5 bold changes to support the scale problem of SQL Saturdays (and other data platform conferences)

I love SQL Saturdays. I love SQL Relay. I love user groups. Long may they continue, grow and thrive.

I’ve attended as a speaker, as a sponsor, as a helper, as an attendee and as an organiser. I’ve personally benefitted significantly from my involvement in these events in each role. But in their current form they are unsustainable. They need to evolve. We need these events to work for all five groups. As we grow we need to change.

One trend that many of us in the community have noticed is that as the number of free events, in particular SQL Saturdays, has grown rapidly in recent years. As a consequence many sponsors have seen sharply rising costs and some have been forced to cut back. It follows that organisers have found it harder to secure the sponsorship they need to run a growing number of events. Funding free community events is getting more and more challenging. I’m not the first person to speak about this. Many have already shared their views about how to deal with the problems associated with scaling SQL Saturdays. A few months ago PASS caused a bit of a stir when they made some changes. As a sponsor I have seen the number of events grow. I can’t afford to sponsor them all with DLM Consultants, but that’s not a surprise because I’m not very big. However, I used to work for Redgate and even they can’t sponsor everywhere. For the larger sponsors it isn’t because organisers are charging too much – it’s because of all the additional costs and time.

The cost of a decent size booth at an event might range from three to four figures and that’s fine for the big, established sponsors. As an organiser you might agonise over how much you charge but it probably doesn’t actually make as big a difference as you think it does.

I just sponsored my first event with DLM Consultants (out of my own pocket). It cost me several times more to pay for the hotels, swag, banner, polo shirts and to take the time out of the office. I’ve spoken to other (much larger) sponsors this week at SQL Relay who really feel the pain of sending their best technical, sales and marketing people out of the office for so long.  Most of the folk you see on sponsor booths have a full time job besides manning trade show booths – that’s what makes them interesting to talk to.

How would your team manage if you sent three or four of your best team members to an event for the best part of a week? Several times every month? (And if they are going to all the events then they have to deal with a fair amount of fatigue, which affects them personally, and by extension, their businesses.) As the number of events has grown, these people are being pulled out of the office more often.

Of course SQL Saturdays aren’t during the week which does make things easier – but add a day either side for travel etc and you still have three days hard work including unsociable hours. I’ve known people who have had to fly around Europe or the US every weekend for an entire month to get to all the SQL Saturdays. The people that work the booths will need to be compensated somehow. And their employers, the sponsors, will pick up the bill.

There are a lot of free events now – and we should celebrate that. There are lots of opportunities for our community to meet, learn and prosper. But the sponsors who provide the cash don’t have bottomless pockets of money or resources. There is a limit – and they are beginning to feel the pinch. (I use the word ‘beginning’ for a reason. It’s going to get harder.)

We need to evolve our free events in order to keep growing. And growth isn’t just an aspiration, it’s a requirement. I’ll come back to that point later.

Bold statement number one – cut costs… goodbye free lunch

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Dear organisers, you do not need to provide lunch.

I’ll say it again. Free lunch for attendees is not required. It’s a burden that is crippling the economics of free events. It doesn’t work. It is holding your event back. Stop it.

One of the biggest costs and logistical pains for organisers is the catering. Food normally costs more than venues. And given that dropout rates for attendees at free events is notoriously hard to judge, organisers normally have to over-spend on food to ensure no-one goes hungry.

I’m calling it.

It’s time we started asking people to bring a packed lunch. Or we can give the option for attendees pay a few coins at morning registration for basic sandwiches that can be ordered during the keynote from the local supermarket (so organisers don’t have to guess numbers). Of course, food must not be consumed in any room on-site other than the sponsor hall or in a sponsor talk.

To be clear, the event is free. SQL Saturdays are still free for attendees. The venue is still paid for by sponsors. The sessions are still free. People just have to pay for their own food or bring a packed lunch. I don’t think many would say that’s unreasonable.

Right there you have saved a bunch of cash. Now fewer sponsors can support larger events with more attendees.

Bold statement number two – attract new sponsors

Dear organisers, your events are cheaper now, you can afford more space and you can support more people, but you still can’t expect the usual sponsors to attend all the Saturdays indefinitely. Start looking elsewhere.

Who are the local recruiters? Who are the local employers that are hiring? Who are the local single person consulting companies who can’t afford a large booth? Many will only want a single pull-up and to be allowed to stand near it and perhaps to give a good technical session and/or pre-con/workshop.

You can’t necessarily expect all these folk to bring a big booth or to pay as much money, but you might fit twice as many of them in the venue. Think about new sponsorship options that are suitable for the businesses in your area.

Bold statement number three – attract new attendees

One of the biggest problems for the regular sponsors is that they see the same people year after year at free community events. It might take several interactions with a brand before someone decides to purchase, but at the same time many of the long running sponsors find themselves talking to the same people year after year who have either already bought their products/services or who never will.

Growth, reaching new attendees, is essential for SQL Saturdays in order for the established sponsors to get value out of them. Curbing their growth is a bad idea. These events need to work for everyone. Without growth, the money will dry up.

Dear organisers, how much do you know about the registrants for your next event? Do you know how many of them are first time attendees either at your event or community events in general? Can you tell me at each of your historical events what the ratio is of regular attendees to new attendees?

Organisers need to focus on finding new audiences and they need to be able to demonstrate to sponsors that there will be a large number of newbies at each event. (Finding this data should be a manageable task. The organisers are data professionals after all!)

Bold statement number four – We need more event diversity

Typically, in the future, the big regular sponsors will sponsor some events each year, but not all of them. This means they need know which events will be most suitable. If several hundred SQL Saturdays are all competing for the same sponsorship from the same sponsors in the same way (for example, with simple attendee numbers) everyone suffers.

If organisers want to attract sponsors, they need to look at the data again to establish the demographic of their crowd.

Dear organisers, can you tell me the sorts of people you are attracting, compared to the other SQL Saturdays/Relays/User groups etc? Is your audience a highly experienced bunch or a young grad crowd? Are they in engineering or managerial roles? Are they on-prem SQL users or Azure or BI fans? Is there anything else unique about them that may be valuable to specific sponsors?

Once you know what the attendee demographic looks like you can be more strategic about which sponsors you go after. If you have grads you want appropriate training providers and tools sponsors. If you have an experienced crowd you want good quality recruiters and different sorts of training providers. If you have a BI crowd, an Azure crowd or a traditional SQL Server crowd you’ll want to go after appropriate tools sponsors. If you have managers you want consultants and enterprise tools sponsors instead of download-try-buy tools sponsors. Of course, this is a massive generalisation, but you get the idea.

Once you know this information (and can prove it) it puts you in a better position to target appropriate sponsors and it makes it easier for sponsors to understand which events will be the most likely to give them the biggest bang for their buck. It also means you are less likely to compete for the same sponsors with the other events in your area that have different demographics.

(And by the way, once you understand your demographic you will be better at selecting/attracting relevant speakers too!)

Bold statement number five – attendees have a duty to talk to sponsors

Dear attendees, that’s right… you heard me.

I’m fully aware that as a regular sponsor I might be coming on a bit strong here – but hear me out. I think it’s justified. As I mentioned before, I regularly attend these events as an attendee, speaker, helper and organiser too so I’m not coming from an entirely one-sided perspective.

Without the sponsors these events can’t happen for free. As an attendee, if you want training, there are free and paid options available. If you want to go to a free event then someone else is paying for you to receive your training/networking opportunities. If you want to attend events without having to speak to sponsors, go to paid events, or make an anonymous donation to your chosen free event and ignore the sponsors to your heart’s content.

Organisers will normally politely ask attendees to go and speak to the sponsors. It is seen as a nice thing to do. An optional thing that attendees can do to show their gratitude or to learn about the products and services the sponsors have to offer.

I don’t think organisers should need to say any more than that. Attendees should not feel strongly pressured by the organisers or sponsors to do the rounds. That’s not nice. However, attendees do need to play their part. It’s not just a nice way to show gratitude – it is one of the crucial dependencies between the different components of these events. Attendees need to speak to sponsors for the entire system to work. In an era where free events are feeling the growing pains and where sponsorship is harder and harder to secure it is increasingly important for attendees to do their bit.

This sense of duty should not have to be stated, it should come from within. We should create a culture where speaking to the sponsors is seen instinctively as the right thing to do, rather than something that attendees need to be reminded about. We all have a role to play in that if we either attend events ourselves or we know people who do.

If you have attended a free SQL event and you have not taken fifteen minutes out of one of your lunch or coffee breaks to go and say hi to the sponsors I’m afraid you should feel a bit guilty. You are taking advantage of the system. If you are the sort of person who tries to get your raffle ticket into a sponsors’ raffle draw while they are distracted to avoid speaking to them – well, that’s really not cool. Everyone – attendees, organisers, sponsors, speakers and helpers – will lose out if attendees don’t give sponsors a chance.

Next time you go to a free event as an attendee, during a break, make an effort to go up to each sponsor and ask a simple question: “Hi, can you tell me what you do?”. You don’t need to have a long conversation. If their stuff isn’t appropriate for you tell them so politely and move on. Believe me, once you have told them that you aren’t the right person for them to be speaking to they’ll let you walk away as quickly as you want. On the other hand, there is a chance they’ll have something to share that is actually interesting or helpful – and you might benefit from it.

Most of the sponsors are friendly and polite. If you feel any of them are too pushy report it to the event organisers. Those sorts of sponsors damage the ecology of SQL events in their own way and if you tell the organisers they should deal with that.

Tell me why I’m wrong

I believe we can become more efficient by cutting our catering costs.

I believe we can fund more events by looking for new and different sponsors.

I believe we can keep SQL Saturdays attractive to sponsors by attracting new attendees. We should not curb their growth – we need to continue to grow. We should make an effort to accommodate extra attendees through our efficiency and funding changes.

I believe that by helping sponsors to understand the different demographics of different events they will be able to spend their sponsorship resources more wisely to get a better return, allowing them to justify supporting more events.

I believe all attendees should feel a duty to at least say hi to each sponsor. That’s their part of the deal and if they shirk that responsibility they should feel a bit bad.

Let me know what you think. What changes would you make to the way we run free community events to ensure they continue to grow and to thrive so that more people can benefit like I have – whatever role they are playing.

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