Pay to speak?

The Cost of Everything…

Posted on Posted in Events, Public Speaking

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 at a conference or event?

Examples are all around us: The news is online, so we don’t buy newspapers, though arguably, 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?

It Depends…

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 overheads to cover. The recent event we organised in Dubai required us to pay for a minimum of 50 people which comprised:

  • Hotel / Venue (around £5k for a day including catering)
  • Marketing (around £6-10k, depending on what you have planned)
  • Travel and staff subsistence (around £2k in total)

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/hr, that’s £12k.

But what’s in it for you?

It’s all well and good us telling you how expensive these events are to prepare. But before you decide whether to pay to speak, you need to assess the cost and benefits to you.

Firstly, the marketing benefits. A well-designed marketing campaign can often be as valuable as the event itself. Consider (and question organisers about) the exposure you’ll receive from the marketing materials. What’s the distribution, what are the plans – a good organiser will be aiming to reach your target audience, not just put ‘bums on seats’.

Consider the other speakers and companies taking part. If the line up is full of star names, your reputation will benefit by sharing the stage with them. If there’s a good balance of speakers you’ll likely get a good balance of attendees.

These events can often expose you to new markets and contacts you wouldn’t normally come across. It’s remarkable how often we see firms marketing the same old events and services to the same tired list of contacts. It’s important to maintain relationships with your current network. But, to grow your business it’s also important to reach new potential clients.

And then there is the event itself. An independent event can bring a mixed audience that you may never reach. Whilst we appreciate that you don’t want to speak at an event filled with competitors, a mixed audience can be a blessing. Standing on an unbiased stage where effort and money have been invested in acquiring a balanced attendee list improves your reputation as an expert in your field. A mix of professionals from across the industry can produce lively debates.

But can’t I organise a successful event myself?

Well yes, it’s possible. But in our experience, it doesn’t always work out that way. As mentioned above, events are expensive to organise. It’s a large financial commitment for a commercially minded company to take on alone.

Plus all companies are subject to complex politics. With the best will in the world, there will always be internal conflicts. Corporate culture often means there is a set way of doing things. Deviating from this can be a challenge. This can hinder successful events. You may need to invite speakers based on client relationships. You may be lucky and be working with some talented presenters. But this is not always the case.

Invite lists are often tightly controlled and rules around where and how you can publicise the event may exist. We come across firms who are worried about competitors turning up at their events. It’s a valid concern, and of course, you don’t want to share your knowledge with the competition. But this fear does seem to be blown out of proportion. In all our years of planning events, we have rarely seen many competitors attend. And when they do it is often one or two, rather than the mass influx firms are worried about. Besides, having one or two competitors at your event can be a positive. It just shows to other attendees how experienced your firm is, that the competition wants to learn from you.

If you still can’t see the benefits of paying to speak, then consider that the organiser will need to find the money from somewhere. Without that investment, they’ll need to look at changing the quality of the event, venue, etc. The money can come in part from entry fees, but there’s always a balance to be struck. 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 us. 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 bit of that risk and help ensure the quality of the event.

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-making events are generally behind us.

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 how you value the events you attend.

But please don’t dismiss paying for an event just out of principle or some odd snobbery. There are often great advantages for paying to play! 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 a dismissive ‘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.