Everyone's touched on a lot of points I had in mind (and that's what I get for not getting around to this till now! ;))
I've only had one dud in the time I've been attending pre-conferences and this year I choose wisely yet again. John Craddock's Identity session was deep, FULL of information, presented at a near-magical balance of demos and lecture content. I learned a lot in the day and it's fraction of what I'll ultimately derive from the session – that's awesome.
These are like the food (see below) – a necessary kickoff to try to frame the theme Microsoft wants the week to be known for. Some hit, some miss. Last year's happened to be stellar due to the sneak attack release of the R2 wave of server and management systems, so this year had no chance.
My usual goal is to get excited about one takeaway in a keynote and expectation management helps. If I'm not expecting the moon, I can go away satisfied. My seat was uncomfortable, though and THAT'S the biggest thing I remember this year.
This was a puzzler because the smaller venue had the attraction of minimizing the veritable commute that a location like Orlando or New Orleans has due to the size.
But as others have noted, facility management caused some real headaches. Foot traffic was often routed in strange ways with routes seemingly blocked for no reason and elevator management was atrocious – seems they were always running the wrong way – if it all – and certainly weren't aligned with prevailing patterns (you need more "up" in the morning typically, balanced at lunch, and "down" at the end of the day).
Bathrooms were a super hassle. I literally cut off my coffee intake to avoid waiting in lines later in the day. If you didn't have a session in the Hilton, where there was virtually no wait, you waited. Often to the point of being late to a next session. Later in the week, I found a remote restroom in the back depths of the upper floor, but that's not a real fix to a real problem.
Staff varied, but mostly positive. The event staff was cheerful and helpful throughout. The food staff was too. Security however couldn't have been more surly. It was such a contrast I'm guessing security management *demands* that the security staff be gruff and aloof.
I can't recall what some of the meals were like at Dallas (2003) or San Diego (2004) for example, so I presume they were forgettable. Big convention food usually is. My strategy is to eat quickly and get on to other things. And snack as necessary between sessions and on the expo floor.
I had a schedule that ranged from Azure content, to Exchange/Lync/SharePoint office servers, to security content, to application to troubleshooting, etc...
I am consistenly pleased by the quality of the speakers and the content. I always find something to learn from a session, and frequently am treated to epiphanies.
I am aware that some feel that the focus is leaning toward all-cloud all the time, and I agree, but like the wave of virtualization before it, it's going to be a big part of everyone's world in the future (future = time to be determined ;)) and I found myself asking myself "what are the public cloud / hybrid / private cloud implications" in quite a few sessions. It's a useful exercise – cloud is going to be the "right" answer for some things and it's good to start develop the innate radar to determine when it should be considered, even if now isn't the time for a cloud solution to problem X.
As a generalist show (with content from developer, database, cloud, applications, troubleshooting, cloud, management, communication, cloud,etc...), I do get how MMS attendees would feel somewhat shorted. As this was the first year of merged events, hopefully there will be iteration and evolution next year!
Probably the #1 reason I have attended TechEd for 11 years is the opportunity to share with and learn from other attendees. Everyone has a story or a trick or a gripe and, while you may have 4 or 5 schedule sessions with a speaker a day, you have COUNTLESS opportunities all week to learn from thousands of other experts – fellow attendees. It's a terrific resource that I can't encourage enough people to leverage. You never know who can help you or who you can help!
AFTER HOURS SOCIAL
Frankly, these aren't why I attend, so they are lower priority for me, but a little fun makes the week that much better. The Krewe MnG and Aquarium events were standouts however. Big thanks to everyone involved with those.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
Honestly my gripes are minimal and a bit petty ;)
My largest complaint this year was the venue. I got a sense that the facility must not host a lot of larger-single-events like this – I'm assuming they tend to have several smaller simulataneous conferences. I don't know that for a fact, I'm just judging by traffic management etc. I think a return to a larger venue (if paid admissions support it) would be welcome.
Houston was a bit of a travel nuisance (much like New Orleans, it's a secondary destination for a lot of airlines) but I'm all for diversity in venue. It's nice to mix the standbys like Orlando with the the Atlantas and Bostons as locales.
I did take the time to get out to dinner in the evening a couple of times to see what that part of Houston had to offer. It's a nice thing to try if your time (or energy level ;)) allows.
The people from Houston I met were very friendly!
I've attended Dallas, San Diego, Orlando, Boston, New Orleans, Atlanta and each city has its charms and drawbacks. I'm glad the TechEd team is willing to not just pin it to Orlando or Vegas and call it done.