SAP caught a little heat from the blogosphere about plans to replace its flagship European Sapphire customer event with a series of smaller, local events across Europe. Opinions ranged from “sends the wrong message” to “good riddance”, with a mistaken tendency towards the former message. I beg to differ.
First, as a veteran of the Euro tech scene of the 1990s, and a frequent attendee of Sapphire Europe (until my daughter was born five years ago, whereupon I cut out a lot of travel and make a lot of friends at home), I can say that smaller and more local events would be a great idea for the so-called European market. So-called because European integration is a classic oxymoron — language and cultural barriers still define a tremendous amount of behavior, and genuine pan-European behavior, apart from the administrative gyrations of the European Union in Brussels — are few and far between.
Which means it’s always hard to get the French to come to an event in Germany, and vice versa. The Italians don’t want travel to London, the southern Europeans feel out of water in Scandinavia, and, well, you get the idea. And while English is the international language of business, many countries — France, the UK, Germany — have plenty of SAP users who are largely mono-lingual. UK users aside, this means that English-only Sapphire Europe events have been truly less than ideal. I know I still conduct business in French when I need to talk to large French companies (even if the execs speak English, there’s a huge comfort factor for many in not having to), and have recently had to set up some translators to help me talk to the Spanish users of one of my vendor clients. You can be sure those users wouldn’t have put in a travel request for an English-only Sapphire Europe event.
Also militating in favor of small and local is the cost and convenience factor: a local event is often one you can attend during the day and come home from at night, especially within a country’s borders. With Europe’s amazing train system, and lots of low-cost air travel, even geographically large countries like France and Germany can offer local events that can be attended without requiring an extended stay in an expensive city where the size of the hotel room is inversely proportional to the cost. Added bonus — if you can train it, your carbon footprint is going to be a lot lower, especially if it’s a short ride. That should count for something too.
There is some serious comment about how important Sapphire Europe as a customer event was, and what a loss it will not to have that “bonus” built into membership in the SAP club. I buy that to a certain extent, and it will be up to SAP to make sure that the caliber of the presenters and the attendees matches — on a smaller scale, of course — what the bigger event was typically all about. And, for those big European customers who still want to big SAP show, I invite you to join us in Orlando (ugh) this spring. You want big, Orlando will deliver.
The other side of the serious comment has to do with the junket nature of all large customer events, and to a certain degree I’m on board with that criticism. A lot of the reason people travel to these events is to blow off steam, and budget, eating and partying and generally having fun. But, there’s a lot to be said about just getting users together in a pre-Facebook fashion — Direct human-to-human contact still works well for building community and cementing the bonds that hold users together across company boundaries. Not being able to bond with 30,000 of one’s fellow SAP users may be a loss, but I contend that most of us would probably find enough bonding in the presence of a mere 3000 fellow users. Most of us, anyway.
All in all, I think SAP is well justified, considering the longstanding reality of European non-integration, and the current reality of a global recession, to trim back an event that many at SAP have been questioning for some time. It only looks bad if SAP is planning to abandon its users and limit its messages to the market. Assuming none of those have to obtain, it’s probably a good idea. Though I will miss those wonderful junkets to Europe, just as my kids are getting old enough to let me feel comfortable about upping my time away from home. Oh well, I guess I’ll get over it. I’m sure everyone else will too.