Paying for speaker expenses

This is a subject which comes up a lot. Should conferences be expected to pay for the expenses of their speakers? There are a lot of reasons that conferences give for not doing so, in this post I will explore some of these reasons and present my perspective from both the speaking side and organisation side as to why they are not good enough.

To answer the question posed: yes. Conferences should always* set aside a budget to cover speaker expenses. *There are a few exceptions here such as unconferences which don’t have pre-selected speakers, but on the whole, this holds true.

I’ll illustrate this answer with the first reason conferences give for not covering expenses.

Do it for exposure

The first reason conferences often give is that speakers will benefit from exposure of being on stage and get employment opportunities from it. This may work out well for some free lancers however once you take into account the expenses, the days of lost work and the time put in preparing the material it has got to be one of the least cost effective methods of promoting yourself. It also bothers me a lot as the conferences that tend to fall back on this reason are for profit conferences, often put on by big corporations.

I have been speaking for about four years and have yet to get a contract or offer because of speaking. There have been a couple of instances where it has helped land a contract found through other means (my favorite being someone recognising me in an interview and discussing the talk instead of asking other questions) but “exposure” hasn’t helped me.

The biggest issue I take with this line of reasoning however is how it totally ignores the fact that a conference cannot happen without it’s speakers. A conference especially a for profit one which expects speakers to, not just do work for free but to actually bear out of pocket costs for it is really not acceptable.

We’re not paying ourselves/our helpers

This comes up a fair amount, conferences aren’t paying expenses for the helpers who help organise the event so, they don’t have to pay speakers expenses either. To my mind there are two things wrong with this position, firstly the amount of preparation which goes into producing a talk is generally significantly higher than the work going into helping out on the registration desk in the morning etc. This could be used as a justification for separate treatment - I have seen conferences which are effectively offering a free ticket to the event to people in return for an hour or two of their time each day to help run it and advertise it as such.

There is another significant flaw to this line of reasoning; the obvious answer to we are not paying for our helpers expenses is why not? Depending on the number of staff supplied by the venue, you can sometimes get away without many helpers but like the speakers the event can’t happen without them, the least you can do is ensure they are not out of pocket. The bonus with helpers is that they usually live locally, which reduces any travel or accommodation costs they may have so there is really no excuse for not covering them.

Do it to give something back

This one really only works when used by a not for profit event; the idea that people should volunteer their time and money to help out others is a noble one, however it is not without it’s own significant downsides. From a speakers perspective, this is only something I’m willing to do on a limited basis, usually for local events such as user groups. I’m not going to pay to fly to another country, plus a hotel for several nights to speak at your conference - there are better causes for me to donate my money to.

My biggest objection to this reason however comes from a conference organiser perspective: the moment you start expecting people to cover their own costs you seriously limit the pool from which you can draw speakers. I and many of the regular speakers you see at events can afford to cover our own costs or have employers who are willing to cover them for us. You can have a selection of these regular speakers for your event and you will have good content, but if you want truly great content, you have to look beyond the regulars and bring in speakers from different backgrounds, not all of whom are in the position to cover their own costs.

We can’t afford it

I’ve saved this reason till last as it is probably the most common reason. A lot of events, especially the not for profit ones, don’t believe they can afford to pay for speaker expenses (if you are a for profit conference using this reason, your conference seriously lacks a viable business model). The general logic behind this is that they want to keep the ticket prices low to make them “affordable”, again a noble aim but see previous section.

Part of the reason this comes up is because the conference leaves thinking about paying expenses far too late in the planning stages. If you want to be able to afford them you have to plan it in from the very beginning. For PHP Yorkshire, I maintain a spreadsheet containing worst case speaker costs eg a hotel, full conference ticket, speaker dinner and full travel budget for every speaker slot. We budget £200 for each speakers travel and this has covered all but one speaker slot (It was a double header so twice the travel costs) so far. I also set aside enough to cover a long haul flight as an additional expense.

Speaker expenses also factor into the selection process once we’ve narrowed down a short list based on the talk content, we begin to factor in additional constraints such as travel expenses, balancing the number of local speakers who’s expenses will be lower against those coming in from further away. Last year having a speaker do a workshop and a talk saved us a whole speaker’s worth of expenses we were able to spend on other things. We also limit the event to two tracks, this cuts down the total number of speakers but also forces us to make sure that each talk covers a distinct area - there is no room for talks which are too similar to each other.

All together, we had a budget of ~£500 per speaker although most didn’t use it all this would make speakers our largest expense if the entire budget was used up. Despite this, we still managed to keep the ticket prices down. A small number were sold for just £78 with the majority sold at £90-£96, a few last minute tickets were sold for £108. Although it’s not quite as cheap as some events, it still falls into a very affordable bracket, even for developers who aren’t lucky enough to have their employers buy their ticket.


Pay your speakers’ costs.

As a speaker, I’m in the fortunate position that I can afford to pay my own way to come to a conference but generally, I won’t do this. I do make exceptions to this, eg I will cover my own travel if it’s within driving distance and I often pay to upgrade the offered speaker package eg a business class flight, extra hotel nights or an extended stay, however I won’t usually even submit to a conference which doesn’t offer a full speaker package to cover the basics.

As an organiser, my original goal was not just to cover speakers expenses but to pay them an appearance fee. So far, this hasn’t been viable however this year we will be bringing in a profit share model for our workshop speakers. If the conference continues to show strong growth in both attendee numbers and sponsorship take up I hope that we will be able to extend this to speakers next year.

Personally, I am strongly against the idea of speakers having to pay to speak at an event. I often see event organisers pushing back against speakers who speak out against pay to speak, saying that they don’t understand the realities of running a conference. I do. My hope is that, by adding my weight as an organiser to the argument, more conferences will seek to end pay to speak practices.

Finally, as a way of putting these beliefs into practice, PHP Yorkshire will be sponsoring one of last years speakers, Heather Burns, to speak at Drupal con EU next week. Her talk at PHP Yorkshire was excellent, so if you are at Drupal con make sure you go to her talk, you won’t be disappointed.