What Is the Future of the Paid SQL Server Conference Model?

I believe that the paid technical conference model as it has existed for the better part of the past 20 years I’ve been in the Microsoft community is changing in fundamental ways. In particular, the SQL Server conference space has been and will continue to undergo pretty substantial changes. This week, I’ll explore some of the changes and float the question of “How might all of this impact PASS Summit?”  I use PASS Summit as a primary example in my commentary because it’s the largest, and perhaps most influential, SQL Server event in the world at this time. PASS the organization is important to the SQL Server community in ways that go well beyond the impact of PASS Summit.

I don’t think that paid content will ever go away entirely. Attendees will always be willing to pay something for some kind of live event that adds value. But I do wonder how long people will be willing to pay the prices that in-person conferences currently charge.  The music business and publishing business ignored “new media” matters at their peril for quite a long time.  We’re living in a generation in which even middle-aged folks like me are increasingly aghast at the notion of paying for content. I deleted the New York Times app from my iPhone as soon as they tried to charge for it. I’ll often spend hours looking for a free phone app rather than part with a measly $.99. And that’s from a middle-aged dude who didn’t grow up in this ecosystem. What about younger folks?

Increased choice is another noticeable change in the SQL Server conference space. It wasn’t that long ago that PASS Summit and SQL Server Connections were pretty much the only games in town.  Today, SQL Bits is thriving internationally, SQLSaturday is having a profound affect on the SQL Server community, SQL Rally has launched, and I’m aware of a few teams thinking about SQL Bits type events in the United States. SQL Solstice launches this August and is the first event modeled after SQL Bits in the United States, and I doubt it will be the last.

Let’s talk about SQLSaturday for a minute. First, a big shout out to Andy Warren. SQLSaturday is one of the best things to have happened to the SQL Server community—ever. Thanks Andy!  SQL Saturday’s now attract the same top tier speakers who speak at PASS Summit. Many of the large SQLSaturday events are doing a day of pre-cons on Friday and often the pre-cons are identical or very similar to the pre-cons done at PASS Summit and SQL Server Connections. But SQL Saturday pre-cons generally cost $99, which tends to be much less than pre-cons at more traditional SQL Server conferences, and my past experience with PASS Summit and SQL Server Connections tells me that neither event would be terribly profitable if people stopped attending the pre-cons. There’s lots of profit margin there.

I went to SQL Rally. It was a great event. I was comfortable with the amount I paid for it and the experience I received in return. Out of curiosity I asked some attendees what they thought of the event. Most people had really positive things to say about the event. But I heard the following from a surprising number of people. “We expected more from a paid event.” I asked questions to clarify their feelings and heard statements such as “Well, we’re so used to really great content from SQLSaturday, which is free, that we just thought a three-day paid event would be a lot better.” I asked them if they had specific things they wished were different. Typically, the attendee didn’t have any specific suggestions to make it better.  Their opinion was largely shaped by the fact they wanted it for free based on their experiences with SQLSaturday. That feedback forced me to start thinking about how much people will be willing to pay for attending a live conference event if free and low-cost conferences in the United States continue to thrive.

And what about SQL Bits and SQL Solstice? SQL Bits has become a very popular and incredibly well run event in the United Kingdom. SQL Bits isn’t as large as PASS Summit yet, but it’s been growing by leaps and bounds. The quality is great. The event is well liked, and it’s about one third to half the price of attending PASS Summit or SQL Server Connections.

I’m aware of several United States–based entrepreneurs who are interested in replicating that model in the United States. Some folks are in talks with the SQL Bits leadership team and some aren’t. SQL Solstice launches this August in North Carolina and seems to be the first event to take the plunge and “just do it.” It’s a three-day event that’s similar to SQL Bits. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The SQL Solstice website points out that they modeled their event after SQL Bits, and, frankly, the SQL Bits model isn’t exactly rocket science. It’s just common sense.  Will SQL Solstice be successful? I don’t know. But I’m pretty darn sure that eventually some team of entrepreneurs in the United States will be successful at replicating this model, and it will be sooner rather than later.  In somewhat of a strange way, the SQLSaturday model has trained an entire cadre of seasoned SQL Server event planners who are now equipped to do bigger things. Common sense dictates that at least one or two will be successful. What impact will events like SQL Solstice have on the larger and more established conference events like PASS Summit and SQL Server Connections?

Do I need to say much about the massive amount of high-end content that’s currently available for free on the Internet? I sure hope not. It’s great. It’s free. And you can drink from the firehouse 24 x 7 x 365. I point this out because I think that people are attending live conference events more to network than simply learn. The truth is that there’s not much you can learn at a major SQL Server conference that you can’t learn for free in some other way. The value add for live SQL Server conferences is becoming more focused on relational issues, and I’m not talking about the database sort of relational activity. J  Networking at PASS Summit is incredibly valuable. But lately I’ve begun to question the notion that bigger is better when it comes to networking. PASS Summit had about 4,000 people in attendance last year. That’s amazing and impressive. But not all attendees can be your BFF for the week. Great networking happens at SQL Rally and SQLSaturday. I’m sure SQL Solstice will step up in this regard as well.

Here is a concern that I have regarding PASS. The vast majority of PASS revenue comes from the annual PASS Summit. Profit from this event pays for almost everything else that PASS does throughout the year. What would happen if PASS Summit profit dropped rapidly without a business model to replace it? MBAs might say that the PASS revenue stream lacks diversification. Regular folks might say that PASS currently has all of its eggs in one basket when it comes to making money. I know that PASS is pursuing new event series such as SQL Rally. That’s great, but I’m not sure those events will replace PASS Summit profit if PASS Summit attendance ever declines from the convergence of influences that I previously discussed. PASS Summit attendance was about 3,000 people in 2009 and about 4,000 people in 2010. It’s hard to argue with those numbers. But something tells me that model, and its price structure in particular, isn’t truly sustainable. But heck, I’ve been known to be wrong from time to time.

What do you think about the SQL Server conference space? Do you think the changes that are happening will be good or bad for PASS Summit? Personally, I’m looking forward to attending and speaking at PASS Summit this fall. I hope to see many of you there!
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