Editor’s Note: Just over a year ago, Mark Carden, the director of the Researcher to Reader Conference, wrote about conference costs, both in terms of actual expenses for a conference organizer and reasonable prices for admission. This was published at a time when the second wave of the pandemic was peaking in many countries, and most events were purely online. As we start to see the winding down of the pandemic, Mark returns with a brief review of the past year and a prediction for the future. As well as organizing R2R, Mark is a Managing Consultant at publishing recruitment firm Mosaic Search. Mark has worked in the publishing and libraries sector for over 20 years, including holding senior sales and marketing positions at Ingenta, Ingram, and Dynix.
A year ago, I wrote “What should a conference cost?” and tried to answer this by exploring the economics of conferences – physical, online, and hybrid – looking at costs, value and prices. I also explored what people want out of conferences, writing about then value of high-quality content, the power of interactive conversation and need for event infrastructure, or comfort.
Here is what I have learned in the past year of running an online conference in 2021, designing a hybrid conference for 2022, and observing what event providers have offered and delegates have experienced.
- Delivering the presentation parts of a conference as an online webinar is easy and cheap to do, and means that an audience can be offered good content at moderate or low ticket prices.
- Organizers of online webinars have typically (but not always) seen a modest increase in up-front registrations, but that often yields a big fall in actual delegate attendance rates, as delegates deprioritize what they see as cheap, online, uncomfortable, and optional.
- These inexpensive broadcast webinars have suited some people very well, however, if they are mostly interested in the content, and they have very limited budgets. They have also worked well for people who find physical events difficult to access.
- Delegates who desire engagement and interactivity get very limited value from these webinars, however, as they provide almost no opportunity for conversation. They often lack even the most basic opportunities for participation, interaction, or networking.
- Sponsors have also seen very little value from these webinars, as a fuzzy logo on a Zoom background is a poor substitute for physical branding, leaflet drops, appreciative podium mentions, and the opportunity to network.
- Real online conferences, which aim to deliver the kind of conversations which people value in physical meetings, have been very rare. Those that have happened have been very challenging to design, operate, and promote effectively.
- Delivering this interactivity is expensive, as it requires extra work, thoughtful event design, good technology, and costly professional audio-visual resources.
- And it has proven to be hard to pass on these costs in ticket pricing, in the face of cheap webinar competition, and the consequent cuts in budgets.
- There is also considerable audience dissatisfaction with previously-experienced online events, which have claimed to be online continuations of physical conferences, but are merely broadcast webinars under the same brand, which has fueled suspicion around the claims of future events.
- It is also proving hard to recover the costs with sponsorship, because many potential sponsors struggle to distinguish between an ‘online conference’ that is just a passive webinar, and one that offers real opportunities for branding, recognition, and networking.
Our experience at R2R was that our efforts, in 2021, to deliver a real conference, filled with conversation, was both treated with suspicion by the market, yet applauded by the participants. We originally planned a hybrid event, and proposed that since the costs incurred and value delivered would be the same for physical and online participants, the ticket prices would be the same too. (When it became clear that we would have to be online-only, we cut ticket prices back to early-bird rates, to reflect the cost reduction.) Both registration and sponsorship income were down that year, as people viewed our proposition with suspicion (based on bad experiences elsewhere), or reported that budget cuts made our tickets unaffordable, whatever the value on offer. Yet, following the event, 98% of surveyed participants reported that the conference was both valuable and relevant, and our ‘good value for money’ metric remained the same as for all previous years, at about 80%.
For 2022 we have been determined to persist with our ‘real conference’ agenda, where a conversation can take place amongst all the participants. But we also felt compelled to plan a hybrid event, partly due to the uncertainties of the pandemic, and partly inspired by our hard-won online expertise and encouraging testimonials, from 2021. We also felt we had created an expectation that we should continue to be more inclusive than our past physical model could ever have been. Once again we will have the full R2R program that includes live interactive workshops, Q&A, and networking, but in a fully hybrid environment. After a slow start, registrations and sponsorships are up, but we are still getting ‘push-back’ on the concept, with people either telling us that online just ‘should’ be cheap, or that their budgets remain defined by that dispiriting notion.
What we have learned this year is that a prediction that I was making a year ago has come true: to run a really good hybrid conference costs nearly twice as much as running a purely physical or purely online event. We are spending almost exactly as much on the fairly fixed costs of our professional AV team and our software platforms (mainly for the benefit of online participants), as we are on the venue rooms and catering (mainly for the benefit of our physical participants). In principle, this problem goes away if you double your registrations and grow your sponsorship income, but for R2R, which aims to remain reasonably small, the sustainability of this approach relies on people being willing to see that participating online can be as valuable as travelling to the physical venue, and signing up to that model.
As we all consider the online experiment, and anticipate a return to ‘normality’, we might have hoped that our learning would reap improvements in how conferences could best deliver content, conversation, and comfort. But we seem to have got ourselves into a horrible situation, somewhat akin to ‘no frills flying’ vs ‘business class’. We may have normalized an erosion in quality, value and price by embracing ‘no frills’ broadcast webinars. Yet we may also be making a real physical conference (with all its venue costs) seem like an indulgence, and a real online conference (with all its expensive design, AV and platforms) seem over-priced.
There will continue to be a place, therefore, for online webinars that are inexpensive to run and inexpensive to consume. There may also be room for better-quality webinars, but only if funded by relatively wealthy organizations. There will, no doubt, be a renewed appetite for physical meetings with their concomitant venue, travel, and accommodation costs. These have the potential to (again) be very satisfying (real) conferences, but risk being unaffordable for many, especially as those budgets have now been cut, and may never be restored. Those in poorer institutions or from lower income countries will also struggle to participate in these high-end events. There is a real risk that the experiment with online that was forced upon us will not bring us rapid gains through technology innovation, but result in a divisive and generally lower-quality outcome for most.
But good technology, careful design, and a real commitment to hybrid may solve this problem, if we can overcome the inherent cost issues, and also generate the confidence and demand from delegates and sponsors that we need. This approach means making a conference genuinely hybrid for all participants, to deliver real equity of access and experience. It also means making it a genuine meeting with real conversation, not just for the people at the physical venue, but for the online participants too. To merely offer a ‘watch at home’ option for passive ‘second-class’ online observers would seem to be particularly divisive and retrogressive. This is a matter of technology, psychology, and good event design. We must have the sort of online tools that do not confine online participants into little rectangular cages or sad little text chat boxes, but allows them to freely interact with other people. The environment needs to be attractive and intuitive so online people feel comfortable with the flow of the event and with the tools they are using. And finally, you need you make the meeting have real interactions – not just putting a question into chat, but asking live questions, workshopping with fellow participants, and freely networking with peers.
We will be doing that in London and ‘everywhere’ next week. We shall see whether the anticipated post-conference satisfaction of our delegates and sponsors in 2022 can turn into a viable model for R2R and many other events in 2023.
9 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Updating “What Should a Conference Cost?”: Lessons Learned from Another Year of Online Meetings"
“following the event, 98% of surveyed participants reported that the conference was both valuable and relevant” – there is enormous cognitive bias involved in asking people who paid hundreds of dollars for something, non-refundable after the event, if the event was valuable. The cognitive dissonance they would experience in admitting their money was wasted would be overwhelming. To really know, you’d have to allow for a “control group” of participants who got, for instance, “free scholarships” via some random process to attend.
Your point about response bias is particularly valid when the participants have covered the costs of conference attendance out of their own pockets. Of course, for most professional conference participants (the great majority, I would suspect) this is not the case.
Having been on the planning side of conferences, I have found that people don’t hesitate to report if they don’t find something valuable or relevant. Usually not only in a Likert response but also very very clear open text commentary.
Yes, it is very true that there is a significant cognitive bias toward being positive about something one has invested in, whether expensively or not. And there is a selection bias in just sampling a population that has already made a choice (whether free or expensive), about the virtue of that choice. Marketing 101 says we should be asking the people who are NOT buying a product what they want! Controlling for these biases would be very challenging, and we can’t even compare our results with other events, as they mostly don’t publish their feedback, in the way that we do: https://r2rconf.com/2021/03/05/r2r-online-gains-positive-feedback/
I’m one of the many people who attend conferences almost exclusively for the content, and have been thrilled by the past two years of being able to learn that content for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand (it’s really expensive to travel from my originating airport). Before widespread online meeting technology, there was no other option than to combine the socializers with the content-learners into a single physical venue at great expense and so we got used to accepting that norm. As a librarian, I have watched the incredible transformation at the shift from print books to e, and see a strong analogy here, as a print-only world forced acquisitions practices that came to be accepted as ideal simply because there were no other options, and many librarians and other faculty are now having a hard time of letting go of that false belief in the face of better options. So too the folks who have taken advantage in the past of the lack of other content delivery options to enjoy social perks at their employer’s expense are now railing against the loss of what they came to see a must-have condition that was in fact merely a side effect of inadequate choices in the past.
I certainly have acknowledged that many people are focussed on the content and/or have (financial or other) challenges with the travel (and the prices). This makes affordable online webinars a wonderful thing, and it is good that their availability has increased (I presume) with the pandemic. I guess my position is that it is a marketing deception to call these ‘conferences’, and a retrograde inconvenience to hold these on a specific date. Surely the path for these is to offer a curated video series, like TED talks, that can be consumed at will and asynchronously. The added value of what is really illusory synchronicity, or live text chat box seems negligible.
But for people who value the interactions, not just as social perks, but as mechanisms for growth and innovation, I feel that we need real synchronous conversations, ideally anchored to some thought-provoking content. But, yes, the infrastructural ‘comfort’ of this is still going to be offensively expensive to deliver physically with venues & travel, and challenging & expensive to deliver online (although the tools are getting better and cheaper). Physical conferences that deliver this may be inaccessible or unaffordable for some, but if we can do it for real in a hybrid model, then we can at least give the option to remove travel costs, through online participation, and potentially offer concessionary pricing, based on need. This feels better than accepting a dispiriting notion that people who are online or on a budget are supposed to put up with a webinar pretending to be a conference.
The picture painted here of a truly hybrid conference design is tantalizing: include remote viewing AND engagement of physical presentations (and also remote presentation in a physical space). Given how difficult technology and tech support can be in a solely physical space, this real integration can seem unattainable, but it is a worthwhile pursuit that is quickly becoming a necessary one. This integration is what will separate true hybrid events from doubled or parallel models.
One of my take-aways from the past year of virtual and hybrid events is that conversation and engagement moving forward is going to require a conscious and sustained shift from passive to active planning and participation. And nowhere is this more true than for a publisher trying to engage a scholarly community. Re-imagining engagement for the future includes re-evaluating how well past exhibit and promotion models were working even then.
I found Melissa’s comments interesting, because I’m the other side of the coin that she described. I’m a minority in the academic library world, an extrovert, and I value those conversations at conferences every bit as much as the content. In fact, in almost 35 years of library conference attendance, I’ve probably learned closed to as much useful information during hallway or pre/post session conversations (or over beverages or a meal) than I have from the content at all of the sessions I attended. And there have definitely been more actionable items that came out of those conversations – from fundraising conversations with vendor reps to post-session conversations with someone who offered a particularly interesting (to me, at least) comment or question during a conference session, and from conversations with colleagues about potential joint future presentations to a series of conference conversations among disgruntled engineering librarians in the early 2000s that led to a digitization project that is going strong 15 years later (www.crl.edu/programs/trail, if you’re interested).
We’re all different, how we learn best varies, and how we get value out of a conference varies (in some cases a LOT). There is no one size fits all answer, although a GOOD hybrid conference probably comes close, in that it allows the people like me to attend in person and get the most value I can from an event, and can also allow someone like Melissa to attend virtually, without the travel and lodging costs associated with the in-person option, while still getting out of that event the content that is valuable to her.
I think the critical point here is that many societies priced their online meetings too low. Partly because everyone was struggling over the last few years, and partly because there was so little data on how much does an online meeting actually cost to be effective. The American Physical Society basically priced their meetings close to the cost of in-person, and despite complaints from their members (disclaimer I am a member although I didn’t comment to the society about it), it was the correct move. I still believe that the tools we’re using now are still evolving so as long as we don’t all end up in a Second Life clone a few years from now, it could be an exciting time for online meeting development.