Pay to speak?

The Cost of Everything…

Posted on Posted in Events
So much is free these days, there seems to be a growing expectation of getting something for nothing – why would you ever pay to speak?
The news is online, so we don’t buy newspapers, and quality editorial is becoming a thing of the past. DIY information is all on YouTube, so we don’t pay for books or advice. Wikipedia has done away with the need for published directories of information.
The list goes on and on.
Recently we’ve seen people debating over whether they should ‘pay to speak’ at events. We’re aware that some folk have a policy of not paying to speak at events. So we’re asking the question – should you pay to speak at a conference or not?
Our response, like any good lawyer, is that ‘it depends’.
Firstly, let’s get the dogma out of the way. It seems there’s a certain element of ‘I’m too important / valuable / good to pay to speak at events’. This is wrong in our view. And to a degree, short-sighted.
Why? Because it depends!
Let’s examine where the money goes and the actual economics of events:
Usually if you’re asked to pay to attend / speak at an event, it’s because the organiser has a lot of overheads to cover. The recent event we organised in Dubai required us to pay for a minimum of 50 people which comprised:
  • Hotel (around £5k for a day)
  • Marketing (around £6-10k, depending on what you have planned)
  • Travel and subsistence (around £2k for the two of us)
So you can see, it’s creeping up to £15-20k, just for a one-day talk. And that’s before you factor in a substantial amount of time. Because someone has to prepare the timetable, check and book the venue. Someone has to arrange the catering, do the marketing, keep the accounts and budget on target. Someone must liaise with speakers and attendees, generally keep things on track and of course, run the event.
There are at least 300-500 hours in the prep and planning for a good one-day event. And even at a modest hourly rate of £40, that’s £12k.
So it costs around £25-30k to put on a small(ish) event – and that’s working to quite a tight budget.
If you insist on not paying to speak, then the organiser will need to find the money from somewhere. Or look at changing the quality of the event, venue, etc. The money can come in part from entry fees. Or they may be able to find a sponsor. But good quality events tend to not to try and align themselves with one sponsor or another.
The alternative to not finding the money is that the organiser has less time and money to organise an event. The attendees will be poor in quality and few in number. The quality of the venue will diminish, the experience and value of the event will drop.
The risks in event organisation are huge. And speakers generally recognise the benefits to them – which is why they want to speak in the first place. The trend to refuse to pay to speak seems counter-intuitive to me. A speaker wants to promote their work. An organiser is willing to put a lot of effort in, and take a big risk to provide a platform for that promotion. But then the speaker won’t help share a tiny bit of that risk and help ensure the quality of the event?
It’s a mystery.
Of course there are some event organisers who take things a long way in the other direction and make a lot of money. But I’d suggest they’re very few and far between these days. The days of big money events are generally behind us.
An issue with free events is that they will usually be aligned to one organisation. We used to work for an organisation where speaking at the events was free. But we wouldn’t allow competitors to speak. So you don’t get balance. At paid events, the organiser has greater freedom to select speakers based on quality or variety, rather than who they work for.
Having said all that, there are great free events out there. It depends what you’re looking for, what you want to get out of an event and what value you place on events.
But please don’t dismiss paying for an event just out of principle or some odd snobbery. There are often great advantages to paying to play! And event organisers work hard to find and attract the right speakers and the right people.
It can be quite upsetting to have that hard work devalued by responses along the lines of ‘we don’t pay to speak’ at events. Particularly when the people who make such comments are often charging their own clients’ hefty fees for their own skills.