This is a shot of Ryan Carson's feet, taken at the San Francisco Future of Web Apps. Ryan scored some heat over that particular conference, namely because of the homogeneity of his speaker roster at the time. In his response to this criticism, I gained a great deal of respect for Ryan. He stepped up. He made darn certain that his future conferences reflected a greater diversity....and for the better! I think the Carson conferences are some of the best ones out there...and quite reasonably priced, too, so accessible to non-corporate sponsored types like me.
Not only that, but as a speaker, Ryan and his awesome team (Hi Lisa, Gillian and Mel!), treat you like gold. I felt honored to be asked to be a speaker, but I felt doubly honored that they reached out to help me make the best presentation possible (sending tips, offering help), covered all of my travel expenses (including a gorgeous hotel in Kensington...with a separate room for my teenage son! Talk about cool!) and paid me for the time spent putting a 1/2 day workshop together. I would not only speak at another Carson conference, but I would highly recommend anyone I know speak at their conferences. They also treat their sponsors and their attendees well, being open and generous and offering an incredible value to any who pay.
Through the Carson ability to respond to community feedback and the way they treat others, they've created an amazing brand for themselves. People associate Carson conferences with quality and community and they are expanding to many other properties in this area.
Now, in the case of SXSWi, another fave of mine, it's a bit different. Except for the headliners, none of the speakers I know of are paid nor do they have their travel expenses covered. For sitting on a panel, you are comped a interactive and film badge. Panels, though, require far less prep time in my experience. Usually some conference calls, a bit of research and notes and a good rapport with your fellow panelists. And SXSWi isn't really about the conference anyway. It's totally about the community. There are a zillion free or cheap great things to do and parties to go to when you are there. Plus, since everyone in the tech universe are in the same city at a time, it's a great time to meet all sorts of potential partners, clients and coworkers. Because the community aspect is so strong, travel expenses covered aren't really essential. There is enough of a value built into being there that it's worth the $350 return flight on Southwest (for us) and the $400-800 on hotel (some of us share as well). Plus, the ticket price is way reasonable ($325), so the cost of the full 5 days will be lower than the mere ticket price for a 1 day enterprise conference. This means that many artist/student/open source/startupy types will be there.
BlogHer Conferences are similar to SXSWi. The community benefit is enormous and the networking opportunities are high. The cost per ticket is accessibly low and they work with hotels and hostels to keep accommodation reasonable. They even provide free childcare so that moms can enjoy themselves guilt-free (or almost guilt free). I don't think they even pay the keynote speakers (although I could be wrong about that). They end up delivering a very valuable conference and I walked away this year with alot.
It is perfectly fine for SXSWi and BlogHer to say, "Sorry, we don't pay for travel expenses". When I've spoken with the organizers of both conferences, they've expressed their wish to do so, but have also noted that doing so would mean that they'd have to raise ticket prices, which would end up upsetting the balance of attendees. Both conferences use the panel format in order to respect the time of their speakers and have loads to offer to offset any pangs one may feel at not being reimbursed for time. Still, the lack of reimbursement may have discouraged a potential speaker or two, which I'm certain both organizing teams are aware of and are concerned about (BlogHer has a scholarship fund).
Now, although it may be perfectly fine for conferences like SXSWi and BlogHer to do this, I've encountered at least two conferences this year (Defrag and the Affiliate Summit) that don't have the same community feel that have invited me to speak and also told me, "We don't cover travel expenses." On both occasions, I've checked the cost of registration and found that it was more than double that of BlogHer or SXSWi. There has also been a healthy list of sponsors listed for both. I don't think this is cool at all. The organizers stand to make a profit on the conference, but the producers of the content of the conference have to pay their own money towards that.
Now I understand the cost of putting on an event. I'm no stranger to it. I've organized several conferences, unconferences and symposiums over the years. BarCampBlock cost us over $24,000 to produce and it was a D.I.Y. (and a very casual) conference. We paid for one venue at $5,500 (2 days) and didn't have fancy food (although we had enough for over 600!). I've also been part of the budgets of many bigger conferences. Ones that cost $500k to produce, but brought in $2M. Unless the speaker was a sponsor or another vendor who paid their way into talking, I've found that speaker fees and travel reimbursement are pretty standard. I know that the cost of some of the bigger speakers were offset by collecting sponsors for that spot ("Oracle presents Blah Blah").
Expecting someone to donate their time to making your event 'da bomb' may be okay for someone who works at Yahoo! and needs to promote their latest work, but is problematic for an independent contractor. For me, time spent preparing a presentation can run over 40 hours between research, writing, designing, practicing and tweaking, and those 40 hours detract from time I can bill to clients (at $200/hour, that is lost revenue of $8,000). Then there is the fact that, when traveling, I'm not there for clients. We've actually lost a client or two over our travel schedule. That's more revenue lost. When a conference says, "Now you have to pay for a hotel and your airfare to get here," they are expecting me to spend another $500-1000 (at least). Maybe, just maybe, if our company desperately needed new clients we would be ahead after all of this, but I've gotten far better leads doing my own events and from word of mouth than I've ever experienced at conferences.
And this becomes even MORE problematic when we take into account other women speaking (not that I'm an exception to the following rule). We've talked alot about "why women don't speak" on the BlogHer Women in Technology listserv. One of the number one reasons that women give is the COST of speaking. Many of the very talented women I know are also independent contractors, but they are also juggling family lives. They would have to arrange for childcare and getting time to do client work is precious enough, let alone trying to work 40 hours on a presentation. And these women on the list are pretty affluent. I can't imagine women and men from lower income families or students working on cool projects...not paying for travel becomes a barrier for entry for those willing, but unable to afford giving their time to another's successful event in the hopes that they may glean some interest for their own business. Money would be wiser spent in a yellow pages ad!
And it isn't really even about the money for me. Not really. It's more about what an organizer, who is charging $900+/delegate and pulling in a good sponsors list, is saying about how s/he values his/her speakers. If my reimbursement for putting together a presentation that makes your audience happy is worth less to you than the other money you are spending, I feel like an object. And if you didn't make me feel like an object, maybe I wouldn't even give a damn. I know lots of people who forget to send in their receipts for reimbursement. Don't give me a line about 'community', either. An event that costs over $900 is not a "community" event, it's a corporate event. An event that has no community activities (the social abundance of SXSWi or the generosity and togetherness of BlogHer) is not a community event. An event that exploits and undervalues its speakers, who ARE from the community, is not a community event.
If you are making $$ off of an event, all of the power to you. I applaud you and don't fault you for that. But you may want to take a lesson from Ryan Carson, who nicely balances making $$ and respecting those who help him make $$. Otherwise, the way you treat others will be your undoing.
And for those of you who are taking these raw deals: STOP IT! You are worth more than that. You know who you are. I know you are doing it to build your business and your reputation, but there are loads of opportunities to do this and be treated fairly. IMO, these conferences exploit your desperation. There are more ways to get yourself out there. Better ways to give. My Mom taught me that if I wanted others to value me, I had to start by valuing myself. At the time, I rolled my eyes, but I totally started understanding that when I became an adult and realized the more I bent to the desires of people who didn't respect me, the less they respected me. As soon as I walked away to get a better deal, I got their respect.
So the lesson here is that, if you are throwing a for profit conference that looks to be a profit-maker, you need to, at the very least, offer to cover the costs associated with the travel for the speakers. It is their content that will make you look good and they are worth every penny. The place to cut back is NOT on human beings.
(thanks to Brian O for encouraging me to vent this out on my blog...he doesn't necessarily share my opinion, but he's right that I should share mine)