What's the real cost of speaking at a conference?
I normally speak at least once a year at a national or regional L&D conference. In fact, I plan some of my professional development time each year around it. Plus, they are so much fun. I mean, really, surrounded by by those in my field who I can learn from (yay!) and who get the work I am trying to do? You complete me, fellow L&D-ers. A bonus is that speakers are almost always comped the price of registration for the conference itself. Winner, winner, chicken dinner – amiright?
Not so fast.
Those of us on the conference track know that conferences are pricey, even when registration is free. Unless you are a keynote, most conference speakers are themselves footing the bill for travel, hotel, etc. When I submit a proposal to speak at a conference, I know that it will likely cost me a couple thousand dollars, plus a few days of PTO, to attend. I look at it as the price I pay to keep my voice out there.
But what if you can’t afford it? Let’s take a moment here to bump up against the privilege that is built in then, to be a speaker at a conference. The fact that most speakers are not paid means that the speaker is either losing money (that is, if s/he is a business owner) and is treating the conference to drum up future business or can afford to “pay to play.” What it really means is that we are pretty much only hearing from the volunteer class in L&D – those of us, myself included, who have the privilege of spending our energy and financial resources in this way. Unless most of the major conferences are doing things I am not aware of, we are not hearing from those who are newer to the business, newer to the role, or less financially secure. It means that we are hearing from people like me all the time.
And that’s not so good, is it? I mean, I like me. I think I am a good speaker. I think I have some things to help others hone their craft. But should we be only hearing from the people like me in L&D? I think not. I want a diversity of thought and experience in these conferences. For goodness sake, if we are not courting a diversity of thought and experience in L&D or OD conferences, where will we court it? How can we practice it in our work? Blech.
What can we – what can I – do about this? Well for one thing, we can all start demanding that the industrial conference complex start coughing up. I wouldn’t mind an incremental approach, even. How about paying for hotel, airfare stipend, and conference registration? That way, speakers have fewer out of pocket expenses when staring down at the decision whether to submit a proposal or not? How about paying a stipend – the same amount – to all speakers? How about no one submits proposals to any conferences where they are not paying?
It’s too late for me this winter; I have committed to speaking at an international training conference in February [insert shameless plug here]. But I do think that I will be asking the conference organizers some hard questions this year before I click “submit” on any proposals in 2020, and not submitting unless they are doing something to help populate the speaker roster with fewer of me.