It’s about time!

One of the most frequent comments we saw on the evaluations for individual sessions was “ran out of time” or “not enough time” or something else along those lines. A few people even suggested that we lengthen the time slots in the schedule to give speakers more time, while another suggested we tell speakers they have 60 minutes, but give them 75 as we do now. (We kind of think they’d notice that when the schedule was published.)

Making a session the right length is a challenge, even for experienced speakers. We pretty much all aim to have 60-65 minutes of material and leave 10-15 minutes for questions. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Why can’t we get it right? Lots of reasons. Sometimes, of course, it’s because something goes wrong–the projector doesn’t work or your machine crashes in the middle of the session. Sometimes, something comes up during the session that eats a bit of time–a really interesting question, for example.

One big issue is that we all want to be sure we don’t run short. It’s not a problem if we finish with an extra 5 minutes, but finishing with 15 or 20 extra minutes is likely to make attendees unhappy. So we try to pack our sessions with plenty of material.

Often, though, it’s just individual variation. I’ve learned, for example, that each time I give a session, it’s likely to get a little longer. The more familiar I am with the material, the more I think of to say. So when I first rehearse a new session, I actually want it to run a little short. (Yes, I do rehearse every session before giving it the first time. I run through the whole session, running the examples I’m going to show, and making sure I know how to get from one topic to the next. If I haven’t given a particular session for a while, I’ll rehearse it before giving it, as well.)

Other speakers tell me that it’s the other way for them–the real session always runs shorter than the rehearsal. For these people, the issue is the addition of adrenaline, which speeds them up. Adrenaline is definitely a factor for me, too. On the rare occasions when it doesn’t kick in for me, I definitely run long (and I suspect the whole thing feels kind of sluggish).

Sometimes, a session is long by design. That was the case for the “We Used to Do it That Way, But …” session that I gave this year. The session is built from a set of discrete items, so I can present any subset of them that fits into the time slot. I started the session by announcing that that would be the case, and made it clear that anything we skipped was still included in the white paper and the example code on the CD.

What about the idea of going to 90-minute sessions instead of 75? First, that would cost us a session slot every day, and thus cut down on the total number of sessions offered. Second, it would put us out-of-sync with other conferences; 75 minutes seems to be the industry-standard. But Rick articulated the biggest reason not to make this change: “if we give speakers 90 minutes, they will deliver 97 minutes of material.”

Incidentally, while some sessions ran over a little, the conference center staff was quite impressed by the fact that we habitually started our sessions on time. That’s not what they usually see. Based on my experience with a non-technical conference I attend annually. I tend to agree with them. At that conference, the times slip and slip and slip and by the end of the day, we’re well behind. I’m not sure whether it’s the engineering point of view we bring or what, but I’m never been to a FoxPro conference that didn’t start most sessions on time.

Conference Hotel Room Feedback

In general we get a lot of positive comments on the hotel rooms for the conference, but this year there were a few people who suggested we look into a new location because there were problems with their rooms. Your feedback is real important to us. Last year (based on positive attendee feedback and our experience) we locked into the Arizona Golf Resort and Conference Center for 2008 and 2009. After next year’s conference we have an option to look at other locations if it makes sense to do so.

I would like to address some of the trends in the comments:

1) Free wireless not available in the rooms, only the conference center. True, and it is one of the reasons we pay close to $400 a day ($1600 for the four days) for connectivity to the Internet in the conference center. I agree that spending $10 a day per person for the “facility wireless” is a bit of a hassle, but fortunately it is available if you needed it. We tried to negotiate this last year, but the wireless is provided by an outside provider and it was non-negotiable. Good news for next year: free wireless should be available throughout the conference center including hotel rooms. The conference center started testing it at this year’s conference. Unfortunately it was not quite ready when I tried to use it.

2) Golf course is not open. True and very intentional. While we are sure there are golfers who attend the conference, you actually get a discount while the golf course is closed. I don’t have the exact numbers, but if I recall correctly we are saving more than $20 a night by booking our conference when the course is closed. Last year they surprised us by opening the course early, and this year they opened the course the day after we finished. If you are an avid golfer, the front desk is more than happy to book you some time on other courses in the area and I am sure they would shuttle you if necessary.

3) Hotel Rooms are far from conference meeting rooms. Obviously true for some people. Last year my room was out in the middle of the golf course and I liked the walk. I can see some people don’t and that is understandable. What you might not know is the facility has people standing by 24 hours a day to take you to and from your room by golf cart. We probably need to mention this in our materials and communicate to the hotel desk to make this known when you check-in.

4) Sounds like some of the hotel rooms had issues with appliances, shower heads, and a couple with insects and one with a mouse. The feedback also indicated the hotel staff resolved the issues, which does not surprise me. Others reported the rooms were outdated. Unfortunately we don’t know what rooms had problems because you did not mention it in the evals. If you would not mind letting us know which rooms (send an email: INFO at SWFOX dot NET, or give me a call at 586.254.2530) we certainly will provide these details to the hotel and express our concerns for next year.

We are sending the conference center your feedback as part of our feedback to them. I can tell you that they listen to us (and you too), and have done their best to respond to our needs and to our constructive criticism. We certainly hope you also took an opportunity to do the same.

The Economics of Conference Food

We’ve been reviewing the evaluations from Southwest Fox 2008. We’ll use this blog to respond to some of the suggestions and comments we received and even to ask the community for more information or clarification.

Today, I want to address food, more specifically food and money. We get a lot of comments about the food at Southwest Fox. Many are positive, which we appreciate since we really try hard to offer a good selection of food that meets everyone’s needs. (We’re probably more sensitive to this than a lot of other people because Rick is a vegetarian and I don’t eat pork.)

Food is the single largest expense for Southwest Fox … by a lot. A major portion of what you pay for the conference is spent on catering. When you hold an event at a hotel, you’re required to use their in-house catering service. Often, the prices don’t bear much relationship to what it would cost to prepare the same thing yourself or even to buy it in a restaurant.

For example, we have continuous coffee and tea service during the conference; our bill for that this year was nearly $2000, including tax and service charges. That doesn’t include the coffee and tea served with breakfast, just the set-up in the main conference building.

A big change this year was the addition of a dinner party on Friday night. It was well-received and most of the comments about it were quite positive. But several people complained about the $50 charge to bring a guest. We were sympathetic, since we understood that a $50 restaurant meal would offer more ambiance. However, $50 was almost exactly what the hotel charged us for each extra person. (We paid somewhat less for attendees because we had a package deal for that day’s meals, including breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon snack.)

We got a few comments about providing continental breakfast on Sunday rather than a hot meal. In fact, the hotel packages we use for Friday’s and Saturday’s meals offer continental breakfast; we’ve leaned on the hotel to get a hot breakfast instead. On Sunday, we don’t have a package, just breakfast, so we don’t have the same leverage. A hot breakfast would cost 33% more, which we’d have to pass along to you.

Because food cost dwarfs everything else, we put a lot of thought into that area as we plan Southwest Fox each year. We think we’ve found a reasonable balance between what we offer and what it costs.

Visual MaxFrame Professional Offer

Today I received my offer from Visionpace to process my six month subscription to Visual MaxFrame Professional. I am not sure if Visionpace is staging the roll out of the emails so their staff is not overwhelmed, but you should be getting your notice soon. If not, let us know at INFO at SWFOX.NET and we will pass it on to Visionpace.

Thanks to Russ Swall and his team.

Southwest Fox goes green(ish)

When we were planning Southwest Fox 2007, we decided not to buy any kind of conference bags. Instead, we got plastic bags from the local Visitor’s Bureau. When one of our vendors provided us with larger bags, we used those first. Neither bag was something you’d keep, so no doubt most of them landed in the hotel trash cans.

The 2007 conference bags also included a toy, a plastic squishy ball. While these were fun initially, they turned out to be not all that well made.

This year, we decided that rather than spend money on a toy, we’d go for conference bags. But we knew that our closets are filled with attache-style bags, so had no desire to add to those piles. Instead, we had reusable grocery bags printed with the Southwest Fox logo, and encouraged attendees to either take them home or hand them back to us for other people to have.

The bags were much better for the conference materials, and they turn out to be really good grocery bags. If you got one, let us know how you like it and whether we should do it again.