First, my perspective is having attended four TechEd conferences and somewhere around 30 technical symposia/conferences over my career, having attended other non-technical conferences, and several years of helping to plan and volunteer at technical and non-technical conferences and large events.
Location/venue: Possibly the worst venue I've ever been to regarding traffic flow in the venue and congestion when trying to get from one room to another. This seemed to be a combination of the number of escalors, the convention center staff not adjusting the direction when appropriate, some escalators being saved for "crew only," not being allowed to use the elevators, and where the heck were the stairs? Heaven help us if there had been a fire or other emergency there. I have never had to wait in a long line at a symposium just to get an escalator to change floors. The flow into the huge hall with the Expo Center / meals / Hands-On & Instructor-Led Labs was also a huge clog, almost to the point sometimes where it was hard for people to exit the escalator (yet you had to, of course). Only one double door open to this area...really? It seems inconceivable at a conference that large can only afford to have two badge checkers and open one set of doors. Houston was not a very interesting place to hold the conference, but that's not a big deal to me as I go for the conference and tech info and not to turn it into a family vacation. Feel sorry for the folks who live there... the traffic is awful! Fortunately, I just did the shuttle/bus thing and didn't have to deal with it myself.
Keynote: Disappointing, as always at TechEd. Cool entertainment before it started (again, as always), but then we had to sit through an hour and a half commercial, with no option to attend anything else. Other industry conferences have an industry expert talk about important and interesting trends in the industry and or dive deep into a relevent topic. Even making it a roadmap session for a number of key products would be better. At other group's symposia, I've seen keynotes from Grace Hopper (my first technical symposium), Bill Gates (who did NOT do a commercial), an expert in cyber-security do a fascinating history/current/trending/future presentation on the history/status/future of cyber-hacking, Linus Torvalds on the creation/development of LINUX, etc. The TechEd keynote is always just a commercial and IMO, a waste of a several hours where I could be learning something.
Sessions/Session Content: It was somewhat of a challenge to make sure you were attending something relevent if you are not planning to use Microsoft's cloud. Not everyone plans to use your cloud, Microsoft. It depends upon the type of business, the type of data. If you're going to start insisting it's the only way to go, some businesses may start to look elsewhere for their technology provider. We get that's what you want to sell, but that's not what all of us want or can use. Actually had a speaker in one session ask, "Who is NOT using the cloud?" Then he gave us one of those "I know something you don't know" looks and said, "Oh, well.. in (was it two years?) you WILL be!" Uh, if that's the ONLY option, some of us may be using different technology providers instead. If you looked carefully though, there were a number of VERY good sessions that provided excellent information and didn't shove the cloud down your throat. Session evals needed to also ask how well the session description accurately reflected the content presented in the session. Usually it did, but not always. It would be helpful for TechEd to have "session chairs" (I've seen this done successfully with volunteers, BTW). The session chair would introduce the speaker and control the Q&A. From what I've seen, the speaker doesn't usually want to be the bad guy and only makes a half-hearted attempt (often ignored) at having people with questions go to the microphone. As a result some sessions turn into a frustrating situation as a few people in the front turn it into their own private consulting session, asking question after question that the rest of the room cannot hear. A session chair, who wouldn't have to worry about getting a bad review, could better control the situation by being the enforcer. "Please go to the microphone if you have a question. After getting your response, please go to the back of the line if you have another question."
Other learning options: Very nice setup for the instructor-led labs, though none of the topics were relevent for me this time around. Also a very nice setup for the hands-on labs. I was impressed both with the number of available stations and the number of labs available. The lab assistants seemed plentiful enough and were very quick to run over and answer questions. For the most part, the labs were very well designed and easy to follow. One suggestion I have is to add just a little more info on WHY I'm making a specific selection or typing in a particular command. Sometimes this was clear, but other times I was just doing what I was told with insufficient background on WHY. Also, if there's a "If this doesn't work, do that" instruction in a lab, put it as part of the same numbered lab step, 'cause I'm generally not going to try to proceed to the next lab step until I make the current step work! All-in-all though, the labs were a great learning experience. WHAT THE HECK...NO BOF SESSIONS??? This was a glaring omission. Were you afraid we'd get together all the folks who don't want to use the cloud and plan a coup? ;) I have found BOFs to sometimes be the most useful networking aspect of a sympoisum/conference. Nice that you have all these social events, but these don't help me find the attendees relevant to the information exchange I need or the topics I'd like to discuss.
Expo: Well laid out, enough room to move around, and fairly easy to find specific vendors. Not as easy to figure out who to talk to about a particular Microsoft product as it has been in the past, as the Microsoft signage was more about "solutions buzzwords" rather than products. One thing I don't like to see at the Expo is vendors holding "Must be there to win" drawings during session times. My employer didn't pay for me to attend the conference so I could skip sessions to win toys, and I would guess that's the case for the majority of the attendees. Outside of that though, the Expo was very good. A great line-up of vendors and most willing to provide information without being too pushy.
Food: The regular meals were among the best I've had at a conference center. Amazing how they can provide hot meals so quickly and efficiently for 10K people. Varied choices and healthy stuff available. Was so afraid we'd be presented with Tex-Mex at every other meal with the conference being in Houston and I was very pleased this was not the case. As always, they went kind of overboard with all the between meal snack stuff. Why don't we cut back on that a bit and drop the price so the rest of us don't have to subsidize those who it seems need to eat constantly throughout the day? :) The food at the Expo welcoming event was far superior to what I've had at that event previously.
Buses: The Galleria was a long way from the conference, at least in Houston traffic, and it took a while to go each way, but once you understood the travel time it was easy to plan for it. Could have used more frequent buses at that stop as there seemed to be quite a few people staying at the two Westins out there, but generally the bus situation worked well. MUCH better than trying to deal with driving a rental car back and forth!
Closing party: Too crowded, too loud (and I don't like country music), didn't like the food, but that could be because there was nowhere to sit near where I got the food and by the time I found a table, my food was cold. Truth be told, parties like this are best enjoyed by people who have a lot of their work buddies there, and they aren't much fun for those who are flying solo at the conference. There were few places to sit down and meet others face to face, like we do at the conference meals. Then, there was the adventure of trying to leave. Asked where the buses were lined up and was told "All four exits." Hmm... really? Went to one of the exits and saw no buses. Asked the exit workers and was told, "No, not this exit, go down to the next exit." Got to the next exit and was told the same thing. Walked around the crowded concourse twice, getting more and more frustrated as each exit was the same, "No, not here, it's the next one." Finally got some lady who very emphatically said, "It's 112... you have to go to Section 112 for the buses!" Well, guess what... there's no exit at 112. I went down a little ways further and finally found an exit where I was told, "Yes, the buses will pull up out here." Went outside and waited for a while with some others who were told the same thing. Finally, someone with a Microsoft conference badge came out and stood outside and I asked him (I've now been trying to leave for about 45 minutes). He told us the buses were not coming back to Minute Maid and we needed to walk to the Convention Center... not my happiest TechEd moment.
My key suggestions to improve learning/technology exchange: 1) Have two smaller events, one for those using cloud technology and one for those who self-host and store their own data. 2) Bring back the BOFs. 3) Add session chairs to better control session Q&A.