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Is Conference Pricing Out of Control?

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You've surely experienced the letdown of registering for a conference, only to find that it costs $1,000 (or more) to attend (not including travel expenses). Isn't that a bit extreme for two days worth of training? Then again, is that the only way the conference organizers can cover the high cost of planning such an event? Let's see...

We'll put the economics of organizing such an event to the side for the time being, and instead focus on the practicality.

Who can afford to spend $1,000 (for the ticket alone) on attending a two day event?

Here’s the thing; unless you’re quite wealthy, or happen to work at a company that will cover the bill (most likely the case), my guess is that most of us simply can’t afford a random luxury weekend like this. Don’t feel badly; it doesn’t mean you're not dedicated to your craft if you’re not able to fork over $1,000 to attend a conference. In fact, I’d argue that you’re a better person for taking such a stance, while ignoring the incessant conference-specific hash tags on Twitter.

A $1,000 price tag for two days of lectures is exorbitant to the point of being vulgar.

Are you Receiving $1k Worth of Education?

This is the first question you should ask yourself before deciding to attend any conference that charges a high price tag: "Will I receive $1,000 worth of education?"

A common mistake when attending a conference for the first time is assuming that you’re going to drive (or fly) home having greatly increased your understanding of a particular subject.

If I can be so bold, though, you’ll likely find that this is not the case. Oh sure, you’ll come away with some neat new tips and tricks, but if your sole purpose for attending a conference is to “train,” then your money is much better spent elsewhere.

For half the price - $500 - I can give you a stack of books and resources that will teach you the bulk of what you need to know to succeed as a web developer.

In the defense of conferences, training is not their true focus. They’re much more geared for networking (and dare I say, vacations). If you do prefer training, then attend a workshop, which will be a fifth the cost, and five times as educational.

A free open source community cannot survive without a touch of the commercial side to even things out.

The talented Remy Sharp hosts workshops for roughly £200 - a far more appealing price tag. Remember, teachers shouldn’t be expected to work for free. I completely get that. The notion that everything in our industry should be free irks me a bit. A free open source community cannot survive without a touch of the commercial side to even things out.

Let’s use the Tuts+ network as an example. We post roughly 40 free in depth tutorials every single week. The only way we’re able to offer that level of free training, though, is to supplement the sites with an optional subscription program. These extra funds not only allow us to commission higher level, and more in depth tutorials, but they also provide us with the means to continue our primary objective: provide free education to the community. This simply would not be possible without our Premium program.

Notice that our core goal is an admirable one. It’s not to make each editor and the company as rich as possible (though we wouldn’t be against it!). Instead, we want to change the landscape of education entirely. Our asking price is reasonable. I cannot say the same for some conferences, though.

Are These Conference Organizers Bad?

All this begs the question: are conference organizers, who charge these rates for a weekend event, bad people, or, at the very least, money hungry? Well, who are any of us to judge? That said, however, let's consider a few points…for both sides of the argument.

300 Attendees

Assuming the $1k price tag that I’ve noticed around the web, let’s imagine that 300 people attend. That seems to be a reasonable figure, though I could be wrong. At this rate, the conference organizers will gross $300,000 for a weekend conference. This undoubtedly is a huge sum; however, we of course must consider the huge costs involved in planning this sort of event.

  • Rent the facility (certainly not cheap).
  • Pay airfare, food, and shelter for each speaker. This can add up, if they have around twenty speakers.
  • Pay each speaker. For many conferences - generally those which focus on open source platforms - the speakers offer their services free of charge (other than expenses). However, for a conference that charges $1,000 a ticket, the speakers most certainly receive a paycheck.
  • Design and print the t-shirts, banners, and programs.
  • Provide breakfast/lunch each day for all attendees.
  • Purchase advertisement spots in magazines and on the web.
  • Optionally arrange for an after party, with free drinks (usually two)
  • While many conferences are volunteer based, there will likely be staff involved.
  • Rent A/V equipment and wifi
  • A reasonable paycheck for the organizers. They shouldn’t be expected to work for free.
  • Surely, plenty else that I've missed...

All of the above considered, though, do these expenses add up to $300,000? According to many conference organizers, the answer is yes. Of course, my personal response to that is, "If you require $300,000 to organize a modest two or three day conference, then maybe you're reaching too high?"

Assuming the organizers are honest people (which I'm sure they are), this must imply that the true cost of organizing an event is indeed expensive enough to the point that a $1000+ price tag is paramount. In Andy Budd's response to this posting, he provides some first-hand reflection on the real (and expensive) cost of organizing a risky conference. These costs demand a large price tag in order to break even, it seems. But, at what point is the cost too high for the buyer? I'd vote for a cut-back, modest conference for $300 -- that is, if I was paying for the event out of pocket. Nonetheless, these large events continue to sell out.

What’s Wrong with Profit?

All conferences are not created equal, so let's assume that a handful of organizers are making a good chunk of change. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. As fellow author Jeremy McPeak put it: “…The web is becoming the platform of choice; so demand dictates the price.” Jeremy is certainly correct; demand 100% determines the cost. Why charge $1 when you can get $2?

The various $1k-charging conferences that I see promoted on Twitter so frequently more often than not sell out.

Maybe that’s what, as buyers, we should decide for ourselves; just because you can… doesn’t mean you should. Is the goal to push the web forward, or to make money? When you charge such an exorbitant price tag, you ensure that the huge majority of those, who would pay the ticket price out of their own pockets, won’t come...regardless of whether or not the expenses involved in arranging the conference warrant the price.

Perk vs. Investment

Companies offer conference trips as perks. In their eyes, they are investing in their staff. What’s $1,000 to a successful company? From the eyes of the staff member, he gets a fun vacation and the chance to network and learn a bit. Win win.

I can’t help but feel, though, that this is somewhat unfair to those who must pay the entry price themselves. I’d wager that these are the folks who are most hungry for knowledge, yet the price tag virtually ensures that the doors are closed to them.

The Question

If it costs a buck, then it’s worth a buck, right?

Perhaps it comes down to this single question: are some conferences simply an excuse to get your company to send you off on vacation, so that you can network with your internet buddies, and, again, learn a bit? The companies will blindly pay the cost, so why not charge four figures?

We associate value with cost. If it costs a buck, then it’s worth a buck. The same must be true for conferences, right? But here’s the thing: some of these conferences are sold under the umbrella of “pushing the web forward.” To me, though, it seems that they’re much less concerned with education, and more with making money. When all is said and done, that’s not a bad thing. Who could blame them?

I suppose you must decide for yourself if this is the sort of conference you want to participate in. Why are WordCamps generally only $50? The upcoming jQuery conference in Boston is $299 - a bit more, but still appropriately priced and reasonable. Airfare must be paid, staff must be compensated, food must be purchased.

The going rate is $1,000 because people will pay it.

My guess is that the true difference in cost stems from the fact that conferences like jQuery’s are less focused on making money, and more on raising jQuery's awareness, teaching one another, and adding some funds to the project as a whole. Further, other than expenses, speakers don’t receive payment. For some other "professional" conferences though, this is not the case, and likely accounts for the increased cost. Your favorite internet celebrities don't come cheap - nor should they. These guys have spent their entire adult lives acquiring the necessary skills to teach you. That demands some level of compensation. It all comes down to, however, whether or not this compensation comes at the cost of a huge price tag that you likely can't afford. Then again, maybe such an event wouldn't be possible with a cheaper ticket price. I find this hard to believe, but, it's possible. As noted above, though, the going rate is $1,000 because people will pay it.

Each of us is entitled to his own personal opinions. To my eyes, $300 is reasonable; $1000-$2000 is vulgar. This is especially true when there are countless community driven conferences that are equally fun and educational. But perhaps these professional conferences aren't priced for you and me; they're priced for the companies you work for. They'll be footing the bill, right?

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