Thoughts on Venue Selection for SQLSaturday and Chapter Meetings

Last week oPASS held their January meeting at a wine bar. Before that it was held at a local training institute/college, a restaurant, a different restaurant, a hotel meeting room, I think another restaurant, way back when in my office when I had space, and before that at the local training center. I might have missed or two! What goes into the venue selection? What works best? That seemed like a good topic to write a few notes on.

I bet for almost everyone the largest factor in venue selection is cost, followed by AV support, followed by location. It needs seating, tables are preferred (as opposed to just chairs), internet access is nice. Food/café on site is nice (but often requires that you use their service) or at least the ability to bring food in. Internet access for the attendees is a nice to have, occasionally a must have for presenters (though usually they bring a hot spot just in case). The room needs to have room for the refreshments (and a separate attached room is a nice win). Some businesses will let you use their space but you have to get temporary badges issued or have a security guard on site. Sometimes there is a fee for AC and/or the security guard. A few will require liability insurance, most don’t ask (leaving it up to the lawyers who will pay if someone chokes on a pizza bone). A too large room makes it feel unsuccessful (we once held a session for 50 in a room with seating for 500), too small and its uncomfortable, may deter return visits. The AC has to be on, or it gets hot quickly. Free parking is often expected, but not always possible. Some sites will clean up for you, others require that you clean up, restack the chairs, etc. Colleges are supportive, if you can talk to the right person. Hotels tend to want you to commit to rooms and/or emails, and they charge you “plus plus” which means service fee plus tax, it can be 30% in some places. It should feel safe to attend (general area). A really close bar/restaurant/coffee shop within walking distance for the social time after, or a site that allow doing it on site (the wine bar). That’s a pretty good sample, but I’m sure there are more.

SQLSaturday is all of that, times the number of tracks, plus some. Room size, AV, parking are big considerations, plus the traffic flow for registration and sponsors.

Every venue change brings effort and risk. Effort to find it, effort to communicate the change to the members, risk in a drop in attendance. The risk probably seems worse than it is, but it’s there, and can be really frustrating to a regular who shows up on the right night at the wrong location. Needs lots of messaging and ideally a sign at the old location for the first month or two.

Fee based sites tend to be easier and to generalize more, nicer. You’re paying them, so they do stuff for you so you’ll keep paying. Sometimes it’s the only way to get a facility if you have a lot of attendees (or live in a really small town I guess). I caution everyone about using a for-pay site the first time out unless the funds are already on hand to cover it. It’s great to forecast sponsorship, until (and if) the money rolls in, you’re on the hook – personally! I think a paid site is less risky and more appropriate for a large event, much riskier for a monthly meeting place.

How nice should it be? As nice as you can manage and sustain. Does it change attendance? I don’t think it does, unless really bad, and that’s rare (or maybe never). (Maybe I’ll write something on what does change attendance too one day). I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to make it nicer and bigger and better. None of those are bad, as long you’re sure that’s the best way to spend the money. Could you do a little less and fund the chapter for a year? Or buy your own projector? Have the cash to guarantee a great speaker for a seminar without sweating attendance? That’s part of the decision on venue too.

Venue is one of the four fears for new leaders (speakers, sponsors, venue, attendees). In some places it’s easy, so easy they don’t realize how hard it is some locations. Finding a venue takes time and the tendency (valid) is to take the first one that you can arrange – it’s rare to have four options at one time and the luxury to debate which is best. Still, even if it’s easy there is a lot to consider – I wish PASS coached more on this, seems like a great place to add value via an ebook or video.

With my ramble today almost complete, let me return to oPASS and the many locations. I credit Karla and Shawn for taking the risk of moving multiple times and finding out it’s not as big a risk (in Orlando anyway) as it might seem, all while trying to find a better/perfect location. Last week we met at a wine bar with meeting space and it was noticeably quieter than our previous location at a restaurant. Last night we had pizza, at the earlier location we had the restaurant cater with appetizers and the sponsor could just pay the check. Classrooms are great for learning, but rigid when it comes to trying to drive networking and socialization. All have involved a trade-off or two, all have worked enough to accomplish the goal of meeting to talk about SQL.

Should a group continue searching for perfect? I think that’s entirely dependent on time and energy. If the space is “good enough”, maybe the remaining energy goes into other parts of the meeting. If you’ve got it all covered, or the space has annoying negatives, maybe it’s time to search again.

Here’s another idea for PASS – ask all the chapter leaders to fill out a short survey on their meeting space. 10 questions to profile the space across 200 chapters, I wonder what lessons could be found in that?