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December 31, 2005

Received wisdom about conferences, pricing and so on

Recently, Eric Meyer, who along with Jeffrey Zeldman and Jason Santamaria held their first "An Event Apart" wrote about pricing for conferences. I started a short comment for the post, but it ended up being a bit bigger, so I thought I'd post it here.

Having had a little to do with conferences these last couple of years, I've both thought a great deal about pricing, and heard a lot of people's opinions about them, and all kinds of related stuff in that time. The comments to Eric's recent article contain many such opinions, about sponsorship, DVDs and other reuse, meals and the like. And given I've been thinking of writing a bit about running a conference, I thought I might do so in the context of that discussion.

First not to nitpick too much, but I think it is important to distinguish between a workshop and a conference. This is not to say either is better, rather they are different. AEA would be what I classify a workshop. WebEssentials is a conference (though many conferences, we05 included, include workshops as part of the program, usually for an additional fee.) We also run web development workshops on their own.

Why is the distinction important? I think because people are looking for different things at a workshop and a conference, and this will definitely impact on what a person thinks is reasonable pricing. The costs are rather different too - in ways which are probably a bit too involved to go into here.

What do people want from a workshop? They want to come away with greater practical skills in a certain area. They want to be able to do something they couldn't before, or to understand something they didn't before - something non trivial.

Over the course of a half day, a day or even two or more days, this is realistic.

For a conference, I think (and I certainly hope) attendees don't have this expectation. Rather, they want to be exposed to new stimulating ideas, techniques, people and so on, but probably realize they'll need to do some work themselves to really put what they come across into practice. Afterall, it's rare to get a conference session even of an hour, and if you go into much detail at all, you'd really not be able to cover much at all in that time.

Conferences in particular also provide a really good opportunity to expand and develop your professional relationships - you get to meet new people with similar interests, there are lunches, breaks, usually some kind of reception (that's why they are there, and why you pay for them, that expense is far from a waste as an attendee, the conference would be dramatically less valuable for you without these opportunities, I really believe).

OK, some specific ideas about pricing.

1. No one is ever going to get rich running a conference or workshops for developers. Maybe for managers, where you can charge an arm and a leg (several thousand for 3 days or so), but if you want to reach out to a broad spectrum of developers in government, industry, independents and so on, then there simply is no way you can make a lot of money doing it.
Trust me :-)

2. Different markets are clearly prepared to pay quite different amounts for similar events - WebEssentials charges close to half per day compared with similar conferences and workshops around the world. And it's not like our costs are lower - Sydney and Australia are world class cities in terms of pricing, and for our international speakers, we look after them well, and they are here for longer than they would be closer to home, so our costs there are very significant. Why do we charge so little? Because in the Australian market, it's not considered little - a lot of people are of the opinion it's a lot, not withstanding it's much cheaper than many overseas events, because they compare with local events here. Of course none of those local events feature the array of international speakers we do (which accounts for probably around 50% of our total costs), but that's not how people look at it.

The reason we can even think about doing the events we do is because we don't run it them a business - all the founders do pretty much all the work, and that time comes from our other endeavors, the ones that actually put food on our tables :-)

To be honest I don't think there would be a WebEssentials any other way. As much as anything it's a labor of love.

3. Sponsorship comes up all the time - people are forever suggesting we could get sponsorship and lower the prices (even further).

Forget about it.

Seriously, at least in Australia it is essentially a complete waste of time to pursue. We've pursued many avenues, all the way to the decision makers with quite a few local and international companies for whom we genuinely believe they'd get great value (BTW, westciv sponsors SxSW, so we know about this from both sides of the fence). The situation might be quite different elsewhere in the world, but here the interest in sponsoring one of the most talked about conferences of its kind anywhere, with more attendees than anything like it down here put together has been close to zero - and not, as I said, for lack of trying. Those events I've seen with apparently good sponsorship clearly put a lot of effort into drumming up sponsorship, particularly from companies they already have good relationships with, and very often, the sponsor's paw-prints are all over the conference. Keynote presentations which are little other than thinly disguised ads, logos and names on everything which moves - in essence, there is a cost to everything, so even if you are lucky to get good sponsorship, what are you willing to give up in its place? That being said, we welcome any interest from potential WE06 sponsors.

4. DVDs and so on.

As Eric observed, DVD and video production is expensive. If you want decent quality, you'll need trained professionals doing the whole thing. It will detract from the experience of the people at the event, as good sight lines for cameras will get in people's way. So you are already out of pocket thousands for the shoot, then you need to do minimum runs too make the per unit cost effective, so now you have inventory. You won't sell them all, I promise (even Joel Spolsky can't sell all the run of his recent professionally made documentary, in reality, how many DVDs do you think you are going to sell? Now divide it by 10). Then you need to handle sales on an ongoing basis, shipping, returns, customer enquiries, and so on. Selling DVDs is not your core business, running events is. Always remember that, and work harder at what you do best.

There is also the real potential that people think "I won't spend all that money and go, I'll just get the DVD", which is bad enough as your profit margins per DVD are likely to be even lower than for physical attendees, but I am convinced there will be a significant number of people who think "it's OK, I'll just get the DVD" and then not even do that.

5. It's hard

At least a couple of people had the good sense to comment

"Well that was quite interesting to read. Now I get at least an idea of why these seminars are that expensive."

And trust me, the people putting them on are most likely subsidizing them with their unpaid work.

Now don't get me wrong. I've loved doing WebEssentials, it's been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I hope that we'll do many more. But I also hope this little glimpse behind the scenes has been interesting.

Oh, and Eric, I'll be in Austin for SxSW, so if you'd like some of this presented in person on the panel...

P.S. a little comment on SxSW and it's pricing

I really like SxSW - I've spoken there, will speak again this year, have sponsored it, and will do so again this year.
Why is it so much less than many other conferences? All the following are guesses, but my observations are

1. SxSW interactive is part of a broader festival of conferences - so they can benefit from economies of scale for all kinds of things
2. As far as I know, they pay for very few speakers - no fees, no airfares, no accommodation, no nice meals in restaurants, no transfers to and from airports. These add up. There goes as much as half your costs.
3. No food, meals, coffee breaks and so on (there are some cool parties, all I'd say at least significantly supported by sponsors). There goes perhaps 30-40% of your costs.
4. I'm sure Austin/Texas coughs up a bit - SxSW takes over Austin, and must be fantastic for the economy - both during the conference and more generally. I mean, I can imagine going to Austin some time outside of SxSW cause it's such a great town.
5. 3000-4000 paying attendees for SxSWi alone - if we got 3000 to WebEssentials, I think we might be able to lower the prices a bit too.

john

December 31, 2005 in Web Essentials | Permalink

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Comments

Hi John,

As someone who traveled half-way around the world to attend WE05, I can honestly say the conference was worth the price, including what I had to pay for airfare, hotels, etc. The line-up of speakers there was unmatched by any conference I'd seen.
Before I read your article, my only complaint about the conference was that each session was so short. However, I wasn't making the distinction between a conference and a work shop, which you defined for me.
Is there any chance that you'd add more workshops to WE06?
Thanks again for putting on a great conference, (I can only imagine how time-consuming that is!) and I hope to see you again next time.

Kevin.

Posted by: Kevin from Canada | Jan 6, 2006 4:54:11 AM

Kevin,

it was fantastic to have you,, and other from around the world here - quite amazing really.

Glad you enjoyed it annd felt it was worthwhile.

Yes, we hope to do more workshops this year!

Keep the end of September free :-)

thannks again,

john

Posted by: john Allsopp | Jan 6, 2006 9:13:45 AM

Of course for those of us that can't afford conferences such as WebEssentials - the podcasts, although no substitute for the real event, were greatly appreciated and gave a nice sample of what to expect if I were to splash out for the next event.

Posted by: Ollie | Jan 9, 2006 12:56:14 PM

..I think it's a great idea.
They do taste great and it's
fun cooking with stuff you produce yourself. I

Posted by: Juno888 | May 18, 2007 12:15:34 PM