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Conference organizing and speakers

Posted by Marty Haught on Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Recently there was a bit of talk about conferences requiring speakers to pay for their ticket just like a regular attendee. There was a related post by Jesse of PyCon on their policy here. As a conference organizer I have my own take on this topic. In short, I disagree with the notion that speakers should pay anything. Let me explain more about that though as it’s rooted deeply in my personal philosophy.

First, anyone who organizes a conference needs to make a lot of decisions on what that conference is going to be like. This potentially makes a specific conference unique and a special snowflake. Or they could copy another conference that they like. It’s all good. There is plenty of room out there for conferences of all kinds.

As most of my conference going experience is based in the Ruby community that is the example I’ve been given. Almost all, if not all, of the Ruby conferences that I know of do not charge speakers admission. Some even reimburse speakers for some travel expenses and include additional money. This seems completely logical and fair. For most conferences, the speakers are the biggest draw to the event. They work hard to share something with attendees. At Ruby conferences it is rare that presentations are marketing/sales. It does happen somewhat but it’s not common. Most presentations are geared toward inspiring, teaching or exposing the attendees to something new or different.

These presentations take a lot of work to put together. I’ve seen it mentioned that for every hour of presented material, a speaker will invest 10 hours. I’ve seen my time shoot much higher than this. For Red Dirt Ruby Conf 2010, I spent around 16 hours preparing a 15 minute talk on ActiveRecord/Relation 3. For RailsConf 2010 I easily spent over 50 hours preparing a 3 hour tutorial on lean development practices with the Rails stack. Both far exceed the 10:1 ration. Perhaps I invest way more time in my presentations than others but I know it takes a lot of work to do it well. Requiring me to pay for my ticket given all the personal (and billable) time I’ve invested would be too much and feels wrong.

Now for me, I’m happy to share and give back to the community and I don’t mind investing a lot of time in that. As a conference organizer I put in WAY more hours than this to get everything lined up. I’ve easily spent 80 hours of my free time (and some of my billable time) this year getting things lined up for Rocky Mountain Ruby and we’re still in the early phases. I do this because I love building community and sharing with others. It is clearly a labor of love.

I have a hard time imagining that a conference can’t manage its budget so that they charge fair ticket prices and still give speakers a free ride. I suppose if they don’t take sponsorship money but even then you should be able to cut non-essentials or limit attendance so you don’t have to get huge and pay crazy venue fees.

So as to Rocky Mountain Ruby, we will always give speakers a free registration. We even have a couple alternate presentations in case a speaker or two is sick or has to cancel last minute. They get a free ticket even though they might not be asked to speak. Additionally, we let those that submit a talk and don’t get accepted have the opportunity to buy their ticket at early bird pricing even if it’s expired. We also reward volunteers that put in hard work to run the conference with a free pass. I view these as ‘employees’ of the conference. Why should they have to pay when they’re investing much of their time to make the conference a better experience? As an attendee of other conferences, I don’t feel offended or find it unfair if speakers or volunteers get a free pass. Matter of fact, I find it odd if they don’t.

I am a generous person and I love to build community. Perhaps I borderline on being too generous but I think it’s worth it. As an organizer my conference reflect these views. I know why I like to attend conferences and I make sure that anything I put this much work into matches that as best I can.

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