DevOpsDays Austin 2018 Food, Venue, and Happy Hour AAR

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DevOpsDays Austin 2018 has come and gone this year and thre are quite a lot of takeaways. I personally learned a lot of lessons this year around venue management and the downsides of scheduling another offsite Happy Hour. In the spirit of opennes and continuous improvement

Don’t Assume the Price is Zero, Event if People are Nice

There’s a natural tension between not being a jerk being nice to your vendors and making sure that you can afford everything you want to do. After all, it’s in their best interests to sell you as much as they can while also making sure that you aren’t oversold or taken advantage of too much.

Great example: this year we had to use easels and some other items for the conference and our venue had those on hand. I took them up on the offer but failed to realize that there was a cost involved. Only until we go the final invoice did I relize that the price was going to be around $300 for all those easels we borrowed.

Another trap to avoid is % cost vs fixed cost. Gratuity and sales tax always scale with an increase in services. We got bit by this particular bug during Happy Hour when we increased our bar tab. Even though the cost was fixed in our quote we didn’t (and our vendor didn’t) take that into account when telling us where we were at in consumption.


  • Make sure to ask “what does that cost?” whenever you’re working with a vendor to figure out what you need. Always get the price up front and make sure it gets put in writing so that there’s no ambiguity. Assume that everything costs.
  • Understand what costs are fixed and what are percentage-based. Calculate that into any increase in services for flexible things like bar tabs.

Off-Site Happy Hours are Fun But Work Against You

This year we decided to go all-in (again) on an off-site Happy Hour, including shuttle service to and from the venue, a generous tab, and dinner service. We planned for the following numbers. * Food service for 200 guests * Shuttle service for 300 guests * Tab for 300 guests

We ended up with a total attendance of 172 out of 390 conference attendees. They ate all the food and ran up a pretty impresseive bar tab. So, even though we offered them free rides to and from the Happy Hour, we only got 44% of our attendees to show up. In addition, no matter how much food and drink are available, the attendees are going to consume as much as possible.

Another side affect of having the Happy Hour off-site is that it removes the attendees from the conference experience itself. Even though we usually have one sponsor for Happy Hour, we still want other sponsors to be able to engage with the attendees and keep the conversation running. Moving it off-site just doesn’t really cut it when it comes to fostering collaboration and conversation.


  • Keep the Happy Hour to be on-site for the conference. Moving it off-site increases the complexity required to manage things and incentivize attendance. Keep the conversation going by making the Happy Hour an extension of the conference itself.
  • Go with fixed-costs and avoid variablity with bar tabs and food. The people that stick around for Happy Hour will make sure that nothing goesto waste so build in constraints.
  • Plan for 50% of the conference attendees to stick around for Happy Hour. You will never get 100% attendance, even if you offer them free rides there and back. This gives you the contstraints needed to keep costs low and ensures that people don’t over eat or over drink.

People Expect to be Fed the Same as They Did Last Year

At DevOpsDays Austin 2017 we fed our attendees very, very well. We had barbecue from Stiles Switch, taco lunch from Tacos N Tequila, and custom themed sundaes from Amy’s Ice Cream. The upside was that we food scored high on our survey, feeding everyone took an inordante amount of time even when we incresed our serving lines. This meant that lunch usually ran almost two hours, which took away from the time we could have content for our attendees.

For 2018, in order to reduce costs, we went with boxed lunches from Central Market and boxed snacks from Sweet Treats and Tiff’s Treats. The real win was that we were able to dramitcally redcue the amount of time it took to feed everyone at the conference. In fact, on day 2, we were able to shift lunch upstairs in order to make up for time caused by a severe weather delay. All in all we were able to feed everyone in less than 30 minutes for lunch and snacks flew off the shelves.

Unfortunately some of our return guests this year were expecting to be fed at the same level they were last year. This led to some dissastifaction on our survey results for food, even though we made up for it by giving them more content with time savings.


  • Stick with box lunches because of the time savings involved. We get more content and time to mingle instead of having people wait in line.
  • Look at other vendors (besides sandwiches) to help vary the meals between day one and day two.