As a database expert, I regularly travel to speak at conferences. When I travel, I try to time my trips to take advantage of other opportunities to see sights, visit friends, or relax. When my speaking schedule put me in South Florida last summer, I thought I’d take a cruise out of Miami afterwards.
Suddenly I wondered, “What if I offered training on board the cruise ship and got paid for it?”
Since other database people would be in Miami for the same user group event, I thought maybe I could entice them on board for training whenever the ship was at sea. I’d charge $300 for the training – a relative bargain for 10-14 hours of highly technical training, plus I could have plenty of side conversations about the attendees’ personal challenges with their databases. I didn’t want to book an entire boat – quite the opposite. I wanted a small, intimate group of just 15 people max who could hang out, build relationships, and learn cool stuff.
I fired off an email to a close friend of mine, Tim Ford, and we started SQLCruise.com. We sold out our first cruise, made a profit, and proceeded to start a series of cruises. If you’ve built a popular blog, this is a great way to monetize your blog by charging for a premium audience experience, and I’d like to share my experiences to help you do it too.
Why People Would Pay Us for Training
For those of you who are new around here, Tim and I both write blogs about Microsoft SQL Server, a popular enterprise database platform. Over 250,000 people have signed up for the Professional Association for SQL Server, indicating a strong user base, and my blogs target highly technical users. I write about performance tuning issues, high availability, and disaster recovery. I’ve spoken at SQL Server events around the world, and my online events often draw over 1,000 live attendees. At the time we decided to launch the cruise, I had about 3,000 RSS readers and 5,000 Twitter followers.
My online brand revolves around the quality of my writing and presentations. I’ve won awards and high praise around the world for my sessions, including 2 of the top 10 sessions at the international PASS Summit. My audience already believes I’m delivering premium SQL presentations and articles, so I didn’t have to do a big marketing push to convince them that I could deliver good content. They knew I could present, but I had a different challenge: getting them to pay for training aboard a cruise ship.
Training on a Cruise Ship? Really?
Cruise costs compare very favorably with typical conference hotels. I usually end up spending $1,300-$1,500 for a week of lodging and food when I attend a conference, but I can get a 4-night cruise for two for under $1,000. Conference organizers have huge costs for hotel meeting rooms and lunches, which cost way more than you might think. Much of conference prices come down to the room & food cost. Cruise lines don’t jack up the room and food prices, though – they’d rather use meetings as bait to get people on board the ship, then take money from them in other ways, like shore excursions, spa packages, and gambling in the casino.
Unfortunately, those last few phrases are also why managers think training aboard a cruise ship might be a joke – nothing more than an excuse to get together and party on the company dime. Since I wanted my attendees to get their training, travel, and cruise costs paid by their employers, I faced a challenge. I thought we had to market the cruise in a way that both cruisers and companies would appreciate.
We differentiated ourselves from traditional training conferences in two ways. First, we offered much longer sessions. Instead of a blizzard of one-hour sessions, we offered only 3-hour deep dive sessions. We wanted to spend much more time examining each topic so attendees came away with a solid explanation of the topic rather than a brief introduction. Second, we emphasized the relationship-building aspect of the cruise as much as the training itself. We capped attendance at 15 people, and we marketed the cruise as a chance to get to know the presenters in a very casual, all-access environment. Cruisers had the chance to ask for advice from me and Tim on any topic – their SQL Servers, their job challenges, or their personal brand.
On our first cruise, we sold out all 15 spots a month before the cruise left port, and our cruisers told us they’d signed up for exactly the reasons we’d expected. They wanted longer sessions, and they wanted to build relationships with us. Even better, the cruise turned out to be a great way for them to build relationships with each other. Tim and I watched with joy as the junior SQL Server people talked shop with the more experienced ones, conversed about their challenges, and formed bonds.
Our Second Target Audience: Sponsors
As we built our marketing plan, we realized we had another target audience: sponsors! We were building an event that would generate a ton of buzz in the community. Even if SQL Servers couldn’t convince their bosses to pay for training aboard a cruise ship, we knew they’d be watching closely from ashore. We wanted to be the talk of the town – the kind of event you really wanted to attend, but probably couldn’t. We offered sponsorship positions to vendors because we hoped our event would be all over Twitter and blogs. Normally SQL Server vendors would never sponsor paid training classes for just a few attendees – they want to reach more people – but we hoped we had a unique message that would reach even non-attendees. The buzz about the event might be more valuable than the event itself.
The small size of the event made it an unusual sell for sponsors. Sponsors want to pay as little as possible in order to reach as many people as possible, but we were pitching a quiet, tight-knit event with a little over a dozen people. We wanted vendors to send representatives aboard the boat because they’d have the chance to build very close relationships with some of the most influential people in the SQL Server community. Our attendees were bloggers, presenters, and user group volunteers – people who wouldn’t ordinarily spend hours on end having drinks and relaxing on the beach with vendor employees. I saw this event as a really unique way to bring these diverse people together. On the first cruise, no vendor employees attended, but we convinced two to come on the next cruise, and four on the upcoming SQLCruise Alaska. I’m really excited to see what comes out of the 2011 cruise season.
We sold more sponsorship spots on the first cruise than we’d expected, and we were able to make a very (very) small profit. We didn’t make anywhere near as much money as we’d normally earn in our day jobs, but for us, the important part was that we were getting paid to have fun on a cruise. It wasn’t as relaxing as a vacation, though – in fact, it was hard work in the weeks leading up to the cruise.
Handling the Mechanics of Registration
I originally wanted to use EventBrite to handle registrations – it’s a site that lets you sell event tickets using their tools for registration and credit card processing. I really liked their ability to cap registration at exactly 15 tickets even if I wasn’t around to shut down registration, because I’m on the road and inaccessible a lot. My worst registration fear was that 20-25 people would register before I got the chance to shut off registration. However, I couldn’t deal with one showstopper – EventBrite doesn’t release the attendee funds to the event organizer until after the event is over. I needed the cruisers’ funds to organize travel for me & Tim and to get the swag. I wasn’t about to go thousands of dollars into the red gambling that I wouldn’t have a problem with EventBrite.
Instead, we handled registration with a WordPress contact form. As each person registered, we emailed them an invoice with a PayPal link for the registration fee. We kept track of the attendee details with a Google Docs spreadsheet, and as the event date got closer, we shared the spreadsheet with the cruisers so they could add in their travel details, excursion plans, and share rides to/from the airport. We used an email list so the cruisers could ask questions, and we found that most of the time, the other cruisers did the answering for us.
Bonding Between the #SQLCruisers
The first round of cruisers shocked us by taking initiative in marketing the event too! Karen Lopez, one of the cruisers, got the event covered by IT Canada Weekly, and another attendee almost got us on a Seattle TV show. Our attendees’ willingness to help market our event surprised us so much that we weren’t able to keep up with demand! We had a full plate just trying to get our presentations ready for the cruise. Their efforts didn’t stop when they board the ship, either – they wanted to thank the sponsors for making the event possible, so they blogged and generated buzz even while we were at sea.
We think the small number of attendees was a big part of the event’s success. Long before boarding, the cruisers got to know each other via the mailing list and Twitter, thereby building close bonds. We know we could sell more spots on our next cruises, but we don’t want to sacrifice what made the event so special. At the same time, having a large number of watching but non-attending people also helped. SQLCruise generated great tweets and excitement in the SQL Server community, and that enabled our sponsors to get their moneys’ worth.
Things We Learned Along the Way
The most disappointing lessons all came from the legal side of SQLCruise. We started the event without requiring sponsor contracts because we’d never used them in our user group transactions with sponsors. We sent the sponsors a list of sponsorship packages, they picked one, and they sent us payment – case closed. By the second cruise, though, we realized we had to start getting sponsors to sign on a legally defensible bottom line to protect ourselves from changing whims.
We need to institute a non-refundable deposit due immediately to reserve a spot in the training, too. We managed to sell out SQLCruise Alaska in just twelve hours, but after the initial sellout, we had one cancellation after another. As of this writing, we’ve still got 3 spots left. That sucks as an event organizer because you only get one chance to do a first push to fill up the cruise. Now I’m faced with mounting another marketing campaign to fill up those last few slots.
We even need to rework our relationships with the cruise lines. We’ve faced some hurdles getting the comp rooms and meeting rooms that we were promised by the cruise lines, and because our group isn’t huge, we’ve even had our meeting rooms downgraded in order to make room for a bigger group. (Damn you, weddings.)
I can’t complain because as this blog post goes live, I’m on board the Norwegian Dawn sailing away from Miami along with a dozen cool SQL Server people. It’s been hard work getting to this point, and it hasn’t been all sunshine and margaritas, but looking back it’s been worth every moment. I’m really proud of what we’ve built, and I’d love to see more bloggers take on special events like this to help build up communities around their blogs. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you from organizing your own event – and indeed, there’s people like me who would love to share our knowledge with you. Maybe your event will be a cruise – or maybe it will be a retreat, a Grand Canyon camping trip, or a wine country tour. It’s not just about making money – it’s about building close relationships with your readers and your virtual friends. Just as hundreds of volunteers organize their own user group and SQLSaturday events around the world every year, you can do the same for traincations. Talk to your close friends, decide where you want to go, build a plan, and open it up to the public. I’ll drink to your success.
Hmmm, I wonder if the meeting room staff will bring in room service margaritas….