Exploding the conference business

Too many conferences suck. They’re too expensive. They are filled with boring panels. They are all about speeches and not about conversation and argument and learning and meeting. They don’t capture the expertise of the crowd. They enrich the organizers at the cost of both the “talent” and the “audience” (a distinction that is usually random, meaningless, and essentially insulting). They are filled with commercial pitches. The large-scale conferences are too obvious; the high-end conferences are too often too safe. There are exceptions and conferences I do like attending because of the people they attract or because they are provocative. But often, the problem is that the interests of those who make conferences work — the people who fill it — are not aligned with the interests of the money behind conferences — the organizers and sponsors.

The conference business is ripe for revolution. If newspapers, TV, magazines, books, reference works, telecommunications, entertainment, retail, real estate, recruiting, and countless other industries are exploding thanks to the internet and the direct connections it enables, then so should conferences. Why shouldn’t we organize our own better conferences on our own terms?

Take, for example, this week’s SIIA conference in New York. I already bitched that these bozos wanted to charge me $500 to attend their full conference after speaking on their panel. The speakers are the content for these unevents, and to have the chutzpah to try to charge the content providers appalled me. I tried to drop out of the panel, but the guy who organized it — unpaid and paying to attend the event himself, the poor shmuck — would have been left holding the empty chair. So I’m doing it. But I’ll do it growling and fomenting revolt.

Look at the basic economics of this conference:
* 400 are attending at $1,100 to $1,700 each, which adds up to $440k to $680k. So let’s average that out at $560k.
* The 14 sponsor slots bring in $20k-$5k each for the privilege of handing out junk mail sans postage. That adds up to $140k (though one $15k slot is still open).
* The total: $700k. (And that doesn’t include membership fees to the organization that range from $850 to $125k per year.)
* So let’s give them $100k for the venue and coffee.
* That leaves $600k for content.
* There are 50 speakers. That means $12k per speaker. Hell, $5k would be nice. $1k would be something. $500 payment instead of a $500 fee would at least be polite.
But, no, the attendees and speakers are foolish enough to enrich the organizers to the tune of $700K, gross because they are a captive audience.

It is time to explode the conference and convene the unconference.

Dave Winer wrote recently complaining about creeping commercialism in conferences. He’s right. And he explains how he has dealt with this. But commercialism is only one issue. And Winer himself holds the keys to solving more problems than just that.

At the first Bloggercon in October 2003, which Dave organized, I was assigned a session on politics. Beforehand, I said something to Dave about “the panel” and Dave jumped down my throat, saying with a forcefulness that cannot be ignored: There is no panel, he decreed. The room is the panel. Well, he was right. Better yet, he was visionary. So I took that direction to heart, which is usually the wise thing to do with Dave’s advice. If you don’t, you’ll miss blogs, RSS, OPML, and podcasts.

And so I decided to become Phil Donahue (I used to say that I became Oprah, but considering my recent rant about her, I’ll change media metaphors). I saw it as my job to draw out the wisdom of the room, for that room was filled with wise bloggers who had widely varied experience. Luckily, I knew enough of them that I could hear a point and then go to someone else for a counterpoint. And the goal of all that was not argument or lecture but instead, a cooperative effort to try to get to a point. That was the form for the next Bloggercon and other such conferences to follow. The convesation was the content, the hallway was the room. They were open events whose aim was to share, not annoint; to listen, not lecture.

Why shouldn’t any professional community be able to gather to share best practices and toughest issues and meet to see what ensues? What holds us back? Conference organizing is a pain. So what would it take to solve that? Here’s an idea: conference concierges who hold no vested interest in the industry but merely manage the venue and the organizational details. What if we could gang together to find a critical mass of people who want to meet — all welcome — and we use online tools to agree on agendas — or not — and when we hit critical mass, we pool resources to hire a concierge to rent the room and bring in the lunch for us? What would that cost? A hulluva lot less than $1,700 for two days of blather and another chintzy bag, that’s for damned sure. The group could decide to have sponsors cover that cost, though see Dave’s cautions about that.

And once we’re together, we can gather in new ways that emphasize conversation over lectures, meeting over merely sitting. We can use online to organize birds-of-a-feather sessions and to address common problems. We can pool information and resources on wikis. We can have sessions that are about nothing but exploring what we don’t know.

Dave has another vision for a commercial hypercamp.

Whatever. The conference structure and industry is ready to be exploded.

  • You are right. I applaud your tirade.

    We are in the process of figuring out how to create the 2nd Vloggercon and trying to figure out how to make a conference more conversational, distributed, and bottom up, while still having it be an event with a few key crystalizing moments that create shared experience.

    This was easy at the first Vloggercon which was so small, that even though it was traditional in that it was made up of panels, it was small enough so that everyone could chat informally with whoever they wanted. This next conference is going to be way bigger, and we will probably have sponsors this time, so we need to put more thought into it.

    I look forward to reading your continued riffs on this topic of how to create conferences that make more sense.

  • Academic conferences call for papers and presentations. People with ideas send in their work, which is reviewed by the conference organizers and then either rejected or put into a panel with similar presentations. Organizers also invite a couple of big names to do speeches, but mostly this is ideas from people who are actually working on new ideas–rather than the rehashed crap from the same-old, same-old. Attendance fees are low, maybe $100 max. No one makes money, but the folks who do the work get some compensation. Invited speakers don’t have to register, but all other presenters do.

    Then the conference is about ideas and people interested in ideas, rather than about making profits.

  • Fascinating. I’ve complained on the other end of things: when I go to a conference, it’s of people in the same business as I am, and I am very interested in talking to them about the products and commercial opportunities they are using. Typically, however, there is a problem with evaluating products in talks: one of them might sponsor or have an exhibitor booth. Further, most conferences go out of their way to make sure that no one but exhibitors gets the attendee list: including conferences where the attendees get lots of money for making referrals to other people in the same line of work. I’ve stopped going to conferences for just that reason several years ago.

  • The purpose of the conference really depends on who the promoters want as their audience. If it’s an academic thing, where people are presenting their research, and the info is super-important to the group attending, then the structure is very, very necessary. The schmoozing afterward isn’t the main goal–just icing on the cake.

    But blogging conferences, esp. are an entierly different thing.

    I’ve complained about the costliness of conferences for awhile now. I did alot of begging/pleading/grovelling/bothering the CEO, to attend BlogOn (where I met you, Jeff) because, for me, I needed to go and learn what all these blog conferences are about.

    If the conference is going to be just a bunch of professionals (and perhaps a smattering of enthusiasts) I think that your model’s pretty good. But if the conference is something more–p/r event, schmoozefest, executive vacation, you name it–then the price of admission keeps the “conference” limited only to a certain inner circle. Reviewing the over-the-top PopTech! conference (that I’m not sure I could’ve schmoozed myself into if I tired) more than proved that point to me.

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  • Conferences are what you make them, at the end of the day.

    I’ll be at SIIA, maybe I have Jeff to thank for them accepting me as a blogger.

    I went to 24 conferences last year and I agree sometimes the person next to you is more interesting the folks on the panel.

    At the best conferences the speakers mingle, dine and party with the attendees.

    We leave in a time where you must keep learning just to stay where you are, these conferences give us the chance to learn and measure what we have learned.

  • Jeff,
    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment — and I’ve actually been experimenting with remixing my conference experiences by recording interviews with conference panelists in the hallways and then sharing them as podcasts.

    I wear a particular lens of asking panelists for what insights they could bring to collaborative media and journalism, which is the particular itch I’m trying to scratch with my documentary on the pre-war failures of the press.

    Take a look at the 3 hours of conversations that I was able to gather with former intelligence analysts at an open source intelligence conference. Soon I’ll be releasing more conference interviews that I did at the Personal Democracy Forum, We Media conference, a consciousness conference as well as 45 other interviews — including my interview with you.

    But imagine if everyone was documenting and recording their hallway conversations at these conferences, and then sharing them afterwards to be postfiltered, remixed and consumed by anyone with an Internet connection. That’s the vision that I see and the one that I’m trying to realize in my own way.

    If each person has a particular lens and itches that they want to scratch, then they would be able to provide different insights home. Anyway, just thought that I’d point to some of my conference experiments with trying to capture and redistribute the wisdom of the crowd.

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  • I agree, especially conference targetted at business and corporate types (rather than techies, who are quicker to embrace the unconference concept): the corporate conferences have become an excuse to charge companies an obscene amount of money in conference fees, way out of proportion to the value, since there’s the perception that the big companies can afford it. I recently blogged about the high cost of a Gartner BPM conference, and how it keeps a lot of people away from the conferences that just can’t afford it, even though it might be of value to them from a professional development or networking standpoint.

    The practice of charging speakers to attend also just won’t work: I declined to speak at one last year until they agreed to waive the conference fee. As far as I’m concerned, that’s right up there with charging developers exhorbitant fees to learn how to use your product so that they will generate a bigger market for your product.

    Here’s hoping that expensive conferences soon go the way of mainstream media, and have to scramble to stay competitive in the changing world of unconferences.

  • This hit a hot button for me after my expenditure at Web 2.0 (conference fees and T&E = $3,000) was made and, now that I’m on my own, I’m budgeting for conferences and trying to decide which ones to attend. I personally got A LOT out of Web 2.0…but it wasn’t the conference. It was the people, the dialogues in sessions and in breakouts, and the serendipity of running in to people that was the draw and the ensuing power of that conference.

    For years I’ve attended company-paid-my-way conferences — big ones, small ones, some at which I spoke, others where a company I worked for had a booth — but now that I learn things about as fast as they’re talked about at conferences via blogs, I’m wondering where the value lies in the current paradigm.

    90% or more of the time it wasn’t (and still isn’t) the keynote, panels, breakout sessions or other structured delivery of information. When asked, “What did you get out of Web 2.0 in person that you couldn’t receive in online reports?” I’ve said to people several times, “It’s the people. It’s the serendipity factor of not knowing who I’ll run in to or what being there in person will spark.” I’ve NEVER been disappointed yet.

    It’s wandering by a booth. It’s conversation in the hallway. Sitting with people at a lunch and realizing some miscellaneous synergy. If you’re like me, I’m often percolating numerous problems, situations, scenarios and ideas are smoldering…and it takes a conference and the interactions with others to be the gasoline tossed on those smoldering, hot coals that ignites something new.

    The more that I read posts like yours and Dave Winer’s about the “unconference” and changing the conference paradigm, the more I realize that it’s connections, conversations and the venue to spark them which is where the value lies…not in getting some so-called experts (which don’t exist, in my view) together to spew their knowledge without engaging participants fully in the dialogue.

  • Dave Rakowski


    Agree with your comments 1000%.

    Last November Matt Homann and Dennis Kennedy (two well-known lawyer bloggers) held the first “Blawgthink” in Chicago. Details at:


    They effectively dealt with many of the issues that you’ve raised in your post.

    Change is happening, just not quick enough for most of us.

    Dave Rakowski
    Allentown, PA

  • Jeff, have a look at BarCamp. From the first one that we threw together in under a week in Palo Alto last August, it has grown to a series of bottom-up events around the world.
    Also, there have been spinoffs like TagCamp, WineCamp and IndieFilmCamp.

  • Check out PyCon. 100% volunteer-run, low fees, great value, and speakers and organizers all pay the same minimal membership fees (exceptions made for keynote speakers).

  • I was a panel speaker throughout the 90s at COMDEX, NetWorld and other venues. I attended those shows and others where I wasn’t a panel speaker on my own dime.
    I rarely attend shows anymore as I can get most of the information I need through the net or my own networking. Meeting an IT industry celebrity or other reputed innovators at these events is fine if that floats your boat.
    You get out of these shows (like anything else) what you put into them. The concept of “the is room is the panel” is more retarded than visionary unless your audience is on the same level of expertise as the panel, and if that’s the case what would be their motivation in hearing the panel?
    There’s no way to predetermine the value of a show/panel/audience/attendee base. I’m not anti-conference/trade show, I just haven’t felt a need to attend one for the last several years.

  • To be fair, the venue probably costs 50-75K, with various soft costs bringing it to more like 120-150K. Infrastructure, staff, lighting, sound, cleanup, etc will likely run another 100-150K. Promotion’ll likely run 50K. They’ll spend another 50K in incidentals, 25-30K in decorating, 50-75K in consultants, 30-50K in travel and 25K on keynote speakers and such.

    So, conservatively, their costs could easily be almost 500K. It’s more likely to be 300-350K though. And since they weren’t guaranteed to sellout, they need to follow the traditional conference model of “we can break even with 40%, cover all our costs with 60% and profit at 75% capacity”.

    Yes, the conference model needs flipped on its head. Totally agree, for every reason you’ve stated. But the costs to a major conference often aren’t fully realized by people attending.

  • Jeff, you’re totally right. How can people afford $2795 for the Web 2.0 conference? They had 23 sponsors! WTF.

    /rabble rabble

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  • For the Future Marketing Summit in New York we are taking a number of steps to develop content before, during and after the event to engage the audience:

    A Flickr cool hunt that will be reviewed by the speakers at the conference:

    A del.icio.us monitor press and blog mentions:

    A program to engage bloggers with interaction, valuable content – oh and attendance:

    An organiser’s personal diary:

    We’ll also have all that standard stuff – like vid casting, Wikis etc.

    And as a last point, frustrated by the number of grey/no hairs at marketing conferences, I got the organiser to change the first session to bring in a wave of next gen marketers (Josh Rubin, Graham Hill, Bucky Turko, David Gensler) that are making all the right moves in the marketing space – not barking at everyone that they’re all doing sh*t! :)

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  • Some events suck because to many event “promoters”, the editorial comes last. Vendors and sponsors come first.

    When you start with trying to understand what the attendee needs, and build an event around that, you end up with a pretty good show (but not as much sponsor revenue). When you start with what will drive sponsor revenue, and then build sessions that support that premise, you make a lot of money, but attendees are shortchanged. It’s a reasonable short-term model I guess, but not very interesting.

    I think it’s double dipping if you’re not paying your speakers. I think it’s insulting if you make them pay to attend an event they are speaking at. We compensate the vast majority of our speakers, and always give them full event passes. We also charge half what SIIA does.

    The problem is that I keep seeing speakers that I compensate speaking for free at my competitor’s events. Makes me wonder if I have the wrong model. I just heard about a business blogging webcast that grossed 20 grand, and they paid the presenters zip!

    C’mon guys, quit presenting for free! I can’t compete with conferences that don’t have speaker expenses.

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  • steve


    I just think you could probably stop using the word “exploding.”


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  • Jeff-
    I would be a rich, rich woman if only the financials worked as you describedl! I’ve been in the conference business for a long, long time – employed by many of the usual suspects. I now run my own “media company” and now have the freedom to test formats and speakers as I see fit – letting content and audience (see rules below) drive format, pricing, and sponsorships. We also have a good consulting business – a more robust version of your “concierge” concept – which pays the bills.

    Rules for Conference Producers –
    1. People want to be in a room with people who are at least as important, educated, and smart as they are and are willing to learn from each other.
    Check out http://web2.0central.com/archives/162
    2. People are inherently lazy so it’s great to have wikis and self-serve stuff but I’d put money on the fact that 1-2 people are organizing it all behind the scenes. Feature creep is a real problem for organizers. I like to keep it simple since human interaction and info should be the focus.
    3. Church and state at all costs – think of more creative ways to give sponsors what they’re looking for. Talk to them and agree and test ways in which everyone can benefit.
    4. Test and assess – try new formats, ideas – cost is relatively low and encourage feedback

    I may not be the richest producer, but I can certainly say that we have a lot of integrity which is why so many people love to come to our stuff Under the Radar – http://www.undertheradar.com or our Strategy Series Roundtables at http://www.ibdnetwork.com

  • http://undertheradarblog.com/ – is the right URL

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  • Our organisation, The Health Roundtable, was formed in 1995 precisely to address the problems of conference style meetings. We have a collaborative group of over 30 hospitals across Australia and New Zealand that select topics of interest, then assemble the experts from each hospital to meet together and discuss the key issues and innovative solutions that they have developed in small group “roundtable” fashion. Invariably, every participating organisation comes away with a list of great ideas to implement over the next six months. In the course of a two-day meeting with 50 people, only about 90 minutes is spent in plenary presentations. All the rest is information sharing amongst the participants.
    However, the process for the facilitators is difficult, since it is hard to predict what the key issues will be in advance. That’s why the collaborative membership approach is essential to build up trust by the delegates that they can share their problems and solutions in a confidential environment.

  • A righteous rant Jeff, though there are notable exceptions like Webmasterworld and the awesome upcoming MashupCamp with ZERO cost. More than costs I feel most conferences lack enough time to share ideas among attendees.

    I like your idea of working towards a critical mass of people and then letting a third party pull together the details. I’m in tourism and there are a LOT (ie thousands) of hotels, especially in rural venues, that would charge very little cost above rooms and food if an event could bring 100+ people to them in the off season.


  • I think one problem may be that, without the window-dressing of structured panels and keynotes, pointy-headed bosses won’t approve the expense. (Note that the T&E and opportunity cost doesn’t drop.)

  • Bjorn Freeman-Benson

    I’m helping to organize EclipseCon and while we’re not at the totally low-cost free end of the scale, we’ve deliberately tried hard to be zero-revenue: no profit, no loss. The cost of conference facilities (especially food and AV) is the killer item – I opened our budget a bit for all to see: both the income side (post 1, post 2) and the expense side (post 1, post 2).

  • Jeff, your words land very close to home.

    I completely agree with this metaphor. I founded Open Source Events on the pure premise of educating attendees by the leaders in the industry.

    By doing so, this does not involve me charging them $1000+ USD. I simply charge what makes sense for the occasion. The first conference I held, I charged around $100 and $75 early bird. This is CDN funds by the way.

    The second conference I held, I decided I would give the attendees lunch as they complained about having to walk a few blocks, find food, wait for it, eat it, which resulted in being late for the talk after lunch. So, lunch was thrown in, for a marginal cost. So this second conference, I charged $125 early bird and $150 regular. Attendance was adequate, seeing as this was really the second large event I had put on. There were only 5 speakers for this event, and all but one really made it worth while. Everyone praised the event, well organized, cost friendly, and the content was great.

    Third event came along, which is actually still in the works (Canada on Rails YVR06 here in Vancouver) happening on April 13-14. This event is a two day conference, with 15 speakers, spanning over two days, at a hotel. This event has increased the cost by nearly 4-5x the last two events. Simply because as you mention, when you target anything near 1,000 (I am targeting 500 for this event), the costs go way, way up. You need to get a hotel, they have rules on in-house catering which are incredibly expensive, speaker flights, etc. Simple point is that yes indeed, the costs do go up substantially. But guess what? The cost of the conference is only $250 CDN. Which simply equates to at least 6x cheaper than all of the major US conferences. And what is going to be the difference between this event and theirs? Hopefully nothing other than a significantly less expensive ticket. BUT. And this is a big but. I fly the speakers in, provide them a nice hotel room (4 star plus), definitely don’t charge them to attend the same conference they are helping to put on, and they get to enjoy a free vacation to the city which the event is at.

    Major conference organizations are looking at figures in the million dollar gross. Their base profit (minus hard costs like catering, room) are quite close to their gross. They don’t fly in speakers, they make money off them purchasing a ticket to attend the conference, leave them on their own for hotels, and basically use them to build up an event.

    This doesn’t work for me. At all. Speakers need to be treated with more respect than what they have been given at these major conferences. It is ridiculous to invite them to submit a proposal and expect them to come on the premise of being charged.

    My goal is simple with OS Events. I don’t plan to make it big off one event. And I do plan to pay gratitude to those that help make the event a success. Right now Open Source Events at just under two years old is still in its infancy, but it’s a organization that I hope will grow into something that becomes invaluable to the Open Source community as a whole. And I am eager to help those that make it happen.

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  • I can’t believe nobody’s mentioned the YAPC conferences yet. YAPC (Yet Another Perl Conference) has been put on every year since 1999, and more recently it’s been put on multiple times per year around the world. (See the website for more.)

    Costs for attendees are low (~US$85) and the organizers are part of the community and receive little compensation except profound respect for their massive work. While there are several tracks of talks (put on by folks who get their attendance fees waived), one of the main points is the hallway/mealtime chatter among peers.

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  • krusty

    I agree with most of jeff’s analysis but I would caution against generalizing from an experience with SIIA and Ken Wasch,president of the association .They have very few profitable franchises,so when they build one they work it for every cent it’s worth.

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  • Matt

    The panels aren’t the point of a conference. The panels are what you use to justify the conference to your employer (if you’re lucky enough to still have one that pays for conference attendance) or the IRS (if you’re not…or if you _are_ your employer). The point of the conference is the conversations in the hallways and in hotel rooms after the main event is over.

    One _could_ try to run a conference built just around the stuff that really matters, but without employer reimbursement or even tax deductability. it’d be a lot harder to find people willing to pony up the cost of burning vacation days, flying themselves in, and staying in a hotel in order to have those conversations. Eventually I suspect you’d slam into a kind of inverse network effect.

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  • I would like to see if anyone on this site has been to a Lotusphere from IBM? I have been to 9 and have spoken 4 times. I personally loved the conference as a customer and I still feel it is worth the hefty $1800 per person. This year the conference hosted over 6,000 people.

  • Dave Chapman

    Good Idea. You could call the conference service “Face Time”,
    and organize the meetings using standard blog tools. . .

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  • Ben Davidson

    I think you are stupid to do it after you found out they are charging you to speak. What are you, a rube? I guess so, especially sinsce you don’t want to hurt the poor babies feelings after you found that they are cheating you. Here, let me sell your contact info to a shifty marketing firm’s ‘suckers’ list. Be expecting some calls for roofing repairs and term life insurance.

  • Kid Croesus

    You know, the high price tags of conference act as a reasonable barrier to entry to people who may not be serious contributors — the price does seem high, but if people are willing to pay, then there is probably significant value attained. I find the price is generally correlated with the level of the attendees.

    As for the panels, I agree they are mostly boring — I think you might get far better learning using a Business School case method.

  • Peggy

    I’m glad I stumbled upon this blog! I am in the midst of putting together an online convention for commercial real estate – focusing on the folks in small markets, small local firms that don’t get to the big conferences or have access to the networking and education opportunities. We just wanted to test the waters and see if we can get some educational content and blogging going for knowledge sharing.

    As for the large traditional conferences – it seems during any given year, the same industry experts are giving the same less than substantive presentations, content is either too general or just plain tired.

    I agree with other posters – create models that will cause like minded knowledge seekers to gather – provide someone to share and draw wisdom from the room- virtual or other wise. There’s nothing like a great facilitator or speaker with a focused energetic message that really sparks the attendees

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  • I agree with your assessment on some conferences and want to offer up one that does do the right thing! The American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) limits the commercialism and gives speakers free admission to the conference, as well as, an $800 honorarium. See my post on my upcoming presentation on establishing a RHIO at: http://thielst.typepad.com/my_weblog/2005/11/the_online_broc.html#trackback.

    Also, I find that more local conferences are really productive and the cost is significantly less. The focus is usually on the learning and networking, and not making money to run the organization. It seems organizations like ACHE, with more balanced revenue streams can afford to do the right thing!

  • Francisco Garau

    The Smalltalkers in Europe are very lucky. We have an annual conference which is cheap and sponsors either students or poor panelists who cannot afford the trip.

    The social atmosphere is quite unique and for myself is almost a “religious” experience.


    Highly recommended


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  • This is nice post,i m agree with you. Most conference are too expensive,hey are filled with boring panels. this is the right thing.


  • actually i beg to differ. i love conferences. free food. extra sleep. who says you have to be sober the entire time?

  • J Julian

    Of course the organiser who wants to make a profit will promote the event as much as possible. This means the speakers will be promoted. That means you! So you are getting promotion.
    Also most organisers do NOT pay for content but they do not charge for attending as a speaker and usually pay expenses. I think your gripe is with the SIIA.

  • Todd Beardsley

    I have seen both extremes when it comes to conferences. I’ve been to great ones that were trying to promote their message to the audience, and I’ve seen ones that were just an excuse to charge people big money for a seat. The fact that you were charged while you were a speaker is pretty outrageous!

  • This is an important contribution to the discussion. I recently attended two conferences by LikeMinds that were very well organised (and got big Whuffie and retweets from the speakers on the podium for that fact) but had exactly these issues for the paying customers in the arena. Given that social media people spend such a lot time talking about how good social media are at improving the coomunication flow between all of us, it’s important that we should talk honestly and openly about what works, and what doesn’t, and what we can do to improve it. Thank you.

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