By now, Microsoft’s decision to sell the Microsoft Surface RT and Surface Pro at TechEd 2013 North America has reached legendary status. As many of you know (those that attended and those that didn’t), Microsoft decided to offer both Surface models for sale at rock bottom prices during their IT/Dev event in New Orleans. From the time the onsite Microsoft Store opened on Sunday until Wednesday, a line that stretched out far into the conference hallway, offered a 2-3 hour wait to get the opportunity to buy a 64GB Surface RT for $99 and a 128GB Surface Pro for $399. It was like a Christmas gift that you had to pay for yourself. It wasn’t until Thursday (the last day of the event) that the line finally dwindled down to a 15-20 minute wait. If you watched Twitter during the week you could catch posts from those reporting updated wait times from the line. As soon as someone would report that the line was down to an hour or so (usually during a string of popular technical sessions), it would quickly fill back up again.

As someone deeply embedded in the Microsoft Management Summit, I heard the complaints from the MMS 2013 attendees all week about how Microsoft just didn’t love them as much since they weren’t offered the same deal during the April conference. There were emails flying from everywhere, trying to hook up with TechEd 2013 attendees to work out a deal to buy a Surface through proxy. A lot of those emails were directed at me and since attendees were limited to purchasing only 1 RT and 1 Pro, I didn’t have enough pull to suffice the demand. Funny enough, a lot of the folks requesting my assistance were Microsoft employees since the special deal wasn’t available to them. Sadly, due to my work at TechEd, I didn’t have 2 hours to spare either to get in on the deal myself, or stand in line for someone else.

As an early Surface adopter, it was weird for me to walk through the hallways of TechEd 2013 and see so many people using the device. I used to be the cool kid. Anywhere I went I would whip out my own Surface and be unique and grab the stares from those who were without. But, the Microsoft Surface sale changed that. It was impossible to find an area where there wasn’t at least 5 Surfaces in use. I finally felt what it was like to be just a device in the crowd, much like all of those iPad users I see everywhere in my travels in a sea of boring white.

I’m sure Microsoft meant well, creating a huge buzz for the Microsoft Surface and getting the device into the hands of people who would use it, talk about it online, and share their love for it once they returned home. As the attendees made it home they would become a grass roots marketing army that reached into every corner of the Earth. Some have joked that Microsoft only sold the Surface at the event to boost the tablet’s sales numbers. But, truthfully, selling 12-15,000 Surfaces is really just a drop in the bucket. No, the beauty of the sale would be the post-event sales boost through an extremely cheap marketing campaign delivered by attendees returning home. Crazy Eddie or crazy like a fox?

But, there’s a problem. The extraordinary long lines to purchase a Surface created an issue I’m not sure anyone foresaw, or maybe even still isn’t realized by some. A 2-3 hour wait at a technical conference to purchase a device, means those in line did not attend the sessions they had arranged on their schedule. For most, the conference registration is paid for by the employer. A lot of attendees spend months trying to convince their manager that taking a week off work and attending a technical conference will ultimately provide value for the company for which they are employed. A well-organized session schedule is used to show that value and get manager sign-off to attend. So, if the attendee takes 2-3 hours out of their week to stand in line and purchase a personal device, and then another, say 4-5 hours, setting it up and using it, how much time is actually utilized for the intent of the conference? What happens when a manager asks what was learned in a particular session that wasn’t attended? Understandably, most of the TechEd 2013 sessions are available on Channel 9 as recorded replays, but how many people really go back to watch those? Based on my experience it’s a small percentage based on the overall attendance numbers. In essence, the company is paying their employee to go shopping.

So, how does Microsoft combat the value of the conference versus a uniquely popular sales event? It’s rumored that this same sale will happen at future events, including the upcoming WPC. And, who knows? Maybe, TechEd Europe. BTW: If it doesn’t happen at TechEd Europe, many attendees will be upset. So, Microsoft needs to get a handle on this.

Here’s a couple suggestions we talked about last week:

  1. Microsoft raises the price of the conference to a point where the Surface is included. When the attendee checks-in onsite, the Surface is just included in their conference bag.
  2. Microsoft provides an “add Surface to cart” option during event registration. The attendee just shows up, checks-in, and again, the Surface is included in the conference bag.
  3. A mixture of both. Microsoft provides the add-to-cart feature for registration, but also offers sales onsite. This should help minimize the huge line and also ensure that employees are not using company money to acquire personal devices unless approved as a work-related device.

Either of these options would eliminate the long lines and allow attendees to actually attend sessions and satisfy their employer’s desire that the event provide value to the actual company.

Thoughts? Do you have a better idea?