When SAP plugged in back-to-back developer/user conferences, the strategy saved a bundle, but the event team had to do the L.A. hustle. We didn't want to do this," says T. Christopher Burton, marketing director for SAP America, the U.S. unit of German enterprise planning software giant SAP.

"We really didn't want to do this," agrees Norman Aamodt, SAP America events director.

"This" is major back-to-back events. This year SAP's Tech Ed Conference, a four-day developer conference, is followed immediately by Sapphire, a week-long user conference.

Burton and Aamodt have agreed to take a few moments during the opening day of Tech Ed to talk strategy and logistics. But you can tell they're itching to get back out into the thick of things. Burton is slightly manic. Aamodt just gives off the vibe of someone who really needs to be somewhere else five minutes ago. He meditates on why he and his partner are finding it so difficult to sit in a conference room and talk: "We did a little additional outsourcing, added a few people, but mainly we just bore down," he says of their planning for the two shows. "My team is used to putting in 50- or 60-hour weeks, but toward the end, you could walk into event management headquarters in Philadelphia at 10 o'clock at night and everybody would still be at work."

Tech Ed is a four-day, custom-designed university for 3,000 software developers who work with SAP's R/3 product. It features 189 lectures and 108 hands-on classes, and makes use of 900 personal computers all on an industrial-strength network, and is held this year from Monday, August 31 through Thursday, September 3 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Sapphire, SAP's week-long, 15,000-attendee, invitation-only extravaganza for its software end-users, is scheduled to kick off ten days later, in the same building.

Back-to-Back Challenges SAP is proud of Tech Ed, now in its fourth year. "We're the only enterprise resource planning software company that holds a separate developer conference," says Burton. "We work as hard as we can to make this a non-pressured environment where you can come and learn how to get the most out of our software. None of our salespeople is here." Last year, when SAP's senior managers asked for a cost/benefit analysis for holding Tech Ed and then Sapphire at the same venue, it was clear from the start that while the goal was savings through operational synergies, blurring the identity of the two conferences was not an option. "At Tech Ed, we're looking under the hood, working with the tools," says Burton. "At Sapphire, we're showing off the car."

To get the savings from synergy and still give the events separate personalities, the SAP team had to:

* Set up 900 PCs with appropriate software for both conferences and give each speaker a chance to test the setup;

* Install a network in the convention center that met corporate standards--because most of the servers will end up in actual corporate use after the conferences;

* Make sure that the most valuable commodity at Tech Ed--a seat at a hands-on session--was used to the fullest;

* Use outsourcing judiciously while maintaining a corporate tradition of control over details.

The Ghost in the Machine "We got a series of boxes [PCs] from Siemens [the official technology sponsor for the conferences and supplier of PCs] months ahead of time, so we could set up a base template," says Mark Hewitt, SAP's information technology service and support manager. "It's a delicate balance, putting everyone's software onto the computer and having it run without glitches. Programs like Windows NT and Visual Basic are are meant to coexist. But some one-application software products from third-party vendors aren't." So Hewitt and his crew painstakingly installed programs one at a time, and tested after each installation.

Fortunately, they didn't have to install the final software templates that way. "We have a program called Ghost that takes an image of a correctly set-up PC and transfers it to a network server," Hewitt says. "Then the server distributes the image to all 900 PCs."

Of course, installing the software was just the beginning. "Once we sent the presenters the installation information, then we had to solidify the templates--make sure the presenters had what they needed and were comfortable with the setup. We have a program called PCAnywhere--80 percent of our speakers have it--that lets you control a PC from a remote location. With it, they could get on the machine they were going to use and try it out, even if they were in Germany." Speakers who wanted to try the machines on-site were asked to come to Los Angeles a few days early.

A Stronger Backbone SAP's network installation team came to Los Angeles a few weeks early. "They actually started putting in additional fiber-optic cable in June," says Greg Rosicky, national service manager for the Los Angeles Convention Center. "We had a backbone already there, but SAP wanted a permanent installation, with things like category 5 phone line access from the floor boxes in the South Hall."

SAP added another $150,000 worth of cable to the existing network, which stays behind for other conventions to use. Actual installation of the network--including 30 of SAP's R/3 servers on site, began August 10. "We've set up a gigabit Ethernet--that's 1,000 megabits per second, compared to a 100Mb fast Ethernet," says Daniel Robinson, SAP America's enterprise network manager. "Our network partner is Cabletron, which supplied $2.7 million worth of products and services. This is a dress rehearsal for our corporate production backbone." There are 30 of SAP's powerful R/3 routers at the center; all of them will eventually end up as part of the company's worldwide corporate communication network.

The fully installed network at the convention center connects not only the 900 PCs, but every corporate server in the company. "There are more than 3,000 network devices on the system," brags Robinson. "In effect, we've set up a full-fledged production network in two weeks."

Not without the blood, sweat, and tears of Hewitt's Information Services team, however. "We had three days of working from seven a.m. to three a.m.," says Hewitt. "It's pretty draining. Basically, we followed the facility guys from room to room--as soon as the power and tables were set up, we went to work. Next year, I think I'm going to have the guys work in shifts."

Rent Once, Save Twice Tech Ed and Sapphire have separate information technology teams and separate content/programming teams, so there were no savings there. The big savings comes from not having to rent hardware twice, according to Aamodt. "I can't give exact amounts, but it's a huge factor," he says.

When Tech Ed and Sapphire were in separate venues and cities, and separated by months, the tech crew had to tear down the network and return the computers to the original vendors. Now, when Tech Ed ends, they will take an inventory, then reprogram the computers for Sapphire using the network that is already there. "We also save on the setups for the larger events, which stay in place," he says. "All the signs stay in place. We replace the top half where it says 'Tech Ed' with a banner that says 'Sapphire.'"

And, of course, SAP gets big clout with Los Angeles hotels. "We have 10,250 room-nights for Tech Ed, and another 65,000 room-nights for Sapphire," says Burton. "We were able to go into the Westin Bonaventure and the Biltmore and guarantee a lot of rooms," adds Aamodt.

The Database That Saved the Day While room setups, hotel rooms, and shuttle buses are the stuff of any large convention, the centerpiece of Tech Ed is the 108 hands-on sessions where developers sit at individual computers. This is what they come for, says Burton. "It costs them anywhere from three to five thousand dollars to be at this conference, when you throw in travel and expenses. We've got to make that investment worth their while."

Thus, making sure that everyone gets into one of the two hands-on sessions they are eligible for is no small issue. Just to keep things interesting, the content of the sessions changes right up to the day before the conference.

"We had 70 to 75 percent of the sessions confirmed eight weeks out," says Diane Gottheiner, marketing coordinator for SAP and program manager for Tech Ed. "But for the rest, there are still new sessions, title changes, cancellations, speaker changes--it is a substantial task. We believe the Web is the best way to reach Tech Ed attendees [50 percent registered via the Web], and we let them change sessions from the Web site until a week before the conference, and they can change sessions on site right up to the day before a session."

To deal with this unstable mix of changing sessions and changing session preferences, Hewitt developed a Microsoft Access database with all the information--speaker bio, technical requirements, presentation titles, contact telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses--that Gottheiner and her crew needed to stay on top of the situation and plan accordingly.

"It was still a logistical challenge to decide room sizes and number of PCs per session, but with Mark's database and technical expertise, we were able to move overbooked sessions into larger spaces on very short notice," says Gottheiner. "It allowed everyone to keep up with the changes--which came hourly in the last few weeks!"

Buying Potatoes Because the company lets speakers change their presentations right up to the morning of the day they're scheduled to speak, Burton likes to keep production of education sessions in-house.

"High-touch works for us," says Burton, meaning that SAP prefers not to delegate last-minute changes in multimedia presentations to a production company.

In general, the company likes to keep control of the particulars of events. Aamodt, who spent many years on the vendor side of the exhibition market (SAP was his client for nine years), is wary of paying markup for services he can handle himself. "There's no need to buy turnkey services for everything," he says. "We hire production companies for general sessions and special events, but for other functions, you're just buying potatoes."

The Olympic Vision Back at the Convention Center conference room, Burton and Aamodt are glancing meaningfully at their watches. But before they spring back into the thick of things, they're taking a moment to think about the future of Tech Ed and Sapphire.

"The real challenge to both these conferences is how fast we grow," says Burton."Making sure we have enough hot dogs to go around."

"Hot dogs!" laughs Aamodt.

"All right, lobster and champagne."

"No, we don't do that either," says Aamodt.

Burton sighs. "Okay, enough broiled chicken and rice. Hey, we had to add two projection screens this morning for the keynote session. You don't know what it does to your infrastructure when you suddenly add 500 people to a meeting.

"We're at a crossroads. How do we keep the guest experience intimate enough? I think the next phase will be like an Olympic experience. We'll have a big Olympic village of exhibitors where we hold big, unifying events. Then we'll break out into what I call common-thread sessions, with titles like 'How do I Web-enable a network?' Then attendees will return to the center for another big event.

"Tech Ed is for education. We know people come to Sapphire to talk to people, no matter how good our content is. We're tracking the guest experience this year from when they walk in until they leave. It's not about getting five more people to attend. It's about making our guests comfortable. We don't want to be COMDEX with an SAP label on it. We don't have the glitziest show, but we have one of the best, because we provide the camaraderie that leads to a great networking experience."

"Everyone works from a very passionate approach," adds Aamodt. "You can't just shrug off this level of work."

Both Aamodt and Burton are reaching for their walkie-talkies. We say goodbye, and before they're out the door, they're working. Crunch time resumes.

Miles of fiber-optic cable installed in Los Angeles Convention Center by SAP: 60

Photocopies distributed during Tech Ed: 2,000,000

Kinko Copy Centers in Los Angeles that worked on SAP meeting business: 10

Attendees at first SAP user conference in 1988: 80

Attendees at SAP's 1998 Sapphire user conference: 15,000

Number of attendees who overlapped between Tech Ed and Sapphire: 142

Buses at Great Western Forum for special Sapphire concert with Rod Stewart: 300

Number of 53-foot semi-trailers hauling exhibits to Sapphire: 150

Percentage of Tech Ed attendees who registered on the Web: 50

Percentage of Sapphire attendees who registered on the Web: 20

People having lunch at the same time during Sapphire: 10,000

Number of events SAP holds each year: 400

While the main purpose of putting Tech Ed on immediately before Sapphire was to cut down on costs, it was extremely important to SAP that the smaller conference receive the full attention from staff in deserved. SAP Marketing Coordinator Diane Gottheiner, in her first year as program manager for Tech Ed, hit on an ingenious solution for making sure her conference got what it needed.

"I joined the Sapphire team," Gottheiner says. "I have a minor role, and it means staying on to work the big conference, but I became a champion for Tech Ed on the Sapphire team. I also got more face time with the Sapphire folks to see what opportunities for synergy there were. Being part of Sapphire was the best way to understand the impact it would have on Tech Ed."

SAP stands for Systemanalyse und Programmentwicklung (in English: Systems, Applications, and Products in Data Processing). Founded in 1972 in Walldorf, Germany, SAP, the world's fourth-largest independent software firm, makes enterprise resource planning programs--software used to integrate and process information in areas such as product distribution, finance, human resources, and manufacturing.

SAP employs more than 17,000 people and has offices in more than 50 countries worldwide. SAP AG reported FY 1997 revenues of DM 6 billion ($3.4 billion), a 62-percent increase over 1996 revenues. In the same period, sales of R/3 rose 63 percent.