SQLPam's Blog

January 26, 2011

SQL Saturdays Gone Wild – My Response

Filed under: SQL Saturday — sqlpam @ 9:30 pm

Recently Karla Landrum posted a blog – SQL Saturdays Gone Wild.  I was eyeball deep in planning SQL Saturday #62 in Tampa – so I threw together a response to her which she asked me to blog.  I did not have the time it deserved so I placed it on the back burner.   Here is my response.

I just completed my 4th SQL Saturday.  The first was tough because SQL Saturday had not established itself.  The second and third got easier and easier.  We had established a track record and were able to point at previous sponsors who were relatively unknown who were now well know and doing well as ROI.  But at the same time the phenomenon had not really taken off.  This year, SQL Saturdays are becoming more common.  In previous years, scheduling was by quarter then every other month, then monthly.  This year it seems to be weekly and still I am seeing doubling up.  For the sponsors who once aspired to being national sponsors, that means a lot of budget required and still not a lot for each individual event.  

So far I have spoken more to the sponsorship side of things – but a similar issue is being raised on the session /speaker side of things.  The first year, we did not have that many speakers.  We offered 5 tracks, if I remember correctly, and we had numerous speakers doing more than one session.  We moved up to 7 sessions per time slot last year and still had a couple of speakers doing multiple sessions.  This year was the first year I had to turn speakers away.  It was painful.  My first response was “next year we need a bigger venue – more tracks” – but is that really what we need.  As it is, we have a night mare ahead just getting the scheduling in place.  Minimizing conflicts between speaker schedules and conflicts between common topics or popular sessions is already tough enough.  Is expanding the number of sessions going help?  It makes a single choice for each time more difficult for the attendee.  Bigger is not always better.  Keep in mind, the number of attendees per event is not growing proportionately.

So what are the planners supposed to do?  Scale back on expectations is the first thing that comes to mind.  Since lunch is the one thing that scales with attendance – let the attendee pick up the cost?  If so, we need to make sure that if the cost of lunch is the only thing holding an attendee back – you can cover the few impacted.  I know I will be giving less purchased give aways.  I still want to take care of my speakers – they do supply the content our attendees come to see – but it has gotten more expensive.  I now have more speakers than sessions because of co-speakers. 

For our sponsors, it is more difficult to provide solid ROI.  With the opt out option, ROI is not what it used to be.  I try to give the sponsor a little extra by introducing the sponsors in emails prior to the event as well as in the event guide.  You don’t want to cram the sponsor down the throat of the attendee – but they are paying to let the attendee attend for free.  The attendee gets a few emails that have short intros to the sponsors.  After that, the sponsor must woo the attendee to get them to hand over a raffle ticket which we provide.  We also have a BINGO card which helps encourage the attendee to meet the sponsors.  At the same time, the sponsor must find a means of interacting with the attendees that do approach them at the event.  Some are definitely more successful than others.  Relationships are an important part of this process.  Some sponsors are better at cultivating these relationships than others.

To offset the decrease in sponsor funding, we decided to hold 2 pre-cons, one focused on the DBA and the other on BI.  The issue I found with pre-cons is they are slow to build momentum.  You have to put money out to get them going.  The upfront costs are speaker travel expenses and booking the space required.  Even with early bird specials, the registrations were slow to show.   We did not get to the breakeven point until early the week of the event.  We did make a very small profit, but there were some monies to offset SQL Saturday expenses.  We may need to focus on local speakers next time.

I am still struggling with answers to all this.  I know that I am going to find a way to make it happen.  The education opportunities are too good to pass up.  The networking is more critical in these days than ever before.  So going without is not the option.  Going for bigger is probably not the answer either.  I believe that an equilibrium will be met in the next year.  I think that it will require an adjustment of expectations for both the organizers and attendees.

I welcome your ideas on the subject.  Like Karla, I saw complaints that there were too many sessions they wanted to see in a single time slot – so expanding the number of rooms is problematic.  I also saw complaints that there was not enough SWAG and no t-shirts.

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The Speed Pass process at SQL Saturday #62

Filed under: SQL Saturday — sqlpam @ 8:08 pm

Recently, I put on SQL Saturday #62 with the assistance of Jose Chinchilla and many other volunteers. Since the biggest black eye from last year was the registration process, I have spent the past year trying to think of ways to make the process easier. I came up with a process that Jose dubbed “Speed Pass”. Since the big slow down with registration is finding the registrant’s personalized raffle tickets and name badge, I decided it would be easier if the registrant was able to print their own materials and bring them to the event.
Since the process is not currently part of the SQL Saturday site, more work was required than should be needed once the process is available on the site. Here is what I had to do to make it happen outside of the site.
The first step was to bring the registrants into a local database where I could access them. This meant printing a report available to the SQL Saturday admins and downloading it into Excel format. I then had to strip the title off the report so the first line had the column headings. I then stripped the spaces out of the headings to make cleaner field names. I used the Tasks/Import process to bring the data into an already created table which defined the fields more accurately. I then used a script to append any new registrations into a “permanent” registration table set up with primary keys and additional info I was extrapolating from existing data or updating as new data was collected.
The second step was to create the SSRS reports to print the personalized info for each registrant individually. Each report would accept the registrant’s primary key as a parameter and generate the report. The tough part was getting the information to line up properly when output to PDF. Once this was achieved I set up a File Share subscription for each report and modified it a little in the ReportServer database to allow for On Demand subscriptions. I went this route so that future users were not required to utilize Enterprise edition.
Basically, an On Demand subscription can be triggered via a script anytime a user needs it. This is based on a blog published in 2007 by Jason Selberg. A stored proc will manipulate an existing Subscription record so that the time to trigger it is now. Once the report is finished, the stored proc restores the Subscription record back to its original form.
The third step is to generate the file shares. This requires a script that loops through the registrants and generates 2 file shares, one for each report. These files were named based on the registrant’s primary key. They were stored to an isolated folder on my machine. This process took almost an hour per 100 registrants. Most of that processing time was spent generating the PDFs.
The next step was to actually email the PDFs that were generated. This was handled via a script that created a personalized email with the 2 PDFs attached. The emails were sent via dbmail. My biggest hurdle on this was that my ISP blocks port 25 and my only mail servers only used port 25. I ended up using my air card which was on a different ISP. One lesson I learned was to include the primary key in the subject line to make tracking those using Speed Pass easier.
The final piece of this was to track the registrants that opted to use Speed Pass. They let me know via an RSVP email. These registrants were marked off my list to print for the day of the event. A second script generated PDFs for those not using Speed Pass and these were taken to the printer the night before the event.
I had 450 registrations the night before the event. 150 people had responded that they were printing their own reports. On the day of the event, I received 175 speed passes printed by the registrants. I was able to tell the source because the emailed speed passes were a different size than what were printed for day of event. We had around 320 people attending, 305 were actually registered and went thru registration. 15 registered the day of the event.
The biggest thing for me was that there was not a bottleneck in the registration line this year – a big improvement over the previous year. The event evaluations applauded Speed Pass as allowing them more time with the sponsors. The only downside I saw to the process is that people overprinted the materials to allow them to stuff the raffle boxes. I had some names that I found duplicated 5-10 time in each raffle box. That will be my issue to resolve for next year.
I will blog the On Demand subscriptions in detail in the near future. Any event organizer willing to try the process is welcome to contact me. I will be very happy to share the code.

January 18, 2011

SQL Saturday #62

Filed under: SQL Saturday — sqlpam @ 6:57 pm

This weekend was the culmination of a lot of effort by a lot of people. 

We started with a Day of Data – kind of a pre-con for SQL Saturday.  This was held on Friday at the historic Italian Club in Ybor City near downtown Tampa.  The building is close to 100 years old and is beautiful.  We sponsored 2 simultaneous sessions.  The first on the agenda was Storage and Virtualization for the DBA led by Denny Cherry.  The second was Business Intelligence End to End led by Stacia Mizner.  Both sessions were well attended and gave me rave reviews.

We then had our Pre-Event dinner.  We met at the Spaghetti Warehouse – again in historic Ybor City – to host our Speakers, Sponsors and Volunteers dinner.  The main point of the event is to allow everyone an opportunity to mingle build tighter bonds in the community.  There were at least 75 people attending.  This included family and companions.  From what I could tell, a wonderful time was had for all.  We unveiled our speaker shirts and passed out a new edition – lapel pins – to all attending.

The next morning started the main event.  This was held at the national headquarters of Kforce and the building next door – La Tam.  This is the 4th Tampa event and the 3rd we have held at Kforce.  Every year they go a little further to make it as easy as possible for us.

I was a little nervous this year about the registration process.  Last year, it was a big failure.  We had to send people to classes without registering because of a major back up in the process.  This year, I was determined to not have this happen again.  I came up with a process that Jose Chinchilla named “Speed Pass”.  Basically, the big hold up has been the distribution of personalized printed materials to our registrants.  So I allowed them to print their own this year.  Part of the printing process included a “speed pass” ticket and name badge.  We had 461 registered on the site.  Over 150 people responded that they had printed their speed pass tickets.  Based on previous experience, I estimated that 50% of my attendees were participating in the speed pass process.  We normally have 25-30% non-attendance – which brought our estimated attendance to 300-340.  150 meant close to 50%.  It played out well – there was very little back up in the line on Saturday morning.  I will blog later on the technology behind the Speed Pass process.

We had almost 3 full boxes of food donated to the food drive.  I want to thank all who participated in the food drive.  Feeding America will be sending an evaluation of how many families will be fed from our donations.

The day was full of informative sessions including a Women in Technology round table.  Please keep your eyes open for the various blogs by our speakers.  We had so many great people speaking and attending.  I was fortunate that in this season of illness, I only had 2 speakers who were unable to attend – their sessions were easily covered by other speakers – thank you Andy Warren and Jorge Segarro.  I was astounded to find I had one speaker who actually faced blizzards to arrive.  A special thanks to Ira Whiteside of Melissa Data for braving the elements during his drive down from WI.

We ended the day in the usual swag-fest.  This was a time to acknowledge our sponsors, speakers and volunteers.  We also hear a little from all user groups represented.

I want to send a special thanks to Jose Chinchilla for all the assistance he lent this year in helping me prepare for the event.  Without him, I would have had to scale back a while lot.  If I try to thank everyone by name, I am sure I will leave someone out – so I will leave it at Thank you all who spoke, sponsored or volunteered.  You are why these events work.  Thank you to our attendees – your presence makes the effort worthwhile.

What a great community we have!!  I have seen nothing like it anywhere.  If you are not participating – I encourage you to get out there and join the best technical community around – SQL folks – you ROCK!!!

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