PHOTOS: Tableau Software Inc.
Growth is good. It encourages ingenuity and innovation. But when it comes to staging a user conference, prosperity can also lead to growing pains. That's precisely the situation Tableau Software Inc. faced as attendance at its signature event, the Tableau Conference, has ballooned since its inception in 2008.
That inaugural event, held near the company's Seattle headquarters, drew 187 self-proclaimed data geeks. Attendees came from far and wide to hear how the burgeoning company's data-visualization software could transform their approach to data analysis. With Tableau, high-octane analytics were no longer relegated to big companies with dedicated teams assigned to the task. Sure, a little spreadsheet magic in Excel could make similar calculations, but the company's software also allowed users to make sense of their data more easily via colorful charts and graphs created with the click of a mouse. That visualization capability meant that data outliers, such as fraudulent transactions at a bank, could be spotted in mere seconds. "We were coming out with a tool that empowered individuals to do the work that these teams had done," says Amy Barone, senior director of marketing events and engagement programs at Tableau. "It was taking everyday businesspeople and aiding them to do revolutionary things."
"There was a tangible sense that we were onto something big."
This industry-shifting software presented the perfect opportunity for a new kind of user conference. "We took this group of early adopters and put them together in an environment where they could learn, network, and geek out about data," Barone says. The intimate environment fostered connections among attendees – who, more often than not, were the only "data people" at their home offices. Moreover, many Tableau users had developed a cult-like loyalty to the data-visualization software. Evidence to that fact includes myriad ad hoc meet-up groups in cities around the country and an entire subthread dedicated to the topic on Reddit. The inaugural Tableau Conference, then, pulled these super fans together for a week of learning and networking. "There was a tangible sense that we were onto something big," Barone says.
The gut feeling that this event would surely evolve into an annual extravaganza stemmed in part from the intimacy and excitement of the inaugural conference. The small audience meant that learning about data didn't just happen during sessions; it occurred everywhere attendees mingled. So with a small (albeit successful) start, Tableau began to look for ways to grow the conference without forfeiting the elements and ambiance that made it special to its participants.
The Tableau Conference rocketed in popularity from those humble beginnings. After an initial three-year stint in Seattle, the event began to hopscotch across the country in search of venues that could accommodate its increasing size. "On average, we've seen 60-percent growth year over year," Barone says. "Some of our best ideas have resulted from challenges, and usually those challenges are space related." So with projected attendance for Tableau Conference 2015 nearing the five-figure mark, the team set out to find a venue.
After touring event spaces and carefully examining capacity, the Tableau Conference had found a new home: the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Airfare availability and hotel room vacancies wouldn't be an issue, as there are some 62,000 rooms along Las Vegas Boulevard alone. But as planning progressed, the Tableau team began to feel the space crunch; attendance quickly surpassed estimates based on year-over-year growth of the event. With a venue already booked, however, Tableau searched for solutions to make use of every inch of the property.
"We really had to think about how we were going to reinvent the Tableau Conference at that next size."
The facility's Grand Garden Arena, with a capacity of 16,800, would hold every attendee for keynote addresses without packing bodies together like sardines. But MGM's meeting facilities – designed to comfortably hold an event for around 7,000 attendees – didn't have nearly enough breakout rooms to accommodate the conference's busy schedule of educational sessions and meetings. What's more, the 600,000 square feet of meeting rooms that it did have resembled an "old man's office," according to Barone. Dark colors and deep wood tones dominated the space, a palette that was decidedly off-brand from the bright, saturated hues associated with the Tableau name.
So the software company enlisted Global Experience Specialists Inc. to solve both problems in one fell swoop. "Attendees needed to feel that Tableau owned the space," says John Woo, vice president of design and creative at GES. Tearing down curtains and ripping up carpet was out of the question, but short of those drastic steps, Tableau and GES would design backdrops, signage, lounges, and more in the software company's signature color palette. "It wouldn't just be a branded backdrop; it would become a creative mechanism to engage attendees intuitively," Woo says. Plans to carve out more function space at the MGM Grand also began to take shape. GES would create 70,000 square feet of additional meeting-room space via outdoor tents – and that's not counting an outdoor play area for attendees. Ultimately, every single event space, from the expo hall to the food area, would set the scene for knowledge-hungry data geeks to learn about Tableau's latest software products and services.
"As the space filled up, attendees were literally surrounded by big data."
As the MGM Grand underwent an overhaul, the conference began its own evolution to help it function optimally at its new, larger size. "The event has some fundamentals that are the same year after year, but we really had to think about how we were going to reinvent the Tableau Conference at that next size," Barone says. Indeed, the dynamics of an event with 187 guests is worlds apart from the vibe of an event with several thousand. Some mainstays that made the event successful from the get-go, such as hands-on breakout sessions that dive into specific attributes of the Tableau data-analytics dashboard, would remain in place for the 2015 conference. "Education is our No. 1 focus for holding this program," Barone says. "Often, the more fun and geeky we get with the sessions, especially when combined with creative and playful speakers, the better received they are by attendees."
But the organic intimacy achieved at the inaugural conference through small-group roundtables and ad hoc discussions would need to be recreated for the 2015 event in new and unique ways. To that end, Tableau created moments and spaces where attendees could mix and mingle in small groups. Customer relationships would be nourished while noshing on pizza during a late-night "hackathon," and a conference nexus called The Bar Chart offered attendees a place to connect and swap ideas.
The 2015 Tableau Conference would indisputably be a learning event, but that didn't mean that there wouldn't be time for a little fun – or sales talk. Thousands of Tableau's top customers and prospects would be in the same place at the same time, and the sales team would capitalize on that by hosting one-on-one sales meetings and a customer-appreciation
party called Data Night Out. Moreover, companies selling anything and everything compatible with Tableau's products would be able to peddle their wares in the expo hall. With a plan in place and attendees ready to make their way to Las Vegas, Barone and her team prepared the final details for the 2015 conference.
Fun and Games
After months of building backdrops, slating sessions, and creating function space where none existed, Tableau staffers welcomed attendees to the MGM Grand. As some 10,000 self-proclaimed data geeks filed into the venue, they were greeted by huge charts and graphs – the types of images Tableau users are accustomed to seeing on their computer screens, but not in three dimensions. Massive, dimensional bar graphs in bright hues were scattered around the venue, providing a surprise for data-savvy attendees. "When the space was empty, it felt a little bit like 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,' but as the space filled up, attendees were literally surrounded by big data. That created a unique attendee experience," says Erica Ginsburg, executive producer at GES.
"We have such an active community of customers who really want to share, enable, educate, and empower others about what they can accomplish with data."
Those structures came in handy once the entire attendance base arrived on site. "We needed to move a huge amount of people through a winding campus, both indoors and outdoors, without them getting lost or feeling lost," Woo says. "To alleviate this problem while also creating a sense of intimacy, we leveraged the use of scale in the event architecture." GES designers worked to make large spaces feel less cavernous and carve pathways so attendees could navigate between sessions en masse.
As attendees began to explore the venue, they encountered typical event accoutrements presented in a way that was unique to the Tableau brand. "The things that we did weren't necessarily new or revolutionary in concept, but I think the way they were executed made them stand out," Barone says. The Bar Chart lounge featured music, libations, and seating areas for informal meetings. Attendees itching to escape the conference area and catch a glimpse of the Las Vegas sunshine could play games such as beanbag toss and pingpong in a dedicated outdoor recreation area. And instead of holding sales meetings in temporary, cubicle-like spaces, these interactions were conducted in cabanas on the pool deck. Even the food spreads Tableau offered eschewed traditional conference trappings. Catered meals at set times would cramp the free-form nature of the event, so to make sure something as mundane as lunch didn't get in the way of learning, Tableau set up "food to go" stations throughout the venue.
The celebration of all things data continued on the second night of the conference when attendees moseyed over to Fremont Street for Data Night Out. A portion of the normally bustling boulevard was closed off exclusively for Tableau Conference 2015 attendees, who enjoyed food, drinks, and games, all while four bands, including Grammy-nominated Band of Horses, serenaded the partiers from two different stages. "Each year, we really try to bring the host city to life for attendees," Barone says. That was certainly the case in 2015, as some 10,000 attendees and 2,000 Tableau staffers fostered a sense of camaraderie while enjoying a taste of old Las Vegas and time away from the confines of the MGM Grand.
All of the creative space making and ancillary activities paled in comparison to the learning that took place during the conference. Data experts and Tableau users from companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., Ernst & Young LLP, and Macy's Inc. presented sessions about how they use Tableau's data-visualization features to analyze various metrics within their organizations.
"We host an annual internal and external call for speakers in order to gather and evaluate the best possible content," Barone says. "Selections were made based on product updates and innovation, training to address users' most commonly asked questions, and a content mix that best aligns to the demographics of attendees."
Everyday Tableau users who were doing extraordinary or interesting things with the software also had a chance to share their insights with other attendees via special Zen Master speaking sessions.
But learning didn't just occur in traditional classroom environments. Attendees crowded into MGM's Grand Arena to hear creative minds such as mathematician Hannah Fry, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and author Sir Ken Robinson talk about life, innovation, and data during highly produced keynote addresses. Informal exchanges of knowledge also dominated the Tableau Conference agenda. "I hate to use the term 'meet up' because I think it just implies a bunch of people coming together and hanging out, but we facilitated meet ups in a way that was content-driven," Barone says. "We have such an active community of customers who really want to share, enable, educate, and empower others about what they can accomplish with data." In all, 48 of these gatherings occurred at the conference in the form of hackathons, focus groups, and more.
If attendees had a question that wasn't addressed during a breakout session, they could book an appointment with the Tableau Doctor. At this specially labeled kiosk, attendees could meet with a Tableau expert individually to talk through their data-analysis woes and learn tips and tricks tailored specifically for their needs. And users who only had a question or two could visit the Minute Clinic, a walk-up help kiosk where attendees could receive the same knowledge and customer care but with less of a time commitment.
In the expo hall, attendees also had an opportunity to meet with and learn about the suppliers and partners that work hand in hand with the software program to fuel the data-analytics experience. Seventy sponsor exhibits and Tableau product kiosks filled the bustling 90,000-square-foot ballroom, and company representatives were eager to talk about how their products paired with Tableau.
By the end of the conference, attendees had learned, partied, and played. More importantly, however, the software company had proven to attendees that data didn't have to be a dry subject: They could geek out about data, have fun, and learn about Tableau's software capabilities all at the same time.
Crunching the Numbers
When every temporary structure had been removed and the last attendee departed, one thing was perfectly clear: Tableau Conference 2015 had been a rousing success. Some 10,000 attendees had paid their own way to Las Vegas for the weeklong event, a figure that represents an 82-percent increase over 2014's final attendance count of 5,500. In fact, tickets for the conference had completely sold out roughly three weeks before the opening day, and 2,100 of those attendees took part in training and certification courses. More than 2,500 attendees scheduled Tableau Doctor appointments, and another 200 more walked up to the Minute Clinic. The quantifiable success also spread to the digital realm: Tableau's conference hashtag, #data15, netted more than 1 million Twitter impressions.
"It's not easy to make a gigantic conference feel fun and informal, but the fun factor of this event was off the charts."
"The biggest thing we've learned from our rapid growth is that we don't have to do things in a traditional way," Barone says.
And that's an attribute about the Tableau Conference that Corporate Event Awards judges appreciated. "It's not easy to make a gigantic conference feel fun and informal," one judge said. "But the fun factor of this event was off the charts."
Tableau is mum about its sales-related stats, but Barone alluded that there was a noticeable uptick in revenue as a result of the conference. Some of that success can certainly be attributed to the use of novel event spaces, most notably the 240-plus sales meetings held in cabanas alongside the MGM pool – certainly a welcome change from the usual conference room. "The feedback from the sales team was that the types of conversations they had were different that year. People were more relaxed, and our salespeople were able to cut through a lot of the precursors and formality that tends to occur in meetings like this," Barone says. "It's fascinating to watch when you put people in unexpected environments how much their behavior changes and the different types of conversations you're able to have."
The software company didn't just overcome the challenges associated with rapid (and unexpected) growth. Tableau created a new equation for staging a stellar user conference – unique solutions, precise execution, and a loyal customer base – and it has the data to prove it. E