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.