill the time slot in. Leaving an open slot is not a bit deal, though if you are looking to avoid this, then ask speakers ahead of time if any are comfortable giving a second talk. This provides you with some go-to sessions in case of a last-minute cancelation.

Build a schedule early! There is no rule stating when you need to release your schedule by. Speakers tend to like an early schedule as it provides them with more notice in order to make their travel plans. Prospective speakers like a later schedule announcement as it gives them more time to decide if they will speak or not.

The only important note here is to communicate with all potential speakers on how your selection process will work so that they are not worried about speaking or not speaking. If a schedule is posted online two months ahead of your event, it’s valuable for other not-yet-selected speakers to know that they can still apply to speak and that they may still be chosen.

Speaker dinner & post-event party

You have the opportunity to host dinners/parties for your speakers and/or volunteers. These are 100% optional and there are no rules guiding if or how you run these. They are budget-dependent and you may structure them in whatever way you wish.

The speaker dinner is frequently-held the night before SQL Saturday as a way to get speakers into town and engaged early, before the event. It’s also a fun thank-you for their time and effort, and provides a bit more of a closed opportunity for speakers to meet each other and chat for an evening.

The post-event party is not held as often as the speaker dinner as organizers expect to be exhausted and ready to relax after a long weekend. Despite that, this is a great way to unwind and its planning should not require significant effort. I’ve held this each year in Albany and will continue to do so as it ends up being a very enjoyable time for any speakers, sponsors, or volunteers that are still in town. Thanking your volunteers is important!!!

The details for either of these events are completely up to you and imagination is always welcome when planning fun activities. Some thoughts/ideas for interesting dinners/parties:

  • Can be formal dinners or informal events with platters or buffet lines. Don’t feel obligated to go fancy unless you want to and are looking to make it a more impressive affair. Speakers/Volunteers will be happy with anything you plan and will appreciate the time and effort you’ve put in.

  • Different events, such as hibachi, BBQ, dim sum, or fondue can be ways to add some new experiences into the mix for anyone attending.

  • Arcades, bowling alleys, pool halls, and other gaming establishments can be unusual and fun ways to get everyone up and enjoying themselves.

  • Have a big home and are willing to share? You can do a party at home if you can/want to coordinate that!

  • If you’re in a big city, you’ll need to plan well in advance, and expect it to be more expensive than if in a smaller town.

  • Dinners and parties can be easily delegated to another volunteer to manage food, costs, and attendance for you.

These are straight-forward events for which possibly the toughest task will be to get an accurate head-count. Most restaurants will be happy to host a party of 20-30 or more and will be flexible if your numbers change slightly beforehand.

Precon events

Many conferences host precon events, from the smallest SQL Saturdays all the way up to PASS Summit. These are additional training opportunities hosted a day or two before the event. Precons are half-day or full-day sessions and are therefore significantly more in-depth. Attendees expect to leave with more practical skills and the ability to pursue the topics covered more seriously than at shorter sessions on Saturday.

Precons are typically held at full-service facilities, either hotels or campuses/companies that have the space and are willing to manage the logistics of food and meeting space for you. Since SQL Saturday is already a ton of work, this is in no way a bad thing. This also means that you’ll be charging far more for precons than the $10 lunch fee on Saturday. Tickets to precon events often run for as little as $75-$100 to over $400, depending on the presenters, topics, and location. There are many reasons why we charge significantly more for precons than other SQL training events:

  • Comprehensive training! A precon will provide a deep-dive into a topic in which a huge amount of content will be covered. This is simply not doable in a short conference session, nor will most other all-day training events be this affordable! These are big selling points!!

  • Allows for far better breakfast and lunch that is catered and will not require volunteers to manage. It’s also easier to include snacks, coffee, soda, and tea without any additional effort on your part.

  • Facilities space is limited, and charging more reduces the chances that attendees might register and not pay or not show up.

  • Attendees are looking for more personal sessions in which they can ask more questions and be more involved in the presentation, Q & A, and demos.

  • The ongoing work for SQL Saturday is immense and it would be difficult to completely run another conference the day before.

  • The speakers typically are paid for their time and effort. A precon requires significant time, planning, and resources, and while we respect our speakers as excellent volunteers, we cannot expect them to present an all-day session without at least their travel expenses to be covered.

  • Leftover profits from the precon events, if any exist, can be applied to SQL Saturday and user group expenses. For many SQL Saturdays, this is what helps balance the budget and therefore is very important if we’re looking to run a conference each year and not run out of funds to do so.

Precon events can be on any topic that would normally be covered in a SQL Saturday session. Be creative and remember that attendees will express more interest in some topics more so than others. This is not a reflection on the quality of any one speaker, but on the fact that some topics are either more broad and interest a larger group, or discuss new subject matter that attendees are curious about and want to learn for the first time. If you host more than one precon, be sure to make the topics very different from each other so that there is no significant overlap in attendees between them. For example, some good pairings would be:

  • Business Intelligence / Query Optimization

  • SQL Server Scripting / Reporting Services

  • Security / Integration Services

  • Beginner TSQL / Advanced Scripting

Here are links to the precons we have done in Albany previously:

All of these were successful precons, and you can easily search the web for many other examples of all-day sessions that have been presented by other speakers in the past. We used EventBrite to manage registrations, though you are free to use whatever site that you prefer.

Finding a speaker to present a precon isn’t too difficult. Some speakers may approach you early on and ask if they can run a precon for you. Others you may need to reach out to in order to gauge interest. Regardless of the amount of interest, the decision to hold a precon or not is completely yours. Be sure to get as much history as is possible about a potential precon speaker:

  • Are they reliable?

  • Have they spoken at other events in the past?

  • Do other organizers have positive feedback about their previous speaking engagements?

  • Do they have any precon experience? If not, does their other experience make them qualified?

  • Are they an expert on the topic they are presenting?

There are no rules about how a precon should be run. Feel free to be flexible and do whatever makes the most sense for your event, and do not feel obligated to host a precon if you are unsure if it can succeed. A well-run precon is hugely beneficial to your event, but a poorly received one can harm attendance and leave some attendees unwilling to return to your event in the future. In addition, their negative reviews may influence other speakers, sponsors, and attendees who may otherwise have been interested in supporting your event.

Bad Stuff

As with any large event, things will go wrong without fail. The following is a short list of some unexpected (and unfortunate) happenings at some our previous events:

  • Lunch showed up 45 minutes late.

  • The lunch vendor forgot all of the vegetarian food.

  • A speaker canceled the day before SQL Saturday.

  • A speaker didn’t show up and never let us know either before or after the event.

  • There was a leaky pipe in one room and they had to move all sessions to another.

  • The projector refused to work in one room and another had to be used.

  • The raffle ticket printouts were fouled up and half of them were unusable.

  • The elevators were locked. We were unable to use them for loading/unloading, nor were they available for handicapped access until after the event started.

  • Two sponsors were unable to show up and staff their tables at the last-minute.

This list would make it sound as though we are magnets of bad luck and should be avoided at all cost, but in reality this is all quite normal. Expect things like these to go wrong and be prepared to be flexible!

Remember that while every mistake or failure, regardless of how small, may seem huge to you, the attendees will generally not notice them. As the organizer, it’s your job to roll with the punches and keep things moving. Everyone knows this is a big event and will be very tolerant of unexpected bugs that occur at release time 🙂

Some general suggestions to help manage risk and reduce the chance that these sorts of failures will make you miserable:

  • Order food to arrive well before meal times. If it is late or anything goes wrong, you have time to fix it.

  • Have a few speakers on standby who don’t mind presenting an extra session. This lets you fill in scheduling gaps painlessly, even at the last minute.

  • Have emergency phone numbers for your venue so that if anything bad happens, you can quickly get a hold of them.

  • Check all printouts and supplies ahead of time and make sure they look good.

  • Quickly verify that the food orders look correct before signing off on them and/or paying.

  • Buy some VGA/HDMI/DVI/Lightning/Micro-HDMI adapters for use at the event. They are cheap and will save some speakers/sponsors that are unprepared for the video capabilities of the facilities. To narrow down the list, check with the venue ahead of time and document the connectors/resolutions used and verify with speakers what they have.

  • Always ask attendees/speakers about their dietary needs. Vegetarian/Vegan is easy, but be up-front about any restrictions that you are unable to fully accommodate. The SQL Saturday site can be edited to limit dietary options to those you can fulfill, so that those with very specific needs can bring their own lunch as needed (and not pay the lunch fee).

  • Have a few extra volunteers available on standby all day. They are there for you when bad things happen and you need someone to run an emergency errand or take care of a critical task at the last minute.

Don’t sweat the bad stuff. It’s stressful, but you’ll look back later and realize that it wasn’t that big of a deal, and that your event went far better than the list of fails may make it seem!

Feedback & improvement

There is always room to make things better. Once your first event has come and gone, be sure to review the event feedback from attendees. Equally importantly, poll your volunteers and sponsors for feedback as they may be willing to provide more candid and in-depth feedback than you might otherwise get.

For example, here is all of the feedback that we received and will implement next year:

  • Buy 5-10 HDMI/VGA adapters for next year as the facilities still use only VGA connections.

  • Make the schedule 1-2 sessions less wide and one more session deep. Shrink breaks from 15 minutes down to 10 minutes and remove 10 minutes from lunch to make up for this difference.

  • Print out session details ordered by time slot, not by presenter name as this is easier to follow for attendees.

  • Collect & pack extra power cords ahead of time, that way they cannot be forgotten on the day of the event.

  • Bring an easel and large notepad/whiteboard to post last-minute notes at registration.

  • Don’t have food delivered! Pick it up instead as we will certainly not get lost!

  • Have food/drinks near registration, rather than on the other side of the building.

  • Brew coffee earlier. It takes a long time to get hot. Possibly brew some at home and bring partially filled pot to tide us over until the rest is ready.

  • Have more water. We ran out quickly and the demand for water was higher than soda/juice.

  • Make a complete inventory of supplies at my house prior to shopping, about one month before SQL Saturday. This will ensure we don’t buy anything we don’t need and anyone that is shopping will know what we have.

  • Encourage more lightning talks. They are fun and attendees will definitely appreciate the change of pace!

  • Get the user group 501(c)3 non-profit status so that we can write off taxes on our events.

Once again, that is a long list! We took our feedback seriously and want to improve our event every year. As a result, we took every bit of constructive criticism that was shared by many attendees & volunteers and made a list that we will try to follow in its entirety.

Your list may be much shorter, but acknowledging feedback after the event and letting attendees know that you care about their opinions and are listening means a lot, even if you are unable to implement every change that was suggested.

Conclusion

Conference planning is a whale of a task, and one that encompasses many disciplines and talents. Focus on your strengths and delegate tasks that others may be stronger suited for. Despite the magnitude of work, the satisfaction and education we as organizers receive from creating something out of nothing is enormous. If you are new to this task, or are considering planning a SQL Saturday or another conference, don’t be afraid to dive in. If you’re unsure of your local prospects, volunteer to help at another event that you will be attending. They will be happy to put you to work 🙂

This article represents quite a bit of accumulated knowledge from local and regional experiences, but is in no way complete. Build your own repertoire of tools and conventions that work best for you and your group and continually improve with time. When in doubt, ask other organizers for advice, experiences, or war stories. Most will be happy to share!

References and further reading

This article is mainly a recap of lessons I’ve learned from organizing or being a part of many conferences. If you have any questions about any of this, feel free to contact me anytime!

As always, if you have any questions of an official nature, or need a professional opinion, be sure to contact PASS or the organization that your conference is for.

Additional resources:

Ed Pollack

Ed Pollack

Ed has 15 years of experience in database and systems administration, developing a passion for performance optimization, database design, and making things go faster.He has spoken at many SQL Saturdays, 24 Hours of PASS, and PASS Summit.This lead him to organize SQL Saturday Albany, which has become an annual event for New York’s Capital Region.

In his free time, Ed enjoys video games, sci-fi & fantasy, traveling, and being as big of a geek as his friends will tolerate.

View all posts by Ed Pollack
Ed Pollack
Professional development

About Ed Pollack

Ed has 15 years of experience in database and systems administration, developing a passion for performance optimization, database design, and making things go faster. He has spoken at many SQL Saturdays, 24 Hours of PASS, and PASS Summit. This lead him to organize SQL Saturday Albany, which has become an annual event for New York’s Capital Region. In his free time, Ed enjoys video games, sci-fi & fantasy, traveling, and being as big of a geek as his friends will tolerate. View all posts by Ed Pollack

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