Call to conference organisers: pay your workshop instructors

Posted on by Matthias Noback

A little background: speakers don't get paid

Speakers like myself don't get paid for doing a talk at a tech conference. That's why I call this work "open source". People will get a video or audio recording of the talk, including separately viewable or downloadable slides for free. The idea is, a conference costs a lot of money to organise. It is quite expensive to fly in all those speakers. So there's no money to pay the speakers for all their work (for me personally it's about 80 hours of preparation, plus time spent travelling, usually half a day before and after the conference). Speakers get their travel costs reimbursed, they often get two nights at a hotel, and a ticket to the conference. Plus, they get advertising for their personal brand (increasing their reputation as an expert, a funny person, or just a person with more Google results for their name).

Workshops: also not paid

Ever since I realized that creating workshops is something I like a lot, I started submitting them to conferences as well. This, to me, is a whole different story. There's many hours of educational experience, preparation, and again travel going into this. And delivering a workshop always costs a lot more energy than a single talk does. Often you won't get paid for all that. Nevertheless, it earns the conference organisers a lot more money than a talk does.

Workshops are often planned within the days before the main conference. Ticket prices range from 200 to 800 euro. It often happens to me that I'm delivering my workshop in front of 20-25 people. This means that the conference organisers receive 4000 to 20.000 euros per day per workshop. Surely, there will be costs involved. But even after subtracting those, a workshop instructor will often generate thousands of euros in revenue.

To be fair

I don't think it would be fair to pay workshop instructors the entire amount either (after subtraction of the costs). Having a conference organising your workshop has value too:

  • They have reach: hundreds of people will know about your workshop.
  • They deal with all the administrative work (payments, registration, refunds, etc.).
  • They take care of the well-being of the attendees (parking directions, food, drinks, etc.).

Call to conference organisers

Still, I wanted to point out how wrong the situation is for tutorial/workshop instructors at many PHP conferences I know of. I want to ask you all, conference organisers: next time you organise workshop days for your attendees, make sure to pay your instructors.

Some useful suggestions, which I've learnt from conference organisers I spoke with:

  1. Pay instructors for their work day: €1000,- (plus the usual reimbursement of travel costs, and a hotel night). This isn't quite enough to cover preparation time, but it's a reasonable amount to me.
  2. Let instructors share in the revenue, after subtraction of the costs, e.g. give them 50%. This makes up for the day, and the required preparation. It will also make instructors happy workers.

In fact, Laracon EU is a conference where they do this. Shawn McCool, one of its organisers, said to me:

Paying people for their work is the right thing to do, for both ethics and sustainability.

I totally agree with him. Now, do the right thing and make that change!

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Ivo Lukač

Hi Matthias,

As a speaker and a conference organiser I always try to see the issue from both angles. I agree with you that workshop preparation requires much more than a typical presentation and that the workshop effort should be somehow valued more.

In last few years I am noticing a lot of conferences adding pre or post workshop days, probably to earn more and finance the main conference. Those workshops days are then sold extra for not a cheap price compared to the main conference ticket. I am not running such a conference so I can't tell much about the financial structure but, as you say, it sounds fait to pay the workshop speaker extra.

I run a conference which is a bit different than other as we only focus on workshops for 3 full days. The ticket price is very affordable considering what participants get. We don't have a budget for paying speakers the price that they might usually charge for running a workshop. But, considering what I mentioned at the beginning and what you wrote, we do try to compensate as much as possible. For instance our speaker package includes travel reimbursement, 5 days of accommodation for speaker and companion during summer, full conf ticket (which btw includes lunches, dinners, leisure activities, etc) and a companion ticket.

I did discuss about this topic with all os our speakers and all of them accepted the package and made a small vacation out of it. Of course, there were few for which our package was not adequate or enough and we didn't made a deal with them, but that is ok, it is impossible to satisfy everyone :)

my2c

Hannes Van De Vreken

As a speaker at last year's edition of this workshop-only conference: I can confirm. The vacation at the Croatian coast was the reward. Totally worth it! :-)

Matthias Noback

Thanks for sharing! Of course everything totally depends on the nature of the conference and the organisers. I think you're doing a great job with that.

Xander

They should make Shawn McCool fortune cookies!

Alexander Makarov

I was quite surprised about US conferences compared to what we have in Russia:

1. The one who is performing workshop is paid and paid OK.
2. Speakers and workshop performers are _always_ getting full travel, visa etc. refunds, they're hosted in a hotel on behalf of conference organizer and usually have a dinner, again, hosted by conference organizer. Not doing so is considered a very bad tone for a conference organizer.
3. Technical conference speakers usually aren't paid for speeches. If it's management conference, some speakers are paid to speak.

Of course, it's still not directly profitable for speakers but at least it's fun and you don't have to pull 2K$ from your family budget to get to US to speak about OpenSource you're not getting any profit from.

Michael Bodnarchuk

I will be speaking at two US PHP conferences this Spring. And both have travel reimbursement. You should also try to submit your papers one more time :)

But there are commercial and community conferences. In community conferences speakers are the same as visitors because the overall idea is to make a good party. That's nice too. But can be affordable by some speakers. Esp. if they are not a part of this community.

Alexander Makarov

Of course, it's fine if you're local and don't have to fly there for 20+ hours :)

Matthias Noback

Sounds good to me :) For the conferences I've been speaking at, there was always travel reimbursement and one or two hotel nights by the way.

Alexander Makarov

Try major Russian ones in summer. You won't get huge audience because English isn't as good overall but level of developers and architects at Moscow conferences is amazing.

skoop

I see where you come from, but to put your call into a bit more context:
A lot of conferences don't make a profit. The conference-part actually loses money. workshops/tutorials are usually the way for a conference organizer to break even.

I understand where you come from, and I surely agree both tutorial speakers and conference speakers could be valued a bit more by conference organizers (most organizers know the value, but there are a few that certainly don't). Having said that, I'll gladly submit a tutorial to a conference that won't pay me for doing the tutorial. I like delivering a tutorial and the conference will give me a platform. More often than not I give a smaller version of a full training, and mention so at the conference so people know there's more where that came from. But I've set a personal rule on conferences, to make sure they value me as a speaker (see: https://leftontheweb.com/bl... ) I only submit to conferences that make an effort to reimburse me for the costs of speaking.

Matthias Noback

Thanks for explaining your point of view @skoop:disqus. I'm aware that the workshops are needed to pay for the main conference. I'm actually proposing this as a solution: it should be okay to keep most of the money, but paying absolutely nothing, that's not something I think is "okay" anymore.
You're right about the small tutorial being advertisement for a bigger one (that's why I'd always be happy to do a free 3-hour tutorial at PHPBenelux for example), although I personally am really struggling to make more of it.
Just to be clear, my request certainly doesn't apply to all conferences and organisers out there. But I'm sure there's at least a couple of conferences that should do something about it ;)

EliW

Honest Question: In your opinion then should those Workshop/Tutorial/Training presenters also share the financial risk, and reimburse the organizers when money is lost on the session? (Which unfortunately can happen, semi-often).

While I completely understand your POV if these are being presented as 800 Euro / $1000 USD line items. But at least in the US, there is such a highly competitive market for such things, that it's rare that you can charge more than $300 for a full-day training. And at that, it often takes between 7-10 students just to look at breaking even (without even considering effort on the organizers side).

So often the training/workshops are being offered as a loss leader, to make the conference itself look more appealing.

Matthias Noback

For sure, all of this is completely dependent of so many factors. I'm all for sharing the financial risk. After all, you're really doing it together. It would be good to discuss the arrangements, or make a deal with percentages or a maximum fee (see https://cfp.phpdd.org/package for an attractive example).

EliW

I think you missed my point there. In that example they are (no matter what) paying out the airfare & hotel, and then they are adding payment on top. I applaud them for that. But that doesn't equate to 'sharing the risk'. If a training only sells 2 tickets. Then the organizers lost money, while still covering all expenses for that speaker, and still paying them. Sharing the risk would mean "You buy your own flight, pay for your own meals, pay for your own hotel" ... and then working out a fee-sharing, that appropriately took into account the effort level in promotion .v. preparation/training. So that the speaker would just be as financially at risk as the organizers, in order to also potentially share in the benefits.

IMO, you shouldn't expect the 'best of both worlds'. Where as a speaker you enter the arrangement with no financial risk, and yet expect financial reward.

YMMV,
Eli - Both a speaker, and a conference organizer (who honestly struggles to make ends meet financially, and currently makes only about 1/3rd what he used to as a full-time programmer instead, but does it because he wants to support the community)

Matthias Noback

Ah, I get it. Yes, I think that kind of risk should/could be shared. In fact, organizing my own workshops and workshop tours, I took the risk and ended up losing money sometimes. To be more precise then, my suggestion mainly applies to conferences who - based on previous years - can be more or less certain that they'll be sold out (including the workshop days). There are plenty of those, and they should find a more reasonable way of sharing profit.