SQL Saturday #164 – Cleveland: Lessons Learned

Well, SQL Saturday #164 – Cleveland 2012 is in the history books, and it looks like all of our planning, blood, sweat, and tears have paid off. This was my first time helping organize a SQL Saturday, and I’ve got to say it was quite an experience! As part of the core planning team and as the lead for the restaurant and catering team, my last several months have been filled with tons of planning meetings, e-mails, phone calls, and lots and lots of little details to manage. It’s amazing how much work goes into an event like this, and it’s even more amazing to see a great team come together and pull it off. Before I continue with my lessons learned, I just wanted to take a moment to thank the awesome people who really helped make this event a success:

  • Craig Purnell & Allen White – Thanks for being such awesome leaders and mentors throughout the planning process, I really appreciated your council and direction
  • The Devry staff – THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for donating your facility for the day, for helping me remember to take breaks every now and then, for helping keep me sane, and for all of your help throughout the day (you guys were truly AWESOME!!!)
  • The Mavis Winkle’s staff – Despite rushed deadlines, miscommunications, double-bookings, an overly stressed team lead (yours truly), and lots of calls back and forth, you guys still pulled off two awesome meals for us and helped make for a great event. I would especially like to thank the owners, Bob and Marie, for helping to make my life a little less stressful on Friday and Saturday. It was really cool getting to work with you and your staff.
  • All of our sponsors – We couldn’t do an event like this without your support, and for that we are EXTREMELY grateful. THANK YOU!
  • Steven Wright and SQL Sentry – Thanks for sponsoring our Speaker/Sponsor/Volunteer dinner, YOU ROCK!
  • Ann Marie Kozlowski – Thanks for letting us use the Solutient offices for bag stuffing, and thanks for taking care of the breakfast arrangements
  • Carlton Ramsey & Cory Stevenson (and his wife) – Thanks for buying cookies, pop, and all of the other little odds-and-ends that we needed for the event
  • Sam Nasr – Thank you for taking care of the after party arrangements
  • Colleen Morrow, Erin Stellato, and anyone else who helped out – THANK YOU SO MUCH!

From the speaker’s dinner on Friday night until I left Devry sometime around 6 PM on Saturday, I was pretty much a blur of activity as I tried to help make sure everything ran smoothly. Despite all of that running around, I was still able to attend two awesome sessions, present my own session, mingle, network, and have a ton of fun! I think the key to my success was that I had an absolutely awesome team that I could rely on to really get things done.

One of the things to keep in mind about an event like this is that it is inevitable that there will be lots of little problems and issues that come up throughout the day. The key to handling these issues is to keep calm, ask for help when you need it, and to trust your team to do their job. It’s not necessary to manage every little detail of an event like this. It’s simply too much to handle for one person. Instead, break the responsibilities up into smaller tasks, assign those tasks to people or teams to accomplish, and then give them the room to do their job.

As far as the food was concerned, there are a couple things to consider when planning an event like this:

  • If you have the space to allow everyone to dine in the same area, then you have a lot more flexibility as to what kinds of food you can serve, and you can even have a fully catered buffet (much like the awesome buffet at SQL Saturday in Chicago earlier this year).
  • If you don’t have a large common area, then you will need to distribute the food and have the attendees go into the session rooms to eat it. If this is the case, you’re going to want to go with highly portable food such as boxed lunches.
  • Don’t forget to get lots of heavy-duty construction garbage bags and to distribute them throughout the venue to handle the trash that will be generated. It would also be a good idea to have a team that checks the garbage cans and bags throughout the day and empties them as needed.
  • An afternoon snack is a good idea, but don’t over do it. We bought 2 cookies for every attendee as an afternoon snack, and we had about half of them left over after the event.
  • You’re going to have food left over after an event like this. It might be a good idea to get in touch with your local foodbank, homeless shelter, or area churches before the event and see if they can use the leftover food. They’ll thank you for it, and it’s one more way you can give back to the community.

As far as the venue goes, here are my thoughts:

  • Keep the logistics of an event like this in mind when choosing a venue. Make sure the hallways are wide enough, the doors won’t automatically lock you out throughout the day (yep, this actually happened to us), and that there is enough space for the number of attendees you’re aiming for. Sometimes cheaper (free) isn’t always better.
  • Regardless of whether you get the venue for free or at full price, make sure to clean up after your event and to try to help the venue’s staff in any way you can. After all, you’re representing PASS as a whole, and you might even want to have another SQL Saturday there next year.
  • If you’re having the event at a college or school, why not do a track of sessions that students from the school can attend? It’s a way of saying thank you for the use of the venue and it’s also a way to give back to the community. SQL Saturday in Cleveland was able to use the Devry campus here for free as a direct result of SQL Saturday in Chicago doing exactly what I mentioned. The Cleveland team also did a track of intro sessions for the Devry students, and the track was very well received.

Other than that, my only advice is to HAVE FUN! Events like this aren’t worth the effort if they’re not only educational, but fun and social as well. You’re going to have to work hard to get the job done, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play hard too.

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