Ever since SQLSaturday #1 our venue has been Seminole State College (Seminole Community College back then), provided graciously and perhaps more importantly, at no charge. Finding a venue is a big deal when it comes to planning an event and finding one that’s free, that’s harder! Putting a bunch of IT people on their campus is a win just by being there. Instructors from the school staff a table, answer questions, and more importantly, they ask questions. It’s a really good way to stay connected with the profession. What’s new? What’s changing? What are you focused on? It’s a pretty good focus group when you think about it.
Each year we invite students to attend including a free lunch, but attendance has always been low. Typically it would be a handful of students. Several years ago Jack Corbett and I visited the IT classes to invite students. Worth doing, but it didn’t change the numbers much. The students are trying to make it through class while paying the bills and/or managing a family and giving up a Saturday for something that may not even come close to what they hope to do is asking a lot. Even the content is a challenge, our “beginner” topics look pretty advanced to them.
This year I had the luxury of extra time/energy, so I went back to the college with a new idea. We’d set up a half day seminar just for the students. We’d cover networking, the value of community events, how to work with a staffing firm, common resume mistakes, and – being a SQL Server event – some coverage of databases at a very high level. We co-located it with SQLSaturday to simplify (we thought) the logistics and to try to give them the whole experience. We did a quick three slide deck and sent it to all the IT instructors asking them to encourage attendance and to consider making it an assignment for students. We added a room the schedule with capacity for 30 and set a goal of 20 attendees. We set up registration on EventBrite, thinking it would be useful to be able to see the attendees clearly and worrying about managing two lists instead of one. We did all of this before the fall semester started, so once in place we had to wait and see.
Once school started we saw some registrations and we quickly exceeded our capacity of 30 and started a waitlist. Success! Never content, I asked if we could get a bigger room and one was available, this one with a capacity of 60. More is better, except of course more costs more. Our lunch cost is about $9/person, so we were now talking about adding an unplanned $500 spend to the budget. We decided to proceed and then we hit 60. Now what? We debated switching to pizza to cut costs, but then we had to figure out how much pizza and have someone manage that, so we decided to just stick to the plan. The college found a room that would seat 100 so we set our limit at 120 to plan for some cancellations and went again. As of today we’re at about 75 registered with a reminder email going out to them today.
Now to some lessons learned, so far.
Eventbrite turned out to be exactly the right call. Without it we’d be stuck with hoping they filled in “how did you hear about us” with “student” or hoping they used their college email address. Without it we’d have no way to cap/manage attendance separately from our regular attendees. That turned out to have an added benefit that we didn’t “spam” sponsor lists with leads with a very chance of immediate value. We’ll allow students to opt-in when they check-in for the seminar and if they do, that list will go to the sponsors who can decide whether or not to use it.
The seminar ended up being quite a distance from the main event, requiring a separate check-in table and staff. Good and bad. We’d have two lists anyway, but it does take them out of the flow and confusion and fun of the event.
On the money side, we decided to include them in the regular lunch. We’ll all troop over after the seminar is complete. Beyond that though, by NOT having them on the SQLSaturday list we’re not providing them with an event bag, raffle tickets, and whatever else. Again this takes them out of the event flow some, but manages our money (and that of the sponsors by managing who gets the collateral they send). We worried that this was too removed, so we’re going to spend $200 on raffle prizes for the students and do that raffle before we break for lunch. We’re inviting the students to attend the afternoon sessions, but it’s optional. We don’t mind spending, just a matter of making sure we spend wisely.
We’ve had some that dual-registered, so we had to go back and try to clean up the attendee list for SQLSaturday just to make sure we had a good count. That dropped us just below 500 for a while. I can see where it’s confusing for students, something to do better next year.
We’re having to design a quick eval for the seminar, one more task we didn’t plan on (if an obvious one).
Talking about it so far, we’re debating whether we’d be better off next year to hold it 1 or 2 weeks prior to SQLSaturday. That would streamline the message, we could then do pizza, and we – the organizers – would have more time to devote to it and more time afterward for questions. We’d then invite them to SQLSaturday, but there would be a huge fall off. Do we care about getting them to SQLSaturday, or helping them? The latter of course but can we do both? Should we? Is there a new brand needed there? One event not yet complete isn’t a template yet, but it could be!
On top of all of that we’re not sure if we have enough room. With registration at 535 + 75 students, the afternoon could be very very packed. We just don’t have many options for rooms with larger capacity, so we may have to add a track.
So that’s where we’re at. We’ve designed something that appeals to them, will they show up? Will they find it valuable? I’ll guess that some won’t attend, but we’ll have more than our goal of 20 and we’ll learn a lot. Inviting them to SQLSaturday was easy, but not effective. Building something for them was effective, just not easy – took some experience and then the time/energy/money to tackle it. I’m guessing that most will find it interesting, but relatively few will wind up at oPASS meetings – these aren’t all database students after all. It’s nice to do something to give back, and I think the college sees it a huge win, something that they talk about, something that helps students, even something that helps justify continuing to support our events.