What I’ve Learned in 4 years at AWS re:Invent

Nick Gottlieb
Dec 6, 2019 · 6 min read

I’ve attended AWS re:Invent the last 4 years in my role as VP of Growth at Serverless, Inc. As a company that builds cloud development and operations tooling, is an AWS Advanced Technology Partner, and shares a majority of our customers with AWS, re:Invent is always a big event for us. It’s also the craziest, most interesting conference I’ve ever been a part of so I wanted to share a few observations and learnings I’ve had over the last four years.

re:Invent is growing like crazy
The scale of re:Invent is most easily measured by its attendance and footprint in Vegas. My first re:Invent, in 2016, was mostly limited to the Sands Expo Center inside the Venetian and was attended by about 25,000 people (though there were some breakout session and bootcamps in Mirage and Encore). In 2017 the footprint expanded to include a lot more sessions in the Mirage in addition to the Aria and MGM Grand. Attendance that year surpassed 40,000. By 2018 the official re:Invent ‘campus’ had expanded to include sessions and events in 7 major properties on the strip (The Venetian, Mirage, MGM Grand, Aria, Encore, Vdara, and Bellagio) and was attended by over 50,000 people. This year, 2019, the campus was roughly the same as last year, which leads me to believe there simply is no other venues for sessions available on the strip. Attendance was reportedly over 65,000, showing that despite there being no more room for additional sessions they will continue to expand the crowd (and it definitely felt a lot more crowded than last year).

For a more personal anecdote, I’ve been organizing a happy hour for the Serverless community at re:Invent since 2016 and the number of RSVPs we’ve received has climbed steadily as well.
2016: 112
2017: 608
2018: 961
2019: 1200 (we had to cap it due to the space, if we left it open it probably would have approached 1500)

It’s probably the greatest free marketing event ever (for AWS)
How can a massive event that basically takes over all of Las Vegas and includes extremely lavish parties possibly be free? Well I’ve done back of the napkin math on it every year and this I’m fairly certain this is an overall cash flow neutral event for AWS. Here’s what I calculated for revenue for 2019:

65,000 attendees at $1800 per person = $117m

500 sponsors at an average price of $125,000 (actual packages range from $35k to over $1m) = $62m

For total revenue of roughly $180m.

The cost is much harder to estimate but seeing as the event is in the middle of the week (typically slow time for Vegas) and brings 65,000 high income professionals in to Vegas casinos, I’m pretty sure they get a great deal from the venues. Taking that in to account, I’m sure AWS can easily put the event on with a $180m budget without having to cut any corners at all. They are an extremely savvy company and you have to tip your hay to them with what you have pulled off at re:Invent.

It’s mentally and physically exhausting
Being in Vegas for an entire week is a crazy and terrible idea on its own. Combine that with an overcrowded tech conference, a TON of meetings, and non-stop parties with open bars and junk food and you have a recipe for a personal health disaster. As someone who has had to fly home early due to getting extremely sick at re:Invent my best advice is to make sure to get plenty of sleep, get some exercise every day (even if it just means always walking between the venues), drink tons of water, and wash your hands constantly.

The showroom floor is chaos
With roughly 500 sponsors fighting for attention, and some of the larger booth build-outs including things like sumo wrestling rings and airplane fuselages, it can be pretty tough to grab folks attention on the showroom floor at re:Invent. That being said, a sponsor booth is table-steaks for many companies in the AWS ecosystem. As an early stage startup with a limited marketing budget we’ve shied away from shelling out the $35k for a small booth, but as we scale it might make more sense. If you are going to have a booth, it’s important to get creative and figure out a way to standout in the chaos.

A meeting suite is well worth the money
For the past few years we’ve rented out a very large suite in which to take meetings with customers and prospective customers while at re:Invent. This is by far the best use money I’ve found for the event. It gives you a nice, quiet place (something that is in short supply in Vegas) to take meetings, do demos, and talk business. The hotels run promos on these suites throughout the year and you can get them as cheap as $1,000/night for a 2,000 sq/ft suite.

Venture capital is here in force
If you are an entrepreneur, re:Invent is a great opportunity to network and meet with venture capitalist. Several of the larger firms that invest in the enterprise cloud space hold happy hours during the event and nearly all of them have at least someone from their firm at the event doing recon and taking meetings. I know several companies that have received term sheets at re:Invent.

The session are (mostly) a waste of time
Many of the sessions at re:Invent are phenomenal. They include great architecture guidance and use cases, awesome customer stories, and very valuable deep dives in to the technology. That being said, they are crowded, difficult to get in to (requires a lot of waiting in line), and are all live streamed and posted to Youtube. So you do not need to attend live or even have a conference pass to consume the content (I haven’t even bought a conference pass the last couple years and felt in no way hindered by not having one). If your goal is to network at the session or meet the speakers in person, then there is certainly value in being there live, but if not your time is probably better spent elsewhere.

The re:Play party is completely insane
While they used to hold this party in a giant venue constructed behind the LINQ, the crowd got too large and they moved in to the Las Vegas Festival Grounds in 2018. Festivities at this party include a massive music venue with top tier musicians (this year included Anderson Paak, A-Trak, and STS9), many crazy interactive experiences, tons of food and alcohol (of course), a broomball tournament (yours truly was part of the championship team in 2017), and a whole lot more. It’s about as geeky as you can get, and like the conference is around 90% male, but it’s definitely a spectacle worth seeing at least once (I went my first two years and that was more than enough).

It just overlaps with the National Finals Rodeo
This really has nothing to do with the conference, but it makes for a hilarious scene. The attendees of re:Invent (mostly techies wearing hoodies) and the National Finals Rodeo (mostly rural Americans wearing cowboys hats and boots) couldn’t be more different, yet there they are all sharing the craps and blackjack tables on Thursday night. Honestly after 4 days of intense meetings and deeply technical conversations the rodeo crowd is a breath of fresh air (and I can guarantee they have a lot more fun at their event than we do at re:Invent).

Like most re:Invent veterans I don’t always look forward to the event, but it’s impossible to deny its value in networking, meeting current and future customers, and getting a great sense for what real companies are doing with the technology. I hope these learnings help you get the most out of your next re:Invent!

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