Many of us have been given the opportunity to run or help plan a SQL Saturday or another SQL Server event. This is an intro to everything I’ve experienced and learned over the past 7 years planning, attending, and volunteering at a variety of SQL Server conferences.
In a departure from writing technical articles, I thought it valuable to share years of conference planning experience with you. This comes from seven years with PASS, as well as many years prior to this through involvement in other organizations, such as my college’s alumni association and Alpha Phi Omega. Event planning is a mix of managing logistics, manpower, and a wide variety of communication with external companies, organizations, and vendors. While learning from experience is worthwhile, learning from others’ can be more satisfying, while also being less painful 🙂
The goal of this article is to treat a conference much like a software application. Trying to write the whole thing all at once is a recipe for disaster, burnout, and mistakes. Breaking it into smaller chunks of code, assigning some to other developers, and including adequate mechanisms for code review, QA, and release verification (Ie, follow a SDLC of sorts) will allow for a far simpler and more enjoyable process.
I’ll specifically focus on planning a SQL Saturday event, as that is most relevant to the SQL Server/PASS community, but any of this information could be used in the planning of other events, regardless of subject matter, location, or attendance.
Where to begin
The first step in planning any event, regardless of size, is to determine its location, date, and potential interest. To commit to any conference without this information is risky and could result in unnecessary stress if a venue couldn’t be found for the date you chose.
There are many possible locations for SQL Saturday events, based on how large you think your event will be. The most important aspects of a venue, in order of importance, are:
Is the venue free? Don’t be afraid to haggle the cost of the venue or rooms. There is no harm in trying!
Will they sponsor your event, thereby cutting or eliminating costs? Try to sell it as an event that will benefit them if they sponsor and host it.
If the venue does charge for its use, be sure to find out exactly how much ahead of time. Some locations will be prohibitively expensive and need to be scratched off your list early on.
Compare as many venues as possible. Once you have found the perfect venue, this research can be reused for future events. With time, a positive relationship can be developed with the venue.
Colleges, tech schools, and companies tend to be the easiest venues to work with. If Microsoft or another big SQL Server vendor/partner is in your area, be sure to ask if they can host your event!
Number and size of rooms available for sessions
A small SQL Saturday can attract 75-125 attendees, whereas a large event can bring in over 500.
Estimate your maximum possible attendance as well as average session size and make sure the venue can hold however many people you expect to be there.
A new SQL Saturday can draw 100-200 attendees, though the size will be based heavily on location and timing. A big city such as New York or Boston will attract far more attendees than a smaller city.
Rules/regulations regarding food/drinks
Find out what food services they provide and how much they cost.
If they don’t provide food, or their costs are too high, are you allowed to bring in outside food/drink?
Layout of the venue
Make sure that everything is close together. A spread-out venue may be confusing to attendees or result in extra time to be budgeted between sessions for traveling between rooms/buildings.
Is there a good place for sponsors to set up their booths that is close to session rooms and breakfast/lunch? Isolating sponsors will decrease traffic to them and make your event less successful for them.
The current SQL Saturday rules provide guidance on when/where events can be held with respect to each other. They advise you to not have a SQL Saturday within 600 miles of another one that is occurring on the weekend you choose. This helps reduce the amount of attendee overlap & attrition between events. Even outside of this restriction, check the calendar for events in the same region as you and try to avoid hosting one in the same quarter. Speakers, attendees, and sponsors have limited resources to travel and support events. They will often see two events in the same state and month and decide between them, rather than to attend both. Any rules created by PASS to guide event timing/location may change, therefore be sure to verify any restrictions prior to event planning!
Weather is an important risk to consider. If you are planning an event in an area prone to snow, then avoiding peak winter months is a good decision. Even if you are in an area that receives little snow, a serious storm could impede travel for those coming in from other parts of the country. This is not to say that you shouldn’t plan a winter event, but consider the likelihood and impact of a storm and decide if the risk is worth the reward.
Summertime has a separate challenge in that many people go on vacations and may not be available. As long as you’ve confirmed that there is enough interest in the timeframe you’re considering, then this should not be overly problematic. Because of this, and winter weather concerns, many SQL Saturdays tend to cluster in the spring and fall. There is no right or wrong time to host, but each of these challenges should be pondered before deciding.
That being said, decide early! If you can commit to a conference date well in advance of the event (6-8 months, or even more), you’ll get a head start on advertising, dissuade similar events nearby around the same date, and have more time to plan a great event!
Most companies and organizations budget their sponsorship money based on fiscal quarters. If many events occur in the same quarter, you may be hard-pressed to get enough support and have to run on a shoestring budget. Also consider the effects of leftover money from previous-year’s budgets. Some companies may commit to sponsor in December or January using leftover funds from the previous year/quarter. This is another good reason to start early!
Do you have a local user group, or some organization/company that will help provide volunteers/attendees to support your event? Ask around and verify that people want to not only attend an event, but also volunteer, sponsor, and be a more integral part of it.
When asked, “Hey, are you interested in a database conference?”, most techies will say, “SURE!”. What you truly want, though, is more of a commitment. Instead, ask, “Hey, are you interested in a database conference?”…”Yes? Awesome! Can I add your name to the volunteer list so you’ll get our emails about planning and can help out?” That extra step ensures that you develop a strong pool of potential speakers, sponsors, and volunteers. Getting people involved will allow them to enjoy the event more deeply, and increase the odds they will return in the future.
The wait list
The wait list is a double-edged sword. When your registration fills up, this allows you to sign up attendees on the wait-list, and if anyone cancels, they can attend in their place. Typically, a SQL Saturday will see 10%-20% of registered attendees not show up. This is normal and should be expected and budgeted for. Things come up, weather happens, family troubles occur, and so on. Also, good weather will often cause attendance to be slightly lower. This is especially true immediately after winter, when people are enjoying their first temperate weekends in many months and may skip a professional conference in favor of boating, hiking, camping, or admiring what warm weather is actually like.
In general, the wait list becomes a last-minute complication for most people involved. If someone cancels the day before, how many people that expressed interest four months ago and signed up for the wait list are still free tomorrow?
To combat this, consider making the registration cap higher than what you can physically support. For example, if your venue can hold a maximum of 250 people, adjust the registration cap up to at least 275, possibly 300. The odds of 300 registering and more than 250 showing up are low, while the odds of 275 registering and more than 250 showing up are practically nil. While you’ll receive some walk-ins on the day of the event, this is typically a negligible number of people when compared to cancelations.
To succeed as an event organizer, you need to be organized! There are many ways to get your budget, notes, schedules, and other details organized, and I’ll run through what I’ve done and seen others do, with screenshots and examples of what it looks like.
I highly recommend using a cloud-storage platform for all of your documents, receipts, and spreadsheets. Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive are all popular products that can be used for free up to a certain amount of storage. For basic documents, that is more than enough space for event planning. Using these tools, you can share documents with other volunteers easily, back them up automatically to other devices & their cloud, and go back to old versions, in the event that you accidentally muck up a document.
Here is an image of the directory that all of my documents are stored in. This serves as both organization, as well as reminders of important tasks that need to be taken care of:
This may seem overwhelming, but I found that keeping everything in electronic form in one place was a huge convenience. Important, but infrequently used files, such as receipts, signed forms, and items to print are moved into subfolders in order to get them out of the way and into a single location. Some of this information may be irrelevant to some events, for example, if they do not host a post-event party, or do not organize precon events.
After a year of working with many different spreadsheets, I found that combining all of the important docs into one was important. Budget, volunteer contact info, session and speaker details, and sponsor info are interrelated enough to warrant being kept in the same place. Within this big spreadsheet were separate table for each of the following items:
Budget: All expenses/income lined up for easy review. See the Budget section below for more info,
Session & speaker list: List of every session, with speaker contact info & details.
Volunteer contact list: Contact list of all volunteers, as well as their interest in each role.
Volunteer schedule: A block chart of each task & time slot, and who is assigned to help then.
Contacts: General contact list for anyone related to the event, including those relating to the venue, food, supplies, and post-event party. Includes email addresses and phone numbers, as well as related notes.
Sponsors: A huge list of all possible sponsors for our event. Within the list, I check off any that I contact, to avoid repeatedly asking for their support. Those that sponsor are moved to the top of the list and their info is used when I need to contact all or some of the sponsors.
Precon: A list of everyone that is attending our precons, which they are attending, and how much they paid.
Swag: Details on what shirts and giveaways I considered/ordered. This was mainly for brainstorming.
Organize your data in the way that is easiest and most natural to you, and don’t be afraid to experiment in order to find what is most efficient. Once you’ve completed an event, the previous year’s folder can be copied, renamed, and become the template for next year’s SQL Saturday.
If you’re having difficulty keeping track of everything, find a few good volunteers to assist. Not only are volunteers crucial for providing manpower on the day of the event, but they can help in the planning of many aspects of it…
Planning a SQL Saturday is a large amount of work. I cannot even begin to estimate the total hours required by everyone involved in order to plan and run an event, plus dinners, precons, and other preliminary discussions. It’s a lot, and I’ll leave it at that 🙂
To try and do it all yourself is a recipe for stress and burnout. Use your local user groups, companies, and organizations that you have contact with and ask for help. Find a handful of friends or colleagues that you trust can take on some of the preliminary planning. The areas that I have found are easiest to delegate are as follows:
Food: This is the most logistically time-consuming part of SQL Saturday. Finding where to order food from, how much to order, planning delivery (if needed), dietary restrictions, and physically making sure everything is where it needs to be is a great deal of work, and can distract from overall conference planning & execution. Hand an organized volunteer a few budgetary guidelines and let them have at it. See the Food section below for more info.
Registration: Keeping the registration table staffed, checking attendees in, and answering questions throughout the day is a very important task. This job requires little work until a week or two before SQL Saturday, and having someone handle this will free you from the registration table so that you can handle any other incidents that come up throughout the event.
Marketing & PR: Anyone can do this, and if they are solely focused on marketing, will probably do a better job than we can. Find a few individuals who enjoy the more social aspects of conference planning. Have them work on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Meetup, Twitter, etc…), poster around campuses and popular areas, and solicit for speakers, sponsors, and attendees. You’ll also be busy doing this, but everyone has their own personal and professional circles, and therefore having a few people working on advertising will improve visibility of your event without taking away all of your free time. See the Marketing section below.
Speaker Dinner / Post-Event Party: These are isolated events that likely will not require too much time and effort to plan. Find a location, verify the date and attendance, and make sure the menu/drinks stay within the budget. If someone is enthusiastic about volunteering, but may not be interested in a huge job, then these are great tasks. A big bonus of this delegation is that you gain more free time on the night before SQL Saturday, which is when you will need it most! See the section below on the Speaker Dinner & Post-Event Party.
Audio/Visual: If you know someone that loves photography, then they could help you out and take pictures throughout the day of SQL Saturday and the related events. If they have experience in videography, then they may be able to record some sessions or parts of SQL Saturday for use in the future. Getting pictures from the event is often overlooked, but provides a great look back at how things went, and is free advertising for the future. Attendees will enjoy seeing memories of the highlights of the event. Sponsors and speakers, doubly so.
The rest of your volunteers will be focused on physically preparing for, and executing SQL Saturday. This is where a small army of friends and colleagues can turn a mountain of time-consuming work into a fun time! The following tasks are the ones I found most important to get help with:
Assembling Attendee Bags: Bags with schedules, sponsor marketing materials, pens, and possible other swag are often given out at registration. Assembling hundreds of bags is time-consuming work and can be taken care of very quickly with another 5-10 people. Consider inviting some volunteers over for dinner and then working on this project. Speaker bags can also be assembled at this time, if needed.
Transport: Unless you own a large car, you may need help transporting supplies, food, and attendee bags over to the SQL Saturday site. Find 1-2 reliable people with room in their cars for supplies and ensure they can arrive at the event on time. Load up the cars in advance so that you are not rushing to do this at 5am on a Saturday 🙂
Set-Up: Getting everything together on the morning of SQL Saturday can be a time-consuming and sweaty affair. Having 3-5 (or more) people to arrive early and help carry supplies in is hugely helpful. This may only be a few hours of work, but it will be the most important few hours of the day. Most urgent are getting registration set up, the sponsors settled in at their tables, and breakfast/coffee organized. Delegate so that you are not running back and forth too much. Your focus as an organizer is to be on-site and make sure that all questions are answered and things are coming together efficiently and correctly.
Registration: Having 1-2 people at the registration table throughout the day is very helpful. Those volunteers will hand out bags & supplies, answer questions, and collect lunch money from anyone that has yet to pay. After lunch, one person is likely all you’ll need at registration as you’ll get very few late-comers after this point.
Speaker Room: This is optional, but I found it very helpful. We had a volunteer in the speaker room at all times throughout the day. They could answer questions, show speakers around, and also acted as guards in the event that everyone else left the room. Our venue was public, and therefore we wanted to ensure that the speaker’s belongings were safe at all times. This is a very easy job, and gives some opportunity for volunteers to network with speakers and learn more about them.
Raffles & Closing: Having another person (maybe two) to help out with raffles will allow things to flow more smoothly and for the end of the day to not drag on too much. These volunteers can hand prizes to winners, take pictures, pull raffle tickets from boxes, and so on. While you can do all of these tasks yourself, having help makes things much less awkward. At the end of the day, attendees are tired and ready to find dinner and relax. This is not the part of the event where people should be waiting or getting bored 🙂
Clean-Up: This is quicker & easier than set-up, but equally important. I had all of our available volunteers assist with this task, allowing it to get done painlessly. Getting supplies and leftovers back to your car is important, as is cleaning the venue and throwing away any trash. Making sure that all areas used by SQL Saturday are clean and in the state they were that morning is very important. This will help build a positive relationship with the venue and ensure nothing important is forgotten when you leave.
Try to rotate volunteers through shifts during SQL Saturday so that they can attend sessions, eat meals, and enjoy the rest of event. While someone else sitting at the registration table all day is very helpful to you, it will get a bit dull for them after a while. For our SQL Saturday, we had 1-2 hour shifts and encouraged volunteers to not take on too many of them throughout the day.
Work on finding volunteers early and don’t ever feel that you have too many—you don’t! Any of these volunteers may become the future user group or SQL Saturday leaders. Ideally, the experience they gain through helping should be as worthwhile as the help they provide you!
SQL Saturday provides free technical training, but to do so we need sponsors to cover our costs. Recruiting sponsors starts as soon as your event goes live, and may continue right up to the big week! This is one of the tasks (along with marketing & advertising) that can begin early and continue throughout the entire planning process.
How much sponsorship do you need? Unless you are in a big city with a strong base of sponsor organizations, the answer is likely “as many as you can find”. The more scientific answer is that you want enough sponsorship money/donations to comfortably cover all of the event costs. See the Budget section below for more on this.
Sponsors can come from almost anywhere, including (but not limited to):
Companies that sell computer/server hardware or software.
Companies that sell database-related software or tools.
Storage, SAN, or storage appliance companies.
Recruiting, contracting, or consulting firms.
Colleges & universities.
Technical or continuing education schools.
Certification training/testing schools.
Local companies looking to recruit DBAs or developers directly.
MVPs, presenters, or well-known speakers within the SQL Server community.
Microsoft, PASS, or other key SQL Server partner organizations.
Local institutions, such as supermarkets, restaurants, or others that may wish to advertise.
Based on the above list, and any additional sponsors you can think of, it’s clear that many types of organizations may be willing to sponsor your event. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to ask—the worst you will be told is no.
When looking for sponsors, you’ll find consistent questions asked of you, such as to estimate your attendance, number of speakers, or previous conference planning experience. Sponsors are happy to help make your event a reality, but also want to know that their investment will be worthwhile. Keep in mind that total sponsorship costs include not only the sponsorship fee, but also raffle prizes, supplies, and potentially plane tickets & hotel costs. If a company wants to send two representatives across the country, this can significantly raise their overall expenses.
To help answer these questions AND show them how well organized you are, create a short-list of common questions & answers for anyone showing an interest in sponsoring. When recruiting sponsors, include this information in your request:
Geographic locales where you expect attendees & speakers to travel from.
Event location & highlights.
Date, time, and generic schedule.
Sponsor plan levels, amounts, and benefits for each level.
Some specific details that will draw this sponsor to your event, such as business or networking opportunities.
Compared to most professional and technical conferences, SQL Saturday is inexpensive to sponsor. As a result, a company may only need to close on a single sale to pay back their sponsorship costs. Therefore, there is no need to embellish numbers or try to overwhelm them with over-the-top goals. Sponsors appreciate honest and realistic goals.
Start local! Ask your company to sponsor. Branch out to your user group and have each member ask their respective companies and organizations they have contact with to sponsor. Continue asking friends, colleagues, and have them pass on your conference info to their network. Securing a few local companies or schools will provide you with a jumpstart towards your overall sponsorship goals. In addition, the fact that you’ve already secured some support tells other potential sponsors that your event is well on its way to success and that their joining would be worthwhile.
As you sign on new sponsors, continue to communicate each month about event news, logistics, and milestones. Feel free to ask your sponsors to advertise your SQL Saturday to their employees, students, or other personal/professional contacts. In addition, employees of your sponsors may be interested in submitting technical sessions to your event. Encourage this, and if selected be sure to encourage those speakers to advertise their sessions. Each sponsor has a vested interest in the success of your event and will be happy to help you out. Provide them with informational emails, event posters, or other marketing materials that you have created.
On possibility for staying engaged with sponsors is to provide them with an advertisement web page that they can send to their contacts within a reasonable distance of the event. They can then use Google Analytics or a similar service to count page views, click-through, and so on. This can provide a bit of concrete data on how their sponsorship is influencing attendance and creating interest even before your SQL Saturday.
Some sponsors may be interested in providing a sales/marketing session. This is an excellent benefit that is worth including in your higher-level sponsorships. Sponsors will likely want about a half hour to present information about their organization, what they are looking for, and may give away prizes or vouchers for their products. As long as every organization above a certain sponsorship level has an equal opportunity to do this, then it’s the perfect way to increase their involvement and the value of your SQL Saturday to them!
Sometimes a sponsor may be unsure if they want to hand you a pile of cash, but may have other ideas of how to help. If this happens, consider asking for other support that could benefit your event, such as:
Sponsor (cover the cost of) the event shirts, bags, lanyards, or other important branded supplies.
Sponsor the speaker dinner or post-event party. These can be good networking opportunities for a sponsor!
Sponsor breakfast, lunch, or both for SQL Saturday. Keep in mind that if a sponsor covers the food costs, then you may need to remove the lunch fee to avoid confusion by the attendees as to what their money is going towards.
Sponsor the venue rental costs.
These alternatives offer ways for a potential sponsor to defray your costs by separately covering a variety of bills for your event. Be sure to be up-front with them on the estimated and actual costs that they are committing to. If you estimate lunch to cost $750, but the final bill comes in at $2000, then it would be unfair to ask the sponsor to cover the unexpected cost increase.
When your event is over, don’t forget to follow up with your sponsors! Within a week of the conference, email the sponsors with anything you owe them (raffle scans, attendance list, raffle winners, etc…) and be sure to debrief them on how the event went. Feel free to be candid and brag about your successes, while also being honest about areas for improvement at future events. In addition, ask your sponsors for event feedback and be receptive to whatever ideas they come up with. If you need to ship any supplies back to your sponsors, loop them in on shipping/tracking details so they know what to expect and when.
Lastly, let sponsors know about your local user groups, as well as about your next big event. If they are interested in staying involved, this provides a variety of ways in which they can do so.
The main event at any technical training event is the training itself! Getting a solid lineup of speakers will greatly increase the visibility of a SQL Saturday, improve attendance, and make the training more diverse and worthwhile.
As with sponsors, start local: Ask members of your user group and local companies/organizations to consider submitting to speak. If you know anyone from other events or user groups that is interested in speaking at more events, be sure to loop them into your SQL Saturday. If someone is nervous about speaking, encourage them to speak at company or user group events first, and if it goes well, submit to speak at your event.
Keep an open mind about the topics presented at your event. SQL Server is the main technology that is focused on, but don’t be afraid to shake it up a little and invite speakers to talk on other topics, such as:
Other database variants, such as Postgres, MongoDB, Oracle, Dynamo, etc…
Development topics, such as SQL integration, entity framework, and .NET.
Scripting languages, such as R or Python
Data quality, QA, testing, and QA automation.
Non-technical topics such as public speaking, management, and professional development.
Hardware, such as SANs, storage, and networking.
These topics may seem distant from the purpose of a database-centric event, but provide excellent tie-ins to your other sessions. They also offer areas of familiarity for someone that may not be a database administrator. Lastly, this variety makes your event more interesting as attendees will have the opportunity to learn about new and unexpected platforms and techniques. Some of the best attended precons and conference sessions at the SQL Saturdays I’ve been involved in have been on these topics. Ask around, gauge interest, and if that interest is there, add this variety to your schedule and enjoy the results 🙂
SQL Saturdays typically have a speaker room. This is a separate room from the sessions where speakers can privately set up their laptops, presentations, and run any last-minute tests on their work. This room provides a way for speakers to take a breather and prepare for their sessions without the hectic bustle offered by the registration area. Consider having some snacks and beverages in there so that your speakers can stay hydrated and energized! If possible, make sure that there is someone in this room at all times, that way no one’s personal belongings are put at risk throughout the day.
The call-for-speakers deadline is all too often pushed out closer to the date of a SQL Saturday in order to allow for as many speakers as possible to join. Deciding on speakers closer than two months to the event may annoy some speakers that have personal, travel, or professional decisions to make, and may increase the number of cancelations that you get after the decisions are made. Booking a flight and hotel 30 days before an event can be expensive and unreliable, not to mention stressful for a busy speaker. My experiences have led me to start building a schedule early while also leaving the call for speakers open until a bit later, in case any last-minute additions come in. This appeals both to those speakers that need advance notice, as well as those deciding to submit late. Speakers greatly appreciate early notice as it allows them more time to prepare and purchase their travel plans. A conference that is announced early and where speakers can learn about their selection early will be appealing to those with busier schedules and those that travel frequently. Speaking is an honor and a privilege—be sure to make the announcement befitting of that fact.
Communicate at least monthly with speakers in order to find out if they are attending your speaker dinner (if you’re holding one), to get their shirt size (if you are making speaker shirts), and to fill them in on details of your upcoming SQL Saturday. Always verify that everyone can make it and to let you know immediately if they need to cancel. Out of a random selection of 20 speakers, it is likely that one will cancel for some reason. Ideally, they will let you know weeks before your event, allowing you to update the schedule and ensure that they do not appear on any printed materials.
Last-minute cancelations are frustrating, but will happen. Illnesses and family emergencies occur and we cannot expect a speaker to attend your event during difficult times. Be ready to scratch sessions off of event signs and update the online schedule in the event of cancelations. Forgetting to do so will lead to confusion on the day of your event when attendees are unsure of why a room is empty during a session slot.
As with sponsors, follow-up after the event is helpful to them AND beneficial to you! If electronic feedback is available, be sure to pass it on to your speakers. Also consider asking them to speak at your user group or other local events. Local speakers are often happy to make the drive out for a user group meeting and remote speakers are happy to do remote sessions via WebEx, Go2Meeting, or a similar platform. Let your speakers know that they are valued and that their time and effort have been appreciated…and to join you again next year!
Planning a conference of any kind is a big undertaking, but by breaking it down into smaller, easy-to-digest components, it can become quite manageable. With some helpful volunteers, the process becomes more fun and less work!
So far, we have taken a birds-eye view of a SQL Saturday and the important players, such as speakers and sponsors. The conclusion of this article will dive into the details of budgeting, food, precons and more! Until then, thanks for reading!