Category Archives: SQLSaturday Playbook

My Playbook For Putting On a SQLSaturday Part 3: Food

Feed Me Seymour!

Welcome to your number one cost.  Every budget I’ve looked at so far food is the top expense by a wide margin. There are very few rules that come down from PASS to your local event organizers, what you can charge is one of them. The only thing we are allowed to actually charge for is lunch. That is also capped at 10.00 per person.

Note: The maximum allowed to charge for lunch has been increased to 15.00 per person according to the SQLSaturday Wiki 

On the flip side, if you don’t want to eat the lunch you don’t have to pay for the lunch as an attendee, you are free to make your own arrangements.

It’s More Than Lunch

In reality, you aren’t talking just lunch. This is an all day event that starts early for attendees and even earlier for vendors, volunteers and speakers. That usually means some kind of breakfast, a lunch, snacks and drinks all day long.

The Basic Breakdown

Lets take a look at some standard assumptions about how much you need of X for Y people at the event.

1 Gallon of anything(water, coffee, lemonade) usually assumes 16 servings. If you brew the coffee it can be as cheap as $0.60 a gallon. You can usually plan around $1.50 a gallon for a median if you are doing coffee and lemonade. About 10 cents a serving.


Sandwich makings:
1 lb cold cuts serves  4
1/2 lb sliced cheese serves  4
1 head of lettuce 4
2 tomato’s 4
1/2 loaf bread 4

Bag o’ chips $1.50

Total cost: $9.60 serving 4 OR $2.40 a person.

This assumes, all sandwiches are made by you and your volunteers. Everything that can be bought sliced is. You don’t let eaters build their own sandwich.

Wow, we can charge 10 bucks a head and only pay about $2.50 a person? We are going to be RICH! You will have people say something to this effect to you at some point. Ether someone on your team or someone who is attending and has never planned something like this. What they never count is the “extra” food and single serve refreshments like sodas and bottled water.


bagels, muffins or danishes $0.60 per serving, bought in dozens usually so $7.20 per doz.
1 Gallon of anything(water, coffee, lemonade)  $0.10 per serving or $1.50 gal.

Cookies, muffins $0.60 per serving, bought in dozens usually so $7.20 per doz.
Case of 24 “name brand” sodas $13.00 or $0.50 per can

Self serve usually adds 30% to consumption. For example, if a normal person would eat one cookie I will take three and wash it all down with two sodas 🙂

So, you can probably figure another $2.50 for breakfast and snack at break.

Our new total is $5.00 per person. That is still very reasonable, if you are willing to do all the work and can buy everything yourself.

Now, The Truth

You probably won’t do all the leg work to keep the costs down to $5.00 per person. If you do something like subway or a caterer that does box lunches you will be out $8.00 per person usually, not including sodas. Now factor in breakfast and snacks and you can quickly blow past the $10.00 per person you are allowed to charge.

Oh, not everyone pays. Speakers, volunteers and vendors eat for free. You give up your time and money I don’t think it is unreasonable to give you some free grub. That means the rest of the paying public shoulders that cost. Well, technically you write it down as an expense but you could account for it in the cost per paying meal. The money has to come from somewhere in any case.

If you have to deal with an onsite catering service things get much more expensive. A word of advice, when dealing with catering NEVER LOOK AT THE MENU. Instead, put a cost per person and tell them what your budget is. Be up front with them and explain to them the nature of the event and the fact this isn’t put on by a for profit organization in any way. Ask them to include all costs, including gratuity for workers and tax in the per head price. If you are paying for the space you can expect to pay between $15.00 to $25.00 dollars a person for the whole day, minus sodas and bottled water of course. If you are getting the space “for free” and paying onsite catering like at a hotel you can expect $35.00 to $55.00 per person. Again, be careful of all the addon’s like sodas and “premium” coffee. I’ve seen quotes of $55.00 for a gallon of coffee!

Last bit on caterers, you usually don’t have to finalize your order until 72 hours before the event, You can almost always go up in count but never down. Once a meal is made someone has to pay.

This Lunch Sucks!

You will have some people not happy with the food. Listen to every issue, DO NOT DISMISS ANYONE! It is easy to tell people if you don’t like it don’t eat it. Don’t fall back and get defensive. Your first priority is to make sure there isn’t a safety issue with the food, like people are getting sick. Secondly, if someone has paid for lunch and is unhappy try and figure out why they aren’t happy. Do they have a food allergy and there isn’t a suitable meal for them to eat? Is there a religious or cultural issue? Don’t hesitate to refund their money and see if you can get a volunteer to help them hunt down a suitable lunch. Don’t worry about the loss, if $10.00 dollars is that important you are already in trouble.

Finally, does the meal just plain suck? If that is the case you may need to take it up with the caterer or venue. If they won’t fix the food work to get a refund on the part that wasn’t eatable.

If none of these things apply it is never wrong to give them their money back. Again, I don’t want people to be upset over a ten dollar bill, it just isn’t worth ruining your day and theirs arguing over it.


People will sign up for lunch. They may not pay up front. This will cause you to over order. Have you ever been at an event that ran out of coffee or lunches? Wow, you would have thought a crime against humanity had been made. That means you will probably be a bit paranoid and over order just to keep from running out. Have a plan for the food. If it is a boxed lunch you should look around for a local shelter or organization that feeds the less fortunate. Trust me on this one, whom ever gets that meal will be very happy that you did over order a little bit.

Final Thoughts

A Done bun can’t be undone.

Personally I plan to do things a bit differently at our next SQLSaturday. If we haven’t received payment before our cut off with the caterer we won’t order that lunch. We still have to plan for breakfast and snacks but that will cut the cost almost in half per person in most cases. We will still feed the big three and buffer our order around 5%. I know it sounds harsh but this is a cost that is hard to control and can completely kill your budget. Hopefully that will cut down on the leftover food and we will be able to feed everyone who wants to eat.


This isn’t a way to make up budget shortfalls, for a 350 person(including the big three) event 70 or so may eat for free.
If you can do it yourself, $10.00 a person is completely reasonable.
If you can’t, control the cost as much as possible.
Watch out for additional cost items like canned sodas, coffee and bottled water.
If you are stuck with an onsite caterer, fix your per person budget first and work around that number.
You will have leftovers, don’t throw it away, do some good with it.
Some people will complain about the lunch or some aspect of the food. Listen to them, fix it if you can or refund their money.

My Playbook For Putting On a SQLSaturday Part 2: Venue

Finding Your Venue

Sounds simple right?

It can be one of the most difficult things to do for something the size of a SQLSaturday with the budget you may, or may not, have.

If you can find a local education establishment to partner with is usually a good choice. Always check with your local Microsoft reps or any local vendor that has direct ties to SQL Server. Don’t be afraid to ask! If you don’t ask they don’t have an opportunity to help you in this endeavor. If someone says no, ask if they have any contacts or possible leads for an inexpensive or free venue for your event.

It will take time. I initially put in 15 hours over the course of a month to get the first venue that fell through. After that I spent over 40 hours over a month to find the next viable venue, 38 venues were investigated. I toured 5 of them personally. After the venue was chosen it was another 10 hours of time securing, negotiating and signing contracts. Even then, I think we may have rushed things at the end and overestimated the amount of space we would need. This shaped up to be a 400.00 mistake. We used the space but we didn’t need the space.

There are several key things about a venue you must keep in mind, lets step through the ones I personally worked through.

If you are planning 150 people or less you are much more likely to find a venue that may be free. The bigger the event the harder it is to find space that won’t break the bank.


Remember, most of the people attending will be within 30 miles of the venue in most cases. If it is in a part of town that is hard to get to that can be a problem. Locate all the local hotels around the venue and see if they are acceptable. Having to drive across a city you aren’t familiar with at 7am in the morning isn’t ideal for most of your traveling guest.

Capacity of rooms

Generally, a good rule of thumb is 50 people per room. If you are planning for 250 people attending, that is 5 rooms. You should also plan on having a space where everyone can congregate in the morning and evening for announcements and give a ways. This may or may not be a separate room. Depending on the type of venue, class room style or hotel banquet room style, you may be able to join your rooms together to get the space you need. If you do require that rooms be joined together build it into your schedule!

Number of rooms

Again, if you are planning on 50 people a room then you need 5 rooms for the presentations. You should also plan an additional room for speakers/volunteers to prep and recover in. You can also use this room to store stuff in, if you do make sure it is secure.  Most of the time speakers are looking for someplace that has power that they can work on stuff as needed. This also implies internet connectivity. Lastly, if you can have a projector in this room it can act as a backup if another room has a failed projector. It also lets speakers test out laptops on a projector before they get up in front of people.

Vendor area

Vendors, Vendors, Vendors! You need to make sure that the vendor area is in a very accessible area with plenty of foot traffic. Remember they are funding this. They are here to make contacts, meet people and generally socialize. If you hide your vendors you make that an impossible task.

Dining area

If you can combine your vendor area and the dining area that is also a big win. It allows people to eat and mingle during the part of the day they have the most time free to talk. You need to make sure there are places for folks to sit down and enjoy their break as well. If you can’t combine vendor area and dining area see if you can get the food line to pass the vendor area, that’s also a good time to have chats with people as they cruse by vendor tables.

Food policy

This is a hard one. Depending on the venue you might be stuck with using their on sight caterer. This can limit your options dramatically and drive costs up as well. Food is the number one single expense for your SQLSaturday. If you look at hotels you get the rooms for free since you will be paying 45.00 or more per person. Also, if you have to go with an onsite option they usually will bundle a breakfast and afternoon snack along with the main lunch. If you can cut them it is a way to keep a handle on the costs. People may not be happy that there aren’t snacks or bagels, but you have to make the hard choices where the dollars go. Keep an eye on the little things. They may have a good rate for things like coffee and water but ding you several dollars per bottled or canned refreshment. Read your contract carefully, they probably have a clause about outside food or drink brought in by the event, and can charge you a percentage of your entire bill as a penalty. I’ve seen them range from 5% to 35%. This means if you think you are going to get around the $2.00 a soda problem by bringing in your own coolers with wal-mart cola, think again. One way or the other you will pay them. The venue has costs as well. Staffing, equipment and cleaning just to name a few, those are fixed costs the venue has to make up some way.

Rental type

Some venues may rent rooms in increments as small as an hour. If your venue rents by the half day make sure you can get access an hour before and an hour after the event to setup and breakdown. Sometimes they bill you for this extra time. You need to be very clear with your venue about setup/breakdown time needed.


Check to see if projectors are included in the room rate. If they aren’t check to see if you can have the cost removed from the rooms you don’t need a projector in. It may only be one or two rooms but every dollar saved is a dollar you can spend on something more important.


If your venue has a main theater or something similar where you will be holding your opening and closing see if there is an additional fee for the A/V in those rooms. If a room is wired for sound and mic’ed it probably will have an additional fee. You may also have an A/V person as a requirement if you do opt for the A/V equipment.

Internet Access

People think it is rare not to have internet access at these kinds of events. In reality it is the exact opposite. You may be able to secure access for speakers for a fee but not the whole event. We took a novel approach for that and actually use Clear WiMax 4G wireless. It took two units to cover the whole venue but it did work. I’ll cover this in detail later. Just be prepared to have limited or no access and ways to work around it.


The venue may have mandatory staffing the day of the event. Sometimes they have an A/V or facilities person there for 8 hours they have to pay. Generally this is a line item cost that isn’t included in your room rate. If they don’t require a person on site be aware that there may be a deposit required to protect the equipment and facility from damage.


Security may not be needed for your event but required by the venue. Again, this isn’t included in your room rental and is almost always a separate line item.

Liability insurance

This is a public event and should be insured in some way against accidents. Your venue can confirm if they have a general liability policy covering your event build into the rate or not. This also goes for your after party!

Signage policies

Venues have different fire codes and policies they will have to adhere to. This may affect your ability to post signs directly on the walls or have free standing easels. If you do have some hard restrictions make sure you have an alternative place to post all the rooms and schedules that is easily visible and accessible by your attendees. Make sure to have your volunteers announce where the schedule is posted as well.

Things I ranked in order of importance:

Number of Rooms
Capacity of Rooms
Vendor Area

I know it may surprise some that cost isn’t number one. Simply, if you can’t find a venue with the capacity to hold the event and house the vendors who are paying for it properly cost is moot at that point. I’ll have an event on the edge of the city if it meets the top three and the cost is near free.

Always get a full sheet of expenses up front for every little thing that they rent and what you can or cannot bring in from the outside. These “little things” can easily be a third of the room costs alone.

Summing Up

Head count needs to include not just attendees but also speakers, volunteers and vendors.
A free venue that requires their caterer isn’t free.
Check for everything else you may have to rent from the venue, it can add a significant amount to the bill.
Read every letter in any venue agreement, you don’t have to be a lawyer but you should apply common sense and ask questions.

Up Next

Feeding The Masses

My Playbook For Putting On a SQLSaturday Part 1

The Long Road

I am going to post this as a series covering, in detail, everything humanly possible about the logistics of SQLSaturday #97.

Fiddly bits. I cannot tell you how important it is to plan in minute and excruciating detail. If you don’t have a ton of experience in event planning I don’t recommend you “wing it” or leave it for later. We had a very aggressive time table and little experience planning this kind of event. Both of those could have been the undoing of the whole event. Having several detail oriented people made the difference in our case. What we lacked in experience we made up with time and energy. We asked lots and lots of questions from other people who have done SQLSaturday’s. Jonathan Gardner, Ryan Adams and Andy Warren were all instrumental in the success of SQLSaturday Austin.

Initial Planning

A Key thing to have in place before you can start your SQLSaturday is pretty simple. People, you must have a core group of people to handle the planning and logistics. For a small event three people may be enough to get everything done even if one person drops out. In our case I lined up five. We had one drop out but found a replacement so the workload didn’t get too crazy for any one person.


The first rule of leading something like a SQLSaturday event is respect. Everyone is volunteering their time or money and in some cases both. No matter how small the contribution realize that person didn’t have to give at all. Treat everyone with respect, period. Don’t belittle anyone or any task. Planning a SQLSaturday can become overwhelming very quickly and everyone will be leaning on each other for moral support. If you lay the foundation that you are the leader and everyone else are peons don’t be surprised if tasks are half done or not done at all. Lead by example, expect their best and treat them accordingly.

</end rant>

Don’t be afraid to delegate responsibilities. Realize I didn’t say “punt” or “push off” stuff to others. You are handing people important tasks no matter how small and you should treat it as such. Keep an eye out for early signs of tasks slipping and don’t be afraid to talk frankly and clearly about anything that is slipping. Better to have someone realize they are over committed and volunteer to reduce their workload or actually drop out than find out in your last week you don’t have lunch lined up yet. It isn’t failure if you back out, it is failure if you “stick it out” and don’t get anything done.

How Big Is Too Big?

Deciding on how big your SQLSaturday should be can be a real brain buster. When we looked around our area having a goal of 250 attendees seemed small! Dallas, Houston and Baton Rouge all exceeded those numbers. Looking back I would have probably positioned us at 150 to 200 max. It changes the requirements on the venue and also reduces cost. Since this was our first SQLSaturday we really didn’t know what the cost per attendee should be. Don’t be afraid to do a small event! If it is your first SQLSaturday it is much easier to recover from mistakes if the head count is 50 instead of 500. Once you do your first one the lessons you learn will apply directly to your next event. As you grow the size you are in a much better position to deal with any issues. Experience is a great thing to have.

We had originally set our attendance goals at 25o people. In reality, if you have 25o attendees you also have 10 to 20 volunteers plus 20 to 30 speakers and an additional 5 to 10 vendors. If you plan on housing 250 you are short 50 to 70 people.  Keep this number in mind, since we were planning for 250 that meant planning for 320 instead. This can blow your budget up in unexpected ways.

Head count pretty much determines your minimum budget. At 250 I set the initial budget at 6,000.00. Remember the extra people, at 250 attendees I set the actual headcount at 350 for budgeting purposes. Better to over estimate costs and pay less, than under estimate and be short on funds. I was fairly confident that I could raise that kind of money, find a venue to house us and feed the event. Everything else was optional. It was also the maximum amount of money I was personally willing to risk. This will vary from city to city and state to state. Some may be much less some may be much more. We will get into a detailed cost breakdown in a later post. If I could secure a free venue I would have dropped this number to 3500.00. Food is almost never free. Even if you charge the maximum allowed it probably won’t be enough.

You Are The Bank

People rarely understand how events like these are funded. To put it bluntly, you are on the line for the money. If you commit to a venue and don’t have the funds in hand, they really don’t care, you are liable. Trust me on this one, I had more than one “What the hell am I doing!” moments. I would highly recommend talking to all your local contacts and leverage any vendor relationships you have to size up how much money you may be able to raise.

I cannot tell you how many people were stunned that I was financially responsible for SQLSaturday Austin. I was fortunate to have Jim Murphy also step in as a backer along with my other core board members, but when I kicked this off I had to assume there would be no safety net if things didn’t work out.

We don’t talk much about failures but they do exists. People have been out hundreds or thousands of dollars due to inexperience, or simply canceled the event and refund as much money as possible when it was realized that the budget was going to be extremely short.


If you didn’t plan that event you shouldn’t use it as your absolute guideline. I will be talking detailed budget numbers but your budget may vary quite a bit. Every SQLSaturday is different.

You need to look at how many attendees they planned for how much the gross costs were for the big stuff like venue, food and any other major expenses. I’ve seen several budgets and none of them had enough detail in them for a totally green outsider to use effectively. They do serve as a barometer of sorts. They help you rap your head around the expenses in a general since as well. Hopefully, they do provide some insight into how much money it takes, and what you could be on the hook for if things go south.

The Chicken And The Egg

The reason I stress that you are the bank is a simple one. You can’t sign the agreement with PASS and host a SQLSaturday sanctioned event without a venue. In most cases that may mean an up front cost of several hundred to several thousand dollars if you can’t find a free venue to host the event. They want to make sure you have done some homework and have at least put in some sweat equity before cutting you lose with the SQLSaturday brand.

Up next:

Finding a Venue