Of course, the big news this week is the launch party festivities for SQL Server 2008, Windows Server 2008, and Visual Studio 2008 that kicked off at the “Heroes Happen Here” event in LA yesterday. Alas, the Thursday email newsletter schedule for SQL Server Magazine Update prevents me from covering the launch event in this commentary, but I’ll definitely share news and feedback about the launch event next week.

This week, I’d like to recap SQL Server Magazine’s “Get Ready for SQL Server 2008” virtual conference that was held at the end of January. I first talked about this event and the virtual conference being offered by the SQL Server Worldwide User’s Group (SSWUG) in my editorial “The Future of SQL Server Events” (http://www.sqlmag.com/Articles/ArticleID/97919/97919.html) on January 3. My opinion about these events can be summarized by saying that it’s simply a matter of time before virtual conferences begin to have a substantial impact on traditional in-person events, although I was pretty clear in saying that I don’t think traditional conferences will ever go away.

I recently had the chance to chat with Michele Crockett, the publisher of SQL Server Magazine, about the “Get Ready for SQL Server 2008” event. My opinions about the event are also shaped by the fact that I’m one of the owners of Solid Quality Mentors, which provided much of the content for the event; was a sponsor of the event along with the Professional Association of SQL Server (PASS), Dell, and Idera; and was also an exhibitor in the event’s virtual exhibit hall.

Michele was pretty excited about the results from the event. She shared with me that she had doubts about the virtual aspect of the event, especially the exposition hall, but commented that “Once you get past the cuteness of the graphics, it was pretty cool.” Michele also felt that the attendees were much more engaged and immersed in the virtual aspects of the event than she had expected. I still don’t “get” Second Life and while my wife has caved in by getting a MySpace account, I’m still don’t understand that either. I never thought that 39 was all that old. Heck, I can still walk without a walker and have all my teeth, but I suspect that virtual events like the SQL Server Magazine event will seem passé and common to IT folks a few years down the road. Like me, Michele didn’t feel that virtual events will replace traditional conferences, but she feels pretty strongly that virtual events like this one are a strong supplement to the community and bridge the gap between a Web seminar and a roadshow.

My personal thoughts this week come from the business perspective. I don’t want to trivialize how hard it is to create compelling content, but at some level “good content is good content” and I think that most of us grasp the fact that it’s reasonably easy to deliver compelling, rich, and useful content in person or via the Internet. Geeks like us prefer to focus on the technical material at a conference. However, like it or not, most large conferences as we know them today wouldn’t exist unless they were profitable. Conferences are big business and can make a lot of money. Never forget that there’s always a genuine profit interest, one way or another, behind running a conference. Profit doesn’t equal greedy or bad. Profit doesn’t compromise the educational integrity of the content. But it takes money to put on large events, and events are designed to be profitable. Many conference attendees don’t fully appreciate the fact that sponsor money and exhibitor fees comprise a large portion of a typical conference’s revenue stream. Most large conferences wouldn’t be profitable if their sponsor and exhibitor funds dried up to a trickle, and much of the attendee value of a live, in-person conference stems from the exhibitors’ ability to quickly and efficiently offer glimpses of relevant products to the attendees. So how does this tie into virtual conferences?

The one-day “Get Ready for SQL Server 2008” virtual event had 1447 unique attendees who stayed for an average of 3.5 hours. The event had seven exhibitors in the virtual expo hall. Booth visits for each exhibitor ranged from the mid-400s to the mid-500s, and the average amount of time that an attendee spent at a virtual booth was more than three minutes. As a vendor and exhibitor at the event, I can say that Solid Quality Mentors was very pleased by the turnout and was very pleased with the quality of the leads that we received. In fact, we’ve already closed as much or more business from this event in the past month than we typically close from other conferences over a few months. I have data about the other vendors, but obviously can’t be too specific. However, I think it’s fair to say that all the exhibitors in the virtual expo hall felt that their time and money were well invested. Exhibiting at this event was much less expensive for us than exhibiting at a live event, especially when you factor in the travel and hotel costs that typically accompany a live event.

Conferences constantly fight for the same limited supply of advertising and marketing dollars from potential exhibitors. From an exhibitor perspective, this virtual event was easier, less expensive, and as fruitful as a live conference with respect to generation of business leads. Live conferences will never go away, but as virtual conferences continue to grow and compete for the fixed supply of advertising money that exists in any given year, it’s inevitable that virtual events will have a greater affect on the evolution of live events. Live events will always have certain intrinsic benefits that virtual events can’t offer. Personally, I think the competition for advertising money will be good for live conferences. Frankly, live conferences can get a tad bit boring and formulaic. I expect that the competition from virtual events will force traditional events to offer attendees more creative services and educational experiences. And that’s good news for SQL Server Magazine Update readers.