What happens in Vegas… costs so much

A couple years ago, I was talking to our A/V consultants, and I asked about their Thanksgiving plans. Oh, he told me, he hadn’t had Thanksgiving in years, because they were already in Las Vegas, setting up and prepping for AWS re:Invent. It was the tentpole of their financial year.

It’s the tentpole of a lot of people’s years, one way or another. Maybe it’s the one trade show a developer can get permission to go to, or the biggest audience a speaker will be talking to. It is quite likely the most expensive thing a marketing team does all year.

I think it’s vital that a company starts thinking about re:Invent at the start of the year. Yes, that seems excessive, but it’s not really. If you are going to spend 30% of your marketing budget on it, you need to know that. I think of this in flowcharts, but let me see if I can make it accessible in words.

The Las Vegas skyline as viewed through decorative marblework on the walkway of the Venetian

The first question is:
Will people at my company benefit from attending?

Can your C-suite make connections and do media interviews, will your developers learn something, is it important to send the analyst relations team to see what’s happening on the ground? Sending people to re:Invent is expensive, but not even in the same category as sponsorship. It is, for better or worse, where so many other people are, and are relatively easy to meet. [it is still a pandemic out there, just… y’know] There is a lot of value in an intimate customer dinner, and it’s a lot easier to arrange at re:Invent than many other times of the year.

Can my company afford to look giant?

There’s a terrible middle ground of sponsorship where you aren’t small and cute enough to be in the tiny-startup area, and also you can’t spend at least half-a-million American dollars on a single tradeshow. Personally, I think that’s a great time not to sponsor. You can absolutely get a booth for an amount you can sort of make work. But then you have to staff it. And you need enough staff to be in Las Vegas for a week, all day long. And you need enough technical staff to at least backstop the five to ten people pulling prospects in. That’s a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of meals, a LOT of opportunity cost. You’ll also need a booth, swag, scanner rental, the inevitable lost video dongle replacement, shipping. You’ll want to have follow-up campaigns prepared for all your leads. You have to accept that even when we don’t have a shit respiratory virus, pretty much everyone who works a re:Invent booth will be a dead loss the next week because of con crud and exhaustion. That’s for a kind of normal half-million dollar investment. 65k people are predicted for 2023. They won’t all stop by your booth, but even if you plan for a fraction of that, it’s a lot of t-shirts, socks, giveaway books, stickers, or just… conversations.

I’ve always thought that for startups, a big, flashy, well-staffed re:Invent booth is like a coming-of-age announcement. “We’re thinking about an IPO!” “We didn’t just set up a big booth and a satellite booth, we rented out a whole restaurant exclusively for the whole week”. Which is great! Those signifiers are valuable! But that puts you out of “we are spending enough to buy a house in Minneapolis” territory, and firmly into “we are spending enough to buy a house in San Francisco”. That’s a lot to ask from a marketing budget. It needs to be a whole-company commitment for a pre-IPO company.

What do we get from it?

Return on investment sometimes makes my head hurt. DevRel, and brand identity, and brand awareness, and reputation, they’re all very fuzzy, because they’re not even really top-of-funnel. It’s hard to put a good number on “the vibes that people get are good”. But you absolutely need to understand what your goal is for an expenditure this big. Is it leads? Brand awareness? Sales meetings booked? You can have all three, but you need to identify the goals really crisply, tell everyone what they are, do interim checks on them during the week, and run some extensive analysis afterwards to see if you actually hit them, and why or why not.

Going because everyone else is going is a terrible reason. Going without a good idea of how to sort and qualify your leads is not going to get you good results.

A nighttime view of part of Las Vegas. It is very bright.

In conclusion,

I am not a Vegas kind of person. I think it’s sensory overload disguised as a city, so I’m inclined to avoid it when I can. So that’s my bias. But I also want people to identify what they get out of every sponsorship opportunity. The cheaper/more local/more focused conferences are easier to say yes to, but that’s not a reason to automatically pick one or the other, or even that you have to pick only one option. There isn’t an answer that is universal for everyone. But I told the companies that I’m advising that I don’t think it’s a good use of their money at this point in time.

All the best to my friends who will be there. I’ll miss you, and be thinking of you.