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 8 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:

Newbies

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.

P.S.

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.

Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers?

pay speakers

Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers?

“All I want is not to be insulted by the people I’m serving by them paying me less than they pay their kids’ piano teachers or their own hair stylists. They can say all the nice things they want when I’m finished. But when they hand me a paltry check, what are they really saying? What do they expect me to conclude about how much they value my work?”
John G. Stackhouse, Jr

I like going to event industry conferences. I enjoy meeting old friends, making new ones, and learning new things. And I love presenting on all kinds of topics that revolve around making conferences fundamentally better for participants and organizers.

But there’s one thing that really bothers me about these events.

The pitiful reality that few meeting conferences offer to pay speakers.

Traci Browne wrote about this miserable state of affairs three years ago. Sadly, nothing has changed, so I’m raising the topic again.

The default offer, often considered generous, is to cover expenses. (Though I receive many invitations to present that don’t even mention that.( Sometimes organizers have tried to get me to pay full registration too!

When you ask whether they will pay a fee, a common response is “well, we don’t have a budget for that.” Sometimes this is preceded by an embarrassed pause, sometimes not. Hmm, you have an F&B budget, a venue budget, and an administrative budget, but you don’t have a budget for the people who you’ve invited to fill your event with educational goodness and value? Why not?

Why they don’t pay

One answer, of course, is “we’ve always done it this way.” This is a rationalization for a lot of bad things in this world.

Another is “you’ll get exposure.” Listen up guys: good speakers for your sessions already have exposure—they aren’t relying on free speaking engagements. Yes, I have had presentation opportunities lead to client work, but not to the extent that they’ve even come close to paying the time and monetary costs to a) create a session proposal, b) prepare a presentation (typically five to ten times the presentation’s duration), c) travel to and from the venue, and d) give the presentation.

Finally, we have the “don’t you want to give to your community?” angle. Yes, I do. Yes, I speak for free or at a reduced rate probably more than I should. I also look for other ways to receive benefit that the conference organizer can provide, e.g. a professional video of my session or a couple of extra hotel nights at a really nice conference location. But, unfortunately, supporting your professional community doesn’t pay the bills.

The next time you (yes, you, you know who I’m talking to) are planning an event, build some money into your budget to pay speakers. When you ask someone to present, offer them up front specific compensation for their expenses and their time and expertise. The message that you value their presence at your event, rather than taking them for granted, will speak volumes.

Photo attribution: Flickr user danmoyle

Motivational speaker topic needs a good home!

Motivational speaker Pull with both hands
Motivational speaker

Free! Toilet trained! Motivational speaker topic needs a good home!

Unique opportunity! Too many ideas to handle—this one MUST GO! Great potential for the right presenter! Good for a few minutes OR MORE of your inspirational message! Use now, before someone else snaps it up!

No trained operators are standing by! This is clearly your Lucky Day!

Are you ready?

Wait…For…It…!

====> Pull With Both Hands! <====

So many angles available in a single four-word concept!

For example.

When you Pull with Both Hands:

  • Your effort is more powerful!
  • Two hands provide balance, one does not!
  • You model cooperation and teamwork!
  • You avoid failure! (Remember—the towel dispenser mechanism jams if only one hand used!)
  • There’s always an alternative! (Just turn the little thingy on the side!)

I’m sure a few moments contemplation on your part will lead to many more!

No catch! Nothing to pay! No salesperson will call!

Yet another creative idea from the billions of tiny braincells firing 24/7 at Conferences That Work!

P.S. Yes! I’ve incorporated a record number of exclamation marks into this post! Italics count isn’t too shabby either!

Thank you to the creative environment provided by the men’s bathroom at BATS, where this inspiration struck.