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Overpriced Developer Conferences (amberweinberg.com)
189 points by duggan on May 4, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 141 comments

I've run a conference for freelance web devs 2 years in a row, both times at a loss (though the loss is shrinking each year) but have tried to keep the ticket prices down, but also try to cover some expenses for speakers (hotel or travel for speakers from out of the area, primarily).

Tried to keep tickets at a max of $99 the first year. Bumped up to $149 second year (with cheaper 'early bird' tickets both years). Bigger issue was trying to get sponsors to help defray costs. Given the nature of our conference - freelance web professionals (devs, designers, etc) - surprisingly a lot of companies weren't interested because we weren't 'targeted' enough. I may have just been getting polite brush offs, but I'd contacted 45 companies - many of whom sponsor other tech conferences - and had 3 sponsors the first year. A few only want to send a speaker and schwag, but no money. Conference venues and catering staff don't like to be paid in bobbleheads and cup holders, unfortunately.

A note on schwag - I basically hate it. I think it's wasteful, and going to conferences where I've paid hundreds of dollars, then given a bag with a bunch of plastic crap made in and shipped from China just gets my goat. So we don't do 'bags of crap' at my conference. I don't think too many people have missed it so far.

gentle plug - http://indieconf.com is setting dates for this fall in North Carolina. I remember inviting Amber to come speak at our first conference two years ago, but the timing didn't work out - perhaps we can get her to come this year. :)

Can you elaborate on the costs? Why do you need catering?

Thanks for eliminating the "schwag" waste. I also hate that crap.

Why do you need catering?

Conferences are all about coffee breaks. The coffee breaks are the conference.

Sitting around passively listening to lecturers is not a conference. It is a lecture, or as we call it these days, "live-action Vimeo".

Serving food and drinks to everyone at the same time is a way of keeping everyone together in the same space, where they can bump into each other, look over each other's shoulders, and convene spontaneous hallway meetings. That is what conferences are for. Otherwise we could just use Reddit.

In the end, you need catering because people at your conference want the catering. I spent hundreds of dollars per hour for the chance to stand with my colleagues in a space that's especially designed for meetings, but now I need to leave that space for several precious prime-time hours every day just to find food and eat it? Please, just sell me catering already!

I really enjoyed indieconf last year. I'd agree that the coffee breaks and time between lectures is where the magic happens. The catered lunch was very valuable too.

thank you. I'm glad you found it enjoyable and valuable. Did you stick around for the jazz trio too? I can't match the name 'hiccup' with who you are in real life :)

Instead of spending the money on food, we get a free extra room with selling enough rooms and we use it for people to sit, talk or do quick talks, what ever they like. This gives them the face time without costing us.

Thanks for eliminating the "schwag" waste. I also hate that crap.

Although sometimes taking on schwag is part of the deal you make with the sponsors - so no schwag means less sponsorship money and higher ticket prices.

You're spot on, and I've wrestled with this, and in at least two cases it's why I didn't get some sponsors who I'd contacted.

I'm about 90% certain we will be doing a separate 'sponsor room' this year, where sponsors will have their own tables/booths and can interact with people, it just won't be in the main hallways. I've seen it done well at a couple other events recently, and I think we can use that format, which means we may attract a few more sponsors this year.

The key is to serve the coffee/snacks in the sponsor room.

Another thing I've seen work well is run a competition with a small prize than involves attendees visiting all of the sponsor tables. Run it at the same time as a coffee break. It's fun, folk who don't care can opt out, gets a bunch of folk some face time with sponsors.

Also, on the schwag front, do what you can to persuade the sponsors to give out useful schwag. For example I've got a stack of branded retractable sharpies that I use every day. Somebody gave out some nice branded planning poker cards one time that I still have and use. Somebody else gave some nice single-card summaries of innovation games that I kept.

The bags, frisbies, pointless brochures... not so much.

Very important, though once you hit a certain size, it gets hard to keep everything on one floor (most people won't believe what hotels will do to cram multiple events into their venues).

You can offset the need for spreading out the coffee by having a fancier snack station in the sponsor room.

One big draw to the sponsor room (especially for summer conferences) are free ice-cream snacks. We had lineups to get into the sponsor room.

Can't upvote enough. Also great if sponsors want to be specifically involved in that process - they can directly see people using what they paid for and do something compatible (at PyCon this year, the Heroku booth had comfy couches where people drank coffee and talked with smart people - I'm certain everyone left with a positive impression)

Upvoted! ;)

Often it's a requirement if you have your event in a hotel. The hotel will sometimes have restrictions on who you can use to cater for breaks or lunches.

People expect coffee or drinks during breaks and will complain loudly regardless of the registration fee. $7-10 per person for a coffee break is not uncommon.

Minor point that made a couple speakers happy the first year - I had small break service (venue-speak for snacks/drinks/coffee) in each presentation room, vs out in a main lobby area. Apparently they like being able to get set up in a room then grabbing a quick cup of water before speaking without having to navigate back to a larger common area. Who knew? :)

Conference venue costs - While I'd prefer we were at a hotel, to allow easier movement for attendees and speakers (and better nightlife/restaurant selection) other venues I've looked at in the area start at roughly double what we're paying now. Oh, and then you have to add in A/V costs on top of that. Our conference center provides nice projection screens (huge) and nice mics as part of the rooms.

Catering - people need to eat. 99% of conference venues will not let you bring in random food, or in most cases even professional catering companies, unless they're on an approved list. Snacks/coffee/tea/etc throughout the day cost. Our food cost, including lunch, was north of $20/head. This is surprisingly cheap.

Power - some conference venues charge you for power access. $x/seat or something. We cut down on that this year compared to first year because few people seemed to use it the first years.

Wifi - our conference center has good wifi and it's free. One place I looked at said wifi access was $25/head/day. That's not a typo.

One of my goals was to have an event with non-local speakers. A barcamp is great, but... you end up seeing mostly the same people speak on the same topics. By having people from out of the area (state/region) speak, you'll be guaranteeing most attendees in the region won't have seen/met these speakers before. That costs something. Most of our speakers have been gracious with their time, but I wanted to at least cover some of their expenses in travel. With 20 speakers, and 8-10 with that sort of assistance, that's an additional cost.

I lost > $3k on the first event. ~$2k this time around, and would like to break even this year, or perhaps (gasp) make a small profit. A large profit would allow me to do regional versions of indieconf in different areas, bringing together a mix of local and non-local experts on various freelancing topics. That was the idea 2 years ago, but I can't commit to that until I know I won't keep losing money.

EDIT: oh yeah, insurance. The venue requires an insurance policy. For the minimum coverage, that's another... $600 or so.

EDIT 2: I would have probably broken even this year except for 2 things.

1) speaker dinner. Given the enormous effort many of our speakers put in (and travel) I like to have a low-key speaker dinner that's private for them to unwind. We have a few attendees that pay for a premium ticket to have a few dining hours for some one-on-one with our speakers. As fun as it's been, we may change that event this year.

2) After-party. This year instead of some ritzy club or venue, we had a jazz trio come in and had some catered snacks (veggie trays, etc). No alcohol, but I don't think anyone cared.

Without those two additional things, I think we'd have broken even this year on tickets and sponsorships. I'd rather not eliminate either one, as I think they each add something special for different groups.

Power can be a real issue. We had one sponsor who wanted a large meeting room, but they didn't take into account that they were expecting all the people in the room to use their laptops for an hour.

They sent someone to buy dozens of powerbars and extension cords which they chained throughout the room, plugged them into the wall sockets and then freaked out when the room went dark.

AV rental costs are insane. It is a field so ready for a disruption.

Venue wanted $5/head for power. First year that added > $500 to the event. Almost no one used it. So this year we had powerbars for the first row of seats in each room. They're there if you want/need them, but we're not all paying for them for the majority of people who didn't use them. Worked out well.

AV costs at one hotel I looked at was something like ~$300/day per room. That's ~$1000 extra, on top of the nearly double room rates compared to our current venue. It's just really hard to justify that extra expense just to be in a hotel. Yes, we're within walking distance of downtown, and there's some nice restaurants, but when I've been operating at a loss for 2 years... ;)

> Wifi - our conference center has good wifi and it's free. One place I looked at said wifi access was $25/head/day. That's not a typo.

At Minecon (a convention for Minecraft) in the Mandalay Bay Las Vegas they were (if I recall the figure correctly) charged $50,000 for wifi for 2 days. It's insane, especially when the wifi was absolutely unusable.

Certainly those rates should entitle one to an actionable SLA...am I clueless? I'm not trying to rag on unions at all (though what union would neteng be a part of?), but for insane money you should get insane service.

we paid more than double that for the network at Techcrunch Disrupt.

We had one venue that wanted to charge us $150 per Ethernet port "to turn it on".

That didn't include bandwidth charges which were included in a different line-item with WiFi which was based on buying blocks of 500 simultaneous users at an equally exorbitant rate.

Super informative stuff about conference hosting costs. Thank for sharing.

We put on a technology conference each year in Raleigh, NC for about 300 people and charge 20.00 per person for the 3days and still make a profit. It's next weekend, come check it out http://Carolinacon.org I'm not sure why conventions cost so much, we don't even have sponsors.

To do that for 300 people is pretty impressive but you do need to consider that scale matters.

Think about it, a small WordPress blog on Dreamhost only costs $9/month, but Amazon needs giant datacenters to host EC2 and S3.

For your event you have about 12 presentations, so you don't need to do a huge amount of pre-planning or working with speakers. That makes a big difference.

From the schedule it looks like you are using one mid-sized plenary room plus maybe 1 or 2 side rooms. You are actually doing the hotel a favour by filling up a small block of rooms, they often have empty spaces when bigger events are going on, so everything they charge you is profit as far as they are concerned.

If the hotel has their own builtin projection equipment and you're bringing in your own computers, that seriously cuts the AV costs.

Big conferences tend to suffer from diseconomies of scale. The more you need to do, the bigger the per unit costs become. The hotel isn't likely to provide you with free projectors and screens when you need dozens at a time. That is magnified through every aspect of the conference.

Usually a small conference solves it's problems with work. You spend a lot of hours making sure everything works, but for big conferences, the staffing levels don't tend to increase proportionally with the number of attendees. For big conferences only some problems can be solved with time and effort.

There are fixed costs - rooms are $X, whether you've got 50 people or 200 people (obviously within reason - 2000 people need more space than 50). Our/my biggest issue has been getting a greater number of people there.

That's great that you've made a profit. Do you reimburse your speakers for travel if they need it? What sort of food are you providing for $20 ticket cost?

You are collecting approximately $6000. If we didn't reimburse any speaker travel, skipped an organized closing event, and cut a few other corners, we could get close to that in terms of costs, and having 300 people attend would mean we'd be able to keep ticket prices low. You're "closely associated with various "2600" chapters across NC, SC, TN, VA, LA, DC, and NY" - I'm sure that's helped you get the word out for speakers and attendees much beyond what many other conferences (including ours) are able to do, especially with a limited budget.

Congrats on your event. I've got family in town this week and next, and am not sure if I'll be able to attend, but will attend if I can.


As a frequent conference attendee and speaker, a lot of the points that this post enumerates resonate with me. Our profession seems to have a love affair with conferences, and it's been getting worse year after year.

I believe a large part of the problem is that many conferences are priced with the idea that the fee will be covered by corporations that pay for their employees to attend, as opposed to being covered by an individual. Businesses have an easier time justifying a $1000 conference ticket (especially if they're able to recruit or scout out new potential hires at said conference) than an independent consultant.

But, conferences don't need to be quite so expensive. Conference organizers just need to reorganize their priorities. The best conferences I've ever attended (and paid for out of my own pocket) had less than two hundred attendees, were not held in a hotel, and had an incredible focus on the local community.

The best example of this: http://brooklynbeta.org/2011. Total cost for the conference was $100, and an additional $100 for the (optional) special event held the day before the conference, both of which included food, coffee, sponsored after-parties, more beer than we could finish, and the list of attendees and speakers was the best that I had ever seen.

People need to start voting with their wallets a bit more. Stop going to conferences that suck.

[Disclaimer: I now work for the organization that runs Brooklyn Beta, but did not work for them when I attended the conference in 2010 and 2011]

Step one: Decide that spending a few thousand dollars per year on conferences is excessive.

Step two: Discover that if you lived in Brooklyn there would be a critical mass of colleagues living right there in town with you, such that you could put on an awesome local conference for one or two hundred dollars per person.

Step three: Move to Brooklyn, at a cost of an additional N hundred dollars per person per month, regardless of whether that month includes an awesome local conference.

Step four: ?????

Step five: Profit!

(Mind you, I completely agree with your strategy, which is why I live near Boston. I could tease myself just as I'm teasing you. ;) But I don't try to pretend that the strategy is designed to save money. Living in proximity to a number of excellent local conferences and meetups is very expensive - though, of course, you also get the awesome local restaurants and shops and museums and university libraries.)

While I'm not a "fan of expensive conferences" per se, I thought this was a bunch of junk. FTA:

"I’m a huge proponent against expensive conferences, as I feel that the point of these conferences in the first place is to get the community together to learn and meet each other."

As The Dude once famously said, "Well, that's just like, your opinion, man."

I don't think that at all; I think a conference that I pay for should be a learning experience. I think that, for $1000 or $2000 that I should be able to get vicarious experiences from attending the sessions/demos/labs that I would either (a) not have been able to receive elsewhere, or (b) not been exposed to. It should replace my time at a training class, for example, except that it should be broader experiences.

Networking is fine but dude - you simply have it wrong if that's what you think programming conferences are all about. And you have it wrong if you think that tech conference attendance fees are paid for by the individual programmers/devs who attend. Oh sure, there are some folks who pay for these huge costs out of their own pocket but, by and large, this is a "job perk" or a "job training" event that is, thus, paid for by their company.

Sorry but, for most companies, there is no "networking" budget for the programmers/devs.

I've never attended any conferences in my life (and I have been programming for 25 years (16 years professionally)). I can buy books, read online, watch videos online on more programming topics than I have time/capacity for. My tolearn.txt is quite long all the time. For networking among programmers there are more than enough online communities. Business networking would be very useful (basically meeting people who need my knowledge/expertise and learning about business opportunities), but how can I do that among people who want to sell the same thing that I want to sell?

I am not saying that conferences are not useful, just I did not find the motivation yet to attend one.

"Business networking would be very useful (basically meeting people who need my knowledge/expertise and learning about business opportunities), but how can I do that among people who want to sell the same thing that I want to sell?"

Umm.... it's generally not about selling right there and then, but making connections which may turn in to relationships.

I've been to conferences and have made a great network of people I wouldn't have met otherwise, and some of it has led to projects/work months or years after our initial meeting. Most of the conferences I go to now are almost always just for hallway networking and socializing.

20 years ago, I used to wonder "how does someone run a business? how can you compete? it's a closed network - just friends of friends, etc". That's not 100% true, but it's more true than many people would want to admit. However, it's not all that hard to 'break in to' some circles and become part of a network. It does take time and commitment.

"We're not computers, Sebastian, we're physical.”—Roy Batty

Maybe it is time for virtual conferences, no Google Hangout for example?

I kind of agree. I've attended two conferences for the past few years: Pubcon and An Event Apart.

Pubcon was priced at $699, and included three full days of sessions, with 5 different tracks. I learned a lot there, and felt it justified the price.

An Event Apart was $899 the first year I registered, I believe, and this year is $1045. I work for a small company that pays these expenses, but I couldn't even justify asking for that this year.

I know that I am paying to see some of the "biggest names" in the industry. Several of these people are excellent and entertaining, and I don't doubt their knowledge in the field -- Dan Cederholm and Jared Spool specifically.

But do I really need to pay over $1000 to hear from the "biggest names"? I'm not sure if it's worth it. Yes, Eric Meyer is a genius at CSS, but how do I somehow explain the ROI of using slightly more optimized CSS? Or one year AEA had a speaker who spent almos the whole hour somehow relating fashion magazines to web development. Ugh.

I guess what irks me is feeling like I'm paying extra for the celebrity status of some of these speakers, when in reality, I'd most likely learn just as much _useful_ knowledge at a Wordcamp or one of the multitude of sub $200 conferences.

JavaZone in Oslo, Norway costs 1033 USD (or 5950 NOK) - a lot of money, and inflated by low dollar and high krone. Although I don't have any statistics, I believe few individuals pay this themselves - most participants get their company to pay for it. It's a great conference. Two days, seven (7) tracks. Food included, and lots of it. At the end of the first day there's ClubZone, which includes free beer.

Is it overpriced? Perhaps. It could probably be done cheaper. The money seems to be going to make a great conference, though, and as long as most people don't pay for it themselves, I don't think it's a big problem. It's really the place you want to be if you live in Norway, so perhaps it is a bit unfortunate that it isn't more accessible to people who can't get their company to pay for it.

Great conference, highly recommended. Many, if not most talks are in english. Unfortunately, the website seems to be broken at the moment: http://javazone.no

Videos from last year: http://vimeo.com/tag:javazone2011

The other problem with these conferences is their size. Most of them are very small. If you only have a few hundred people, the cost of the venue and such isn't divided by a large enough number. This is because these developer conferences are often so specific in their subject matter that the audience is small, and also because of the high price.

I would like to see a convention, not a conference, that is for programmers, period. It should be gigantic like the big geek conventions PAX, Comic-Con, etc. Price could be $50 for three days. Thousands of us would be there. Lots of money to be made selling space to exhibitors. I would go every year.

If only it was a question of fixed costs being divided by the number of participants, but bigger events have new and exciting fee schedules plus enough legal wrangling to make a grown man cry on the street.

You will find yourself on the hook for gigantic sums of money and paying horrifying fees for AV, room rentals, catering, insurance, registration staff, internet access, or to quote Blackadder: "stamp duty, window tax, swamp insurance, hen food, dog biscuits, cow ointment, the expenses are endless."

With some extra space for lightning talks and self organized discussions/BoFs, perhaps. I actually think that would work. I would go too, if only to experience the diversity. I hate it when events get too insular.

Let's make it happen. We can use the Javits Center in NYC.

If I had my choice of hosting a conference in the Javits Center, a Supermax prison, or Kabul, I might be tempted to choose the later two options...

Javits may be a lot of things, but it's definitely not a place to hold a conference/convention if you're trying to keep costs down.

Javits is indeed awful. The Baltimore Convention Center is actually the best building, but Baltimore itself is awful.

I think it's important to separate the question of whether _this_ conference was badly run, and too expensive, from whether all conferences are.

This conference sounds like it was terrible. A well run conference, though, costs a lot more to stage than you might expect. Andy Budd wrote an illuminating article on the subject last year: http://www.andybudd.com/archives/2011/09/theres_a_lot_of_non...

I complete agree. We're a small Ruby consultancy and we run a relatively small Ruby/Ruby on Rails conference in Helsinki[1] and before we organised it for the first time we basically had no idea how much everything would cost.

Expect to be overcharged for everything ranging from coffee, to having power outlets available, to having tables for registration. You can expect a cup of coffee at your venue (any venue) to cost the same or more than it would in a good coffee shop (but it won't be anywhere as near as good). Lunch will probably cost two times more than it would in a decent restaurant nearby (but good luck finding a restaurant that can cater to 200-300 people at once).

Oh, and most venues have terms which prohibit you from using an outside caterer and thus you're stuck with the venue's own catering, no matter what it costs.

In terms of compensation for speakers, we do our best to help them out, but the economics of running a small conference means that we can't afford to pay everyone's travel expenses (never mind paying them a non-insulting speaker's fee). I wrote a blog post partially related to this about a year ago: http://blog.kiskolabs.com/post/5661615036/controversy

In terms of making money, we'd be much better off just concentrating on our core business, but then it's likely that Finland wouldn't have any Ruby conference at all. We'd love to be able to drop our prices to the sub 100€ level, but frankly that's not possible, not even with the great sponsors that we've been lucky to have in the past years.

To help with the "high" ticket prices, we offer discounts to full time students and discounts at a few levels to people who have contributed to Ruby on Rails. In fact, if you have enough contributions to Rails, we'll give you a free ticket.

[1]: http://frozenrails.eu

but good luck finding a restaurant that can cater to 200-300 people at once

Do the attendees really all have to go to the same restaurant?

As someone else mentioned, the real conference happens around the food, the speakers and presentations are just a side show. If everybody disappeared off with their friends to eat on their own, then you've lost much of the point of a conference. At every conference I've been to the highlights have almost always been meeting awesome people over lunch or drinks, and only very rarely any of the actual presentations.

I've only gone to conference once, but I generally ate out with groups of people who didn't already all know each other. A table only holds so many people, so the same strategy is necessary whether people scatter to restaurants or stay in one place for a catered meal.

As a response to this problem, a few London-based ruby developers set up a no-frills ruby conference called "Ruby Manor". Talks were chosen democratically from the community, and were of a very high quality. They have had three so far, for, each for under £15 for a day, and they had enough money left over at the end of the day to buy us all a few beers. I think more than anything, they wanted to prove that you could have a great conference without charging large amounts of money:


These overpriced tickets mostly come from the fact that companies/agencies send their employees there, book it as an expense and dont think about it. If every attendee had to pay this with his own private cash, i am sure the average ticket price would be much lower.

warning, contrarian opinion:

when i have questions about why something is, i try to examine people's incentives and doing this i've found I can usually figure things out. with this in mind, here's a speculative perspective to why dev conferences are expensive.

why do speakers speak? The most attractive speakers are super busy with their projects, and they're the most visibly good at what they do so they're at the tip-top compensation. Speakers speak because it gets them visibility - it helps them recruit, it helps them network, it helps build their company brand.

Ever notice how the speakers always have private speaker-only lunch rooms, and speaker-only bar events? Its because the speakers have less interest in networking with the masses. Being a speaker is a decent signal for being among the highest value people in the room. the speakers want to network with other speakers.

Altruism is a motivator, but I speculate, much less of one. If you're speaking at conferences "for the good of the people", you're probably not busy enough, and it will slow down as you become busy, unless it also provides something you need. so as a speaker grows his credibility, he tends to become less interested in the actual conference, perhaps a bit jaded even.

Why do tickets cost much? Most tickets are expensable. The market for headliner speakers drives competitive comp. A first-class venue in vegas will draw a bigger crowd, even if its just people who want to party for a week. More tickets = bigger conference.

This is why you go see Douglas Crawford speak to a room full of experienced developers and he gives some high-school level talk about "javascript the good parts". We get it man, the whole room owns your book. But we're all still at the conference, even if most of us don't realize that while we're wishing to learn something from the headliners, all we actually bought was a ticket to be in a room with them.

Ever notice how the speakers always have private speaker-only lunch rooms, and speaker-only bar events? Its because the speakers have less interest in networking with the masses. Being a speaker is a decent signal for being among the highest value people in the room. the speakers want to network with other speakers.

No actually. I don't. I speak at a fair number of conferences and I have had that experience a grand total of once.... and it felt very strange and "wrong". I remember several of us talking about how weird it was that we were isolated from the rest of the folk by the conference organisers (this was a French conference - maybe they generally do it differently there).

Occasional a single speaker dinner maybe - but that's it.

> Ever notice how the speakers always have private speaker-only lunch rooms [...]

Most speakers are people too, you know. :)

It may depend a lot on the kind of event to which you're going--but certainly within the Free/Open Source conference world (from community- to corporate-organised events) my experience* is that most speakers don't see themselves as "above and separate" from attendees.

While events might have a speaker room it's generally used to grab a quick snack, stash some gear, find an organiser, make last minute presentation changes or as a quiet spot to get some work done in the middle of the madness. :)

And generally a speaker-only dinner or bar event is created by the event organisers as a token of appreciation for the speakers.

> the speakers want to network with other speakers. In general the speakers want to network with anyone interesting/useful, speaker or not.

Two recommendations:

1) If you enjoy or don't enjoy a presentation please give concrete feedback. Either in person or via a conference feedback mechanism. It really helps to know what's working and what needs further improvement. And it's a good first point of contact for networking.

2) Apply to become a speaker! Start from somewhere small (or not) and go from there. It's too easy to convince yourself you've got nothing people want to hear. A few years I started with speaking at a local evening event in a town in New Zealand--this year I'll be speaking and running an extremely well received workshop at OSCON for the third year in a row.

* Blatant plug:

If you are going to be at OSCON (the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in Portland, Oregon) in July and want to learn how to get started with the Arduino consider attending my "Get Started with the Arduino - A Hands-On Introductory Workshop" http://www.oscon.com/oscon2012/public/schedule/detail/23941. In the previous two years we've introduced about sixty people to the awesome & fun world of Arduino. It's also been one of the highest rated tutorials at the conference for both years which makes me think I must be doing something right. :)

Also, if you're interested in creating Android accessories with the Arduino you should also check out my "Arduino & Handbag: Create Android Accessories Without Android Code" presentation: http://www.oscon.com/oscon2012/public/schedule/detail/23946

And apparently if you use this promotion code you'll get 20% of registration for the conference: OS12FOS

/end blatant plug :)

> Moving on, even though I didn’t pay for my ticket since I was a speaker

I've attended PyCon a few times and found the experience to be great value. I believe their speakers have to pay their own way just like other attendees. Other events that I've attended such as TechEd appear to be a bit of a "jolly" for speakers (MVPs) who are carted around to other events throughout the year.

I'd love to attend more conferences but as the author says it's too expensive to justify the cost in a majority of cases.

I did always wonder why they are so expensive. Are they the big cash cows we assume them to be? Or are they far more expensive to run than we think them to be?

Have you seen how much hotels, conference centres charge for venue, beverages etc :)

Yes, but I've also seen how cheaply a number of other conferences/events are able to run in the same or comparable venues.

Can you give some examples please? If there are people out there who can run large conferences cheaply I'd love to go look and figure out how :-)

Don't forget wifi :)

I wish conferences offered two rates: one for just the talks, and one for talks + (coffee,wifi,lunch).

I was at a conference that did that. The end result was that there was no way to prevent people who hadn't paid for lunch and coffee from just walking up to the buffet table and taking lunch and coffee, and the food being gone before everybody who had paid for lunch had eaten.

Some actual figures:

For the last two years I have run the MathsJam conference, and I'll be doing so again this year. Last year the fee covered lunch Saturday, dinner, accommodation, breakfast, lunch Sunday, all tea, coffee and biscuits, and all sessions. No bag, paper, pen, coasters, pins, or other swag. Nada. You want it, you bring it. We didn't pay the speakers, and last year we had 60 lightning talks of 5 minutes each.

Fantastic atmosphere of 120 enthusiastic people who love their subject and wanted to share stuff.

10% discount early bird, 10% discount for the unwaged.

Full price: ukp165 (which is about usd200).

That covered expenses with basically no head room. Note that accommodation was included, as was a ferry from the local train station.

Having participated in conferences in the US and Europe I can say that there are real cost structures to organizing a conference that just can't be avoided. I've done this at venues such as the LA Convention Center, Las Vegas Convention Center, MGM Grand Convention Center, RAI Convention Center (Amsterdam), ICM Munchen (Munich) and various hotels and smaller venues.

In general terms I find the European venues and smaller American or European hotels far more pleasurable, simpler and cheaper to deal with.

The unionized American venues are very expensive and can be a nightmare to deal with. Want coffee in a room for visitors? Sure. It'll be $200 for a gallon. Want a light turned off above a booth? No problem, it'll cost $350 for a union electrician to go to the breaker panel and quite-literally flip a switch. Need to bring some boxes on a dolly to a booth? Can't do it. Once you enter their domain union members need to handle even the most basic of jobs.

In general terms, large venues are expensive, union or not. The union part just skews the cost curve because of how bloated and unreasonable things can become. Add to that insurance, guarantees and other fixed costs and you have a solid formula for high prices for attendees. And, if you are after a venue such as the LV Convention Center, well you'll have to sign a contract and pay a large chunk of money upfront a year ahead of your event.

Then there's the issue that someone alluded to: What do you actually get out of conferences. There are some where you might just meet a person or learn about a technology that is a game changer for whatever it is you are doing. That's priceless and always worth the cost of admission. More often than not, at least in my experience, conferences are very disruptive and do more harm than good. Why?

If you are an exhibitor very soon conferences become these artificial and unreasonable deadlines that almost require you to make announcements. This means that mad scrambles happen around them to get to that point. This can disrupt a company for weeks, both before and after a conference.

As an attendee, you might also delay acting on purchases in order to see the above-mentioned announcements at the conference. The problem is that most conference announcements are vaporware --requiring months of additional work to be real products. By waiting for the next shiny thing you delay your process. And then, of course, there's the huge disruption of sending a whole team to a conference for three to five days --or even more if it requires traveling out of your country.

For a large class of things I have personally found that the quality and depth of information available on the internet is significantly better than what you can get at a conference. I have avoided conferences for three years now, and, I must say, I have learned a lot more, been more productive and made better decisions because of it.

I'm not very knowledgeable about this yet, but I'm currently helping to co-organize a conference in Greece, and getting some advice from last year's organizers, who did it in the US, and it's amazing how much of stuff they had to deal with (and pay for) in the US that isn't an issue in Greece. Every little thing was possibly illegal, or if legal, required special approval, approved staff, maybe a permit, extra fees, etc., while in Greece it's one all-inclusive price to rent the venue, which comes with a few staff who'll do reasonable odd jobs. And, they're flexible on us doing outside catering or even doing things ourselves (despite Greece's reputation as a worse place to do business). We can even serve wine ourselves, i.e. literally buy wine from the store, bring it in, and have a table where volunteer conference staff pour it, something that wouldn't fly in the US.

Smaller venues in the US are more like that, although I doubt the wine would work. And I've been to one convention (really, that's what these are) at RAI in Amsterdam that was just about as bad as anything I've seen in the US.

Sadly, it's not just the US. I've helped organized events in Denmark, Spain and China and anything involving hotels or conference centers is horrifying expensive.

I wonder why unions seem to have such horrible effects in the US, while they are comparatively useful in Germany and Scandinavia? Perhaps the explanation for that will also encompass the British unions and Margaret Thatcher?

I think unions and companies have closer working relationships in Germany and Scandinavia, partly because they start from more similar ideological perspectives. Scandinavian business in particular isn't nearly as hardline market-oriented; they're market-oriented of course, but tend to still use vaguely socialist rhetoric internally, care a lot about projecting a view that they take care of their workers, want to maintain good relations with their unions and avoid conflict, etc. Unions, in the other direction, are also less confrontational, and tend to use back channels and meetings rather than activist measures. The economies overall are sort of run on a general corporatist-consensus model (in the old sense of the word "corporatism"). If that model works badly it could produce corruption and smoky backroom deals, but when run well, I think it tends to produce more commonsense consensus solutions, versus the very legalistic solutions that the American industry-union standoff produces, where everything has to be precisely specified because neither side trusts the other.

One interesting feature is that much of Scandinavia is both more socialist and more marketized than the US. For example, the Danish public-transit system is heavily state-funded, but operated by private contractors, not public-sector employees. The idea seems to be to maintain a high level of public services paid for by taxes, but to actually operate those services via market-based bidding.

"partly because they start from more similar ideological perspectives"

I think this is true in the US, unfortunately: the unions and upper management have very similar goals: get paid as much as possible while making as much work as possible someone else's responsibility.

I think unions and companies have closer working relationships in Germany and Scandinavia

The core of this is most certainly true. In North America there is an extremely adversarial atmosphere between unions and workplaces. This leads to the natural result that neither side ever wants to give an inch (the slippery slope principal), and will always try to take an inch, the game leading to the scenarios described.

There is no doubt that the union principal is sound for many professions where power is unbalanced, however the implementation is just completely broken here.

Not sure about Europe. After having dealt with unions in the US for quite some time my general opinion of the average unionized worker is not very kind: lazy, non-productive, selfish, self-important, over-paid, unfairly protected, de-humanized, and more.

Of course, this is a gross over-simplification and a generalization that is not fair to a lot of people. There are good unionized workers.

I'll give you an example: Las Vegas Convention Center. Doing some work at night setting up computers, etc. The crew that installs the carpets comes in. Their job is, quite literally, to roll out the carpeting. I watched as this unfolded. Every hour or so a supervisor would roll around on a little electric cart and would tell people that they had to take a break. The workers would lay down on the carpet and go to sleep. This ballet continued for hours. The work that could have been done in three hours too six, if not more. I asked one of them how much they made. She, very proudly replied: $45 per hour plus benefits and a pension plan. My jaw dropped.

Then there are the stories of the security guards making $150K a year to sit on a chair by a door. And the stories of the union worker refusing to lend a hand because the task is not in their union contract.

Anyhow, the issue, as I see it, is that unions have resulted in hordes of people that are devoid of any real drive to succeed and move forward in life. In unions there are few incentives to be better at what you do. In a lot of union contracts you just can't be fired. I mean, take the examples of (unionized) teachers sexually assaulting students. They don't get fired, they are transfered and "hidden" in another job. There was a recent case of a (unionized) teacher who was feeding his students cookies with semen on on top. That's beyond sick. And, as I understand it, the guy was not fired and will enjoy his 80% pension for the rest of his life.

Anyhow, I don't want to go off on that tangent, but I've just seen too many examples where unions are just destroying drive, innovation and competitiveness in this country. It's a damn shame.

People usually treat venue staff like crap, so it's no wonder that they might be surly. They are anticipating prima donnas walking in and screaming at them (and they do).

When you bring a big event to a venue you are creating an immense amount of work. You're only there for a short time, you show up for a few days and then leave. They're there all the time. A janitor can make or break your conference. Can you imagine what 1500 people do to a venues' washrooms?

Before our events, we always go and introduce ourselves to the staff. We try to keep things friendly and it's always paid off for us. I hand out my business cards to every staff member from hotel clerks to cleaners to security guards. If they have any problems or questions, they have my personal cell number to call.

If we have pizza brought in for the volunteers, we always offer some to the shift workers there. We try to be pleasant and courteous to the staff ahead of time, you won't believe what a huge difference it makes.

On the 2nd day of our last event, one of the security guards bought me a screwdriver set out of his own money because he saw we needed one. Doesn't always happen but people can surprise you.

It's good that you make the extra effort, but it's not like these people are waiters that make their living from tips. I work a lot too and sometimes get frustrated with customers, but that doesn't give me license to treat them like crap.

Well, we're all the protagonists of our own story. I'm sure some people think I'm a surly bastard.

My job can be pretty stressful too, but I rarely have to deal with a washroom stall covered in filth from the most disturbing case of explosive diarrhea ever.

Likewise I'm not usually expected to escort out a distraught, screaming homeless person who is having a psychotic episode in the middle of a busy convention center.

Hakuna Matata.

Just assume someone has dealt with something like that or worse and it gets easier to be nice to them, even when they're behaving like right old pricks.

This might be OT, but you seem like a very good guy. I've no deeper insight to offer than that, just wanted to say it.

Given that the goal of the union is to organize the workers so they get better working conditions and pay and can't be arbitrarily fired, it seems to be working just fine.

If you thought you were underpaid, and you unionized to get a better rate, I bet your customers would bitch about it too and blame the union.

And at heart, your complaint is really that management did a poor job of negotiating a contract with the union.

I don't know why you were downvoted, I gave you on upvote.

You are, of course, absolutely correct at some level. I think that in the vast majority of cases it isn't union membership that is evil but rather the union bosses and negotiators that set out to suck the blood right out of the businesses they deal with.

It's no different than politics. The union bosses have a nice ride and want to keep it. If they keep providing for the membership they gain votes and stay in power. Damn the consequences. And, when you join unions with governments you have the perfect storm: sharks vs. weasels. The union negotiators are the sharks intent in obtaining as much as they can out of the government agency. The government folks want the votes from the union membership. So, they, effectively, pay them off to buy their votes by granting all kinds of insane things to the union sharks. How else would you have a librarian retire and be paid $250K a year for life?

These costs, be them in the private domain or government have to come from somewhere. In the case of conferences it makes everything more expensive for attendees.

Where do you live so I can get one of those sweet jobs?

Jeez, the Dean of the University Libraries in University Of Southern California pulls down $250,000, but you do know that isn't really a common thing?

Median salary for librarians is about $50,000, which isn't bad but not "retire on $250K for life".

And "librarian" covers a whole lot of ground. Here is the UConn list of job families: http://www.hr.uconn.edu/employment_services/ucpea_salary.htm...

A person you or I would call a librarian can be classed anywhere from UCP V to UCP X, which covers a salary range of $40k to $110k.

University of Southern California (USC) is a private university.

Fair enough but my point was that if there are librarians that make $250,000 it is because they are at the highest level of administration over a library system, not the librarians that you meet at a reference desk.

As eli_gottlieb pointed out, many librarian positions are unpaid so the $50K figure may significantly overestimate the salary of a librarian if volunteer ones are not counted.

I don't know if that number is accurate. Many librarian positions are unpaid nowadays...

I completed an MSLIS degree in 2008. My classmates who were bound for traditional library careers used to joke that the only masters-level degree that pays less after graduation is Social Work.

The WSJ published a sortable table of unemployment and salaries by degree late last year. Library Science graduates currently face an unemployment rate of 15% in the field (4th highest, out of 173 degrees) and salaries that rank in the bottom 5 amongst all degrees. http://graphicsweb.wsj.com/documents/NILF1111/#term=

I wouldn't just blame the unions there. In the places that I've seen this dynamic, it's paired with exploitative management.

Without the unions, the managers would be running people ragged in the name of profit. So the natural counter-reaction is FU, I'll do as little as possible for the dough. Totally pathological, but in high school I had a couple of shitty minimum wage jobs that put me in that mindset.

For those interested in the dynamic, I strongly recommend the "This American Life" episode NUMMI:


It describes one of GM's worst plants switching over to a Toyota joint venture. Same people, but it went from this kind of bullshit (and worse!) to a place that everybody loved and worked hard at.

>the average unionized worker is not very kind: lazy, non-productive, selfish, self-important, over-paid, unfairly protected, de-humanized, and more.

I could not agree more. Unionized workers make my life hell anytime I'm in Vegas or Philly -- With Philly being an order of magnitude worse.

The first time I worked in Philly was a rage-inducing experience. We were forced to pay an "A/V" guy $40 an hour to sit in a room all day and do absolutely nothing. I set everything that needed setup the night before the conference, but because we were filming in one of 'their' rooms, we were legally obligated to hire a local guy. And since there was nothing for him to do, that fucker would show up in the morning with his laptop, sit down in a corner, and play fucking games all day.

For the full 5 days of shooting, we only asked him to do one thing -- one -- and that was to bring us a handheld recorder we left in one of the rooms. Could he? "No, I technically can't because it's the end of the day".

Though, over the years I've learned that sending them to a corner all day is ultimately the best option. The are lazy, unreliable, and FAR too technically incompetent to perform the work asked of them.

We are often tasked with recording entire conferences. For really large events, in the area of 25-30 concurrent sessions per hour, it is generally expected that out of the hundreds of final sessions, one or two will be lost due to gear failures or non-compliant speakers. 2 out of 400 is not bad. However, using local union help? That number balloons to unreasonable. We've at times lost upwards of 30% of the sessions slated to be recorded. Which of course makes us look incapable of doing our job, which affects repeat business. It sucks.

It's infuriating as a small business to be forced to hire people that will only damage our business. It's completely anti-competitive.

It's not really the unions, it's just markup the venues charge on everything.

The worker is likely part of the regular physical plant run by the venue and it is cheaper for the venue to have someone on staff to fix things. The electrician is on salary or steady wages.

Each $350 fee likely pays for most of the electrician's wages for that day, so if you have 20 rooms that need electrical drops, you are paying 10-20x the cost of the electrician and assistants.

You as an event organizer don't have a choice about whether you need electrical power for a room so you are a trapped consumer. And the venues take advantage of that.

This is made worse because of the economic distortion caused by Pharmaceutical or Medical conferences which are so flush with money that $350 for an electrical drop is inconsequential. There are conferences where they'll set off indoor fireworks and hire professional musicians to write songs for the event.

The venues get accustomed to event planners that write checks for every problem, so if you are running a conference for people like geeks or academics who may not be as lucrative, you pay through the nose.

Yes, the unions are partly just getting caught in the middle. They may have a high hourly wage, but that's all they set, and it's certainly not $250 an hour. The convention center is taking the money and the union is getting the blame.

OTOH, it is true that the union will aggressively police their job roles, which may have expanded over time to include things that are just silly, like moving a cart from A to B. Ideally those would be rolled back to sensible jobs that require workers, but obviously no one has an incentive to do that.

I was the IT guy for an electrical contractor. I observed the benefit of having set roles.

You need fiber spliced? Call the union hall and ask for that skill and they'll send you a worker that absolutely will be able to do that specific task. The benefit of outsourcing the vetting, training, and qualifications to the union hall was huge. (And better than any temp agency I've ever seen or heard about.)

In other professions, I have no doubt that silly shop floors rules (need an elevator operator to work the elevator) are terrible. I've heard the stories, many by union members that disagree.

My guess is those silly rules start as buyoffs / payola (quid pro quo during some negotation years ago) and became institutionalized.

Because they had to fight so hard to exist at all here, and were often brutalized by police and/or private thugs, and the memories linger, making them fight for everything they can get. In Germany and Scandinavia, most of the unions seem to see their relationship with employers more as a partnership than a zero-sum competition.

I think Northern European culture makes it difficult for people to live with themselves if they're slacking off. It's built into many kinds of Protestantism and may have cultural inertia in places (like Sweden) with more atheist leanings.

I think smart planning can help you avoid most of the problems. I have attended an open source conference the past two years and the tickets were $72 for three days and the speakers were excellent.

It was held in a new hotel in Dallas and the rooms were all $99 a night. I'm not sure how they did it but I am witness to the fact that it can be done.

Source: http://www.opencfsummit.org/

Having the event in February helps. Off-season and it's not in Dallas itself, but in Garland.

If you're flexible about the when and where, you can get a decent price. Lots of events don't have that flexibility.

I was a conference director for seven years, and everything you say is true. In addition to what you mentioned, conference organizers are forced to estimate the number of attendees and reserve blocks of hotel rooms to ensure availability. In most cases, you're doing this eight months in advance - before any of the speakers have been selected. If you fail to hit your room night reserve, you pay out the nose.

Agreed. I remember, back in the day, having to sneak our computers in because the "union method" was to leave the $50,000 of SGI workstations we were using for our demo on a cart, unattended, for several hours, until someone could get around to rolling it to our booth. We'd already heard from some people about equipment getting stolen. The union guys were spending more time making sure people weren't sneaking their stuff into the conference venue than... moving stuff into the conference venue (and these machines were on loan to begin with.)

If you wanted to hire labor, being forced to hire the union because they have a deal wit the conference center would be one thing, but being forced to hire them when you would prefer to do it yourself, is completely different.

Plus, these days, you no longer need to all show up at the same place at the same time to transmit specialized information. This is why the conference industry is seemingly dying.

I stopped going to WWDC simply because it was such a massive hassle, and WWDC is a fantastic conference. I started buying the Videos (which Apple now makes available for free)... it is much cheaper and less hassle to spend the $600 on the videos they charged when they were charging for them.

It seems this was a conference organized for profit, so the high price tag doesn't seem very surprising. I have been both at for-profit and "grass roots" conferences, and I like the latter much better.

I have also helped organize a conference (German Perl Workshop 2012), here are some key facts: * price: 75€ regular fee, 50€ for speakers, 250€ for people sent by companies (yes, most were there "for fun" on their own expense) * duration: 3 days, 2 tracks * roughly 90 visitors * free catering in the coffee breaks and for lunch * rooms provided by the local university (quite a cost relief) * social event sponsored by a local (but not small) company * a few small sponsors * conference t-shirts and bags for free * in the end, we had a bit of money left over

I guess you can go to quite some length if you have volunteers organizing things.

Ignoring the details of this particular conference, I think its mostly wrong to say 'conferences should be priced to cover X'

There are conferences that go all the way from free to > $5000, I am constantly hearing about the amazing experiences at certain very expensive small conferences, as well as people enjoying the cheaper events (I recently helped out organising a conference that charged £50 full price).

Obviously we dont want anyone to be ripped off, but generally if you have an expensive conference the organisers and the speakers have to justify that cost, and if they do so great. We also dont want to alienate new people from attending conferences, but as long as their continue to be free meetups and cheaper conferences as an alternative, I dont see the problem

I was incredibly excited when I found out Euruko is only £65; every other Ruby conference is extortionate. I don't care about fancy venues or freebies; I want to meet other people and learn something new.

Most of these conferences are pricing out the people who actually want to learn, and instead mostly just filling their seats with people who know it already.

Most EuRuKo venues since it started moving were actually fancy :). I still remember the days when they were hard pressed to find locations in germany that gave a cheap room with a projector to 20 rubyists :/.

I think the model of moving the conference through europe also ensures that there is a healthy competition between the user groups.

But there are other great conferences at a similar price point in the ruby world, for example Ruby Lugdunum: http://rulu.eu/ .

> a cheap room with a beamer

A tip for you, and maybe other German speakers here: "beamer" is one of those German words that seems like English, but it's not (like handy). In English, the word is "projector", whether it's analog or digital.

I thought he meant that they were provided BMWs for transportation.

Thank you so much for that clarification.


Ooh, I hadn't seen that one - sorely tempted to go to France for that now :D

Sorry for replying again, but I saw it too late: Eurucamp (the event that was quickly organized for everyone that didn't get a ticket for EuRuKo 2011) will be continued. I would be surprised if the ticket price would be above the price of EuRuKo. http://2012.eurucamp.org/

Overpriced conferences are a great opportunity for local user groups. I'm a member of one and we often invite one of the local conference speakers to do a free, less formal talk after the first one.

Honestly, I believe that a conference ticket should only cover a venue and speakers travel cost. Even with this days economy it's not hard to find a sponsor and with ticket price around 100-200 euro it's certainly possible to provide great experience AND free beer.

They can be an opportunity in other ways too. Some conference organizers are keen to engage with local user groups and can go out of their way to offer space for an on-site meetup or similar things and offer cut price tickets or even free entry.

O'Reilly is a good example of this. They let a free side event take place at RailsConf for a couple of years and you could get right into the conference and mingle with all the RailsConf attendees for free! The only thing you couldn't do was go into the talks (and, yes, they had people checking on the doors.)

I think O'Reilly also does "expo hall" passes for certain conferences for $25 or something.. it's almost like getting the best part (hallway track!) for free :-)

Sure, it would be great if these conferences cost less. It be nice it my rent were cheaper, too.

But this author ignores the economic reason why these conferences ticket prices are so high: because they can be. WWDC and Google's I/O have no trouble selling out (both in under a day this year). So unless they are going to make these events much larger, there isn't going to be room for students and newbies anyway.

because they can be

Because they have to be, due to simple supply/demand. I/O sold out in 20 minutes and some suspect that was even throttled.

It's a shame, as the author says, because it tilts attendance in favor of either veterans with deep pockets, or employees of corporations.

Good of Google to offer I/O to students at discounted rates; bad of them for not following through with filtering the attendance down to coders: http://googlecode.blogspot.de/2011/11/google-io-2012-extende...

I'm seeing the same thing in Berlin these days - tech conferences of all kinds, usally 2 days, tickets ranging from 300,- euros up to 1200,- euros.

Even if employers would send their developers to one of those two or three times a year - how many developers from different countries can even afford those prices? Half of europe simply isn't that rich and doesn't pay nowhere near that high salaries.

On top of the two-days event you'd have to add hostel/hotel and travel (train or flight) - even with my (in comparison) rather high german salary I think twice if I really want to pay several hundred euros for an event of two days.

And conferences don't have to take place in hotels, there's all kinds of venues - some hotter, some less so - one could meet with 50, 100, 500 or 1000 people. Some developer conferences simply take place in rooms of the local university for example. (Usally a not so hot location, ok..)

I would really like to see that developer's conferences stay (really) affordable for _all_ of the intended audience.

> The next conference of the day is Future of Web Design. I believe these tickets are well above £1000.

She could have at least checked before making this nebulous claim; the most expensive ticket at FOWD London is £695+VAT, some way shy of ‘well above £1000’. It does somewhat undermine your argument if you pull numbers out of thin air…

This could be called "Overpriced [anything]." It seems someone went to a conference they thought didn't offer value for money. Sad, but it happens.

People pay $200/hr for developers who don't get the job done, too, but that shouldn't diminish other developers who charge $200/hr and provide good value. So it goes with conferences. A TED ticket costs thousands of dollars, for instance, but people seem to enjoy going.

The people who claim conferences should "only" charge enough to cover their costs, though, strike me as weird. That's like saying developers should only earn enough to cover their living expenses or that all software should be free. Sure, some conferences have altruistic motivations, but some are run by businesses who work hard at it and, well, deserve to make a profit.

I found and attended the ACCU conference in Oxford last year. I found it quite affordable at 695 GBP, and it was hands down the best conference I've been to. The speakers were great, the topics were interesting (programming languages, testing, developer processes, etc), the size of the conference was just right. The speakers were fun and knowledgeable, and had no qualms about joining the masses. In fact at one event the speakers and the masses were joined up in an networking activity. It was awesome. The wifi was flaky but is something I could deal with no problem. I've often wondered why there isn't a developer conference like this here in the states?

There are lots of conferences like that in the US. Strange Loop, Philadelphia ETE, Code Mash, OSCON, etc.

Is there an easy place to find out about these conferences and more like them?

There's a guide of interesting US conferences that I like here: http://lanyrd.com/guides/developer-run-software-conferences-... and the search functionality in Lanyrd is pretty useful: http://lanyrd.com/search/


It sounds like the conference Amber went to was a bad conference. They exist. Both expensive and non-expensive ones :-)

A few thoughts...

1) Price != Value

Just like everything else in life the price tag is not the way to judge a conference. It's the value received. Some free conferences will be worth £1000 to somebody. Some £1000 conferences will be worth nothing to somebody else. Some expensive conferences will suck universally. Some free events will too. If you want to know what a conference will be like - go look at previous years. Go look at the speakers. Go talk to people who have attended. Figure out if it's the right conference for you.

For example, I was scheduled in as a speaker at last year's Agile 2011 conference. As a speaker it would have cost me about £6k to attend once you take travel from the UK, hotel & lost work hours into account. That's money out of my pocket - I run my own business.

I couldn't attend at the last minute due to family illness. Judging by previous years not attending has lost me money. Agile 2011 is worth more that £6k to me and my business. To somebody in a different business, or with different skills - probably not.

Another way to think about what conferences provide - ask yourself what your day rate is? How many working days of value are you expecting to get from the conference?

2) Experts need events too

Yes there have to be events with a broad appeal for "high schoolers, college students and newbies to our industry". But there also needs to be events for "people who already know everything you’d need to know about the presented topics".

The latter might not enjoy the former's events. The former may not enjoy the latter's events. Finding a balance that will attract and entertain both groups is really fricking hard.

3) Cost of large events

I've been involved several times with organising conferences both small (e.g. BarCamp Bournemouth - 2days, 75ish people, free) and large (Agile 2010 with 1400ish people, five days, $1-2k & Agile 2012 - probably about the same). Anybody who thinks large conferences are massive money spinners has never been involved with organising a large conference :-)

Large conferences are not usually cheaper to organise because of economies of scale. Quite the opposite if anything.

For example take the venue. For small conferences you can often cadge a venue with some sponsorship, or find a small one in a slack period running cheap. You're flexible because you can change location on very short notice and there are usually multiple venues in a town or city that can support you.

For large conferences there are few venues that can support you. Those venues' business is based around extracting every last penny from large events - and they're very good at it. They need to be booked months, sometimes more than a year, in advance. Which brings in a whole set of different organisational and cash-flow issues... They often require a guaranteed minimum income from the floorspace, which gives you much less flexibility of resizing and scheduling. Short version - it's really freaking hard.

Then there's insurance. Speaker compensation. Programme selection. Managing submissions (if you have an open submission process) and/or finding speakers. The folk needed for security, health & safety, catering, etc. Food. Wifi. Transactional fees. Power. AV. Publicity. Etc.

I was considering a conference that will be happening next month. After researching it a bit more, I realized I would have been really ticked if I had actually gone. The conference was not expensive at all, but going to it would have meant a flight and hotel, as well as valuable time away from our startup. Looking at the info, I discovered two important things:

1. They still have not announced the topics, just the speakers, which makes me think that the talks will be ill-prepared at best. A good presentation takes time to hone.

2. They claim that the conference is two days, but in reality, the second day will occur at a different location still TBD (probably not near the first day's venue), and is just an open Barcamp for the attendees. Don't get me wrong, I love a good Barcamp. I've spoken at ours several times. The thing is, a good Barcamp is free. Like Amber, I am from Nashville. We can put on a good one and it doesn't cost attendees a lick. Maybe it's just our volunteer spirit, being the Volunteer state and all.

I am still interested in the conference, but the time away from our startup, the cost of the flight and hotel, and the concerns I listed above make me want to avoid it like the plague.

I see where the author is coming from. Playing devils advocate as someone who runs a reasonable sized event in London[1] I can tell everyone ere that the single biggest expense is the venue itself, closely followed by all the little bits on top (such as catering etc.). Having said that, £799 for a single track two day conf is a bit steep (for a comparison 44con's two day ticket[2] is £300, fully catered). The biggest bugbear I have is poor speaker ops. Speakers need to be taken care of, if you don't then you'll struggle to attract quality and end up with a depressive spiral. It seems this conference failed.

The interesting point for me was Sencha. I wonder if thy had Sencha sponsored slots? We don't do this, especially as people pay to attend.

The point about travel expenses is unforgivable. We cover our speakers flights and accommodation so they're not out of pocket. At the very least it shouldn't cost the speaker a fortune to attend.

[1] -http://44con.com [2] -http://44con-2012.eventbrite.co.uk

My problems do not just include the ticket, here in the U.S. there seems to be a desire to have conferences in the most expensive cities possible. New York, Boston, LA, SF, etc. It seems as if there's this bubble filter that makes these people think developers are only in these locations. Please note, developers are everywhere, think about it.

Often times the airfare and hotel equal or go beyond the costs of the conference ticket. Therefore I don't go to a lot of conferences, it's just too hard to justify them. At this point I'm more apt to look for more training-like gatherings where the speaker will discuss actual code instead of just talking about whatever random subjects. A speaker describing his favorite topic fits fine for local meetups and the like, I once spoke on a one of my pet peeves to a local meetup and it was great. I suggest that people look for more of that type of thing these days.

That's an advantage that we at Steel City Ruby Conf are actively promoting-- we're targeting Ruby devs who haven't been to conferences before and hoping that the cheaper accommodations and costs in Pittsburgh help.

It can be cheaper for people to get to these cities and get accomodation - as well as the millions that live nearby.

I did a conference at the Anaheim convention center (=Disneyland). Flights to LAX were $200, there was a $10 shuttle from the airport and a line of $50 motels.

Then I had to go to Pittsburgh, sounds like a cheap place. But flights were $1000 with a lot less choice (who wants to got to Pittsburgh?). There were only a couple of hotels near the convention center and they were $200/night.

Las Vegas is one of the cheapest places in the US to get to and stay at, that's why it's so popular for conferences. Similarly for Amsterdam in Europe.

There are several cities that aren't really expensive that have tons of cheap conference space, see, Atlanta.

I went to a conference a few weeks back that was £300 a ticket. Factoring in accommodation + travel. The cost was well over £500.

Was it worth it? Not really.

The talks were put on YouTube and the 'goody' bags weren't that great.

Some of the speakers were ok but I guess I would of rather put that money elsewhere.

It wont stop me from attending conferences but lesson learnt.

The problem is not overpriced conferences. The problems are that employers don't want to shell out $2000/year because it seems like a hefty pricetag, conferences are just of often as not not well-enough organized and operated, and sponsors put off more people than they sell to when they do the hard sell.

The ways to fix that are: 1. conferences should instead do a subscription model where you join up for $2000/year and you go to as many conferences as you want (but you have to pay the hotel fee + maybe another $100 or so to keep the riffraff out), 2. if conferences happened more often, the kinks would be worked out, 3. sponsors: give away product and then stay the hell out of it- you'll get the exposure x 10.

Maybe more "gatherings" and less conferences are the way to go (invite a speaker once you have an interested group) - kind of like the way these BSD guys in NYC do it: http://www.nycbug.org/

I help run a free conference for about 1,000 people (MinneBar: http://minnestar.org/minnebar/) that is paid for by sponsorship (and volunteer time - the organization is a non-profit with a low budget).

It gives me sympathy for paid conference organizers. Conferences are expensive! We have breakfast, lunch, and a happy hour, pay no speakers, usually get venues donated, have no paid staff, and it still costs $40/person!

I love how everyone screams about the 'open' web and yet these conference tickets are priced so highly.

I think conferences are a fantastic idea.. you meet like-minded individuals and hear from really passionate presenters but the prices are crazy and thus I have only ever been to 1.

I understand how there are certain costs to be factored in like venue and speakers costs but come on, there must be something that can be done so developers from all backgrounds can take part in such events.

Having attended several conferences and paid for the tickets, I can only conclude that they aren't worth the price. It's a good excuse if you want to travel far or if your employer is paying though.

Those that benefit most are the speakers, often well paid, free travel and accommodation, other freebies, usually a VIP event beforehand, they pimp their book for little effort, are often employed to do so, repeat same talk at other venues etc.

Please post a list of conferences where the speakers are well paid, I'd like to get on that gravy train ;-)

So far, the conferences where I've spoken have done no kore than take care of travel and accomodation. CUSEC, which is a tremendously valuable conference for attendees, did give me a USB stick in the form of a lego block, I will cherish that long after people have forgotten USB technology.

Anyhow, I'm not arguing with travel and accomodation, but as a Dad it can be lonely leaving my family even if it's a real pleasure to meet people at a conference. I personally find speaking to be a net financial loss by a large margin, at the end of the day I'd make much more money staying at home and consulting by the hour.

Other speakers' mileage may vary :-)


This conference listed that they paid each speaker $2000, plus travel and hotel.

I understand the dilemma they're trying to avoid. By paying this rate, they're trying to ensure professional speakers of presumably high quality. They contrast this with other options:

"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..."

There's definitely room for middle ground in there. Personally, "second tier" cities are probably better choices for many people, due to lower costs, but why mention "packed lunch"? You can certainly have great food provided in 'second tier' cities, and at a lower cost to boot compared to 'first tier' cities.

Paying $2k for each speaker is certainly a nice gesture to the speakers, but they're setting up some extreme options here (basically spending $5k+ per speaker, vs nothing). Best value for all parties will probably be in between those extremes in most cases.

Have you been to any small regional conferences?

I've gone to MountainWest RubyConf a couple of times, on my own dime, and gotten way more out of it than I paid for tickets, lodging and travel. I'm pretty shy but I push myself to talk to a handful of people every day. Just being around people who are really passionate about what they do, and good at it, is pretty valuable.

But I do live in the middle of nowhere with very few programmers. That might skew my perspective.

Most people don't pay the full ticket price. At many conferences it is an incentive to register early, so the organizers can be better prepared.

Having not been to a conference for 10 years, is there anything I'm missing.

I gave up after seeing no value and crappy hotels too often.

If you think the cost of a conference is too expensive, then don't go.

If enough people think the same, the conference won't make money and will either lower their prices or lose money. Eventually the prices will come down.

However, apparently, enough people put value into these conferences to justify conference organizers charging higher prices.

Excellent answer on Quora from Adam Trachtenberg about conference ticket price: http://www.quora.com/Tech-Events/Why-are-tech-conferences-so...

I prefer cheaper conferences because the attendees tend to pay for their own tickets, rather than being sent by their company, resulting in a more passionate group of people.

Clicking on the link to this articles freezes systematically my Firefox!

I've been to two conferences in my life. One was, I think, a Bluetooth conference back in 2001 or so. I learned nothing. The other was a Flash conference in 2004ish. I learned nothing and was appalled at the low quality of presentations (one 'rockstar' developer spent several minutes showing us Homestar Runner while he flexed his guns at the podium - weird).

I guess the point of conferences is really just the networking. But I never really got the idea of wanting to network with a bunch of other people who also don't know what they're doing.

I just don't see conferences being aligned with developers' interests at all (unless, of course, you're a speaker). Training sessions? Yeah. Conferences? No. Send the sales team or CEO instead.

Attend a local Meetup-like meetup. Free or close to it. Be passive audience or speak or network. No hotel, airfare, rental car worries or costs. No union shenanigans. Eat at home or bring own snack, though many Meetup meetups have free food & drink by sponsors. No boredom or "well I paid for ticket" guilt. Come and go as you like, when you like, minimal structure but still get to meet other people with same technical interests. Lame speakers? Leave -- you didn't pay anything anyway. Granted, you do need enough people in your local area to reach that critical threshold. But don't ignore cheaper, easier, more flexible alternatives.

You can call me sexist, and I probably deserve it.

But I read the whole post and my interest just grew from line to line. Until I got to the end and saw that the poster was not only a girl, but a hot girl. Than the whole picture changed in my mind and now I see this just as one girl being pissed off about people not giving her the attention she thinks she deserves.

Before I noticed it was a hot girl I had this image of a nerd web developer and I would totally agree with him. But now all I see is drama.

I feel bad for my pre-concept, but there's nothing I can do.

Huh? One of her gripes is that she says the speakers are bad, including herself. She says all this about a conference she spoke at, putting both her reputation and the conferences reputation at risk to help bring more strength to her argument. I'd say yeah, you're seeing drama where you want to see drama.

Because "nerd web developer" and "attractive woman" are always mutually exclusive.

I have gone through her site, and she is as competent as they come design wise. So her only crime is not looking like a stereotype you have in mind?

I feel bad for my pre-concept, but there's nothing I can


You need help and there is something you can do, seek it.

It is obvious why you are anonymous.

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