Are conference speakers compensated

Recently brian d foy wrote about compensation for conference speakers. The term "dirty secret" prompted me to write about it as well.

Conference speaking, for better or worse, is another issue of a conference budget - a fact sometimes speakers and sometimes organizers are not aware of. We have a lot of conferences (including YAPCs, workshops, hackathons, etc. we probably cover more ground than any other tech community) and a limited amount of sponsors and money. The budgets are optimized for venue, equipment, internet, and the likes.

This is why many conference speakers don't ask for compensation and why many conference organizers don't take their expenses as something they should try and cover.

However, to leap from "organizers might disregard these costs and speakers do not feel comfortable asking" to brian's "dirty secret" is unfair, and it misses the point of responsibility. Organizers have the responsibility to make sure a speaker who is losing money is not losing money - and that needs to be a part of the budget itself. Speakers have the responsibility, when not offered, to enquire about compensation and possibly make it clear that their attendance is constrained by it.

One of the smart ways of handling this is the trainings that are offered at conferences. Speakers get the majority (if not all) the payment for the trainings (which are, in turn, offered at very low prices) and can utilize it to cover more expenses. Perhaps there are additional ways to help mitigate this problem.

When I got to organize conferences (only three workshops so far), I took into account the various speakers we could have on according to how much we can pay them. We took into account their flights and accommodations at minimum, and compensation, if possible. For some conferences we were able to spot them, for others it was tricky. This experience helped me to realize that in future conference it's not a question of "would we pay speakers?" but "how much can be afford to pay them?" and "is it enough?"

As a speaker (which, for good or bad, I've done plenty by now) I was sometimes offered expenses. Sometimes I was asked "do you need us to allocate resources for you?", sometimes "how much?", and sometimes I had clearly indicated that unless I have some financial aid, I will be unable to arrive.

Next time I organize a conference or help organize one (like the next Dutch Perl Workshop), we will contact possible speakers. If you are a speaker who has to account for the money you lose at the conference, asking for reimbursement or any compensation is not out of the question, it's not "under the table", and it's not unreasonable. Please do so.

If you're an organizer, ask your speakers if they require this. Don't make them feel like it's wrong to do so. If you want to book the talent, you might actually have to pay for their time, their skill, their knowledge, and the loss they might experience when they want to attend your conference.

Once we have a problem of organizers refusing to bring on the talent that costs them money, then I'll write a different blog post. Fortunately, that is not yet the problem, and that is definitely not what happened in this case, having been part of the original exchange.


[Side note: Please link nouns like "compensation for conference speakers" rather than "wrote" ;)]

Sawyer, this is all very interesting and worth reading, but I think you totally misunderstood what the "dirty secret" was in brian's post. It wasn't anything to do with whether or not speakers are compensated, or for what they receive compensation.

Rather, the dirty secret is the fact that YAPC and other "grassroots" Perl events could not exist without substantial contributions from corporations. These contributions can come directly in the form of sponsorship, or they can come indirectly when a corporation chooses to pay for an employee to attend.

Either way, without corporate money, these conferences would not happen. Most importantly, without any corporate sponsorship at all, YAPC would have to greatly increase per-attendee ticket prices. I don't know the exact details, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that sponsorship accounts for 25-50% of a typical YAPC budget.

Sponsors account for more than that, actually. Conference tickets make up maybe 10-15% of the YAPC budget.

I'm not sure the numbers would work out for compensating all speakers, though. For YAPC::NA, domestic round trip flights can be $250-750 (and a lot more for international speakers), and a 3-day hotel stay about the same, depending on the city. If you have 50 speakers (don't remember how many YAPC::NA tends to get), that's easily an extra $50,000 expense, perhaps more.

So you're looking at adding an extra 5-10 "Silver Level" sponsors (in the language of the TPF Donor Porspectus). There's opportunity cost to consider here. If a company is looking at donating $12,000, would you rather that go into the conference fund or The Perl Foundation grants fund? I don't think there's an obvious answer to that one.

I'd rather hear a really good speaker than have a conference t-shirt.

As I noted in my post, YAPC has gone far beyond it's grassroots beginnings (which was more like today's Foo-camps). That's one of the problems I alluded to in my original post. At the same revenue levels, organizers have tried to offer more and more stuff, losing sight of the actual purpose of event. It's the same thing that people complain about in the big events. It's the natural evolution of these sorts of things.

Leave a comment

About Sawyer X

user-pic Gots to do the bloggingz