Organizing a SQLSaturday Event

Several years ago I attended my first SQLSaturday event (when they were still in the 100s). It was a great day, I learned a lot of new things about SQL Server, and I got to meet other database professionals in the area. The next year I volunteered to help out with the event, and in the subsequent years, I’ve been one of our event’s organizers/coordinators. We’ve had some very successful events, and we’ve made a few mistakes along the way. Recently I’ve been talking with some people who are thinking about organizing SQLSaturday events in their local areas. So I thought I’d post a checklist of the tasks & decisions that have gone into organizing our event in previous years.

PASS

PASS has posted some information for event organizers (https://www.sqlsaturday.com/FAQ/ForOrganizers.aspx)

  1. As early as possible, submit a Save the Date request (ie. 4-12 months prior to the event).
  2. Once you have a venue reserved, submit an Event Request (4-8 months prior to the event).
  3. Contact your Regional Mentor(s) and ask if they will be running a sponsor table for PASS.
    • Regional Mentors can also be a great resource for finding volunteers, announcing/marketing the event, and acting as an external consultant/sounding board for event ideas/plans.

Insurance

Event Liability insurance is required by most venues. As the event organizer, you really want to have it in case someone is injured or there is damage to the facility.

Venue

The event location is one of the hardest and most critical decisions to make. The venue will determine how many attendees & on-site sponsors your event can support. Some key things to consider are:

Cost

  • Free is great. Some venues will offer their space free-of-charge to non-profit educational events.
  • Possibly offer a special sponsorship package for a ‘Venue Sponsor’.
  • Do you need to put a deposit down? This can be difficult if you don’t already have funds from sponsors.
  • Also look for refund restrictions in case the event has to be canceled.

Rooms

  • Room count – How many concurrent presentations do you want to have?
  • Room size – How many people can reasonably fit into each room?
  • Displays – What size & type of display is in each room? (TV/projector) What type of inputs do they have? (HDMI, VGA, etc) What resolution do they support? Low-resolution displays (ie 1024×768) and small screens/displays are harder for attendees to read at a distance, which also limits the number of people a room can support.
  • Speaker room – Have a room for speakers to prepare for their presentations.
  • Supply space – Have a room/area for staging event supplies. Sometimes this can be combined with the speaker room, if space is limited.
  • Auditorium – Is there a large room where the opening/closing sessions can occur? (ie opening announcements, sponsor prize drawings, closing remarks, etc)
  • Lunchroom – Where will lunch be served? Plan for how people will move through the area. Also, consider where people will eat lunch and how many tables/chairs will be needed.
  • Sponsor area – How many tables are available for sponsors? Plan for 2 chairs per sponsor table. The number of tables limits the number of on-site sponsors. Premium locations for sponsors are near the beverages & high traffic areas. Try to arrange it so that people have to walk by the sponsors between sessions, but there is enough space so that people stopping at the sponsor tables don’t create a traffic jam.
  • Registration & check-in – A few tables & chairs are needed for the check-in area & on-site registration (if allowed).
  • Power – Extension cords and power bars/strips are often needed for the sponsor’s laptops, speakers room, and registration/check-in areas. If there is limited access to power in the sponsor’s area, be sure to convey this to the sponsors so that they can plan accordingly.

Food & Beverages

  • Are there limitations on where attendees can eat/drink?
  • Ensure there are adequate numbers & sizes of trash/recycling bins. Are volunteers needed to periodically empty the bins throughout the day?
  • Morning & afternoon snacks –  These vary by event. Some events offer them, others don’t.
  • Beverages – What beverages will be offered throughout the day and/or with lunch? Some events only offer water & tea/coffee, others include soft drinks.
  • Water should be made available for speakers during their presentations. This can be staged in the speaker room, or provided near the podium in each session room.
  • Lunch – This is often a difficult and expensive issue.
    • Food type (sandwiches, pizza, pasta, etc) – This is often greatly criticized by some attendees.
    • Dietary restrictions (vegetarian, vegan, etc)
    • Boxed, self-service, or catered – Decide if the food will be ‘boxed’ for each individual, or if the food will be self-served (buffet style), or if volunteers will be needed to assist with serving the food. Boxed lunches are the easiest from a management perspective, but attendees are often happier about lunch options that allow them some choice(s).
    • Sponsors – It is also common for sponsors to get lunch earlier than most of the attendees. This allows them to be available to talk with the attendees during the regular lunch break.
    • Speakers – Any speakers scheduled for immediately after lunch should also be encouraged to eat earlier.
    • Staggered start – If space is limited, consider staggering the start of lunch so that some sessions end 10-15 minutes later than others.

Printed Materials

  • SpeedPasses (Attendees) – Are event passes & sponsor raffle tickets going to be printed by the event, or are attendees required to print their own? This is a much-debated topic among organizers. Attendees are renowned for not printing their SpeedPasses. Printing on-site can cause a traffic jam around the registration area. Pre-printing can result in greater paper waste from registrants that end up not attending. If you decide to print the passes, consider using perforated paper. Otherwise, a paper cutting area will be needed, along with the requisite scissors & trash bins.
  • SpeedPasses (Speakers/Volunteers) – Most events provide the SpeedPasses to the speakers & volunteers. This is an appreciated convenience to speakers that are traveling to attend the event. If you are not able to provide the SpeedPasses, please notify the speakers so they can plan accordingly.
  • Event schedule – Will a printed copy of the event schedule be provided to each attendee? Some events have tried to go paperless on the schedule. This often has mixed results. Many attendees still want to have a physical copy of the schedule to refer to during the event. Printing the schedule also causes problems for last-minute session changes/updates.
  • Venue map – Is a printed map of the venue necessary for attendees to be able to navigate between rooms?
  • Sponsor materials – Some sponsors will provide 1-page flyers to be provided to attendees at check-in. How do you want to handle getting these to the attendees?
  • Event bags – Some events provide attendees with a bag that contains the event schedule, venue map, and sponsor materials. This is an easy way to pre-stage the check-in process. Unfortunately, many attendees throw these bags away at the end of the event, which results in extra waste. Consider using recyclable/reusable bags or alternative methods for providing the materials to the attendees.
  • Outdoor signage – Signs directing people where to park, and how to get to the check-in area.
  • Indoor signage – Signs directing people to the various session rooms, sponsor & lunch areas. Some events also put printed copies of the schedule near the door to each room. This allows attendees to verify what session will be in the room before they enter.
  • Session evaluations – Most events provide printed forms (1/4 page) in each room, for attendees to provide session feedback to the presenter. The SQLSaturday website also has the functionality for attendees to provide session feedback online.
  • Event evaluations – Another 1/4 page form that allows each attendee to provide feedback on various aspects of the event (overall satisfaction, food, sponsors, session topics, etc).

Raffle Prizes

Most sponsors will have some form of a raffle prize for attendees that leave a SpeedPass ticket with them. Often the event will also have some kind of prize/giveaway.

  • Event prize(s) – How many will be given away, and how much money will be spent on them? Often the attendee badges or admission tickets are used to draw the winning name(s).
  • Ticket containers – A box/container should be provided to each sponsor for them to use to collect their attendee raffle tickets.
  • Prize winners – Live drawing the winning names at the end of the event can be time-consuming. Consider asking the sponsors to draw a winning name (and some alternates) ahead of time.

Speaker Dinner

Most events try to organize some form of dinner/event for the speakers on the evening before SQLSaturday. Depending on the budget, this can be as simple as arranging a location & time for speakers to meet and have dinner (individual pay or paid by the event). A few events have been able to arrange for an organized activity (ie outdoor BBQ, Escape Room, Paintball/Laser Tag, Go-cart Racing, etc). The key detail is to arrange for a location & time for the speakers to be able to meet and talk to each other.

  • Communication – At least 1 week prior to the dinner/event, notify the speakers if there will or will not be a speaker dinner/event. Once the location and time have been arranged, send a message with this information. 24hrs prior to the event, send a follow-up reminder with the time & location, along with directions for getting there.

Speaker Gifts & Event Shirts

Some events give the speakers & volunteers a token gift for their time & effort. These are appreciated but are definitely NOT required. Some events have also arranged for shirts with the event logo for speakers & volunteers. Again, these are not required.

  • Ask the speakers/volunteers if they would like a gift, or if they would prefer to donate the funds to help operate the local user group. Also, consider that some speakers are traveling to get to the event, and some gifts do not travel well.
  • Ask the speakers if they would like an event shirt. Some speakers that have attended multiple events may already have an extensive SQLSaturday collection. Other speakers have their own wardrobe ‘style’ (ie business suits or Hawaiian shirts) and may prefer to wear that.

Event Marketing

Advertising is tough, but it can make or break the event. Marketing the event falls into 2 categories: Attendee and Sponsor communication.

Attendees

Attracting attendees to the event is what brings in the sponsors. Plus, attendees are what the event is for in the first place.

  • Provide printed and electronic materials to local: User Groups, Recruiters, Colleges & Trade Schools.
  • Consider placing an advertisement in local area newsletters and at community centers.
  • Create a calendar with dates of when event reminders/messages should go out.

Sponsors

Often these are tech-related companies, but can also be service providers (cellular services, internet providers & insurance agents), or area retailers.

  • Create advertising media that has all of the relevant information: attendee audience type, anticipated attendee numbers, sponsorship plan information, event location, and the event date/time.
  • As early as possible, begin contacting local businesses that are potential sponsors.
  • Follow-up a week or two later with potential sponsors that have expressed interest. Be persistent but not annoying.
  • Offer customized sponsorship packages.
  • PASS has a list of Global Sponsors that they communicate with. Be sure to account for this in your list of potential sponsors, so that they aren’t double-contacted about your event.
  • Keep a list of who was contacted and when.

Precons

Some events offer all-day pre-con workshops on the day before the event. These are not required.

  • A request for pre-con sessions can be included in the Request For Speakers email announcement that is sent out by the SQLSaturday system.
  • Class size – Discuss expectations with each presenter. Do they have a minimum class size?
  • Printing – Handouts, workbooks, etc. Often these need to be printed locally if the speaker is traveling. What are the cut-off dates for getting these printed before the pre-con?
  • Registration – A separate registration system is needed for pre-cons. Eventbrite is a popular option.
  • Registration fees – Discuss with each speaker how the pre-con registration fees will be split between the event and the speaker.
  • Venue – A separate venue may be needed for pre-cons. Build the venue costs for the pre-con day into the registration fee.
  • Food & beverages – Usually beverages, lunch and morning/afternoon snacks are included as part of the pre-con registration fee.

Sponsor Communications

Once a sponsor has signed up for the event:

  • Verify when they expect to process the sponsorship payment.
  • Confirm how many representatives they are planning to have on-site. Ask them to register each person on the SQLSaturday site. You can then mark them as ‘Comped by Event’ (most events comp 2 sponsor representative for lunch). That way the count of people signed up for lunch will be correct when you contact the caterer.
  • Send out an email to all on-site sponsors with the venue logistics.
    • What time the doors will open for them to set up.
    • If there are assigned sponsor tables.
    • What time & where lunch will be available for the sponsor reps.
    • If there is a special parking area for sponsors, or if a specific entrance is closer to their tables.
    • What time everyone needs to be out of the building at the end of the day.

Finances

Finances are a critical part of organizing SQLSaturday events. You will need to be able to accept funds from sponsors and attendees (if you charge for lunch), along with arranging to pay for expenses, and possibly needing to make refunds for people who cancel their registrations. A critical issue is to maintain detailed records of all financial transactions. At some point, these transactions will become reportable to the government’s revenue service (in most countries). You will need detailed records to determine IF, and how much, taxes need to be paid. If the event funding is run through a personal bank account, the owner of that account may be the person liable for the taxes. To remove this obligation, our local SQL users group created a non-profit corporation to manage the financial dealings of both the user group & our SQLSaturday event. Additional information on creating a non-profit organization can be found here.

  • Accounts – A bank account for processing payments and receiving sponsorship funds. PayPal accounts are a popular option for processing attendee registration (lunch) fees.
  • Records – Use a spreadsheet or financial application to track income/expenses. This will be important when the time comes to close the books on the event & make tax filings.
  • Refunds – Include information on the sponsorship & registration forms stating what the guidelines are for refunds. Many events will not grant refunds for sponsorship fees within 1 week of the event, or refund registration fees within 24 hours of the event.
  • Administration – Designate 1 person to be responsible for managing all of the event’s financial records (and maybe a second person as a backup in case of illness). Only they can process income/payments/reimbursements/refunds. This is a good practice in general and is essential to prevent missed or double payments to vendors.
  • Tax filings – Determine if & when and government tax filings will be due. Put reminders on a calendar.

Post Event Tasks

Once everyone goes home, there are still a few tasks to be completed before the event can be officially closed…

  • PASS documentation – Submit all of the final documentation to PASS.
  • Finances – Do a final check that all income/expenses have been processed.
  • Venue – Check with the venue coordinator that they are happy with how the event was run, and discuss possible changes to improve the next event.
  • Thank yous – Send notes/emails to all of the sponsors & people who volunteered and helped run the event.
  • Sponsor raffle tickets – Verify that all of the sponsors submitted their scanned attendee tickets and that you have returned to them their attendee contact lists. PASS has requirements and guidelines for how the attendee information is handled.
  • Lessons learned – Write down what was good and bad about the event. This will help improve the next one.
  • Storage – Document with who & where any items are stored for next year (signage, raffle ticket containers, etc).
  • Archive – Store a copy of all event records where they can be referenced in the following years, and/or passed on to future event organizers.

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