One of the things I have always advocated for is for event speakers to be paid—whether directly or in the form of travel expenses. More conferences paying more speakers is good—it leads to more professionals. It allows a more diverse pool of speakers to attend events. Different conferences have different payment structures (more on that later). Still, most of the community conferences I’ve done have had fair payout structures.
While there is a conference or two that ties pre-con payout directly to the number of attendees (and yes, those can be lovely paydays), many conferences have moved to pay a flat rate for pre-cons, with a possible bonus structure for large numbers of attendees. As always, I think it is essential that speakers are paid for their time, especially at vendor events. However, the “$X/attendee” model is problematic in a couple of ways. It means vastly different payments for different speakers, who are mostly doing the same day’s work. Having one speaker who makes $25,000 and another who makes $1,500 do the same six-hour talk isn’t great. The more significant issue is it encourages homogenous topics—for example, at PASS Summit, if you’ve ever wondered why there are so many performance tuning pre-cons, but so few security pre-cons, this economic incentive is the primary reason why.
Paying everyone closer to an equal amount leads to more diversity in topics—otherwise you have topics that all cluster around the most popular topics. For example, a talk about cloud security might be much more viable and make for a broader set of topics covered at the conference. It can also potentially allow regular speakers to be paid—for all of the C&C years, PASS Summit paid nothing to regular session speakers. I made $21,000 from one of my pre-cons there. (Note: since Redgate has assumed management of PASS Summit, regular session speakers are paid). While doing a pre-con is more work than a typical session, it is not ∞ more work.
This week, someone shared a blog post with me from a SQL Server blogger, who announced that he was not planning to attend SQLBits because the pre-con payouts were no longer meeting their travel budget. While I can appreciate the cost of luxury travel as I’m writing this post from here:
I avoid making my involvement in community events a purely financial endeavor. While DCAC occasionally pays for some of my travel, I also have my own company (Joseph Dantoni and Associates Corp) where I get paid for writing and speaking, and I pay for the lion’s share of my travel with that income (we’ve been profitable almost every year, even though my accountant yells at me). And while that company needs to be financially viable, it does allow me the flexibility to not have every event be a major profit opportunity. While, I need to make money, most speakers I know can manage to balance the business side of the equation with community activities.
Writing that blog post and saying the conference would be “good enough for European speakers” was a clear violation of Wheaton’s Law, but what does one expect from a narcissist?
Don’t get me wrong, I love flying in nice seats and eating in very nice restaurants (I ate at a 2* in Paris last Thursday), but I don’t expect a community conference to fund my meal at The Fat Duck. I haven’t crossed an ocean in coach in a long time, so I’m doing something correctly.
Community is about meeting people, networking, and sharing your knowledge. Some of that knowledge is financial—how to better market yourself and new earning opportunities are some things I’ve learned in my years in the data community. However, trying to make everything transactional will quickly suck the life out of community events. If you need to create more revenue, to raise your rates to the vendors you do marketing for, don’t screw over a conference that makes the data world a better place.