Event Analysis SQL Saturday 87 – Louisville

We had our 3rd sql saturday at Louisville on 28th October 2011.  It was a huge event with over 230 people attending, 5 tracks and six sessions each. There were many things we learnt out of running an event like this (when i say ‘we’ i am referring to me as key organizer and our volunteering team). Let me start with what went well –

1 282 people registered, 230 showed up. More than double since last year, and very unexpected. Our feedback shows several people impressed with sql saturdays in general is the reason, and that is a great trend.
2 Number of sponsors was much higher, double than normal (although amounts of sponsorship were lower). I still consider this a great trend.
3 Local sponsors (Teknetx and Ebits) were very impressed and want to come back. Building local sponsors is a very difficult task and I consider it very significant that we succeeded this year.
4 Most speakers (other than one or two) seemed happy and wanted to return. This is also a great trend.
5 There was definitely a lot of interest in non technical subjects – toastmasters and women in technology sessions showed good attendance and this is something we want to continue to do.
6 Seating sponsors near lunch area seemed to attract good crowds to them, this is also something we want to continue to do.
7 Buffet lunch went very smoothly and was a great idea compared to boxed lunches.
8 Pre conference with Kevin Kline – had a great turnout – again much higher than expected and was very smooth. Most people including volunteers enjoyed it greatly. We definitely want to do more of these,  perhaps with speakers who are close to town and can get in easily.
10 I got some great feedback on quality of speaker shirts, some internal signage especially posters, and printed schedule book. We will continue doing them, although the printed schedule would depend on the budget.
11 Costumed volunteers and speakers seemed to go down very well. Even met an attendee at a crowded Trader Joe’s today who asked me if I was the ‘lady in the pink hat’ at sql saturday, and complimented us for turning out in colorful costumes. I am definitely going to save that hat , perhaps wear it next time around also 🙂 In short this means creativity is appreciated and we will definitely look at this further.
12 Timing was good in terms of weather and other logistics, not to mention creativity added on by Halloween. This looks like a good time to have the event every year.

What did not go well – am afraid this was a little more than what we expected this year. There were two main reasons – one of them was that we needed lot more volunteers than what we had for an event of this size. Finding committed volunteers is a very hard task. Our existing volunteers were stretched to the bone,and last minute efforts at finding more people did not succeed. Most people on the sign up list did not respond to emails and we only had those who had been with us through the event planning. Second, we really did not expect double the number of people. This is very hard to plan as around 60% of registrations happen in the last month or so, when we are set in terms of planning location, budget and volunteers. We assumed a 50% or so increase, but not this much and this is what caught us off guard in many respects.

1 Breakfast – any event organizer’s nightmare come true, happened to us. The caterer was known for their reputation and quality, but just happened that they had a staff turnover and the new team had us as their #1 client. So breakfast showed up 40 minutes late – after several desperate calls. The driver had lost his way and gone to the other side of town. When it arrived the coffee was cold, there was no cream, bagels had no sides. We asked for a second delivery of coffee, and it was delivered again, but with no cream! (talk of software programs with bugs, looks like people have them too). Anyway, the caterer and several people on their side called repeatedly to apologize.

2 Registration – our volunteers were caught up in sorting raffle tickets which apparently sorted wrongly by the print shop on a batch basis instead of a person basis. This made it very hard to hand over a batch of tickets to the right attendee. Lots of people also showed up earlier than opening time, and with no coffee around it made it seem really long for them.

3 Lunch was delivered early – again this was an issue arising due to some logistics. There was a tailgating party/soccer match in the vicinity and we were warned of traffic holdups in the area. Despite checking with several people we were unable to get a good idea of how bad this situation was and how much we needed to plan around it. So we decided to play it safe and ask the caterer to deliver early. The caterer messed up breakfast and was eager to make us happy, he delivered more than an hour early. This left several people displeased although there was plenty of food to go around.

3 Session scheduling – this was a blunder on our side. We used the default template PASS had which had no breaks between sessions. We also had several sessions that seemed too good and limited rooms to work with so we went with 45 minutes per session (which is by the way how we do it at user groups). This was definitely a bad idea, and a couple of speakers were really put off. We will have to work with lesser sessions per track but more tracks/more rooms next time.

4 Location was crowded, registration area small and so on – This was some of the feedback we received from attendees. Again the turnout was unexpected and the location was clearly not built to handle such a crowd. We will definitely look for bigger locations next time.

5 Post event social was not on premises – One attendee suggested a party on premises including an open bar 🙂 I guess with the growing number of well funded sql saturdays lot of people tend to forget that some events may not have funds, and secondly our event was on school premises, there is no chance of having an open bar there even if we could have afforded it. The problem with post events generally is that again we don’t know how many people are going to show up. We planned one the first year and there were only about 20 people. That number is not enough to book a restaurant or any place, especially around halloween when there is a lot of demand. The second issue we have is that volunteers were extremely tired and none of us had any energy to do a social. We will address both issues with next event.

6 Raffle drawing – This was scheduled for 5 30 pm. By 4.45 or so several vendors started to pack up, did their own drawings and gave me the gift with winner’s name and left. I was not sure if waiting until 5.30 pm was a great idea so we had it early, at 5 pm. This left out several attendees who were in the other building attending a session that went over a little. This is an issue we plan to address both with vendors and advisors of sql saturday. There was also some feedback regarding ‘more gifts and prizes’ – again I believe this arises out of some events having a lot of funding to play with. We had three Ipads, one XBox Kinect and several small prizes. It was good for an event of this size, and don’t plan to address this any further.

Takeaways:
1 Find a bigger building and have all sessions in the building. Have more tracks and less sessions with 15 minute gap between each session.
2 Divide breakfast between coffee and food, again I may be paranoid here but I think we should make arrangements for that java to arrive and be ready before people do.
3 Get more student type volunteers or those who have no interest in sessions to sit in all day at registration and at food table.
4 I hate to say this but I want to – that is not pick speakers who are hyper critical or not understanding of effort that goes into organizing a free event. Granted some things did not work as expected but to remember these events are free and done with huge amounts of effort.Atleast try to talk to organizers cordially, offer some feedback in encouraging ways, not just dump us and take a high handed stance. If you are so demanding our response would be ‘sorry, we want to work with friendly people next time’ – there is no shortage of them in the sql community.
5 Do more precons – particularly with speakers who are close to our area and do not have huge demands on number of attendees.
6 Work harder on hosting a good post social.

SQL Saturdays are a huge amount of work. But to date, i have not met one volunteer who regretted doing it. Most of us feel empowered in fact to do more and better. That is in itself proof of community and learning. So here is a huge thank you to all of you who supported us and worked with us, and hope to see you again until next year!!

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ameena Lalani (@SQLHands)
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 21:01:54

    Mala, Congrats! for accomplishing this great task. It could have been a challenge for anybody if the turn out is double then expected. It was good thing but with a penalty.

    I agree with you that most important asset to any free event is the strong volunteer base and I like to just add to your suggestion. If volunteers are interested in sessions, they can coordinate ahead of time which sessions they will attend. Beside recruiting more volunteers, a volunteer should at least commit 50% of the time to the event logistics on the day. I am saying that because if some student volunteer will stand there, they will not be able to answer many questions related to SQLcommunity and may become counter effective. Also they will not be able show the enthusiasm of the community and will get bored.

    Another sensitive area that you touched was about behaviors of some hypersensitive speakers. I do not remember who wrote, but I read few comments after the PASS 2011 Summit that the similar issues were there in Seattle this year. I believe there must be a system where they are reported to the PASS organizers and some kind of trend is kept. Because we are humans, one or two times anybody can slip. But by tracking these behaviors we can make sure we can avoid this unpleasantness as there is already so much other stuff to do with the event.

    Again, this is a great post. Keep doing it Mala.

    Ameena

    Reply

    • diligentdba
      Oct 31, 2011 @ 12:06:30

      Hi Ameena, thank you for your detailed response. Volunteering is a hard task in itself. I don’t blame volunteers for their need to sit in sessions or network, this is the only chance many of them get. We are looking at ways to making this better, in the meantime, thank you.

      Reply

  2. Arie Jones (@programmersedge)
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 02:51:34

    Arrgggghhh!!!….. Speakers whom are going to be hyper-critical of a weekend SQL Saturday event need to just stop attending. I for one am tired of hearing about speakers complaining or pulling out at the last minute because they are not getting a good enough spot or a big enough room!
    Mala, you put on a great event and I was suprised at how many people were in attendance. So good for you!
    Cheers!
    AJ

    Reply

  3. Pundrick
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 11:48:05

    Hey Mala, Many thanks to whole team for such an excellent event. I had signed up for volunteering but did not receive any further communication. Wish i could have shared the weight, looking forward to be a part of it 🙂

    Reply

  4. Bill Pearson
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 11:56:57

    Absolutely excellent job with the event. The program booklets that Christina Levins produced were some of the best I’ve seen at a SQL Saturday – and I’ve been to quite a few. Hats-off to your entire team, each of whom I know had to be extremely tired by the time the event got off the ground.

    I spoke with more people in attendence this time than at many of these events, including the college officials (at length) who were there, and heard nothing but abundant praise. The team was “switched on,” outgoing, and never slowed down in supporting me in both my sessions, as well as all the other speakers that I could see – they flitted tirelessly about all day ensuring that the event was a success. How a speaker can show anything less than sheer gratitude for SQL Saturday volunteers is utterly beyond me…

    We owe you a great deal, Mala. Your efforts show and you make us speakers look great!! Please extend my praise and thanks to your whole team!

    Reply

  5. diligentdba
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 12:03:55

    Hi Pundrick, I sent 3 emails. Perhaps they went to your junk folder, or perhaps you signed up really late (we need volunteers atleast 3 months ahead). Anyways thank you and let us stay in touch for next event.
    Mala

    Reply

  6. Gary Homberg
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 12:26:56

    Many thanks for all the work done on this event. I know that it is a lot of work, as I have volunteered at other events. To that, I did check the box that I could volunteer, however was not contacted as such and would have been happy to help.

    Reply

  7. Ross Cecil
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 13:27:00

    Mala,

    My compliments to you and the entire team on a successful and, I think, well run SQL Saturday. Bad things are going to happen – something always goes wrong. What matters is what you do when they happen. I come for the quality of the presentations which were as usual very good.

    Other than the mixup in the morning I didn’t hear any complaints. Ok, I was a little bummed about the coffee but I survived. It wasn’t like one of my users ran a DELETE with out a WHERE clause.

    I’ll be back next year! And while I’m not is the Louisville area I’m more than willing to help during the event – let me know what I can do.

    Once again, thanks for all you and your team do!

    Reply

  8. Dave Fackler
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 15:13:58

    Mala, you and the event team did an absolutely stellar job! Given some of the hassles and unfortunate things that happened, the whole event was another super success and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to step up and be on the event team next time around 🙂

    Kudos to the team and the volunteers — you all deserve nothing less than that!!

    Reply

  9. diligentdba
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 15:18:39

    Thank you to all of you for your support. For those of you who said you signed up as volunteers – it depends on when you did it. We did send out several emails to people who signed up as volunteers, a month or so before the event. After that it just gets too late to get someone upto speed. Thank you anyway for your offer to help and hope we can make it happen next time.

    Reply

  10. Robert Wine
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 18:05:15

    This was my first SQL Saturday and I loved it. I plan on attending future events and even becoming a volunteer if needed. Great event, can’t wait for next the next one. The speakers were all great, the vendors gave out some great stuff. It was all good!

    Reply

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