I go to a bunch of different conferences – from small intimate unconference events through to mega shows with tens of thousands of people. I’ve also spanned a bunch of different roles at conferences – I’ve organized, presented at, attended and blogged about them. So a recent post by Jacob Morgan got me kind of fires up.

In his post Morgan starts off bemoaning the current trend towards “pay to play” – where conference sponsors demand the right to present to the audience. Given the conflict between their role as sponsors (when the organizer is, in effect, pitching them) and speaker “(when the organizer is trying desperately to ensure quality content) it’s not surprising that some really bad things happen.

I’ve attended a bunch of events where large vendors, who were also event sponsors gave absolutely tragic presentations – not only were they thinly veiled product pitches, but they were also boring and badly delivered. Obviously conference organizers have to walk a fine line between their own commercial imperatives and a necessity to ensure quality content for the event.

Morgan however swings around to talk about compensation for conference presenters. Part of his thrust is a demand that conference organizers should reimburse speakers for any out of pocket travel and expenses, a call that I have no problem concurring with. However Morgan goes further saying;

There are so many fantastic speakers out there that spend their time researching topics and ideas and making their presentations top notch only to be left empty handed.  Speaking at a conference is akin to taking on a new client and you don’t work for free so why should you speak for free?  That’s a poor business model and a poor way to allocate your time.

If you’re a conference organizer please show enough respect to the folks you are asking to speak by compensating them and covering their expenses (at the very LEAST cover all of their expenses).  Don’t you think it’s fair to pay the people that are making your event come to life and are attracting the attendees?  Let’s stop the bullshit.

There’s nothing worse in my view than individuals who seek to make a living from speaking at conferences. Especially in the technology industry where we expect our presenters to be speaking because of their deep involvement within the industry and not because they are on some kind of paying gig-fest.

The other important point to note here is that organizing conferences isn’t necessarily a route to riches. As one commenter on Morgan’s blog put it;

Sure, there are conferences making hundreds of thousands of dollars, and charging attendees an arm and a leg, and perhaps those should pay you. But I think a LOT of attendees, and a handful of speakers, really don’t understand the cost of a conference. I put together conferences for a living. My goal is to make them as affordable as I can for quality attendees, meaning tickets range from $50 – $500, depending on when you sign up. And guess what? I don’t pay a single speaker and still walk away with just enough profit to pay my debts for the months I worked on the show.

I’ve been on all sides of this debate – as a speaker, an attendee, an organizer and an adviser. None of those roles lead me to concur with Morgan’s view that speakers should be paid at conferences. What ay you dear reader?

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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