Conference Nonsense | September 15, 2011

There’s a lot of nonsense being written about conferences at the moment; so as a regular speaker, organiser and attendee of both free and paid for events, I thought I’d redress the balance.

First off there is a big difference between community driven events and professional conferences. I started a free monthly event called SkillSwap way back in the early naughties and know a stack of people who run similar events now. These FREE events tend to rely on local speakers (who typically don’t charge), community organisers (who work for free), venue donations (usually from companies or community groups) and the occasional spot of sponsorship to pay for beer and pizza. These FREE events have grown from small local happenings into large community events like HackDay, BarCamp and Design Jam. You’ll often find them run by a whole committee of organisers and bankrolled by big corporations and local sponsors. They are great fun and provide an opportunity for novices to get a flavour for these kinds of events and maybe cut their teeth on the conference circuit.

Next up you have the semi-professional conferences. Events like Build, dConstruct and New Adventures. These type of events are usually run by passionate individuals or small companies who have experienced the value conferences can give, and want to bring some of that magic back to their local community. This is exactly what the newly found members of Clearleft did upon our return from SXSW back in 2005. We paid close to $2k each from our own pockets to attend this event and found it so valuable to our personal and professional lives that we wanted to do something similar (albeit smaller) in the UK.

These kind of events tend to take place outside of major cities (which are cheaper), in quirky venues (which are cheaper) and pick a mixture of established speakers and up-and-coming talent, and expect everybody to pay for their own lunch. If the organisers are lucky, these type of events will cover their costs and pay their organisers a small amount for their troubles. So to give you a scale of reference, each year dConstruct brings in the equivalent of a single web design project for Clearleft (we probably do 20-30 per year). However it takes significantly more effort to organise than one of these projects.

As an individual or small company it is incredibly risky to put on events like this and I know numerous folks who have lost money on their conferences. As such, organising a conference isn’t the path to riches than many people suspect. In fact it’s an incredibly stressful endeavour that is just as likely to see organisers out of pocket. But people continue to organise these events because they love the industry and desperately want to put something back into the community. As such I really feel for these smaller conference organisers when people accuse them of not trying hard enough or profiteering.

Lastly we have the big, expensive conferences that typically happen over multiple days and multiple tracks (which means more speakers and more venue costs) at professional conference venues (which are pricey) in major cities (which are expensive). As these events are over multiple days, attendees expect to be wined, dined and generally looked after. The costs of running an event like this are extremely high, as are the risks of failure. To give you an idea of the scale of these risks, the up front costs of running an event like UX London was around £100,000. So conference organisers try to mitigate some of these risks by picking big name speakers they know will fill seats.

In the article over at tutsplus, the author bemoans the cheek of conference organisers for charging as much as $1k per ticket, calls into question their motivations, and accuses them of either incompetence or profiteering. Just what you’d expect to hear from somebody who has never run such an event. To explain this they do some really hokey pseudo-maths to show how attendees are being ripped off. However rather than pseudo-maths, let’s look at some more realistic figures.

Let’s assume that this $1000 a ticket conference happens over 3 days with 3 tracks and attracts 300 people. That would indicate an income of $300,000. However once you’ve taken off transaction fees you looking at closer to $275,000. Let us assume that the venue day delegate rate is $100 per day which is actually quite low for a major conference venue. This brings the coffers down to $185,000. As a conference organiser you also have to pay the day delegate rate for all your speakers and volunteers. So let’s say there are 10 speakers per day and 10 staff. That brings your balance down to $173,000. If you pay each speaker $2,000, fly them over for $2,000 and put them up in a $250 per night hotel for 5 nights, that brings it down to a scarily low $15,500. Now let’s assume that wifi is charged at $10 per head, per day. Let’s also assume that the AV set-up is $5k $10k in total. This brings you down to a profit of $300 This gives you a loss of $4,700.

Let’s talk about sponsorship. Say that we get 8 sponsors at an average of $4,000 a piece. That works out at an additional $32k in revenue. Now let’s assume that as part of the package each sponsor will get 2 free tickets to the event, as well as 2 stand passes for their staff. That’s 16 tickets we can no longer sell and 32 day delegate rate fees we’ll have to pay to the venue. So knocking $25,600 off the total bill, this leaves us in profit, to the tune of $1,700.

Let’s also assume we’re going to print up goodie bags and give away a notebook and sharpie at a cost of $30, as Eric suggested in the comments. That’s an additional $9k. Most conferences have a pre and post party. Assuming $1k venue fee (which is very cheap) and say $10 per head on drinks. That’s an additional $8k. It’s always nice to take speakers out for a meal to thank them for the effort. Let’s say we take them out for a $100 a head meal, that comes to an extra $3k. Lastly, we’ve also had to hire a professional conference organisers to help manage logistics. Thankfully she charges just $150 per day. However she’s invoiced 40 days work over the last 6 months, which comes to another $6k.

Totting up my figures here I can see that despite an additional £32k of sponsorship income, we’ve still made a loss of $24,300. Next year it looks like this mythical 300 person conference will actually have to put their ticket price up to $1,081 to make sure they break even.

The truth is that conferences are hugely costly to run and what seems like a massive profit to the untrained eye quickly fades to nothing. So what does this mean for conference organisers. Should all conferences be a single day long and only feature unpaid and inexperienced speakers? Should they all take place in second tier cities in low cost venues and force attendees to bring a packed lunch? Or should they be scrapped altogether, in favour of paid for content on a tutorial site as the folks behind tutsplus (an ad supported and paid for content tutorial site) would have us believe? Personally I think not.

Like all things, it’s about the value proposition. If you are time rich and cash poor; reading books, scanning online tutorials and attending free community events makes a lot of sense. However if you’re cash rich and time poor, you may not have the resources to do this. Instead paying $1,000 vs weeks of private study can start to seem like a darned good investment. Especially if you come away with some brand new skills and a few extra business contacts.

As somebody who has attended a lot of conferences—many of which have come out of my own pocket—I can’t begin to count the value I’ve received. I’ve learnt new skills which have allowed me to charge more for my time or at the very least help me out of tricky situations; I’ve met new business prospects and built a network of friends and associates who provide leads and recommendations; I’ve found new staff for my company and met many people who have found jobs via a similar mechanism; and these are just the tangible things. I’ve met speakers who have inspired me and had hallway conversations that have helped crystallize thoughts I’ve been having for months. I find myself explaining techniques or using concepts with clients that I know I picked up at conferences, although I can’t for the life of me remember which ones. There are so many benefits to attending a conference above and beyond the tangible; it’s difficult to put a dollar value on them.

This reminds me of an article I read a while back about researchers trying to put a dollar value on a holiday to see if it’s worth the expense. They calculated that (and I’m making the figures up here) a $1,000 dollar holiday bought you about $3,000 worth of equivalent happiness. I wouldn’t be surprised if attending a conference had a similar effect on both your happiness and your potential profitability.

Posted at September 15, 2011 11:17 AM

Comments

Des Traynor said on September 15, 2011 3:49 PM

Great post Andy, and thanks for clarifying some of the numbers.

As an attendee of all Clearleft events I can say they’ve always been worth the money. I can’t always afford UX London, that’s not to say I don’t see the value proposition, I just rarely have the €2K spare post Christmas :)

One point I would add, is the pricing a conference in some way sets the tone of it. UX London is full of UX professionals. A €99 or €129 per day conference tends to have a different crowd, different attitudes, different expectations and different ways of complaining about things.

If UX London was a €99 conference, I expect it’d full of people falling into the “f**k it, why not?” category. The relevance of delegates would be minimal for me, so I wouldn’t be interested in attending. At the saying goes, you can make a pizza so cheap that no one wants to eat it.

“Pricing has many functions, only one of which is the exchange of money. ” — Jerry Weinberg

Eric Meyer said on September 15, 2011 4:58 PM

Yeah, your AV charge is much too low; made accurate, the event you just budgeted probably lost $5,000 - $10,000. I also think your delegate day rate seems a bit low, though it can of course vary greatly based on a number of factors, only a few of which the organizer can control.

Plus, if you decide to provide your own network so you’re sure everyone has rock-solid access (instead of relying on the venue network, which may not be up to handling a few hundred web folk) that’s another sizable cost. If you provide any goodies or giveaways, that’s yet another charge per head. And then if you reserve a room block with the hotel (in order to give attendees a special rate or free internet in the rooms or whatever) but fail to fill it, you will pay a large multiple of the conference room rate to cover it.

I also note you assumed the venue didn’t charge a flat room rental fee, which is not always true and can be many thousands of dollars. And just to put the icing on the cake, venues almost always have a guaranteed minimum income in the contract, and it’s usually a (very) high percentage of what it will cost to feed, house, and otherwise service your sellout number.

There’s probably something else I’m forgetting, too…

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 5:17 PM

Thanks for the input Eric,

You’re absolutely bang on the nose with those additions. You can also add in the cost of hiring a freelance conference organiser, the cost of running a pre and post party, the cost of having a speakers dinner (which usually sets us back around $5k), and this is before you’ve accounted for any of your own time planning the event. So rather than being a huge money spinner, this mythical $1,000 per ticket conference is starting to sound like a really bad idea. Unless of course you’re doing it for the love, which most of us are.

Mike Atherton said on September 15, 2011 5:44 PM

Great post Andy - I’m increasingly interested in the financials behind the glut of UX conferences that seem to have vomited themselves over the Twittersphere in recent years.

I appreciate you sharing some hypothetical figures, but have a couple of observations. Firstly, the conferences I have been involved with have been of the large-scale, multi-track variety, yet have operated through mostly volunteer resource. This has led to its own issues (patchy marketing, delays in processing submissions etc.) but surely must represent a huge cost saving. These conferences also only pay their keynote speakers - everyone else speaks for free. In fact in one of them, speakers must pay the conference registration fee.

My other point is that back when I was involved tangentially in hospitality, if a conference block-booked rooms (and filled them) then conference facilites and AV were thrown in for free (as well they bloody should be - there could be a companion post on the profiteering of venues!). Now this may no longer be the case, or perhaps there’s a niche for a more hardball venue negotiator.

So I’m left still wondering quite how the financials balance out for some conferences, but it’s great to get your insight from UX London and dConstruct.

Brad Colbow said on September 15, 2011 5:48 PM

Not to mention that these expensive conferences are selling out weeks ahead of time, there is obviously a demand. I’ve been to several conferences in the last year ranging in price from $100 to $800 and as an attendee I thought they have all been really well done but you can definitely tell what you’re paying for when you start comparing the prices vs quality.

brendan murphy said on September 15, 2011 5:51 PM

Thank you for the insight of the conference business :)

Jeffrey Way said on September 15, 2011 5:54 PM

Hey Andy -

Thanks for chiming in on Nettuts+, and I apologize if I offended you somehow. It wasn’t my intention. I’ll update the post with a link to your article, and a bit of clarification.

I suppose, though, that what you’ve written here only furthers my belief that conferences are over priced for the huge majority of folks. Your post outlines the massive expenses required to organize such an event. Is it so odd then that, from a buyer’s perspective, I might remark that the entrance fee seems exorbitantly high?

This post also assumes that all conferences are created equal. Sure, I’d submit that $1,000 is reasonable for a 3-5 day conference in a big city, with after parties, an excellent venue, etc. But what about the smaller conferences in my hometown that still charge prices this high? My post is geared more specifically for them. Of course a big conference in New York or Chicago will be pricey. (Though again, I’d rather organizers cut back on the amenities and save me some money.)

My article was intended for the common developer who may not have a company to foot the bill. The fact that countless readers have remarked that they, too, feel conferences are overpriced, I must not be crazy.

John Foliot said on September 15, 2011 5:55 PM

Andy,
As someone who has organized what you referenced as a “semi-professional” conference (I think that is a slightly unfair term, and would rather classify them as regional conferences) I too can attest to the cost of putting on these types of events. This year’s Open Web Camp (in the Bay Area of California - www.openwebcamp.org) remained free to attendees, yet cost us over $8,500 USD to put on, and that doesn’t include venue or tech costs (which Stanford University donated as in-kind sponsorship). Were it not for the overwhelming generosity of both our corporate sponsors as well as the support and participation of the speakers (who also gave freely of their time) we would never get this off the ground.

I’ve spoken to many organizers over the years (John Allsopp/Web Directions, Jeffery Zeldman/AnEventApart, and others) and overwhelmingly these people don’t organize these events to make money, they do it for our industry, and to - as you noted - give back to the community they have both embraced and have been embraced by. Nay-sayers who think otherwise need to walk a mile in those shoes to see what it takes. Andy, keep up the good work, and ignore the peanut gallery.

Chris Sainsbury said on September 15, 2011 6:02 PM

Interesting post, thanks for the info. I bet it feels great when it all comes together!

Sami Niemelä said on September 15, 2011 6:12 PM

I guess as the saying goes, things are too expensive only if you can’t afford them. Goes with conferences as well. My colleagues and myself have attended a lot of Clearleft organized as well as other events (as it happens, I write this at Picnic in Amsterdam).

I can’t recall an major event where one of us had come back disappointed - I’m sure there are those, too. But all the times I recall our folks have come back more inspired, energized and motivated as before. It’s always been on the upside - but you always get what you give in, too.

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 6:15 PM

Mike,
you’re right that volunteers and free speakers can significantly reduce costs. In fact I think I stated that in my first few paragraphs. In essences it comes down the the type of conference you want to put on. Do you want to put on a low cost, community driven event or a professionally organised event with top name speakers. It also depends on whether you feel you should compensate your speakers. I go to a lot of conferences that don’t pay their speakers and what you often get is a mix of less experienced (and therefore less polished) speakers, or folks from big companies like Adobe, Microsoft, Opera, Yaho and Mozilla whose job is to speak at events. However then you run the risk of talks being dominated by sales pitches and corporate propaganda. Paying speakers helps alleviate both of these issues.

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 6:34 PM

Hey Jeffrey,
Your post didn’t offend me but it was very leading and quite inaccurate. It was also written with a specific business agenda in mind, so I thought it was important to highlight this and redress the balance.

If you were targeting your post at particular types of conference, then I suggest that you highlight this in your article rather than trying to tar all conferences with the brush of incompetent or profiteering behaviour. I’d also consider doing some actual research rather than making up figures to back up a flawed hypothesis.

As for my article proving your point, that’s utter nonsense. For start you’re comparing apples and oranges as you get different things from a conference and a paid for online article. Its akin to saying that eating at a nice restaurant is a waste of money when you can read a review online. Secondly, one does not preclude the other. So you can read online tutorials for hard facts and go to conferences for more nuanced opinion.

Lastly, it really depends on how you measure value. I would imagine most good freelancers in the US charge upwards of $500 per day. So do you value a days worth of education as less than a days worth of coding? It’s fine if you’d prefer to spend that days worth of income on a new XBOX, a nice meal or a weekend away. It’s not that the days education it too expensive. It’s just that you’ve made a value judgement that says “to me, owning a new XBOX is more important than a day at a conference”. Others will decide to invest differently, under the belief that a day at a conference will at the minimum be fun and may earn them more than $500 in the long term.

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 6:38 PM

Hey John,
Thanks for the encouragement and kind words. FYI I used the term “semi-professional” not as a value judgement but in the literal meaning of “somebody who is paid to undertake an activity but doesn’t make their living out of it.”

Jeffrey Way said on September 15, 2011 6:55 PM

What’s my agenda? Reflecting that some conferences seem too expensive? I can show you hundreds upon hundreds of comments that agree. That’s hardly nonsense.

If all conferences were $1,000 or more, perhaps I’d understand your point, but they aren’t. If I can go to an equally educational community driven conference for a fifth the price, then I’ll take that choice. The notion that a community conference is full of inexperienced developers and agenda-driven evangelists is nonsense in my opinion. I’ve attended many community events, and have been amazed at the level of expertise shown.

As you noted, this all comes down to value. And it’s not a $1k conference vs. an Xbox. That, again, implies that the buyer isn’t interested in furthering his education. Dismissive. Instead… it’s a $1k conference vs. a $300 conference.

I’m not for a second suggesting that big conferences are doing anything wrong. They sell out, and are very popular. That’s fantastic. But I can’t justify the expense, when there are equally fantastic conferences that are far cheaper.

Paul Johnston said on September 15, 2011 7:08 PM

Every time I think about organising a conference, I go through the basic spreadsheet of how I might go about it, and realise that it takes a hell of a lot of guts to put on any conference.

Totally agree with the sentiments here. You’ve got to understand the costs before going in, and most people don’t.

Dan W said on September 15, 2011 7:18 PM

This is good, thanks for posting it.

I keep meeting folks who think event organisation is both easy and highly profitable, and now I have something to point them at to clarify the costs.

Louis said on September 15, 2011 7:43 PM

Andy,

In response to Jeffrey’s comment, you said:

For start you’re comparing apples and oranges as you get different things from a conference and a paid for online article. Its akin to saying that eating at a nice restaurant is a waste of money when you can read a review online. Secondly, one does not preclude the other. So you can read online tutorials for hard facts and go to conferences for more nuanced opinion.

By these statements, you’re implying that you can’t get “nuanced opinion” from an online article. I know that’s probably not what you meant to say, but that’s essentially what it amounts to, so you might want to clarify that and possibly give some examples.

Jeffrey’s original post is questioning the educational value of conferences, not the “meet and greet” dynamic and human-handshake of it all — stuff we all acknowledge you can’t get online. But to imply that the educational aspect of conferences is unique in comparison to online articles is … well… nonsense. :)

If the in-person reality of conferences is the only thing that is unique to conferences in comparison to online articles (and I’m not saying it is; I’m saying “if” it is), then you might as well just go to the pub down the street and have a few beers with friends — which will cost (for most people!) a lot less than $1000.

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 7:59 PM

Hi Louise,

What I meant by that statement is that conferences provide tacit knowledge while tutorials tent to focus on explicit knowledge. If your friends happen to be published authors, successful start-up founders and internationally renowned designers, then I agree that 3 days in a pub with them may be a much more economical way to spend your time :)

Andy Pimlett said on September 15, 2011 8:10 PM

This is a great article and provides a thoughtful insight into conferences. Either owing to location and/or cost I am never in a position to justify attendance over, for example, the purchase of a load of books or video training. And of course the consideration of the value to myself and my organisation - something I guess I will only ever determine through a visit.

In spite of this, I have great respect for the cost and organisational commitment required to undertake such events and have nothing but support for those who do [organise them]. There do however, seem to be a growing number of competing events, similar topics and/or speakers and I would question the me-too factor…

But then I guess more events means greater competition and geographical representation - so perhaps a good thing.

But to come back to the original point - so what if you’re making a profit. It’s business. You are committing a substantial amount of your time, expertise and experience to deliver something which, judging by attendance, has a obvious demand.

The purpose of these events ultimately is to educate, inform and provide networking opportunities to those attending and consequently allow them to increase their business profits. Why the hell should you be expected to boost their profits and not your own.

frances said on September 15, 2011 8:14 PM

You seem to have left what sponsors pay to be represented in your sums. What difference would that make to overheads?

George Katsanos said on September 15, 2011 8:21 PM

Andy,

Reading yours & other commentators arguments from the conference organizers perspective, one forms the impression you actually lose rather than make money. If that’s the case, then that’s not such a brilliant business model - if I may. But I highly doubt people are so naive or devoted or whatever, that they are spending so much time/effort and possibly money just for the sake of it. (although I am not so sure about the numbers presented: CSS Summit, that I saw going through my tweetlist not so long ago was an ONLINE conference, and access to all recordings goes for almost $900). http://environmentsforhumans.com/2011/css-summit/
My impression is that there is indeed a profit to be made from these conferences: For the people and their companies who are behind them and mainly talk in them. The self-promotion and the number of potential clients for the above, exceeds the possible profits from the conference itself. I guess the same goes for books. Authoring makes hardly any profit, but the publicity that it offers is invaluable.
But that’s not the point. I will strongly agree with Louis closing line,
But to imply that the educational aspect of conferences is unique in comparison to online articles is … well… nonsense. :)
whether or not conferences are overpriced, cheap, profitable for their organizers or not, is not the issue here. The question is how much more can you learn compared to the almost infinite amount of articles, books, tutorials, community discussions etc that are online. Not much, I think.

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 8:28 PM

Actually Jeffrey you are implying that $1,000+ conferences are doing something wrong by suggesting that pricing is “out of control” and “vulgar”, that conference organisers are possibly “bad people” and that the only reason they are put on is to give staff a “fun vacation”. So if you use this mix of incendiary language and half-truths, don’t be surprised if you get called out.

I believe there is room for conferences of all price points, from free events like BarCamp to super expensive conferences like TED. So while I personally can’t justify the expense of going to TED, that’s my decision. I wouldn’t use it an excuse to call the organisers intentions into question or suggest that they were failing to provide value. After all it’s the attendees choice, not yours.

If you have problems with specific conferences that’s fine. Some events are good and others are bad. However to critic all conferences over a specific price point seems simplistic and ill-informed. Especially when you don’t seem to have a problem with a one day event priced at $300 but are outraged by a 3 day event charging $1,000.

entendu said on September 15, 2011 8:33 PM

Unless you meant that tutsplus were commanding math to calculate by force, you meant “pseudo-maths”, not “sudo-maths”.

A nice writeup nonetheless ;)

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 8:35 PM

Hey Frances,

Sponsors definitely help. So if you were to get 10 sponsors all paying $2k each, it would go some way to paying your speaker fees. But unless you’re a HUGE conference attracting big name sponsors willing to put serious money into the event, it’s really just a drop in the ocean.

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 8:49 PM

George,
For most one-off conferences the organisers will break even and hopefully make a small amount of money. But considering the risks and amount of effort involved, it’s not a great business model. However if you keep your costs low by picking cheaper venues and not paying your speakers, if you scale up your events so it’s not 300 people but 3,000, and if you run half a dozen events a year rather than just the one, then you can make a business out of it. Some folks do try to sell the conference videos at a heightened fee but I tend to find this practice a little sleazy.

As for self promotional purposes, companies selling services benefit by association and companies selling products benefit from direct sales. As such a lot of conferences are actually seen as a marketing expense rather than a revenue stream. That being said, while I’ve definitely had job offers as a speaker, this doesn’t tend to happen as an organiser.

As for your last point, I refer you back to my response about tacit versus explicit learning. You tend to pull facts from online tutorial while develop more fleshed out strategies by attending conferences. For some disciplines and at some point in your career, explicit learning is all that counts. However as you start to gain mastery over this explicit knowledge the tacit stuff starts to become more important. As such, I think both are valuable, but the value changes with time and experience.

Brian Jones said on September 15, 2011 9:07 PM

Just because a lot of people can’t afford a certain thing, that doesn’t mean the people setting the price are wrong. There are lots of things I can’t afford in this world. Many of those things are fairly priced.

Also it’s worth noting that a lot of the top-shelf speakers at web design conferences have been giving away tons of knowledge via blogs, etc. for many years. Good for them if they make a little profit now and then.

Jeffrey Way said on September 15, 2011 9:29 PM

Let’s keep things in perspective please. I’m hardly outraged. The article was meant to create discussion (success).

malcolm coles said on September 15, 2011 9:59 PM

A £1,200 conference does seem likely to exclude an awful lot of types of people. I’ve made you an offer to help some of them come: http://www.malcolmcoles.co.uk/blog/conference-pricing/

Garry said on September 15, 2011 10:45 PM

I say book the next venue at po-dunk, bum-f**k egypt location. It’s all about the people and the speakers. The location is just for after-hours purposes. I’d love to see a sub-$500 conference over several days with top speakers in a remote location.

David L said on September 15, 2011 10:47 PM

Having been involved in staging numerous events, including three-day Web Design conferences, Andy’s assessment of the costs of putting on a three-day event at the ~$1,000 price point is more or less spot on if the host organization is to make any profit at all — which, in the absence of sponsors (hard to get for web events), is usually pretty small.

Andy mentions (and Eric reiterates) a number of these costs and I’d add that events held in major US cities have to contend with enormous mark-ups on catering charges ($6 for a single chocolate chip cookie, $64 for a single boxed sandwich lunch!) and union labor [“You want to move that table 10ft across the room? That’ll be $100 and a union worker has to do it”].

It gets very expensive, very fast.

Andy Budd said on September 15, 2011 11:02 PM

Just to clarify Malcolm’s erroneous comment, the early bird tickets for UX London are actually £745. For a 3 day event mostly based around workshops, this comes to less than £250 per day. If that’s too steep we deliberately run a cheaper conference called dConstruct as well as a free monthly event called SkillSwap (all of which was mentioned in the post). We could make UX London cheaper, by picking local speakers and hosting it in Brighton. But then it would be UX Brighton, and event which already exists. One of the benefits of being a moderately successful company with good connections is that we’re able to reach out to speakers who don’t normally come to the UK and are able to bankroll the kind of event that most individuals or community groups couldn’t organise. It sounds like a lot of folks think that all conferences should be low cost, local affairs, but I like the fact that we have variety and choice in the market place.

Susan Robertson said on September 15, 2011 11:17 PM

As a person who has attended several of the more expensive conferences and then gone to a local event that was much cheaper, I have to say that the more expensive conference was just better in many ways. The quality of speakers, the quality of attendees, the enthusiasm of attendees, all of which led to great experiences that left me with a lot to think about. I understand the need for different types of experiences, but I also feel like you get what you pay for and the energy of being in a room full of people who are discussing what I do and pushing the bounds, is always worth it to me. I toil in a large company and fight the good fight every day, sometimes I just want to be able to sit back and chew on the more meatier parts of the industry and that’s what the conference gives me. But as Andy said numerous times in the comments, everyone has to decide how they want to spend their money and I choose to spend it on conferences because it feeds my passion.

John Allsopp said on September 16, 2011 12:53 AM

What Andy said.

Here’s our pricing model - a cup of coffee a day every working day of the year. Is your professional development worth that?

BTW, if you look at the “big” events - where speakers rarely even get their costs covered, prices there are typically $500+ a day. Plus a lot of their content is curiously related to, and delivered by speakers from sponsor companies.

The truth is, it is really hard to create sustainable events. It can be exciting to do an event, a bar camp, whatever - but look at the drop off. Unless you create a sustainable business model around these events, that makes it worth your time to do it (and that may be driving business for related activities) then the events simply won’t last.

And, the risks up front are potentially huge. You can be left holding the can for hotels, venues, catering minimums, …

In short, it’s far harder than you might think, even after years of doing this (we did our first event in 2004).

Dan Saffer said on September 16, 2011 1:01 AM

As my friend Rob Adams rightly pointed out to me, the idea that conferences don’t make money is nonsense. Conferences are vastly profitable…just not for conference organizers. Caterers, hotels, conference halls, etc. all make a fortune.

The way to be more profitable for conference organizers is to either a) charge more b) find cheaper (non-hotel) venues or c) skimp on things like food. A and C both mostly suck and B is tricky too.

malcolm coles said on September 16, 2011 7:54 AM

To correct Andy’s erroneous correction of me, early-bird tickets for UX London are £900. VAT-registered businesses can reclaim £150. But the amount you pay for a ticket is £900 - which is what freelancers etc will pay.

There appear to be two strands to the argument here - that there are conferences that freelancers / the unemployed can attend so they are OK. But also that there ought to be conferences that fly in great speakers from around the world, which are bound to be expensive.

To me this is about the effect of pricing structure. If the big expensive conferences go down the traditional early/standard/late route then you end up excluding those who can’t afford these high costs. Which means they don’t see the great speakers, they don’t meet client-side people from large companies etc.

But there are other pricing structures - you could have discounts for the under 30s or from the self employed or from companies of under X people. These are harder to police, I accept - but there may be ways of doing it (EG LInkedIn profile).

Andy Budd said on September 16, 2011 8:53 AM

I’m sorry Malcolm, but I’m REALLY starting to get fed up with your trolling here. For a start you turn a general conversation about conferences into a cheap attack on the specific conference I help organise. You then inflate the prices of said conference for effect and get snippy when I correct you. (Incidentally freelancers can become Vat registered if they choose.)

You seem to claim that conference organisers are deliberately creating a two tier system which leaves freelancers and the unemployed with the dregs of speakers. That’s absolutely not the case and if you look at dConstruct (which costs £125) we’ve had Don Norman, Merlin Mann, John Gruber, Tom Coates, Adam Greenfield, Steven Johnson, and Cory Doctorow speak in the past, to name just a few.

To enable this we do have a different pricing structure. We run the event outside London (which is cheaper), run it over one day (which is also cheaper and cuts down on attendee hotel costs) and don’t offer food (which saves a shed load of money). We also increase the numbers to create economies of scale. You’d know this if you’d have bothered to read the article.

As for UX London, it’s super easy to suggest that we need to offer different pricing models, which again we do. We have a range from early bird to full price. However as the conference costs around £700 per head to put on, it doesn’t make sense to offer too many student tickets (although we do offer a few) as it actually puts other attendees ticket prices up. What we have done is work with sponsors to provide student bursaries and encourage students to volunteer at the event. But from the sounds of it, this isn’t enough for you.

For some reason you seem to think that people have an inalienable right to attend every conference they want, no matter what the cost of organising said event. Even if that increases the cost of tickets for everybody else. If that’s not possible, you argue, we should reduce the cost (and therefore the quality) of the event even though there are plenty of other conferences (including several of our own) that satisfy that price point.

Your argument is akin to suggesting that four star hotels have a duty to offer students rooms at the cost of staying at a youth hostel, which is of course nonsense.

So I say again, if you’re so incensed by conference pricing, put your own event on rather than throwing barbs. If you do, you’ll see that in reality it’s a bit harder than your snippy blog post may suggest.

Steve D said on September 16, 2011 11:42 AM

I think it’s undeniable that it would be mad to suggest that companies who set these events up, do not do so without thinking that it will add something reasonable to their revenue stream. I have no issue with that for what it’s worth, but I think to suggest they just scrape by is probably pushing the boat out a bit. The bigger events are heavily sponsored and I suspect pull in a healthy amount for the organisers, before they have to run up the final bill.

Value is an incredibly specific thing when it comes to deciding how much a conference is worth to someone. When you’re spending upwards of £600 just to be in the same room as these people you have to ask where the value in that comes from, and how it fits in with the other communication from these individuals. I have seen and heard some incredible people talk for cheap or for free, then networked with them, however they are not necessarily at the top of the food chain in terms of marketing themselves, and perhaps nor do they care. They just make great work. These are not lightweight types either, I’m talking about people who have industry gravitas, experience and a history of great design. Also, these events can be in major cities too, so it’s not just where it is that matters, and just because it’s in a city doesn’t automatically make it expensive.

Part of the reason these conferences are getting a bad rep is that the web industry can be quite elitist and inward looking. A closed circle of sorts where people who try to speak to the “industry leaders” aren’t engaged with unless you pay to see them talk. It is often the same people in the same magazines, at the same conferences, sometimes saying the same things. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy too, people feel short changed because after paying all that money, they aren’t listening to people who have gained any kind of kudos other than designing some nice websites that all their (equally aloof) friends in the industry re-tweet and rave about.

I don’t doubt that I could learn a thing or two by going to a conference and I certainly value learning where I can from others. However compared to what I can do for much less, I won’t even consider paying the kind of prices that are currently going around. Especially when the engagement outside these events is almost 0. Tweets, emails and general chatter are ignored when you try to become involved in other ways, it becomes a little frustrating as it feels like there’s an invisible paywall in front of what should be an open community.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the people I’m talking about here (and you all know who they are) are good at their craft, but I just wish they would drop the opportunity to promote and engage through paid means once in a while. At the end of the day it’s about being humble, and I think the web industry needs a healthy dose of that to help welcome some interesting and valued contributions to make. The more good and humble people are ignored, maybe not this year, maybe not next, but people will eventually start to vote with their feet.

Mike Henken said on September 16, 2011 12:47 PM

God I would hate to have to deal with you on a regular basis..

Imo, you are deluded and this article (written in pointless retaliation to a tutsplus article), was a waste of time and effort.

John Ward said on September 16, 2011 2:55 PM

I see your point that running a conference can be expensive, but that doesn’t mean that the conference goer (or would be goers) see the value in $1000 ticket. Even if that’s what it takes for you to break even.

It all comes down to perceived value and then who is actually paying for the trip. Out of pocket $1000 is a lot for me, but if I think I will receive more value, or make much more than $1000 with the information I get from a conference it could possibly be justified.

George Katsanos said on September 16, 2011 3:05 PM

Part of the reason these conferences are getting a bad rep is that the web industry can be quite elitist and inward looking. A closed circle of sorts where people who try to speak to the “industry leaders” aren’t engaged with unless you pay to see them talk. It is often the same people in the same magazines, at the same conferences, sometimes saying the same things. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy too, people feel short changed because after paying all that money, they aren’t listening to people who have gained any kind of kudos other than designing some nice websites that all their (equally aloof) friends in the industry re-tweet and rave about.

+1.

Andy Budd said on September 16, 2011 3:57 PM

Hey John,

You’re absolutely right. Just because a conference is expensive to run doesn’t mean that it’s worth the cost for everybody. However the same is true of cheap or even free conferences. I’ve been to several events that cost almost nothing but weren’t worth the lost opportunity cost. So cost isn’t the issue, value is. As such it’s down to individuals to make value judgements over individual conferences on a personal level, rather than proclaiming that all $1,000 are a waste of money, as many have done. This is especially ironic as many of the people complaining haven’t been to a good conference so are simply judging based on perceived value rather than actual value.

It’s one thing to say that I don’t see value in travelling business class. It’s another thing to suggest that all business class tickets are a rip off and imply that folks travelling business class are therefore saps. However if you’re flying to New York for a big pitch and need to do some work, get some sleep and feel fresh in the morning, you may suddenly think it’s a good investment.

Andy Budd said on September 16, 2011 4:13 PM

I’m sorry Steve D and George, but you’re so wrong. Rather than being Elitist, the web industry is one of the most meritocratic industries I know. What other industry can you think of where an 18 year old with little industry experience can release a new JS library and be hailed as an overnight genius, or an individual can write a smartly worded blog post and be invited to keynote a conference.

Similarly, there are few professions where the “industry leaders” are so available and willing to respond to question on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Email and blogs. Similarly there are few professions which will see the “industry leaders” talking for free at local community events. In Brighton we have around 20 web related events each month, with speakers who run companies, write books and speak at big International events. How many networking events are there in Brighton where Accountants, Lawyers or Architects do the same? One or two at most?

My guess is that you learnt much of your craft from these people. Not from charging you to attend expensive workshops, but by giving their content away for free on blogs and community events. Either that or writing books for a pittance, not to make money but to spread knowledge across the community.

What you perceive as elitist is actually merit. If you do good stuff in public you’ve got a really good chance of being noticed. If you do average stuff in private, nobody will care.

Jeffrey Way said on September 16, 2011 4:32 PM

Yeah, the elitest argument has been coming up a lot lately. I think that’s far from true. CSS Mastery and Eric’s first CSS book (can’t remember the name) fully introduced me to CSS, and both of you were open on Twitter to chatter. You don’t find that in other industries.

I do think there’s a “cool kids club” though, and maybe that’s what people perceive as being elitest. But, that’s silly.

In terms of the conference debate, I’ve learned a lot in the last couple days. I’m hoping to find someone to write a contradictory article for Nettuts+ on the subject. Mine was more of a “from the buyer’s perspective.” It’ll be nice to have an organizer’s perspective article as well, to even things out.

@Mike - That’s not nice, man.

Vicky said on September 16, 2011 5:16 PM

£1000 sounds like a lot for three days (and is at the more expensive end of the spectrum anyway), but hell, everything in London is expensive. And are next year’s intake of students going to feel like they got £9000 worth of value from their education? I doubt it. What both do have in common is being self-selecting.

Having been to a number of expensive conferences (at least one that I paid entirely out of my own pocket and included a 14 hour flight), I’d agree with Des that those that choose to go, especially the self-paid ones, are often pretty interesting people.

I do wonder if a lot of this comes down to what you’re prepared to pay for education. While some of the workshops that people have mentioned are cheap, others are not (for example, doing a Cooper 3-day course can set you back about £1500. And there are no student discounts). Yes, you can choose to go to the community college, and you may be lucky; or you can go to the expensive university, and also hope that you get your money’s worth. But just like going to various unis, it’s often the alumni that are more useful, not the tutors.

Brian Behrend said on September 16, 2011 6:32 PM

Thanks Andy for the well thought out and informative post. Not sure how any person can argue with anything you said.

Petra Gregorova said on September 17, 2011 11:10 AM

Hi Steve!
I had a hard time not to comment on your post, as it got me intrigued. You seem to me like you think you know a lot about putting up a conference. I don’t have a clue what it all takes, as I have never put one together but can only imagine all that goes into it. I sure have attended quite a few of them from the more affordable ones to some pricey ones as well, so I have quite a bit to compare it to. Yes, some where better than others but that’s to be expected. I’m curious though, have you ever attended one? From what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like you did but I might be wrong.

One thing that stood out to me towards your the end of your post what the comment about some of the speakers that could be more humble and that you feel like you don’t get responded back from them via various media. Over the past few years, I have attended a handful of conferences in US, Canada or UK. Those events to me are something to look forward to when I get to travel, meet new people, as well as get inspired and learn a thing or two from some great folks in our industry. Events like these are wonderful places to really put a face to name and see what all those people are like in person, rather from what you read, hear or learn via social media. I am not sure what your experiences have been so far but so far I have found everyone I’ve met so far very friendly and easy to talk to.

It’s hard to know for sure why people don’t get back to you when you try to reach out. To be honest, I wouldn’t take things like that personally. If you really feel like you have something to bring to the table, I’d say just keep trying and I am sure it will pay off. :) In lot of cases people are just people, who are busy leading their professional life as well as trying to manage their personal one. Trust me, I’m no one “famous” and I struggle at getting back to people no matter how hard I try or want to. ;)

In the end, I don’t try to question why some conferences cost more than others. It could be so many things, whether it’s the venue, accommodations… After all it’s me who decides where or even if I will end up spending my money that I’ve worked hard for.

Pierre said on September 17, 2011 12:50 PM

Your math seems correct, but you totally forgot to calculate the sponsors in ;-)

Steve Pocklington said on September 17, 2011 1:28 PM

Conferences are expensive, especially for those who are freelance (like myself). However it’s definitely not the organisers who are to blame (if blame is the right word). It’s simply a fact of life that venues, AV, food, drink and people’s time cost money, and lots of it, and those costs ramp up quickly the closer you get to Charing Cross! Also I think it’s a mistake to think that being a good web designer or programmer makes you a good speaker at a conference. The reason the bigger names cost more (and rightfully so) is because it takes a certain type of person to present in front of hundreds of people and get their ideas and opinions across in a manner that is as much entertaining as it is educational. Having seen amazing presentations from people like Jeff Veen and Andy Clarke (both of which changed my career direction at @Media 2008) I can honestly say that if you get the right mix of top quality speakers for your career path/interests then the costs are worth it, you just have to approach it with a professional attitude and treat it as an investment in your business (if you’re freelance) or make your employer know it’s an investment in you as an valued employee. FInally this idea that the ‘elite’ members of the industry are aloof is just laughable, I don’t think there’s another industry in the world that produces so much insight, opinion, guidance and usable products for free as ours. Image life without free jQuery, Selectivizr, HTML5 Boilerplate and so much more, we’re spoilt really.

Julie Ng said on September 17, 2011 1:31 PM

Andy,
Thanks for taking the time to write the article and laying out some of the math.

A job well done often goes unnoticed
Sponsors or not, I think we all underestimate the costs of a conference, especially as you duly note, the mental cost, time and stress required for planning and organization. Unfortunately users only realize that value when things go wrong or not as smoothly. When you plan everything properly, which requires time, the user doesn’t know - which is good.

Pricing and holidays
Four digit conference passes are expensive. But no one is forcing you to go and you are not penalized for not going. Most importantly, there are enough semi-professional conferences and local events out there such that everyone can enjoy the benefits of being the same room with people who are just passionate about technology. Realistically even if you attend a conference with a big name, what is the chance you get to really get to them? My biggest takeaways have always come from others, just people I’ve met, usually who live near me or simply in the same place career wise. I’ve learned more from them that I can directly apply to myself than hearing big names speak on stage.

Last note: speakers
You say paying speakers alleviates some issues and has benefits for attendees, including that they are more “experienced”. I half disagree. We all have to start somewhere and to be honest, I’ve seen some big names speak and I was just disappointed. They just weren’t as eloquent on stage as they are when blogging. Or they just didn’t have presence and weren’t able to capture the attention fo the audience. That said, speaking is not easy. Although I think attendees should do research before they decide whether they want to hear someone speak, I think organizers should too and take chances on lesser known folks who are just brilliant on stage. I hear that’s how Aran Balkan came into the scene and that’s brilliant. It can also then balance out the pricing. And if a big sponsor like Adobe wants to send speakers, oh well. Most conferences have tracks these days and people and choose to attend or not.

But to be fair, it’s challenging to find the right balance. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we don’t. But kudos to anyone who tries and takes on the risk of putting on a conference.

And for all the haters out there, no one is forcing you to go and there are plenty to choose from. Ours is an industry that is exploding. Jump on if you wish and enjoy the ride.

Cheers,
Julie

Oli Studholme said on September 17, 2011 2:43 PM

Imma let you finish, but if you really wanna go for broke (ha!), organise a conference in a non-English speaking country. Three words pplz, professional simultaneous translation.

I paid to go to a conference four years ago. It was expensive, but it led to meeting great people, volunteering to organise conferences, becoming an HTML5 Doctor, and now writing a book. I’ve put in my own money and a ton of time, with no financial gain (so far). But I’ve made some amazing friends, had new opportunities come my way, and learned a lot.

This revolution needs new revolutionaries http://nimbupani.com/this-revolution-needs-new-revolutionaries.html You can sit on the sidelines, or you can step up. Help an OS project, learn something and write about it, give feedback on a spec, file a browser bug, organise an event, anything! Meritocracy ftw, comrades!

George Katsanos said on September 17, 2011 4:13 PM

Andy Budd,

Although the closed-group argument from Steve D was bitter (same applies for all posts&comments in this discussion anyway), it definitely must have an amount of truth in it - especially with regards in repetition of names and topics. It’s certainly a growing impression amongst web designers.(here’s another recent post about it). This said without forgetting or not respecting any of these people’s contribution that as you said has indeed being through their blogs or open source projects. Just to be clear about this.

Personally, it’s not the “mom, these kids don’t play with me” thing. I’m genuinely worried that it can have a real effect on healthy competition. Simply put, if someone’s your buddy (or worse, someone who publishes your books or invites you over to talk to 10 conferences per year - thus bringing you $business$), then you’ll be more hesitant to stand up and say “bs!” when he publishes something you don’t agree with etc.

There are numerous examples lately that “the road taken” should have been debated more/longer, example from the top of my head: the whole discussion for RWD vs separate Mobile design. Apparently people creating mobile-only websites raised some pretty valid questions back 1 yr ago, but you know what - we never pretty much heard of them..

Anyway, I think with over 100 comments within a couple of days, everyone will have to agree that there is an issue over here, and I’m confident it will be heard as a reasonable worry.

Mark Dalgarno said on September 17, 2011 4:18 PM

Andy, great post. I’ve no doubt there are high-margin poor value events out there but it’s easy to be a critic in the absence of having tried to put together an event yourself - risking your own time and money…

As a regular event organiser I’ve heard similar criticism. In fact I’ve heard it recently for a 1 day event I’m putting on - the astronomical price that was moaned about - £110 + VAT. Yes, that’s not a typo, one hundred and ten pounds. People see the price of something but don’t think about the value, the cost or risk of putting it on. As a minimum the venue needs to be paid according to the number you book for - with limited negotiation room available if you attract fewer people.

I’ve run free events on a voluntary basis, I’ve volunteered at events other people have organised and I’ve been running my own paid events for 5 years. Most of the money and little of the risk goes to the venue.

Johnathon Lawyer said on September 17, 2011 6:27 PM

I’m a long time watcher and I just assumed I’d drop by and say hello for your first time. I seriously get pleasure from your posts. Many thanks

jenjenk said on September 18, 2011 5:10 AM

As a conference planner, thank you for understanding costs associated with putting one of these things on. We do not go into conferences as a way to make money or even break even - it’s marketing and PR tool for us and we get that. The small amount that we charge is more of a “commitment” fee [so people don’t register and bail out at the last minute.] [By the way, $5k is Veeeeerrrrrrry low for AV…i want the name of the AV people you use! :) ]

Ms. Jen said on September 18, 2011 5:26 AM

First off, Andy, thank you for writing this up and laying out the numbers. A few years ago at SXSW, Eric Meyer and I had a good conversation about conferences inviting named speakers vs up&coming speakers, and one of the good points that Eric made was how much upfront an organizer has to put down for venue and other deposits. That conversation was the first time I had heard how much it costs to get even a medium sized event up and running.

As a freelancer, I try to make it to at least one general web conference (like SXSW) and one specific in depth conference (like UXLondon or Mobile 2.0, etc) per year. I also try to pick one workshop or in-depth training per year. I try turn each of these into a vacation by picking events or trainings in cities where friends live that I would like to catch up with on the weekend before or after the conf/training.

One thing not mentioned beyond cost is learning styles. For some, they can learn everything they need to go grow as a professional through self-guided learning with reading articles/books and watching videos, others need to hear or watch others, and another set may need to do the activity along with the workshop leader to lodge it in their brain.

I am in the last category, I am a kinetic learner who learns best by first reading about the subject at home and then going to a training or workshop to get it firmly lodged into my brain. I make no apologies for this. It is just how my brain works, so I have a training/workshop budget that is more than my software & hardware capital purchases each year.

Thank you for all the hard work that you and many others put in to organizing events so that I can lodge more good & new ideas in my brain. I am sad that I was not able to attend dConstruct this year and take Scott Jehl’s Mobile JQuery workshop.

Please keep up the good work.

Darren Roberts said on September 18, 2011 5:54 AM

Well, that seems like a fair response by Jeffrey from NetTuts - not all conferences are equal.

And it depends on what the attendee expects to get from the conference as well. If you’re just looking for pure information, sometimes it’s just better to buy the recording from the event (if available) and watch that in chunks at your own leisure.

If you’re like me and spend most of your time glued to your monitor in an office with minimal face to face contact, then it’s nice sometimes to go and meet real live people with a pulse. And not just from a social perspective - it’s sometimes surprising the direction a conversation can take - and ideas spring up or present themselves quite frequently when I’m in ‘chat mode’ with other business owners, designers and freelancers.

It’s definitely different strokes for different folks ;-)

Many Thanks,
Darren.

Vince Delmonte said on September 18, 2011 6:03 AM

As someone who has attended tons of conferences and seminars my whole life, I have to say that I think they’re amazing. The people you meet and network with along with the tools you learn are great.

But, that’s just my two cents..

Rich Clark said on September 18, 2011 9:56 AM

Good article Andy,

I’m intriuiged as to where sponsors fit into the equation though? I know some conferences seem to rake in ~£100,000 in sponsorship so does that go to it being a better conference or does it become profit?

Oli Studholme said on September 18, 2011 10:50 AM

@Rich if you’re getting major cash from sponsorship, you’re either putting on a large event, with commensurately large venue, catering, A/V etc charges, or a bunch of the speakers are giving 1 hour infomercials. Don’t forget even getting decent sponsorship requires a major investment of time, plus serious connections.

The conference organisers I know are doing it for _<

If ppl think conferences are easy cash, please organise one — reality check time! Also, if it’s easy cash where are all the photos of web design conference organisers driving sports cars, snorting coke offa hookers, and wearing Miami Vice suits? Inquiring minds want to know…

Rich Clark said on September 19, 2011 11:51 AM

@Oli, yeah I know mate. We’re on the same page here but I’m surprised that it didn’t come into Andy’s equation that’s all.

I know from organising Speak the Web that events are tough (particularly in an increasingly saturated market).

Andy Budd said on September 19, 2011 1:11 PM

As a few people in the comments and on Twitter have mentioned, I failed to add sponsors into my calculations. This was actually a deliberate omission as I was basing my calculations on the theoretical revenue figures in the tutsplus article. I also didn’t want to turn this post into an online spreadsheet so decided to leave out some smaller incoming and outgoings. However for the sake of completeness, let’s touch on the issue of sponsorship.

Small community events often rely on local sponsorship to pay hard costs like venue hire, wifi and food. As such, without them, many of these events couldn’t function at all.

For the ‘semi-professional’ events like dConstruct, sponsorship is a welcome addition to the coffers as it helps cover some of the up-front costs and bridges the gap between hiring the venue and putting tickets on sale. It’s also a great way of keeping ticket costs down, so if it weren’t for the generosity of the sponsors, you’d be paying even more for your tickets.

With the big money conferences, sponsorship is seen as an additional revenue stream. Several well known conference brands in the UK and US charge huge amounts of money to big name tech companies in order to put a corporate speaker on stage to pimp their wares and sell you stuff. Personally I find this approach disrespectful as attendees time is valuable and they’re not paying to see a corporate shill trying to sell you their latest bit of software. As such, at Clearleft we tend to avoid this kind of set-up as much as possible.

Looking at our mythical 300 person conference, let’s say that we get 8 sponsors at an average of $4,000 a piece. That works out at an additional $32k in revenue. Now let’s assume that as part of the package each sponsor will get 2 free tickets to the event, as well as 2 stand passes for their staff. That’s 16 tickets we can no longer sell and 32 day delegate rate fees we’ll have to pay to the venue. That mean’s we can knock off $25,600 off the total bill. As we already had $300 profit, the extra sponsorship will put us $6,700 in the black. Woohoo!

However as Eric Meyer mentioned, my AV figures were a bit low, so let’s knock another $5k off for AV costs. Let’s also assume that we’re going to print up goodie bags and give away a notebook and sharpie at a cost of $30, as Eric suggested. That’s an additional $9k.

Most conferences have a pre and post party. Assuming $1k venue fee (which is very cheap) and say $10 per head on drinks. That’s an additional $8k. It’s always nice to take speakers out for a meal to thank them for the effort. Let’s say we take them out for a $100 a head meal, that comes to an extra $3k. Sadly we’d like to take their partners, some of the sponsors and a few of the volunteers out as well, but I don;t think we’re going to be able to afford it.

Lastly, we’ve also had to hire a professional conference organisers to help manage logistics. Thankfully she charges just $150 per day. However she’s invoiced 40 days work over the last 6 months, which comes to another $6k.

Totting up my figures here I can see that despite an additional £32k of sponsorship income, we’ve still made a loss of $24,300. Next year it looks like this mythical 300 person conference will actually have to put their ticket price up to $1,081 to make sure they break even.

Alex Older said on September 19, 2011 1:55 PM

Andy,

What’s the reasoning behind hiring a professional conference organiser?

I understand putting on a conference it a massive feat in itself and I have been doing it for 5 years and I have never needed a conference organiser to help me out so I could be missing the benefit of having one on board for an event but getting everyone in the right place at the right time wouldn’t take 40 days work at $150 a day.

Sponsorship packages should cover more than just the tickets they are being given as part of the package. If the ticket price was $100 and a sponsor paid $500 they should get 1 ticket to the event and scale it up so around 1/4 of the package covers the ticket costs.

Just my 2 cents.

marc thiele said on September 19, 2011 1:57 PM

Hi Andy,

I think there is a lot of truth in your post and also a lot of stuff that could easily fill a book when starting to discuss it. I don’t think you can find a definition for conferences to name them “commercial” or “non commercial”. Depending on the cost you have, you can calculate the ticket price. This again makes it very hard for the organizer to have a safe base to start the event as he has to sell a certain amount of tickets before he gets to the break even. And even if you have a safe structure and a water proof solution for setting up the conference moneywise, you invest so much time and heart blood into a conference that you hardly get to the point where you really make money out of it, where you “get paid” to run it. I myself am organizing an event in Germany for 11 years (w/ 500 attendees), that evolved out of a community event, and just because I earn a bit of money at the end of the day it does not mean I am doing is JUST BECAUSE I want to earn the money. I still have the same passion and enthusiasm in running it as 11 years ago. And I am still organizing it for the community. Ticket price is 99,- Euro for early birds for two days with two tracks. And I thought this must be possible with a high quality web conference as well and I started to set up a new event in November. All with one main focus: Giving everybody there a great time for what they invest. Attendees, volunteers, speakers and yes, also me ;) I have been at Naconf this year and I think Colly managed to transport exactly this to everybody who has been at the event.

As said: This topic and all the small topics within this are way too complex to be written with one blog post. And any of the points, wether it is ticket price or paying the speakers, has many pros and contras and always has to be seen in the context of the whole event.

Andy Budd said on September 19, 2011 2:23 PM

Hey Alex,

Inclusion of a professional conference organiser was done to highlight the time and that goes into managing such an event. Finding, visiting and booking venue’s takes time, as does booking flights, accommodation and transport. Somebody also has to handle the finances, do invoicing and chase payments. They also have to liaise with the AV company, printers, sponsors and the like. Managing name changes, cancellations and waitlists can take weeks. Then you’ve got writing web content, email content and proofreading brochures etc. Basically there’s a stack-load of admin involved.

We do most of our own organisation, but I know many conferences outsource this aspect. It’s probably sensible when you consider the opportunity costs. Say I charge my consultancy time out at $1,000 per day and it takes me 40 days to plan and run an event. That’s a lot of potential lost income. So from a purely financial perspective it makes sense to get lower cost admin help so you can continue to do your day job. Otherwise you really do need to make sure that you make money to offset your lost opportunity costs.

Nate Bolt said on September 19, 2011 3:29 PM

I’ll add some numbers to support Andy’s point here. We’ve put on twelve small UX events over the last six years, with ticket prices ranging from free to $1200, and between 20 and 250 attendees. We’ve never made more than $3k in net profit, even when gross event revenue was close to $50k. Our total hours range from 120 to 450 to put on these events. That’s universally shitty from a strict project perspective, but as others have pointed out, that’s not why we do these. I’d list the reasons we (all) do events slightly differently though:

1) Participate in the community
2) Build awareness
3) Get to choose speakers & topics we think are cool
4) Meet potential collaborators, clients, and employees

It’s #2 that’s most difficult for UX businesses, and I just haven’t seen a lot of companies acknowledge that events are one of the key ways to build awareness. Ain’t nobody buying UX banner ads. I think transparency behind conference numbers is actually the best part of this whole discussion, and I’ve considered publishing all our expenses and revenue at the next http://urfriday.com if it won’t piss off our sponsors too much.

Rick Hurst said on September 19, 2011 8:05 PM

I just remembered a blog post from my old employer netsight who ran the international plone conference in Bristol Last year - as it is an open source conference it was run on a tight budget, and any excess profit made by the organisers would be frowned on, but there were also risks there is a full write-up here showing how the budget worked out:
http://www.netsight.co.uk/blog/plone-conference-2010-the-numbers/