If you have ever helped organize a SQLSaturday you know how hard it can be and how much time is required.  This was the third (one of which was the first and only BI focused event) in twelve months for the North Texas SQL Server User Group and we’re proud of that.  I’m on the board of directors for the group so I’m a little biased.  However and based on attendee feedback, all three have been hits and this one was particularly on the mark.  That’s wonderful, but it is not why I’m proud of the events we have hosted.  I’m proud that after three large events we haven’t lost touch with the real reason we do this.

It’s natural to try and out do yourself every time, but we’ve remained grounded in our passion to bring free training to SQL Server professionals.  Our charter is to not only provide free training but also an environment for SQL Server professionals and developers to come together, share ideas, and network.  I believe we have stayed true and grounded in our charter and I’m very proud we have done that.

Last year I handled both the sponsors and volunteers which proved to be a logistical complication.  I can’t be in two places at one time (at least not until Buck Woody clones me in the cloud).  This year I just handled the sponsors, but I also had my hands full with the responsibilities of being on the core organizing team, the board of directors, and also being a speaker.  Taking care of your sponsors is a bigger task than one might think, and once the event is over there are still some deliverables so your job is not done.  A lot of people don’t like the sponsors because they don’t want to be hassled by them, but those are the people who have lost sight in what they are getting from those sponsors.  If it was not for their support the event and entire day of totally free training would not have been possible.  I am personally very grateful for our sponsors and I hope I made the experience such that they will not only return again, but will choose us if there is a competing event.  To see all of the wonderful sponsors for this event that are proud to help the SQL Community CHECK THEM OUT HERE.

We’re still putting together our post mortem, but here are some things we definitely got right.

  • Lunch was a boxed lunch with a vegetarian option, a chicken wrap, or a couple of sandwich choices.  Each lunch came with a bag of chips, salad, and cookie.  The food was good quality and the second time we have used this vendor.  We always get great feedback on the lunch and have never had bad feedback on it.  A definite win for this one.
  • This year we decided to do different colored shirts for volunteers and speakers.  This really helped the attendees know who to ask when they had questions and eliminated them from asking speakers questions they do not have the answers to.  We went with wrinkle free Oxford shirts.  These are really nice shirts and we got a lot of compliments on the choice.  The only downside is that being wrinkle free also meant that the name badges did not stick to them very well.  We also went with long sleeved shirts, which got hot so we will go with short sleeved next time.
  • Anyone who has hosted a SQLSaturday will know that one of the trickier things to figure out is the closing ceremony raffle.
    • Last year we drew out of the session evaluations.  We had a room monitor in each session that collected the evaluations; we compiled them over the course of the day, and used those to draw from.  The first positive to this method is everyone gets an entry for each evaluation they complete.  The second positive is it helps the speakers by giving incentive to the attendees to provide an evaluation.  On the other hand, everyone is ready to go home at the end of the day so not everyone attends the closing ceremony.  The drawback here is you keep drawing names of folks who are not there.  The other drawback is that you have to sort, compile, scan, and email the evaluations to the speakers after the event.  That takes a lot of time and the speakers are stuck waiting to get their feedback.  Although we liked this method because we were helping our speakers get the feedback they want and need, the drawbacks were not worth the cost.
    • This year we tried to mitigate these issues with a two pronged approach.  First we had the room monitors pass out the evaluations at the beginning of the session so attendees could fill them out during the session.  This increased feedback because handing it out at the end meant attendees would skip it so they could get to the next session.  From what I have heard, this worked really well.  I think every single person in my session gave an evaluation.  The room monitor was also supposed to give the evaluations directly to the speaker at the end of the session.  This means there was no work for us after the event to compile and distribute them, and best yet the speaker got their feedback immediately.  Since we did not use the evaluations for the drawing, we hope this still helped in our goal of encouraging and providing feedback for our speakers.
    • So how did we do the actual drawing?  We put raffle tickets in each attendee bag.  I know that doesn’t seem revolutionary, but what we did differently is put both sides of the ticket in the bag.  Each side of the ticket has the same number and we just had the attendees put one side in a box as they entered the closing ceremony.  This ensured that every number that was pulled would be someone in attendance and it worked perfectly.
  • Last year the attendee bags were very noisy and distracting during sessions.  This year we got different bags made of a different plastic and noise was not an issue.
  • Paciugo gelato.  We did this last year and it was a smash hit.  This has now become our trade mark so we did it again this year during both of the afternoon breaks.
  • We brought in a TV and Netbook to have a live Twitter display.
  • Last year we had a very low after party attendance.  We advertised it much better this year and it paid off with some awesome networking.
  • Last year our sponsors were asking for event guides and we ran out.  This year I set some aside for the sponsors.
  • Last year we ordered the schedule in our event guide by track.  That’s fine if you are sticking to a single track all day long, but most attendees do not.  This time we ordered it by time and it was much easier to read and follow.
  • Although we publicized our user group, PASS, and the SQL community last year we felt we could have done a better job.  I think we delivered on doing a better job with it this year.  We talked about it more in the opening and closing ceremony and I also had a rotating slide deck I ran in the morning and afternoon that advertised our user group, PASS, the PASS Summit, and SQL Rally.

I presented my mirroring session this year and it went great.  There were a ton of questions and lots of discussion, which is what I love the most.  I compiled the scores and got 4.5 out of 5.  I also got some good comments including the one I like the most, “Excellent session, but I wish there was more time”.  In fact, that is one thing we are going to consider for next time is having longer sessions.  If you caught my session you can find my slide and code here.  Time was short, so if you have any questions feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment.

This event was a success without question and we appreciate every single attendee that showed up.  It was an incredible time of learning and networking.  We also had 2 of the 3 fathers of SQLSaturday in attendance, Steve Jones(Blog|Twitter) and Andy Warren(Blog|Twitter), which just made it that much more special.  I know what you’re thinking now that the event is over.  The North Texas SQL Server User Group is a SQL community engine with an unparalleled passion and enthusiasm, so what comes next?

That’s right.  We submitted to host SQLRally 2012 here in Dallas.  We are really excited about this opportunity, but we need your help to make it happen.  Two other cities have also applied and PASS will hold a vote to determine the winning city.  So what can you do?  Glad you asked.  PASS will be sending out emails to all members with a link to vote, but the catch is that you need to be a registered member before the voting opens to get the invitation.  Registration is free so head over there now and get registered.