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Categories: Bad reviews, Latest, Malcolm Coles.

Conference pricing

September 15, 2011 10 Comments

Burning money

Conferences: expensive

Update: Andy has replied in the comments below. Although I stand by my criticism of the pricing model, the £100 gimmick does look a bit blackmaily the next morning. So apologies to him for that. It seemed a good idea at the time to avoid the accusation of not putting my money where my mouth is.

Original post: Andy Budd has written an impassioned defence of "big, expensive conferences" - describing criticisms as nonsense - which I'd like to take issue with.

Coincidentally, I'd already drafted a post about how I was never attending £500+ conferences again. This was after speaking at the free 'Brighton SEO' the same week I'd missed Content Strategy Forum 2011 - which costs £840 but work commitments had caused me to skip. Bye bye money.

First: the offer

But first, in the spirit of being constructive, I'd like to make Andy an offer.

UX London tickets are £1,200 (including VAT). Gulp.

Now I'm a one-man-band consultant - but I'll put up £100 if Clearleft Ltd (the organisers, of which Andy is CEO) will match that in proportion to our respective turnovers last year (I'm guessing theirs will be about 20 times mine but let's compare notes and see).

And let's use that money to subsidise someone - or a few people - who would otherwise never afford to go. They could be students or first-jobbers or those under 25 or the self-employed or the unemployed. (And, dear reader, if you're reading this and want to put some money up, so much the better. Do get in touch.)

But let's use the money to make sure that expensive conferences aren't the preserve of big agencies' employees and make sure that at least a couple of those with no one to pay for them aren't excluded.

Anyway, I hope he'll take me up on the offer.

Now, let's take issue with the cost

Andy explains how conferences are expensive to run - and I believe his budget. It's just that it involves spending nearly $160,000 on paying speakers, flying them over and putting them up in a hotel for a week.

Do we really need that many speakers from abroad?

Apparently we do as the high costs mean that "organisers try to mitigate some of these risks by picking big name speakers that we know will fill seats".

Call me naive but if there weren't so many big name speakers costing $160,000 wouldn't the costs be a bit lower? And hence the risks? And thus the prices? It's all a bit circular.

Andy rightfully points out that conferences are about more than the content. They're about meeting people - clients, contacts etc.

But what sort of people do you meet at a £1,200 conferences? Well, you don't meet many of the unemployed, graduates at small agencies or that many consultants. Why? Because the risk is the opposite of the organiser's - that you spend £1,200 and don't get a return on it.

Sure, you do meet some people in this position - I paid for myself to attend UX London when Don Norman spoke back in 2009. I thought it was great. If expensive.

But many people whose company can't afford to pay for them to go (or who don't have a company) are priced out of the market by costs of £1,200.

One of the comments (by someone else) under Andy's post says:

One point I would add, is the pricing a conference in some way sets the tone of it. UX London is full of UX professionals. A €99 or €129 per day conference tends to have a different crowd, different attitudes, different expectations and different ways of complaining about things.

If UX London was a €99 conference, I expect it’d full of people falling into the “f**k it, why not?” category. The relevance of delegates would be minimal for me, so I wouldn’t be interested in attending. At the saying goes, you can make a pizza so cheap that no one wants to eat it.

I mean, who would want to attend a conference that just anyone could afford to attend, eh?

In conclusion

I used to have a policy to go to one expensive set-piece conference a year, whatever the discipline - which I paid for out of my own money.

But this year I've concluded that I just can't see I get enough value from them - especially if you end up booking way in advance to get the early-bird prices and then can't go. Plus big name-speakers can be cool, but so can hearing other sorts of people at smaller conferences. And you meet people in the bar afterwards, regardless of what sort of conference it is.

Anyway, I hope Andy and Clearleft will think of a way to help those who can't afford - and shouldn't have to afford - £1,200. If my £100 can make that happen, I hope they'll accept it.

Photo credit.

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  • Ben says:

    Great post Malcolm. I just can't justify £1k on a conference. The cheaper / free conferences this year have been fantastic.

  • Des says:

    Hey Malcolm,

    You indirectly quoted me there.

    My point is simple. If I go to a free conference I expect nothing in return. Nothing. Usually I'm delighted, as some kind folks (of which I'd regularly be one) will prepare a good talk and as a result I'll leave educated.

    But I've been to many many free events that have simply been not worth my time.

    When I paid £800 to attend UX London, I expected a lot. An awful lot in fact. It was the most amount of money I'd ever spent on a personal trip ever. Add in flights & hotel and I was out of pocket about £1.5K. And luckily it delivered. Everyone in the room was there to learn, there wasn't a flurry of people idly tweeting and talking. Everyone was participating in the workshops. Everyone was there to get their moneys worth. That's the tone I'm talking about.

    When I pay 2.5K for a laptop when I could get some piece of shit netbook for 500, I expect it to be at least 5 times better. If there was a 5K laptop I'd be interested in that too.

    All of these things make me better, smarter, more efficient, whatever. I'm always happy to invest in myself, and my skills, once I believe the value proposition. In the case of UX London it was Spend £800 - come back with new or improved skills that will help you earn it back many times over. It worked.

    So if there was a web conference that cost £8000, and I had the cash, my only question would be "Do I think I'll learn new or improved skills that will help me earn £8K back many times over. If I think Yes, then out comes the wallet".

    Could I get the same skills at regional conferences? Possibly. Possibly not. Sometimes I have. Sometimes I haven't.

  • Jeffrey Way says:

    If you can afford to go these conferences, then have fun. That's your right...just as long as you're aware that you're not suddenly getting a light years better conference than you would otherwise.

    When Andy speaks about how incredibly expensive the small things are (like the coffee and wifi), what that really translates into is "We have to pass that huge expense on to the attendees."

    I will always vote for smaller, more intimate conferences that are far cheaper. But I do agree that there is room for every level of conference. It just come down to whether it's right for you.

  • Andy Budd says:

    Wow, I'm amazed at such a ludicrous and ill informed blog post I don't quite know where to begin.

    First off, lets start with the price. Early bird tickets to UX London are actually £745 which works out at under £250 per day. Considering the bulk of the event are workshops and a typical workshop would set you back £400 for a day, this seems like pretty good value to me.

    Secondly, we do offer a limited number of student tickets at drastically knocked down prices. We've also offered bursary tickets in the past, allowing students to attend for FREE. We also encourage students to volunteer at the event giving them access to the content at zero cost.

    However we realise that not everybody can afford to attend a 3 day conference based in London, so for the last 7 years we've run a low cost event called dConstruct which is specifically targeted towards freelancers.

    Back in the early naughties I set up a free community training event called SkillSwap which aimed to distribute peer-to-peer education for free. This event is still going on and has spawned numerous copies.

    Lastly I regally speak at free community events as well as disseminating information through my blog, though magazines and podcasts for free.

    As such I find your implication that I'm somehow stingy with my time and that the only way I'll help other people out is by you publicly bribing me, to be offensive in the highest degree.

    On the subject of local versus international speakers I think it's important to have events that offer both. With plenty of low cost UX events from London IA and UX Bookclub, through to mini conferences like UX Brighton, UX Bristol and UX People it wouldn't make sense for us to arrange another event with mostly local talent on the bill. One of the benefits of being in our position is that we are able to attract some of the best known speakers over to the UK and put them in front of an audience that may not be able to afford to fly over to the states and see them.

    What you're saying is akin to bemoaning the ticket price at Glastonbury and suggesting that They could keep prices down to a tenner if they just booked local Somerset acts. What I'm suggesting is that it's good to have a range of musical events for a range of different tastes and budgets, from the local pub band to the big summer festival, and everything in-between.

    That being said, as an SEO expert this is a fantastic bit of promotional link bait as it allows you to hijack a popular search term/discussion and make yourself look like the hero while a company that actually does stuff for the community comes across looking stingy.

    So rather than putting my money where your mouth is, why don't you do something more positive and productive instead. So I call on you to keep your £100 and put on your own low cost, accessible conference. However I guess you probably won't as it's a lot easier to write a blog post and offer up a small amount of money than it is to take a risk and create something positive in the world.

    • They're £900 including VAT ... Anyway, I appreciate there are also free conferences - but as you say yourself "there is a big difference between community-driven events and professional conferences". It seems to me to be a shame that the larger conferences have got so expensive they seem to price lots of people out of the chance of going. SES London - £800 a day, Nielsen's Usability week - £660 a day, SMX Advanced - £800 a day.

      Anyway, to avoid looking too much like a dick, I'll donate the £100 to charity as you already offer student discounts and bursaries, leave the post up for a week so people can see your response, and then remove it so as to avoid any unwanted SEO traffic (I'm not quite sure what I'd do with that anyway). I'll send you the charity receipt which you can bin.

      I'm not going to set up my own low-cost accessible conference. Like you, I already speak at them. Beyond that, I don't have the time. I don't feel bad about that, to be honest.

  • Leif Kendall says:

    So do you think that every conference should be affordable to you? Or do you think that conference organisers should limit the quality of their conferences to suit your budget?

    Sounds rather self-centred to me. If the conference is too expensive for you (they're too expensive for me BTW) you simply don't go, and let others enjoy it.

  • Des - I also spent money on UX London. As I said in the post, I thought it was great. But that doesn't mean I don't think the organisers can't be criticised for their pricing model.

    As I commented on Andy's blog, if the big expensive conferences go down the traditional early/standard/late route then you exclude those who can't afford these high costs (which are justified in terms of the speaker quality and the people you meet). Which means they don't see the great speakers, they don't meet client-side people from large companies etc.

    But there are other pricing structures - such as discounts for the people I mentioned in the post, which would give them a change to learn from and meet the sorts of people that only expensive conferences can ship in / see attending.

    Jeffrey - Sure. It doesn't mean that the approach can't be criticised or critiqued.

    Leif - No. But I don't think any organisation should be immune from discussion. We expect companies to have CSR policies these days. Why should conference organisers be immune from criticism or feedback about how they structure their events or pricing?

    Everyone - my apply to Andy said I'd delete this post. As you've all taken the time to comment, I won't do that. But I'll remove UX London from the title once it's dropped off the top of my blog home page to avoid any suggestion of chasing that search term (not that it would do me any good ...).

  • Oh and apologies to Andy for the £100 gimmick. It does look a bit of a cheap shot in the cold light of day. But when I looked at the first draft it looked like I was just sitting on the sidelines criticising. So I thought I'd put some money where my mouth was.

    Now it looks like I'm sitting on the sidelines criticising AND insulting the organisers. I'm sure I had a rule about never publishing blogs just before you go to bed ...

  • If you went to a music festival for a fiver, you'd expect to hear bands you never heard of. If you spent a lot more, you'd expect to hear massive bands that are topping the charts.

    Same goes for UX London and others like it. They're the 'high-level' conferences, the ones we (or at least I) aspire to attending one day, when I can afford it. The lineups are stellar and you know you're getting your money's worth.

    Trying to force UX London to lower their ticket prices just for you is like asking Tiffanys or de Beers to make cheaper diamonds just so you can have one.

  • Anna Debenham says:

    Malcolm, I feel annoyed reading this because of all the opportunities Andy has given to students that I haven't seen others match.

    A bunch of students attend UX London every year either through bursaries, or like I did, they volunteer at the event. Same with dConstruct and Ampersand. Clearleft runs free events too like Skillswap which are open to everyone. They also have a paid internship scheme that has been running for years.

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