komm in die gänge VIV
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Let’s just do some arithmetic.

Let’s say the average cost of attending a big conference is say, $1500 (~$400 airfare / travel related, ~$400 registration, ~ $400 hotel, ~$200 food, etc all subject to question where these came from). At a conference say the size of EDUCAUSE, where 7000 people attend, that is over $10 million spent.

That is but a number.

It’s just math, not a judgement, or a criticism. That money spent does have some ripple effect for local businesses. And there is (likely) value in the conferring.

But it is $10 million clams.

I’ve done my own share of whinging about how bad conferences can be.

“Conferences suck!” … “It’s all lecture” … “I never got any valuable wisdom from a keynote” … “Death by powerpoint”

Can we judge all conferences and millions of individual experiences as generalized extensions of our own?

That got me thinking about chicken.

No, not that kind.

If you grew up on the east coast as I did in the 1970s, you should recognize this guy.

perdue

Frank Perdue rode the success of quirky advertising, which, as I read Wikipedia, says he was one the first CEOs to be his own commercial spokesperson with that “tough man / tender chicken” line.

He was quirky, with the down home “just a chicken farmer” twang. Just looking at him made you have weird, non family table conversation, ideas about how he bred his chickens.

The man and his company were based in Salisbury, Maryland. What I know of Salisbury was seen out the car window on our annual summer vacations to Ocean City, Maryland. The landscape, vibe of Maryland’s Eastern Shore places it hundreds of miles deeper in the South than just across the bay from Baltimore.

I actually was thinking of the wrong slogan when I went down the Frank Perdue memory lane. There is a reason for this. I hope.

I was thinking of another chicken slogan of the era

Parts is parts.

Our experiences are not chicken parts and conferences are not chickens. You might get chicken at a conference, but…

Not all conference experiences are the same. So how to but value on them?

More importantly, where has my train of thought gone here?

Mostly I liked attending conferences; the travel part was something I dug, and getting to meet new folks. Sessions and vendor halls, meh. But when I first started working in 1992, when I was told they would pay me to travel and hang out in another city, I was like… “Are you serious? this is AWESOME!” (I was only 27).

If your employer offers you the opportunity to attend a conference, you might choose a conference because of an amenable location, proximity to friends/colleagues or just because you have to spend your travel budget before it disappears. These are some costs:

  • Your Time It is time away from home and family. This might be a negative, a positive, or a wash.
  • Travel and Expenses Your employer covers the cost of transportation (plane, train, cab, shuttles), lodging (conference hotel anywhere from mundane to plush), registration fees (anywhere from ~$150 to ?? well over $1000), and often your food (per diem might keep you snacking on the crackers). You might end up out of pocket putting at $50-$200 for extra-curricular activities, t-shirts and gifts for folks at home. But mostly, you are not out of pocket. And if you are fortunate, your employer pays it directly so you are not fronting costs on your credit card and dealing with processing reimbursements. Your costs are nil.
  • Your Work You may miss a bunch of meetings. And given most of our work happens in email and online, you likely spend a good chunk of your time whittling the inbox and attending to stuff back on the job (I’ll ignore the question why people travel long distances to read email). If you teach, you have to deal with finding substitutes or other activities for your class. Your likely do not suffer much loss of “productivity” and YOU ARE GETTING PAID A SALARY while there.

That’s a sweet deal. And I loved having the deal. I maybe had 50+ of these in my career.

But let’s say your employer does not have budget for this. You might be an adjunct. You would then choose a conference because it offers something worth you investing your own funds to be a part of it. The costs shift now.

  • Your Time It’s still time away from home and family.
  • Travel and Expenses This is on you. You are scouring for cheap flights, and you may end up crashing on a colleague’s spare couch in their employer paid hotel room, or you may lean on friends who live in the conference town. Or you find the budget place that is a lot farther away from the conference venue. You likely scrimp on food, scooping up the break time snacks, or just skipping meals. What you spend comes right out of your savings
  • Your Work These are the same; it’s likely you have to pay more attention to things “back there” because you have to pay for this trip somehow. Most likely you are not getting paid for your time away.

And at the extreme end is where I am at, as a freelancer there is no paid for attendance at a conference unless you re hired to give a talk / presentation. That’s a slightly different scenario, I’m thinking of how selective has to be if their are self employed. My conference attendance at events I have not been invited is down to 1 or less per year. The costs here are

  • Your Time It’s still time away from home and family. But it’s also time away from making money (see below). That said, because your time is your own, you can be more flexible in planning trips ahead of time, or combining things to take advantage of the travel.
  • Travel and Expenses This is still all on you. Again, like above you are scouring for cheap flights, and you may end up crashing on a colleague’s spare couch in their employer paid hotel room, or you may lean on friends who live in the conference town. Or you find the budget place that is a lot farther away from the conference venue. You likely scrimp on food, scooping up the break time snacks, or just skipping meals. What you spend comes right out of your bottom line.
  • Your Work You pretty much have to attend to it all the time. In some cases, you have to keep an appearance that you are not out and about. Or you are doing online meetings at 2am because of time zone differences. Time not spent working is time you are dipping into your cash reserves.

This is by no means a bout of bitterness towards those who get their conference attendance paid for. I got sent to Vancouver, New York City, Hawaii, Austin… on someone else’s dimes. I soaked that benny up for years. It’s a good thing.

But savor it because it is maybe a huger perk than you think it is.

And with all the budget slashing in higher education, it may be a future relict.

But you can always say… I remember when there was Conference Chicken.

Conference Chicken FTW
cc licensed ( BY-SA ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

And you will sigh and think, “Damn that chicken tasted good.”

The post "Conferences By Numbers. And Chickens." was originally slapped on the butt by a cigar smoking doctor yelling "It's a post!" at CogDogBlog (http://cogdogblog.com/2015/02/conferences-by-numbers/) on February 27, 2015.

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