SAPPHIRE NOW was held this week in Orlando, Florida. It’s been 30 years since SAP pioneered a new brand of customer interaction by staging its first SAPPHIRE event.

November 9, 1989: Representatives from approximately 250 SAP customers gathered at the Scanticon Hotel in Princeton, New Jersey, for the company’s first-ever North American user conference, originally dubbed “SAPPHIRE.”

Almost all of the company’s North American customers and partners were represented — from Andersen Consulting, Dow Chemical, Du Pont, Esso, GE, and ICI to Mannesmann Pipe & Steel, Marriott, Price Waterhouse, and Westinghouse Elevator Company.

Tom Pfister was one of its organizers. He remembers then deputy SAP CEO Hasso Plattner interrupting a presentation on the first day of the conference to announce a momentous global event: That evening, he said, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the border had opened, allowing thousands of people to stream into West Berlin. Pfister also recalls that when asked what he was now planning to do in his home city, Plattner replied – with his customary foresight – “Buy land!”

Global From the Get-Go

“Those really were exciting times,” says Pfister, looking back. “And who would have thought that first conference would one day evolve into a global customer event attracting more than 20,000 visitors?” (Not to mention the thousands who follow it online — 600,000 in last year!)

Rebranded as SAPPHIRE NOW in 2010 and staged as a joint event with the Americas’ SAP Users’ Group (ASUG) since 2006, it has now been 30 years since SAP began inviting customers and partners to convene annually. The attendee list reads like a who’s who of the global IT industry, and – far from being limited to the U.S. – the conference has gone global over the years as well.

In 1993, for example, SAPPHIRE Australasia saw 150 representatives from customers, analysts, and hardware and consulting partners gather in Hobart, Australia, under the motto “Doing SAPcessful Business Down Under.” Attendees learned about the SAP R/3 client/server solution that had been released the previous year. In 1996, 5,000 participants met at the first SAPPHIRE event held in Japan.

But before the launch of the events called SAPPHIRE, the very first international SAP customer event took place in June 1989, five months before the inaugural North American conference. Billed as the International R/2 User Conference, or R2USER89, it drew almost 500 participants from more than 20 countries to Lausanne, Switzerland, and, in Pfister’s words, cemented SAP’s place in the history books as “the inventor of the global IT user conference.”

Two years later, more than 1,000 IT experts from 26 countries converged on Nice, France, for SAP USER91, with the motto “Making Waves.” That year, one of the guest speakers was U.S. writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, whose prediction that a massive wave known as the Internet was about to hit humanity left his audience somewhat perplexed. In 1994, the European user conferences were merged with SAPPHIRE to create SAPPHIRE International. In South Africa, customer events became — and are still — known as Saphila.

Direct Customer Feedback

Whatever the venue, SAP customer events all pursue the same fundamental goal, formulated by Heinz Roggenkemper, the first president of SAP America, in his invitation to the inaugural event in 1989: “SAPPHIRE is an opportunity to exchange information – on SAP’s product and business strategies and on your experiences as users. SAPPHIRE’s goal is to initiate dialog among all of us.”

“From the very beginning, the aim was for people to network and learn from one another,” explains Pfister. “But not only that. SAP wanted to hear what customers’ requirements were. Because user groups didn’t exist back then.” He recalls the time when, during a 1991 breakout session in Nice, a customer asked SAP Co-Founder Klaus Tschira whether a certain function could be integrated into the system. Tschira’s response? “Okay, we’ll start developing it next week.”

SAPPHIRE in Orlando, Florida, in 1997

Naturally enough, SAP has used customer conferences as a platform to regularly introduce devotees to the latest innovations – from SAP R/3 through mySAP.com to SAP HANA and SAP C/4HANA. But the events frequently invite audiences to look beyond the world of IT as well, with a list of guest speakers from over the years that is both long and colorful: energy expert Daniel Yergin, publisher Malcom Forbes, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and others. No less diverse is the roll call of top acts representing 30 years of music history who have appeared: Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, Sting, Jennifer Lopez, Coldplay, Justin Timberlake, Van Halen, and many more.

SAP executives have been known to provide the entertainment themselves on occasions. In 1994, to the accompaniment of flashing lights and billowing smoke, Plattner leapt onto the stage with his electric guitar at the Walt Disney World Conference Center and sang “Oh Carol” by Chuck Berry – before segueing into an SAP R/3 technology update.

Rich in History

Drawing his comparison from the legendary “happening” that became the blueprint for future open-air music festivals nearly 50 years ago, Pfister describes SAPPHIRE as the “Woodstock of IT.” And while it may no longer be the industry’s biggest customer event, there is one key thing that makes the conference unique: “SAPPHIRE is rich in history,” he says. “And, for many, its relevance stems from its diversity and from the mix of people it attracts.”

SAPPHIRE NOW has always been an international gathering; it’s where users from North and South America compare notes with their counterparts from Asia and Europe, where SAP veterans with more than 20 years’ experience at the event meet the next generation, and where startups learn from both established corporations and small and midsize enterprises. It’s also where SAP alumni who have moved on still touch base with today’s employees, and where legions of journalists, analysts, and bloggers gather the material that informs their work for weeks and months after the conference has ended.

“What unites us all is our interest in IT and how companies can benefit from its capabilities,” says Pfister.

A marketer at SAP from 1987 to 2000, Tom Pfister was responsible for setting up marketing organizations in the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and Asia. He left the company in 2000 to establish the Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia and marketing companies Matchcode and Nytro, but still has close links with SAP through SAP Alumni Network.