Why people continue to speak for free at meeting industry conferences

speaking for freeWhy people continue to speak for free at meeting industry conferences: Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrianin which I answer questions about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

My post Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers? has attracted attention since I wrote it 10 years ago. Patty Boyd recently posted the following comment:

“I agree that the willingness of some people to speak for free is the biggest hurdle to fixing this problem. If people agree to speak for free, then why would the organizers change their practice?”

Here’s my response:

Dear Patty,

There will always be two sets of people willing to speak for free:


There will be newbies, attempting to create a speaking resume so they can up their credibility and, hopefully, eventually get paying gigs. I have no problem with people doing this — all veterans were newbies once. But of course, by definition, the meeting gets someone with:

  • little or no speaking experience;
  • no track record; and
  • an unknown level of expertise.

That may be great for the budget of the meeting organizers, but these are not necessarily the best people to put in front of a paying audience.

Industry providers of goods and services

The other folks willing to speak for free are industry providers of goods and services, who may well have already paid to be at the event to staff their trade show booth or meet customers. They already have a financial incentive and justification to attend, and presenting a session gives them the opportunity to spread knowledge of their existence to potential paying customers. Some of these people are great and don’t promote their company. In my experience, most of them are so-so presenters. In addition, we’ve all had to sit through “speakers” who blatantly promote themselves and their companies on our dime and time.

This group has become far more common at meeting industry conferences over the years. Ten years ago, even when I had just started to present on meeting industry topics, organizations routinely offered fees and reimbursement of expenses. A review of meeting industry conference programs over the last five years confirms a significant trend to supplier-employed speakers, plus a few folks from the meeting industry association itself. Generally, the only speakers who get paid are the “big names” — often “outside” speakers with dubious and transitory value to meeting professionals — whom the association uses to trumpet how wonderful their meeting is.

My experience— and a tip

Currently, I receive several weekly requests to present for free. (That’s despite having been voted one of the top 100 most influential people in the event industry in global polls for the last two years.) Sadly, unless I am unusually interested in presenting at the event, I don’t even bother to respond any more. I know from years of experience that asking for payment will invariably be met with some kind of embarrassed excuse.

[Tip: If you’re reading this, and want to get someone like me to speak at your meeting, try including what you will offer for fee and expense reimbursement in your initial request. Initial offers of payment are so rare, your inquiry will immediately rise to the top of my pile.]

My take

For the reasons given above, it’s unrealistic to expect that a supply of “free” speakers will ever disappear. As usual, you get what you pay for. When you pack your program with free speakers, it’s your attendees who suffer. However, in my experience, meeting organizations don’t seem to care these days.


Actually, there is a third group of people who speak for free. I belong to this group, as do many of my colleagues.

I’m referring, of course, to pro bono speaking. Giving back to our meeting industry community is important and it feels good. I am always open to presentation opportunities for organizations that clearly have no source of funding for speaker reimbursement. (Which does not mean that they have a budget with a zero line item for speaking fees and expenses.)

In my case, I currently have a standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers to meet online with their classes for free. I’ve enjoyed multiple opportunities to meet and connect with current and future meeting industry professionals, and look forward to more!

If you have valuable material to share with our industry, please consider pro bono engagements when they fit for you.

6 thoughts on “Why people continue to speak for free at meeting industry conferences

  1. Adrian, thank you for posting this message about conference organizers expecting people to speak for free with expectations that they should even pay their own expenses. An organization, that paid me to present multiple sessions for, was sold and the new planners invited me to speak for free. When I asked about the fee for professional services rendered, the response was that I would get exposure. There was no understanding of the time expended in preparing a professional presentation or my previous experience with the organization. Maya Angelou reportedly said that exposure doesn’t pay the grocery bills.

  2. My 2 sense from tons of professional speakers:
    No fee speeches seldom lead to paid offers. They often are more work. You can be bumped more easily. It’s seldom worthwhile.

    1. Mike, that’s my experience too. After giving hundreds of presentations over the last ten years, I can count on one hand the number of consequential connections that turned into work.

  3. Well, that exposure trick doesn’t work any more. I can remember not only speaking for free, also paying all my own expenses and I finally thought-what the heck am I doing? This by the way was for a very large organization within our industry. Thing is, often different strokes for different folks which is absurd. I chose to speak pro bono-and I do insist on all expenses being paid though. Here’s the other thing-many that speak at industry events do it free because their company picks up all the bills & they still get a salary. When an independent does this-they don’t get paid period. And I will speak to any school pro bono because that’s the next generation. A decision we made at MPAHT was that any survivor who spoke gets paid-no questions asked. Its respect. I was once asked to write an article for a group who shall remain nameless. I asked for a donation–didn’t stipulate an amount–to be made to a charity-any charity–in return for the article. Nope, I was told, it would set a precedent. Didn’t write the article. Oh, don’t even get me started!
    Sandy Biback, Founder MPAHT

  4. Oh Sandy, I’m sorry for winding you up! Obviously I agree with everything you say. I’ve broached this topic again because if it even makes one reader think “No, I’m not going to always speak for NOTHING any more”, or “I’ve been feeling guilty about this, and we will give speakers SOMETHING from now on”, it will have been worth it.

    P.S. Thank you for founding MPAHT — another realm where our industry can and should make a difference.

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