Organizing a SharePoint Saturday – Picking a Venue and Date

All the posts in the Organizing a SharePoint Saturday series:
Organizing a SharePoint Saturday – My Experience
Promotional materials
Picking Speakers
Managing Sponsors
Getting Help and Communication Methods
Event Week
After Event Follow-up

In my experience, picking the “right” venue and event date is of utmost importance. There really isn’t a one size fits all rule for when and where a city’s SPS event should take place. Being a part of the local community and knowing the area is a key ingredient to setting yourself up for success.

Venue

Selecting a venue can be a tough decision and this year was no exception. Choosing a place with convenient access and entertainment options nearby can be an advantage. The previous two years SPS Nashville was held at a university close to downtown. The location made it easy for attendees and speakers to get to from the airport and also provided easy access to the local music scene, for which Nashville – Music City – is known.

The location must have enough rooms with sufficient seating for your sessions and be equipped with the appropriate technology to make presentations easy, such as a projector and screen. You will most likely need an area to have the registration/check-in table, an area for your sponsors to setup advertising/tables, and a place to serve food.




A great place to start looking is at universities, then move on to large businesses with enough conference rooms (this includes your local Microsoft office if you have one) and then finally with conference centers. I base this on two major factors: 1) cost and 2) flexibility. For cost, typically no one can beat the price a university will charge. This is because they are excited to have community events that expose working professionals to the educational opportunities the university can provide. Some universities may not have state-of-the-art technology for hosting an event (e.g. high-resolution projectors) while others may be leading-edge. Depending on the technology your local university has will be a factor in the fee they are able to charge – I recommend visiting the university to check it out for yourself. A critical point here is to use your sponsors’ money efficiently; it might be necessary to choose the lowest-cost venue option and not get everything on your venue wish list.

Universities can also be a great option for flexibility in dates as most campuses are not as active on Saturdays as they are during the week. Beware this can cause logistical problems as well. For instance, the campus mail center may not open on weekends. If your sponsors want to mail booth materials to the venue, they need to have it delivered during the week and a university representative will need to pick it up before Saturday.

You will need to contact your venue early in the planning phase – I have found 5-6 months is a good time-frame. This is usually the advance time facilities need for scheduling events while still getting you in early on the booking process. This time-frame will vary widely between cities and getting familiar with the event scene in your area is important. The timing also depends on your chosen venue – convention centers may schedule events a year or more out, so make sure you check with each venue for the advance notice they will require.

Date

Many factors play into picking your event’s date and your chosen date can also drive which venue you pick. My process for picking a date goes something like this:

  • I check my calendar – at this point in the process, the main organizer must be able to attend! Make sure there are no weddings, vacations, work trips.
  • Are there any other SPS events scheduled within 300 miles or so? If so, you probably want to change your date so you won’t be competing for speakers, sponsors, and attendees. Ideally, your event will be the only SPS in your region / country on that date.
    • Check the SPS website for other event dates http://www.SPSEvents.org
      • Some cities don’t list their events on the SPS Events site unfortunately.
  • Check for major events in your area – for instance: a major sporting event or a festival.
    • My first year, a college basketball tournament was taking place in town. It made finding an after-party location difficult.
  • Check the calendars for the public schools in your area – all of them. If schools are out on a break, there can be low attendee turn-out due to people traveling or spending time with their family.
  • Generally avoid holidays and the summer months for the same reasons as above.
  • Make sure you give yourself enough time before the event date – in my experience the minimum amount of time is 3 months, but the more time you have, the more planning and promotion you can do.

This year, I had a date picked and was on the verge of reserving the venue when I got word from a friend that one of the largest SPS events in the country had picked the same weekend. I could have moved forward with the date – the other event was far enough way geographically (over 12 hour drive), but I would be competing for high-quality speakers and sponsors who typically attend the large event. I decided to change my date, but my preferred venue was not available. It took an extra couple weeks to get another venue picked and confirmed, but I am confident it was worth it.

Organizing a SharePoint Saturday – My Experience

This year I am organizing my third SharePoint Saturday (SPS) event for Nashville. SPS events are a FREE one-day conference held in different cities around the world, featuring sessions from influential and respected SharePoint and Office 365 professionals.  This is the first in a series of posts about planning a technology event based on my past experiences.  This series is not intended as a “one size fits all” guide, but rather some helpful information for other organizers to use when planning their own events.

My journey to becoming an SPS organizer started in 2008 when I learned of a meeting being organized by the local Microsoft office. The purpose of the meeting was to kick-off a SharePoint User Group and afterwards I attended a meeting of those interested in being on the organizing committee. This was my first taste of “technology community” and it was awesome! SharePoint administrators, developers, business users and decision makers meeting and discussing new features, issues, and helping each other – it was a lot of fun and planted the seed of building community.

In 2013 I began looking into what it meant to be a technology event organizer. I was leading the Nashville SharePoint Users Group and from that experience, I had learned a lot about communicating with speakers, sponsors, and venues. I connected with the SQL Saturday (SQLSat) local organizer, Tamera Clark, and attended the Nashville SQLSat event in 2014 to get a behind-the-scenes look at a Saturday event. I jumped in to help and got a great feel for both what happens the day of a Saturday conference as well as how the venue worked for the event.  In fact, based on my experiences that day I chose the same venue (Lipscomb University)  for the first SPS Nashville event.

That same year, I attended the SPS Huntsville event and learned a lot about running an SPS event from Cathy Dew and Lori Gowin. There were some major differences between a SQLSat and SPS event – I won’t dive into them in this post, but it is good to know what the core fundamentals are and where there might be some flexibility in making the event your own.

Thankfully, the SPS organization asked someone to help me with my first event – someone to help guide me through the “tricky waters” of organizing an SPS event. That help came from Cathy Dew, who is a pro at this from the organizing and speaking side. She is the reason SPS Nashville 2014 was a success and in doing so, is a major reason the SPS events in Nashville continue.

In the upcoming posts in this series, I will offer details and share my experiences in the following areas:

If you see anything missing on the list or would like something specific covered, please let me know! Also, if you would like to give some commentary to be included in a post, I would love to hear it!

[More to come]