PASS: SQLRally Thoughts

The PASS Board recently decided that we wouldn’t put another US-based SQLRally on the calendar until we had a chance to review the program. I wanted to provide some of my thinking around this. Keep in mind that this is the opinion of one Board member.

The Board committed to complete two SQLRally events to determine if an event modeled between SQL Saturday and the Summit was viable. We’ve completed the two events and now it’s time to step back and review the program.

This is my seventh year on the PASS Board. Over that time people have asked me why PASS does certain things. Many, many times my answer has been “Because that’s the way we did it last year”. And I am tired of giving that answer. We need to take a step back and review the US-based SQLRally before we schedule another one. It would be irresponsible for me as a Board member to commit resources to this without validating that what we’re doing makes sense for the organization and our members. I have no doubt that this was a great event for the attendees. We just need to validate it’s the best use of our resources.

Please keep in mind that we haven’t cancelled the event. We’ve just said we need to review it before scheduling another one. My opinion is that some fairly serious changes are needed to the model before we consider it again – IF we do it again. I’ve come to that conclusion after speaking with the Dallas organizers, our HQ team, our Marketing team, other Board members (including one of the Orlando organizers), attendees in Orlando and Dallas and visiting other similar events. I should point out that their views aren’t unanimous on nearly any part of this event -- which is one of the reasons I want to take some time and think about this before continuing.

I think it’s helpful to look at the original goals of what we were trying to accomplish. Andy Warren wrote these up in August of 2010. My summary of these goals and some thoughts on each one is below. Many of these thoughts revolve around the growth of SQL Saturdays. In the two years since that document was written these events have grown significantly. The largest SQL Saturdays are now over 500 people which mean they are nearly the same size as our recent SQLRally.

Our goals included:

  • Geographic diversity. We wanted an event in an area of the country that was away from any given Summit location. I think that’s still a valid goal. But we also have SQL Saturdays all over the country. What does SQLRally bring to this that SQLSaturday doesn’t?
  • Speaker growth. One of the stated goals was to build a “farm club” for speakers. This gives us a way for speakers to work up to speaking at Summit by speaking in front of larger crowds. What does SQLRally bring to this that the larger SQL Saturdays aren’t providing? Pre-Conference speakers is one obvious answer here.
  • Lower price. On a per-day basis, SQLRally is roughly 1/4th the price of the Summit. We wanted a way for people to experience something Summit-like at a lower price point. The challenge is that we are very budget constrained at that lower price point.
  • International Event Model.  (I need to write more about this but I’m out of time.  I’ll cover it in the next installment.)

There are a number of things I really like about SQLRally. I love the smaller conferences. They give me a chance to meet more people than at something the size of Summit. I like the two day format. That gives you two evenings to be at social events with people. Seeing someone a second day is a great way to build a bond with that person. That’s more difficult to do at a SQL Saturday.

We also need to talk about the financial aspects of the event. Last year generated a small $17,000 profit on revenues of $200,000. Percentage-wise that’s reasonable but on an absolute basis it’s not a huge amount in our budget. We think this year will lose between $30,000 and $50,000 and take roughly 1,000 hours of HQ time. We don’t have detailed financials back yet but that’s our best guess at this point. Part of that was driven by using a convention center instead of a hotel. Until we get detailed financials back we won’t have the full picture around the financial impact.

This event also takes time and mindshare from our Marketing team. This may sound like a small thing but please don’t underestimate it. Our original vision for this was something that would take very little time from our Marketing team and just a few mentions in the Connector. It turned out to need more than that. And all those mentions and emails take up space we could use to talk about other events and other programs.

Last I wanted to talk about some of the things I’m thinking about. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying if we just fix “X” it all gets better.

  • Is this that much better of an event than SQL Saturdays? What if we gave a few SQL Saturdays some extra resources? When SQL Saturdays were around 250 people that wasn’t as viable. With some of those events over 500 we need to reconsider this.
  • We need to get back to a hotel venue. That will help with cost and networking.
  • Is this the best use of the 1,000 HQ hours that we invested in the event?
  • Is our price-point correct? I’m leaning toward raising our price closer to Summit on a per-day basis. I think this will let us put on a higher quality event and alleviate much of the budget pressure.
  • Should growing speakers be a focus? Having top-line pre-conference speakers helps market the event. It will also have an impact on pricing and overall profit. We should also ask if it actually does grow speakers.
  • How many of these people will eventually register for Summit? Attend chapters? Is SQLRally a driver into PASS or is it something that chapters, etc. drive people to?
  • Should we have one paid day and one free instead of two paid days? This is a very interesting model that is used by SQLBits in the UK. This gives you the two day aspect as well as offering options for paid and free attendees. I’m very intrigued by this.
  • Should we focus on a topic? Buried in the minutes is a discussion of whether PASS should have a Business Analytics conference separate from Summit. This is an interesting question to consider. Would making SQLRally be focused on a particular topic make it more attractive? Would that even be a SQLRally? Can PASS effectively manage the two events? (FYI - Probably not.) Would it help differentiate it from Summit and SQL Saturday?

These are all questions that I think should be asked and answered before we do this event again. And we can’t do that if we don’t take time to have the discussion. I wanted to get this published before I take off for a few days of vacation. When I get back I’d like to write more about why the international events are different and talk about where we go from here.

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