You’re paying to speak

There are many, many new speakers coming to the web community with their stories and standing up on stage and sharing. I applaud them. It’s a scary thing to stand on stage and share your ideas. And there are many, many hours of work that goes in to the presentations.

I’m talking to people like me who speak for the love of sharing knowledge.

TL;DR If an event is not covering your expenses (travel & hotel) then you are paying to speak at their event.

What it costs you

  1. Your time working on slides when you could be working on project work
  2. Your flight or train or taxi costs
  3. Your hotel cost
  4. Your time on the day at the event

Yes, you might generate work during some awesome-high-fiving-network session. Really? Okay. Yes, you have a “free ticket”, but most new speakers I know have their head in their presentation until it’s over.

So you’re out of pocket. And for what?

What costs them

Well, nothing. In fact you’re providing content. And you’re doing more than that. You’re filling up the speaker roster with fresh and new content that’s likely never been seen before. You’re also auditioning for them, if you’re good, they’ll want you back, and their audience will have seen that you’re good and buy more tickets to their event.

I know Flash on the Beach/Reason used this last “audition” technique, but in a positive way (to be very, very clear: Reasons is good, they do it right). They called it the Lift Pitch. 5 minutes (or 2 minutes this year) to get your idea across. Audience votes on the best one, and that potential speakers is invited back the next year to speak, and they’re paid like every other speaker.

Then there’s the video that they’ll release, which is more content for them, branded and perpetuating their brand. That you gave them, at your own expense.

A free ticket?

It seems only the big events that do this kind of thing. And with big events, come big venues.

By comparison, Full Frontal has 278 seats. No more, no less. So free tickets aren’t something I give away willingly (one of my policies is that all previous years speakers are given a free ticket to the following year). So it costs me, the organiser, to give away a free ticket.

Now compare to Future Of, they have anything from 800 person capacity (based on it being in The Brewery again). If they sell out in minutes (or even days) then a free ticket has a high value. But they don’t. A free ticket is worth near to nothing (please also take a minute to read Lou’s reply—the conference producer for Future Insights).

Wouldn’t they be out of pocket with so many speakers?

That’s what a budget is for – which comes from ticket sales and sponsorship agreements. It is part of their budget because without a speaker, they have no content to sell. The answer is no, they would not be out of pocket.

What do I want?

Dear event: treat your content providers with dignity. At the absolute least, pay their expenses. Indeed, they should be paid too.

Which events are doing this?

So here’s where I want your help. I’m happy to list these events, and if you know (for absolute sure) that there’s an event making you pay to speak, then comment (anonymously if you want), post me a tweet or email me (remy at remysharp), and I’ll add it to a list here.

If you’re an organiser of one of these events or work for one of these companies, please get in touch if this is wrong or you’ve fixed your mistake – I’ll happily remove any event from this list.

  • Future Insights and the Future of Web Design (et al) don’t cover most of their rising stars’ costs
  • SxSWi don’t cover the vast majority of speakers and panelists
  • Webconf Riga
  • Drupal conf
  • The anonymous event that approached Harry Roberts
  • FITC
  • Fluent

Important: there are always the odd exceptions to these, as you’ll read the comments below, but it’s the default policy that I believe should be changed and part of the budget for profit and non-profit.

Please also read the comments below fully as they include details of how some events have changed their policies over the years (like Velocity) and tells of personal experiences.

44 Responses to “You’re paying to speak”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic! While I don’t agree with all your points in this article, I can understand where you’re coming from.

    I’d be curious to see conference organizers weigh in on this. Why is it that some conferences don’t cover speaker expenses? Are they unable to obtain enough sponsorship? Are they trying to turn a profit from the conference?

    That said, I did have one experience that left a sour taste in my mouth. I spoke at a conference that reimbursed me for only a small portion of my travel and lodging expenses, yet it was a for-profit conference. I didn’t realize this was the case until I arrived at the conference. While the organizers were courteous and professional, they were not very willing to help me make travel arrangements. When I asked for a hotel recommendation, they pointed me to a travel agent who would have charged a commission. The conference location was not very accessible, so I was left to my own devices to figure out transportation. I left the conference feeling like I had been used to make a profit, and not feeling like I had been part of a positive community that appreciated the time, effort, and money I put into it.

    Going forward, my only hard rule is that I will not speak at a for-profit conference unless they’re compensating me AND paying my expenses.

  2. @Jessica – I’d definitely like to hear from these kinds of conferences, even if it’s offline so they can help us understand.

    One thing that bugs me is that “not for profit” does not mean “has no money”. It means they don’t make a profit (and in fact intend to ensure all potential profit goes into the event). So they’re in a perfect position to ensure that your travel expenses are covered for travel.

    And I’m repeating that free community events are not who I’m talking about. They’ll often get the venue for free, get some local company to provide free drinks and pizza and run the event for free. In these cases, I’d never expect travel to be covered (some might, but I don’t). But this isn’t who we’re talking about sadly.

  3. QCon London http://qconlondon.com/ charges attendees a pretty penny but doesn’t pay the speakers anything.

    Apps World in London http://www.apps-world.net/ does the same.

    In my experience, that usually results in a line-up full of product pitches. Frankly, it’s insulting to the people who have paid good money to attend.

    DevSum http://www.devsum.se/ …same deal.

    All of these events contacted me about speaking. I turned them down because of their payment policy.

    Just to be clear, if I’m asked asked to speak at a grassroots community event (one that is either free, or just covering costs), I don’t expect payment and I’m happy to speak for free (although I probably wouldn’t be able to prepare a brand new talk). But when an event is charging attendees hundreds of pounds, it’s ridiculous that they wouldn’t consider paying their speakers.

    I’m pretty sure they don’t ask catering companies to provide free catering, or the venue to provide space for free. And yet for some reason, it’s somehow okay to expect the people on stage (the very reason why people are attending) to work for free, or more accurately, as you point out, to pay to speak.

  4. A few other points for those new to speaking:

    1) Some conferences ask to you to sign something saying they own your content – or can re-use it, sell it, sell CDs with it etc. Tell them to sling their hook. (They won’t express it like that; it’ll be some blahblah about “unlimited rights to exploit the content, including any partners or affiliates”.)
    2) I was asked to sign a contract making me personally liable for an unlimited sum to find replacement if I had to drop out, eg if I broke my leg or one of my kids was sick. I told them no, and why, and they replied “Ok, we don’t really need the contract anyway”, so I went to speak. (They paid flights and hotel.)
    3) If you’re being videoed, they should ask your permission first.

  5. @Jessica,

    I organize JSConf Colombia (http://jsconf.co), a “not-for-profit”, community organized event in Medellin, Colombia. Last year we had around 24 Speakers, out of which a 8 came from outside of the country and 3 co-organizers including myself did so as well.

    Minimum wage in colombia is around $320/month, and entry level professionals in some cases don’t make much more than that on their first jobs. We wanted to have an inclusive event so this meant we had to keep our tickets very cheap. We set the ticket prices at $150, and that had to be enough to cover food (2 break snacks per day), event t-shirt and 2 days access to the event.

    In comparison to conferences in the US, (I’m also part of the organizing team of EmpireJS in NYC this year), our absolute (those things that are absolutely required to have the event, like AV, venue, speakers, etc) expenses came to be around 80% of what a US conference is. Our ticket prices in Colombia were at least 50% cheaper or more than any large US conference and Sponsorship fundraising was not easy, since the audience and market advantages for interested Tech companies in Colombia is really not there. That being said many companies believed in the vision and chipped in to make it possible without really expecting to make their investment back.

    With all these challenges we were still able to cover:
    - Speakers travel expenses (NYC, SF, Belgium, Canada and other Colombian cities)
    - Speakers accommodation for 3 nights in a very nice hotel
    - Speaker lunch and dinner for 4 days
    - Speaker welcome dinner at a very nice restaurant

    And even with all this, we were able to give out 40 scholarships to women and low income attendees (students or programming hobbyists) to the event. We definitely had budget constraint, but this just means that we had to be creative and make sure that we could guarantee the quality of the event by focusing on the most important aspects, like our speakers.

    I’ve already organized 3 dev conferences in Colombia, and can tell you that the first one I ever organized in 2011 tickets cost $35 (students) and $60. It was a 1 day conference for around 150 attendees. I was still able to afford both travel and accommodation expenses for all my speakers, including 7 of them coming from abroad from either my budget or sponsorship.

    I won’t talk about other events whose cost structure I’m not familiar with, but I wanted to share all this information from my experience. I find it disrespectful to not take care of those people who are providing content for your events, whether they are for or not for profit. If you have more questions feel free to email me to juan [at] jsconf [dot] co or at @buritica

  6. For what it’s worth I’ve been paid, or at least had travel and accommodation covered, by two of the events mentioned here: Velocity and QCon.

    One thing that can be hard to do, especially if you’ve had a proposal accepted via a CFP and you’re a new speaker is to ask for something. Us brits are especially bad at that from a small sample of people I’ve spoken to.

    Lots of conferences, especially US ones which are often much more expensive, can assume your employer will cover those things anyway, and that part of you speaking is promoting your organisation.

  7. I spoke at a conference where all the attendees got given a “free” Android tablet (as part of their ticket cost). I got a few free sandwiches from the buffet…

    I don’t think I’ve ever once been offered any money – even when I was asked to keynote a conference at the last minute (24 hours notice is *just* enough time to create an awesome talk….)

    Now I think about it, that’s not a great state of affairs. I realise I’m not on the A-List of speakers – but I get asked often enough that organisers obviously find my time valuable.

    I wonder if – like musicians and authors – there are just too many people giving their presentations away for free to make it viable to charge?

  8. I’d love to hear more from other organisers about how they get their budget together while also paying speakers.

    The conference I’m organising later this year has quite a high ticket cost because it’s all inclusive for attendees (3 hotel nights, all food/drinks/entertainment throughout a weekend, shuttle service from transport hubs to venue…) but frankly I’m still working on not making a huge loss. For now speakers get a free ticket (which as mentioned is all inclusive: hotel, food/drinks and pick-up from the airport/train station are included, so I guess that’s something) and I try to help with special requests/arrangements, but I’ve yet to find a way to offer speakers a payment for their hard work and time.

    Maybe I’m just doing it wrong, still quite new to this game and learning new things every time.

    Perhaps some of the other organisers (Juan?) could share some insight in how they approach the budget, and perhaps most importantly how they get sponsors involved and committed? While the conference is still far out and I have not yet gone through my list of sponsors to contact, my spreadsheet tells me over 95% of the revenue is coming from ticket sales – only a small part comes from sponsors. With Juan’s example of the $150 2-day conference, I simply can’t imagine that being done with 95% of revenue being from ticket sales.

  9. Hi Remy,

    Velocity’s policy is a little different, and I think it’s changed this year. In the past they would offer to pay for speakers (travel + limited nights at the hotel) if you were independent or from a startup. If this wasn’t clear to them, and you asked, they’d agree.

    This year it appears that their policy has changed, and they’re offering to pay travel+hotel for 1 night/talk for all speakers.

    I’d also like to call out FOSDEM as being an example of the other kind. Their conference is completely free for all attendees, and they pay for speakers travel, hotel, meals and taxi to/from airport, and IIRC, they also organise a city tour for spouses of speakers who may have come along but aren’t attending the conference.

  10. FITC doesn’t pay speaker expenses either only hotel rooms. At least that was in my case.

  11. A real beef of mine at the moment is conference organisers charging extra for downloadable versions of speaker decks. Given they’re probably not paying the speaker for this – to have a tiered structure to the pricing, based on whether or not a delegate wants a PDF or not – seems nothing short of criminal….

  12. Paul Boos (@paul_boos) March 7th, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Having run a combination conference/unconference for about 80 people that didn’t pay for my speakers or their travel (though I did put up one at my house as I knew he was flying across the continent), I am not sure how I feel about this. My concern was only keeping my costs controlled so that I didn’t have to ask too much from sponsors (the event was free the first time, and the second time around I asked a nominal fee from attendees to pay for food to be brought to the venue as opposed to having them go out and buy lunch).

    For large conferences that have vast numbers of sponsors and charge large fees, I think this feeling is well placed (at least for having your expenses covered). For small events that are mostly for getting information to pockets of people, I don’t think t should be required as long as the fee to the people attending isn’t too high. I am not sure though ANY conference should be obligated to pay speakers, though they may choose to do so if they want to guarantee a specific name. If you feel you should get paid and they don’t offer it, then don’t offer your speaking services. In many cases, there are plenty more interesting speakers that can backfill the spot, just because one wants to get paid, doesn’t make that person the best speaker.

  13. Pete said “A real beef of mine at the moment is conference organisers charging extra for downloadable versions of speaker decks.”

    Wow, I hadn’t heard of that. I put my slides on the web, where anyone can get them – although they may not be as useful if you’re reading them without context if you weren’t at the event.

    That’s why I think it’s important not to sign away the rights to your own content.

  14. QCon and O’Reilly do both pay expenses, albeit both in non ideal ways (QCon gives a fixed allowance regardless of your actual out of pocket amount and O’Reilly as far as I can tell will pay based on receipts if harassed sufficiently)

    I met with InfoQ’s CEO yesterday at QCon London to discuss thus issue because I spoke at QCon London and since I live in London, they paid zip. He was keen to emphasise all the costs of running a conference as large as QCon, and that doing so is a totally different exercise to something like Full Frontal or Edge. For example, the QE2 conference centre is seriously expensive. QCon delegates want a huge breadth of material, while smaller confs are more focused.

    We ended up having to disagree. The revenue from QCon is in the millions of dollars. Against that, paying no professional fee for a talk is not justifiable.

  15. I love the way PyCon US does it. It’s a not-for-profit conference put on by the community and 100% volunteer staff. Everyone buys a ticket (organizers, speakers, attendees, even the dude that invented the language). Everyone buys a hotel room if they need it. Everyone buys travel if they need it. There is financial aid available for each of those three categories and generally overspend their FA budget to help even more people attend. They target diversity groups and people traveling from distant lands with most of the FA budget and this helps to expand the community. Last year, I think, they achieved something like 25% women speakers, up from single digits just a year or two before. Last year they also did the first even Young Coders event which, thanks to sponsors, was able to give ~20 kids 2 days of programming education, free books, and a free Raspberry Pi.

    PyCon, this year, sold 2,500 tickets for a 3 day event (with 2 preceding days of tutorials and a couple of following days of sprints) and they’ve sold out both tickets and sponsorship spots. Even with such a large conference, though, it’s more like a family gathering than a technical event.

    Yes, you’re paying to speak there, but so what? Maybe it’s the open-source programming community pipe dream, but everyone sacrificing a little for the greater good really has made an amazing, inviting, wonderful conference year after year.

  16. There’s a world of difference between conferences, as people have commented. IMO this difference absolutely determines how this should be approached.

    I founded BathCamp (at which at least 2 of your commenters have spoken at) – a monthly geekfest and almost always free – it’s a community-based event, done entirely for the love – and we get free speakers who understand that. I also ran The Big M (hi @brucel xx) which was a for-profit mobile 2-day conference – that time we charged people to come, and we paid people to speak.

    On the other side of the fence, I’ve been asked to speak at lots of stuff: when I had an employer I was generally happy to do it for free (provided my employer was ok with that, which they generally were – not quite the hi-five deals you talk of, but exposure of some kind at least for them..). Now I run my own company I ask for expenses and fee – because as you say it’s a day or three getting shit together when you could be doing client work. Sometimes I don’t get the fee I ask for, but if I like whoeveritis enough, I’m ok with expenses and a day out.

    In other words.. as I say to my kids about the internet (well, and life in general): “If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it”. If you’re a speaker being asked to do it for nowt and you like the conference / people / vibe then hey, do it. If you think they’re lounging on a yacht rolling in mounds of cash and generally taking the piss, don’t.

  17. As an aside, I’ve noticed that large companies, often sponsors, will send speakers to conferences at little to no cost to the organizers. I don’t know the exact number of times an evangelist’s company covers their flight, but I’ve been lead to believe, at least at smaller events, that this is common practice.

    While I love that this lets communities have access at a low cost to some brilliant minds, I can also see a negative side: these speakers, no matter what they are speaking about, carry their parent company’s agenda. So the audience is only exposed to that company’s way of seeing and doing things. Rare is it to find a person speaking completely unbiased, no agenda.

    I’m independent right now. I hoped speaking would further my career, and it has given me a certain amount of industry cred. But it has come at the cost of doing paying work. When I give my talks without paying my respects to a higher (corporate) power, I’m helping keep the community real. But I feel like I’m doing it at my own expense.

    Talks and industry cred won’t fund a retirement account.

  18. @Juan Pablo Buritica,

    Thanks for sharing that detailed info! I appreciate you being so transparent about your costs, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see that you were able to not only pay speakers’ expenses but give scholarships. High fives!

    @Remy Sharp, you mentioned on Twitter that you’d like to document how you ran Full Frontal for 5 years. I’d love to see that example as well!

  19. Henri Helvetica March 7th, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    wow. what an informative thread. Having come from the music industry, I see some clear parallels.

    But allow me to chirp in with a simple opinion and as someone who looks fwd to one day speak.

    I do see where not paying a speaker *might* be considered. If you have a conference that’s next to free, and you might be speaking in your home town – I can then maybe see where an *donated* talk might make sense. But that also needs to be clearly outlined with just cause.

    Outside of that, if there are fees charged + sponsors, expenses must @ least be paid in part or whole – and that’s still outside the speaking fees. I’ve booked bands. We paid for their travel, hotel, *work visa* and fee – or an all in amount/fee.

    Clearly, the ownership of the lecture/materials must be negotiated and should be up for purchase. Again, i see music industry parallels. You can’t record a live show then turn around and sell the live stream. Selling any parts of it w/o consent and recompensing should not take place.

    Now, just like in music – i can see a new/young speaker who wants to build a portfolio of talks and work for below rate to get their name out. They might be a rock star speaker in the making. That’s another area I can see maybe not paying a speaker – but @ least the expenses. Again, it’s a tough to see fees paid by attendees ($100-$1000) and somehow not justify expenses for content providers at the very least. But, you might also consider whether or not you’re speaking on the same ticket as a rock star like Remy Sharp, at which point you might do anything to be on the same bill – Air BnB, Greyhound and take a In and Out burger voucher. ;)

    In music, we looked at the following when booking bands:

    1. ticket price.
    2. size of room (capacity)
    3. travel costs (are they near/far? Can they take a train?)

    Some bands asked for more $ when there was major sponsor.

    That all factors in. Speakers should take that in consideration as well + conferences are always looking for volunteer staff…. where’s all this $ going??

    This sounds like speakers need entertainment lawyers.

    Just my 2¢.

  20. I’d like to share a story of when I organized an event in Stockholm, to host designer Scott Hansen for a workshop. It wasn’t a big, multi-track conference, but still.

    The idea came about when a friend and colleague of mine, Erik, said it’d be pretty epic if we could get Scott to come to Stockholm and attend one of our weekly creatives-in-stockholm nights (an excuse to get together, shoot the breeze, and drink beer.) He shot of an email and received the response that if we could cover his travel and lodging costs, he’d be there. We discussed it with the CEO of the company we worked for at the time and he said if we could make it into a proper event, the company could help sponsor it. Thinking “how hard can it be?” we set out to do just that.

    So we talked to the manager of the hotel where we usually had our weekly gatherings (in the bar, naturally) and we managed to work out a decent deal for event space, food and drinks, hotel stay for Scott and his brother, as well as a mingle area. In the mingle area, the hotel agreed to let Scott set up a booth to sell signed posters, which is something they would normally not allow. There was no profit sharing here; any money that Scott made, was his and his alone. In addition to getting sponsorship from our company, we also worked out a deal with Adobe, where they would help cover some costs and provide products for a raffle. These products included Creative Suite packages, as well as some general swag.

    We weren’t able to pay Scott for his trouble, but we covered his expenses and tried to make sure he and his brother had a good time in Stockholm.

    Total cost for Scott: $0
    Total cost for attendees: $0

    At no cost for attendees or the talent (and obviously no profit, beyond having a damn good time) we were able to put up a very well executed event in a modern four star hotel; with wait staff; food and drinks; high-end product raffle; and not least a world class designer. Here’s what one of our attendees, who travelled from Copenhagen, Denmark, had to say about it:

    http://jokke-svin.dk/workshop-in-stockholm-iso50/
    http://jokke-svin.dk/documentary-stckhlm08/

    I’ve worked on a few other events as well, including having a kind of partnership between the European Design Awards and a Swedish graphics community I used to run. It’s absolutely true that there’s a lot of work that goes into the planning and execution of a conference, and it costs a lot of money. But the thing is, no one does this for fun. It is fun, but not so much fun that you would do this regularly at no profit, and certainly not at cost. Bottom line is that successful conferences are successful because they make money, and to say there’s no way to pay talent for their expenses, time and effort is just a flat out lie. It’s just as much a scam as what designers or others have to deal with when people contact them to do work “for the exposure” and “opportunities down the line.”

    When you’re not being compensated, you’re being used. It really is that simple.

  21. Some notes from the perspective of another speaker/organiser.

    Why don’t big, commercial conferences pay their speakers? Because they can get away with it, and not paying someone equals more profit. Simple.

    Why don’t well-meaning, non-evil conference organisers based in the web dev community offer speaker fees? Because they’re not sure they can make their budget work, and not doing speaker fees is accepted practice. Speaker fees are not the biggest item on a conference budget, but they’re not trivial, either.

    Why do so many beginning speakers agree not to be paid? Because they’re afraid of being rejected if they ask for money (which is a genuine concern for big, commercial conferences or small, poor ones), or because they’re afraid to talk about such sordid details. Finally, if the conference is truly non-profit and grassroot … well, one should support such endeavours, right?

    At our commercial conferences we always pay our speakers, and we still make a profit. So it’s possible (duh). At non-commercial conferences we worked on (Fronteers) we didn’t pay the speakers, because we didn’t have any profit to share around. Fronteers still does not pay its speakers, but gives them the best speaker care in the world (I should know because I designed it). Generally, this trade-off is considered equitable.

    Even when I started out as a speaker I always required the conference to arrange and pay for my flight and hotel. Paying my expenses is just common decency, and frankly I’m surprised there are conferences that don’t do it.

    Recently I started to require a speaker fee, and the reaction is predictable: big, commercial, boring conferences suddenly break off the email conversation or even react incredulous, while much smaller, poorer ones do cough up the money. If you want me to spend my time on you, there should be some kind of trade-off. It’s just a pity that it’s the smaller ones that make less profit are the ones that pay up.

    I might consider waiving my speaker fee once per year or so for a new grassroot conference and/or the tickets are truly cheap, i.e. the organisers themselves also don’t make much money. But I’m not sure yet – I’m too new to the business of speaker fees.

    In addition to the list of shame Remy started I’d like to see a list of web dev conferences that offer a speaking fee straight away in their first communication with prospective speakers. The only ones I know of from experience are An Event Apart and our own commercial conferences (Mobilism and CSS Day), but I assume there are more. Which ones?

    Would it help if all well-known and not-so-well-known web dev speakers asked for speaker fees? Up to a point it would, but there are two issues here. First of all the big, commercial conferences would just ignore us, and as a result the quality of their web content would drop, which would also hurt us in the end.

    Secondly, there’s a twist to the sponsored-speaker story that should be appreciated. When, purely on their merits, we invite speakers from big companies such as Google, those companies usually pick up the tab for flight and hotel. We don’t ask for that, we don’t even count on it, but we gratefully accept it when offered. This mechanism makes these speakers cheap and allows Google and others to have their employees speak more often. If everyone would start asking for a speaker fee it would be reinforced. That may or may not be what you want, and it should be considered along with the rest.

    Concluding, the grassroot web dev conference circuit is currently built upon the premise that you don’t pay a speaker fee, though you do pay expenses. Changing this would change the conference circuit. That would not be a bad thing, but it would have unforeseen consequences – such as forcing a few well-regarded not-for-profit conferences out of business or driving their ticket prices up (which might amount to the same).

  22. Thank you so much for writing this. Some time back, I helped author a document we called the Open Conference Expectations, and there was some amount of hell to pay for daring to write these things down. It’s refreshing to see a more measured and even supportive response here.

    I have personal experience that tells me that an event with tickets that started at $29 can find a way to pay for flight, hotel, and lodging for out-of-town speakers. Does it require some creativity and a measure of faith that it will all work out? Sure. But I couldn’t imagine then, and can’t imagine now, asking speakers to sacrifice prep time, travel time, speaking time, AND their hard-earned money to boot. Sure, there are speakers who would have agreed to speak anyway — but I’ve said before: when only the speakers who can afford to speak can afford to speak, then only the speakers who can afford to speak will speak. I don’t want to run that event, and I don’t want to attend it. And don’t get me started on the potential impact on speaker diversity.

    Thankfully, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in a slew of events that know how to do it right. Fronteers, Full Frontal, JS Conf EU, and Front Trends all flew me across an ocean and treated me and all the other speakers like VIPs. In the states, TXJS, jQuery Conf, and JS Conf have been exemplary. Environments for Humans, which largely runs online conferences, has been consistent in its acknowledgement that even if its speakers don’t have to leave the comfort of their home, their time still has value.

    I am all for community, and I think it is exceptional that so many speakers are willing to donate their time, knowledge, and energy — and voluntarily leave their work and family behind for days at a time — in exchange for a hotel room and airfare. That’s a bargain I’m willing to make, and while I’m happy to accept an honorarium, I don’t need one to make a speaking slot worth my while. With rare exceptions, though, if an event can’t figure out how to cover my basic costs, I have to say no.

  23. Oh, I love this topic!

    I’ve been speaking for years, and more recently it’s become a significant part of my job and community involvement. I mostly have been working the Drupal community circuit and the new (in the last few years) PHP community circuit. I don’t think I’ve done a commercial for-profit conference, actually. I’d say I’m a fairly well-known name in those circles, but certainly not on the level of several of the others in this thread.

    What I see: The PHP community conferences are very good in this regard. I’ve yet to have one offer to pay me for speaking, but all but the smallest have covered my travel costs, even if international. (Some have had a “costs up to $X” policy, which in general is reasonable IMO.) Often the organizers even provide pickup from the airport. Sunshine PHP in particular (Miami) even provides nice speaker gifts. (This year it was a branded compact USB backup battery for my phone, which came in immediately useful.)

    Drupal camps and DrupalCons, by contrast, tend to not cover speaker travel most of the time. Some camps have covered my costs if I’m traveling international; whether that’s due to distance or due to different cultural expectations (ie, non-Americans are more likely to cover travel?) I am not sure. But generally speaking Drupal events don’t cover speaker costs… and yet have a huge number of people submitting sessions anyway. Most offer scholarships of some kind, which go to an amalgam of people.

    I think there’s 2 key reasons for that distinction.

    1) The Drupal community is crazy passionate. Conferences are not just speakers; they’re social events, work-on-Drupal time, hell we set our clocks by them. Most people will show up even if it costs them, including the Drupal internal speakers, because it’s so exciting to hang out with people, work on the project, and learn/teach. The PHP community doesn’t, yet, have the same level of energy in that regard. (Some sub-communities besides Drupal may; I don’t have enough information to say.)

    2) A PHP conference ticket is usualy in the low triple digits. A Drupal camp, which is about the same size, is often under $50. A few are free. The Drupal community tries EXTREMELY hard to keep ticket prices as low as humanly possible in order to keep the event accessible to everyone. Paying speakers, or covering their expenses, would often double or triple the ticket price. That’s a trade off that community does not want to make. Also, sponsorships play a huge role. It’s common for sponsorships to cover over 50% of the total cost of the event.

    DrupalCon is a special case; it’s a multi-thousand person event, a week long, run by the 501c3 Drupal Association, with ticket prices usually under $500 for a week long 6-track conference (which is comparatively crazy cheap). However, it runs at a profit since that’s one of the key sources of revenue for the Association; that means money spent paying speaker costs is money not spent on the servers that run Drupal.org, or community grants, or the myriad other things the Association does to support Drupal. (This is a lengthy internal discussion that’s been going on for years.)

    Another distinction: PHP conferences tend to offer session videos only for-pay, or only for attendees. Drupal events take it as a point of pride that session videos are available on YouTube in a matter of hours in some cases, free to the world.

    As a general rule, especially given the number of conferences I speak at these days, I don’t mind a conference not paying me to speak outright. But I DO expect to at least break even, i.e., have my hard travel costs (flight and hotel) covered. That means I’m largely shifting from Drupal events to PHP events lately, with some exceptions, and applying for scholarships.

    It’s a complex economic dance, even if you eliminate “greedy for-profit conferences” from the equation. I do agree, though, that treating presenters well (which includes costs) is only basic courtesy since the presenter-attendee relationship is the core of any conference.

  24. Hi,

    Thanks for this post, I totally agree with what you have said here!

    However, I’d to say that I do not understand the lack of local speakers at local events.

    Yes, it is cool, shiny, good for marketing to get high, hyped, well known speakers on the list. But do conferences really need 10 of them? Not really. In may areas I see the same speakers giving the same talks (or almost the same) over and over again at many similar events around the world.

    The only consequence of this is the creation of jetsetters and the missed opportunities to promote new locale talents. And the costs. Flying around people costs money, we should try to promote locale people instead, renew the speakers list as much as we can, etc. :)

  25. Very interesting read and great comments so far.

    My event, Ready to Inspire, is covering every expense for all speakers (yes, NewFaces too). Flights, hotel, meals, minibar, … all are paid for. Standard fee for speaking this year is €1000,- per 300 attendees. NewFaces get €500. Workshop profits are split 70/30 in advantage of the presenter.

    The amount of money we spend on speakers is between 35 – 40% of our total budget.

  26. Johanna Matsdotter March 10th, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Hi Remy,

    I am one of the DevSum organizers and just want to be clear about what we cover and not. When I read your post it sounds like DevSum is not covering anything. We don’t usually pay any speakers fees but we always cover:

    Hotel for at least 2 nights (feel free to bring your wife/husband – we’ll get you a double room)
    Travel from any destination
    Taxi or other transfer expenses
    Food (including Speakers dinner, breakfast, lunch and dinner)

    Thank you for an interesting post!

    //Johanna

  27. @johanna – thanks for the clarification – I’ll update the post. I misread Jeremy Keith’s post.

  28. Hi Remy

    As you know I work as a Conference Producer at Future Insights and I’d like to add some comments based on your statement that we ‘do not cover rising stars costs’.

    Although our Main Stage speakers are paid a fee and expenses, you’re correct in pointing out that we often feature Rising Stars in our line-up, who are not always paid a set fee. The Rising Stars track was, and is, designed to give a platform to emerging speakers and, indeed some who haven’t had any previous speaking experience whatsoever. In general, these speakers are mostly from the local area or do not have to travel very far as we want to minimise their overheads. This article posted when we developed the track goes towards explaining it a little – http://blog.teamtreehouse.com/could-you-be-one-of-the-fowd-nyc-2011-rising-stars

    The feedback we’ve had from Rising Stars has been largely positive and on the whole most of them are happy to gain the speaking experience on an open stage, a conference ticket and a video they can use to promote themselves as a speaker in the future. We invite them to a speaker dinner which I have been told personally they find invaluable as they are able to meet and converse with other peers in the industry. It is my belief that if they are really not happy with these terms – they of course do not have to speak for us.

    We strongly believe in supporting new talent, and we certainly don’t expect speakers to come back to us time and time again without getting paid. We’re extremely proud that many Rising Stars have launched their speaking careers on our stages and have gone on to become (paid) Main Stage speakers with us on numerous occasions and at other events.

    We have enjoyed having you as a speaker at our conferences in the past Remy and only wish the very best for all of our fellow conference organisers throughout the whole industry.

    Thanks
    Lou

  29. Why do so many people want to speak for free? To hang out with the other speakers! The conversations at the speaker dinner and around the conference make it all worth it. That’s where I get material for later talks, and inspiration to keep me excited about working and speaking around programming.

    I consider it a luxury that I can demand travel expenses in this, my third year speaking (10 confs per year). I make exceptions for low-ticket-price community conferences, especially for single-track Ruby conferences.

    It’s like work: the #1 biggest factor to job satisfaction is great teammates. People we can learn from.

    It’s the other community speakers, not usually the big names, who participate in the whole event, who are excited about their topics, who make that great conversation, who make the trip worthwhile.

  30. Interesting subject. I organize eurucamp/JRubyConf.eu and am part of the non-profit behind it.

    We are explicitly running community conferences. We optimize for ticket price – to give more people access to the conference, especially beginners. If we paid speakers travel expenses, we could easily double the budget + would expose us to a considerable invariable with every speaker we pick. We do, however, give every speaker access to the conference for free and pay the rent for the hotel (+ significant other and kids). This is predictable and comes first in the budget. Everyone gets the same.

    Our budget structure is that sponsorship money usually comes in after the CFP, after announcing big speakers. Committing on expenses would open us to a loss if sponsorship doesn’t work as good as expected. While you are right that non-profits have a budget, small non-profits often don’t have big savings. A loss in the thousands would put us out of business.

    We do have speakers from all around the world and – quite frankly – would have had to turn down some if they weren’t ready to come at their own expense. We do, however, make sure that they feel well and if they choose to stay longer in town, we are also good hosts to them before and afterwards. We try to cover the lack of money with more work.

    Everything goes, from the PyCon structure with speakers paying their expenses to a fully paid program.

    Basically, it comes down to this: You should expect organizers to be very open about this and allow you to make an informed decision. If they are not ready to immediately tell you their speaker funding structure, don’t make a deal. Don’t let yourself be fed with promises of exposure. If you feel fine with supporting a good community event by paying out of your own pocket, do it!

  31. [...] Remy Sharp’s excellent You’re paying to speak post about conferences not paying speakers I thought it might be interesting to share some of my [...]

  32. +1 for what Larry Garfield said re Drupal events plus I’ll add there’s also other Drupal events which have different models, most notably BADCamp in Berkeley. It’s the largest Drupal event after DrupalCons, it’s free, and attracts around 1,500 people. They spend the entire year working on getting sponsorship from companies who make and save money out of using Drupal and spend it on flying community members from around the world, both speakers and attendees who wouldn’t normally be able to afford to attend.

    The Drupal Association and other community members often help to fund speakers to come in from outside of the Drupal community because we realise they don’t necessarily get the same value if they don’t get into Drupal, but I don’t think it deserves to be just slotted in your list with a bunch of other completely different events – ours is very much about keeping the free/libre open source project alive and growing it!

    I’ve been going to computer trade events for 30-odd years and it’s only in the last 4 since my first DrupalCon experience that I’ve really found a lot of value out of them. I tried going to a few of these other events you talk about and although inspiring on the day itself and great to meet the people, I simply don’t get the same experience as I do at a Drupal event, so I can fully understand why speakers who aren’t paid would be annoyed, especially at events which are put on for the profit.

  33. As organiser of WDC/WebDevConf I always am upfront with all the speakers I approach about what expenses I will cover to speak at the event. I even went in to details about the costs of my event recently: http://alexolder.com/costs-of-wdc/

    I have missed out on a number of speakers because I can’t pay them a fee to do it. It bums me out but I am thankful for every speaker who has come along since 2007 and spoken at my event.

    I will always cover travel costs (train, flights, etc) and I book a hotel for all speakers (new or seasoned pro) for 2 nights. The 1 before and 1 after as I know attendees get a lot out of being able to talk to speakers over a beer. I also do a speakers dinner the night before so I get to meet them if I haven’t before whilst also making sure they arrived safe and sound.

    I never insist on totally new talks and I don’t mind a talk that has been used before as I know the time that gets put in to them. I am up for people trying new talks out which may not be a polished or if the idea came up on the train on the way over.

    I never make my speakers pay for their ticket to the event (that is just stupid!) and have in the past been able to give tickets away for friends/partners to come along. I always sell tickets with a number of seats already reserved, these are for speakers, volunteers and sponsors.

    If I made a profit off the event I’d pay speakers left, right AND centre to speak. It would draw in attendees but then the price would go up as the expectation increased.

    Putting on the conference isn’t about making money for me. Its about providing inspiration to people and giving them a chance to meet new people in the industry and being able to put on an event that doesn’t cost the earth to attend.

    It is great for me personally to see speakers who first spoke at WDC going on to bigger and better events. It’s my own personal pat on the back, ‘I did that’.

  34. [...] removed themselves from the same event for the same reason. Then I wake up this morning to find Remy and Christian have both written good posts about the same topic. They say things happen in threes, [...]

  35. @remy @jeremy @bruce @ppk @rebecca @chris and all other of you which are high profiled speakers; if a non-profit community driven conference where to offer speakers fee: what would a decent pay be? How much would you expect to be paid?

  36. I’m a conference organizer (Ruby Midwest, Kansas City, US, about 200 attendees, single track.)

    In the past, we’ve provided limited travel help to speakers, especially internationals. However, most of our speakers are either covered by their company or willing to forgo payment so we can keep our tickets affordable. We don’t have other local conferences for our topic, so we attract a lot of newer-to-Ruby attendees, so shelling out $599 for something I’m just sorta thinking about learning is a lot harder than a quarter of that.

    We’ve made that a conscious decision, though; to break even on our budget and reinvest everything into the conference. If a conference is making money, then I believe they should definitely pay at least travel + lodging for speakers.

  37. Great thread, and I agree with most of what has been set out. However – having gotten my start as a ‘rising star’ speaker at Future of Web Design in 2010, and having recommended and seen several others do so and gone on to further ‘top level’ spots I think that they do fulfill a role in the web design/dev conference world that many ignore: specifically, getting new people ‘out there’ and on stage. Yes, it would be nice if they covered some or all of the travel but in 2010 I had actually already paid to go (I’ve always gotten a lot out of those conferences) – so the fact that I got a few hundred back was an unexpected bonus. As Lou points out, the intent is that those new faces are usually local to the event, so one might say that at least offering some reimbursement for lodging would be nice.

    But that first event has launched a career for me that has included speaking regularly at other of their events (paid and expenses covered) and other web conferences all over the world. And I can say with certainty that every single project we’ve gotten over the past year+ has been directly related to a speaking engagement. So for me, the investment in paying my way to that first conference has been one of my best.

    I’ve also spoken at a number of Drupal conferences – some of which had some expenses covered and some of which did not. I’ve never been paid a fee, but I also knew that going in. But I’ve been using Drupal for 6 or 7 years and using it has resulted in a very comfortable living, so I tend to consider my speaking at those events as part of how I give back to that community. I would certainly like to see them cover more costs for speakers but also acknowledge that I know far less about the financials than Larry or Steve above. It’s a professionally run conferences (DrupalCon) in every other way, and it’s always better when people like Jeremy Keith are there (as he has been a couple of times in the past). So to be respectful of the people putting in the time and effort – yes, I think they should do more. The smaller camps I doubt will change, but they’re also all free or only $20(ish) to attend, which is in line with the community norms and values.

    I do the same as many – I put code and slides out there as quickly as I can for every event, and while FOWD does make money selling access to the videos from the conference, after a few months or so we’re allowed to post them ourselves, and they’re very well produced: so I get a nice piece of marketing material out of that as well.

    Thanks for getting this discussion started Remy. I think it’s an important one – both as someone who spends a lot of time doing talks but also as someone who cares about helping the next generation of speakers find there way ‘onto the circuit’.

  38. We organise Frozen Rails, a small Ruby conference in Helsinki.

    Our position is similar to that described by Florian Gilcher above. While we’re not technically a non-profit, we don’t make any sort of real money on the conference and we organise it more for the community than for any sort of real profit seeking motive (though we don’t want to lose money either, of course).

    The current situation is that we pay travel and flights for speakers that we invite ourselves (basically our two keynote speakers). Most of our speakers come through the CFP, and there’s basically no way that we could pay for all their flights.

    I’ve explained our position more fully in this blog post: http://blog.kiskolabs.com/post/79556963432/goodnews

  39. [...] expenseI won’t add more meat to this point as it’s speak for itself, and Remy Sharp did a great blog post on the topic. The friend Christian Heilmann too did a great post about speaking is sponsoring your event. Even [...]

  40. It’s interesting (and very telling), to see this issue spread from domain to the next. For example, this is a critical issue with web services. There is nothing magical about social networks that make for those seemingly ridiculous valuations. You could make billions selling sandwiches too if you got the content – bread, meat, toppings – free.

    There is real value in content. In order to maintain dignity, and grow rather than shrink the overall economy, that value needs be factored into the accounting (and content creators fairly compensated). Participating in a conference is real work and should be treated as such. To do otherwise undermines the value of not just presenting, but all of the work that goes into it.

    Reputation and exposure are not valuable in the same way that currency is. There are distinct and meaningful differences. If that were not the case organizers (service providers, etc) would also be happy working for reputation. One hugely significant aspect of this is the distribution of risk. Presenters working for free in exchange for the possibility of exchanging reputation for actual money somehow in the future shifts risk. It reduces risk for organizers, making the success of a conference a much less risky proposition, while increasing risk for presenters. There are real costs associated with risk. It’s not simply a matter of not being paid. There are opportunity costs to consider, and beyond that, the more of these sorts of risks that we build into our lives the more volatile life becomes. In the same way, risk can jeopardize the stability of an industry, which in turn eventually impacts the viability of conferences.

    Think of risk like heat. You can use an air conditioner to remove heat from a space but how is that accomplished? The heat must be aborbed somewhere else. If you were to install an air conditioner that vented into your neighbor’s apartment, you would make the situation more comfortable for yourself while also making the situation for him/her less comfortable. Your neighbor would have to spend more (actual money) dealing with the heat you passed onto him.

    At the very least there should be transparency. If the justification is that there is no money to pay speakers, then provide the data to substantiate that justification.

  41. Speaking at an event is a transaction. You’re spending your time, energy, etc… Ideally you get something back, the people putting on the event get something out of it as well and most importantly the attendees of the event who are not speaking get something out of it that makes it worth their time to sit and listen to you! Like any other transaction (say, using “free” Google services in return for viewing ads) you have to weigh up the cost / benefit. How much is your talk “worth” to you and how much is it worth to the organizer of the event? (And I’m not just talking about direct monetary benefit.) In putting together the Over the Air events (which are also run on a shoe-string though not technically as a “non profit” – which in the UK would mean incorporating as a charity which comes with a bunch of baggage / hassle – at least this was the situation when we looked into it a few years ago) we have also – very occasionally – I can think of three times off the top of my head – paid for some travel for speakers out of our sponsorship. Mostly people have been willing to give us their time for free, especially since it’s a free event to attend. I think those people got a lot out of the event and a got a lot of “value” out of choosing to speak. I know I’ve felt the same way when participating in others’ similar (free or very-low-cost) events. Conversely I’ve sometimes felt “room meat” when I find myself speaking to disinterested half-full venues at very expensive-to-attend events.

  42. [...] been a lot of talkrecentlyaboutspeaking at conferences. The majority of them seem to focus on how speakers should be treated, especially [...]

  43. Thank you for pointing me to this article Remy :) It has been extremely helpful.

    I look at each talking opportunity individually and take into account for-profit vs grass root etc… Thanks to this article I had the confidence to turn down Apps World in London (as mentioned by Jeremy). I couldn’t agree with them charging the amount they do for a ticket and yet still not able to cover my minimal travel costs.

  44. I’m just starting my speaking career and I had the chance to talk at just few conferences but I was always treated like a special guest (CodeFront, BulgariaWebSummit). I attended at several non-profit events at my country and I could say that such events are organized usually by really nice people. They do what they can and actually find money to pay for the international speakers. Sometimes it looks like a magic how they find the venue, free drinks and free lunch for everyone. And all this without to request an entrance fee. So, nobody could convince me that the paid events can’t afford covering the needs of the speakers.

Leave a Reply
Not required

CODE: Please escape code and wrap in <pre><code>, doing so will automatically syntax highlight