Why are conferences so expensive?
Carol Rochefort, CAE
“Why is the cost to attend this event so high?” I can tell you exactly why.
I am not a professional meeting planner. However, I have been the executive director of the CSPL for the past 20 years, and hosting an annual event is just one component of the job.
The changes that have occurred since my first conference are like night and day. In the early days, we just had to find one suitable meeting room that could hold 100–150 people. We would start working on the program a few months before the event and telephone (not email) potential speakers. No speakers’ fees were required.
Once we printed our one-page program with a registration form on the back, it was mailed to our members with a stamped return envelope enclosed. Then we sat back and waited with baited breath to receive the forms and cheques (no credit cards, debit, ETF, etc.). The process was simpler then, but the stress (especially for the president who covered the initial costs using his personal credit card) was still there until you had enough registrations to cover the cost of the event.
Fast forward 20 years, and the simple annual meeting from 1998 has morphed into this large, complex, time-consuming beast that requires multiple steps and processes — and more money. Each conference has been a great learning experience, but even though I gain a little more confidence each year, the stress and worry grow as the costs and size increase. Top
Here are some of the changes that have occurred over the past 20 years. They might give you some insight into why the cost of our event has increased from $350 in 1998 to $1100 in 2018.
Before the World-Wide Web, one located speakers mainly through word of mouth or by calling in favours from friends and colleagues. Today, the Internet has made finding speakers an amazing process. Once you have a theme or specific topic, endless hours can be spent viewing thousands of potential speakers from around the world. Many have video clips, which give a good idea of what you are purchasing.
The downside is that participants then begin to expect speakers who are not only experts, but also educational, entertaining, and, when possible, funny. The cost associated with finding the perfect speaker comes at a price, and each year I need to be a little more creative in my negotiating skills. I have reached out to speakers recommended by participants, only to find out that their fee is in the $75 000–$100 000 range plus first-class travel for themselves and economy travel for their handlers. Yes, they have handlers! I find myself chuckling a little when I respond to these speakers by stating that their fee is my entire conference budget.
Some might think that finding a venue for a wedding is difficult, but that is nothing compared with professional events. The one large room is just not adequate these days. We require breakout rooms, separate rooms for lunch and breakfast, a large space for plenary sessions, office and registration space, exhibit space, and of course additional rooms for that impromptu meeting. Top
It’s now necessary to hire professionals to help locate the right hotel/conference space, in the right location, in the right city. Bookings have to be made 2–3 years in advance. Once the location that you hope will meet all the needs has been found, you must sign a complicated contract that could bankrupt small organizations if they had to cancel within six months of the event.
Although everyone enjoys a five-star hotel and meeting facility, no matter how expensive or new the hotel, you will never be able to make everyone happy. The management and staff at these hotels continue to amaze and impress me each year. When you meet with the hotel management team just before the event, you have to be impressed by the number of staff who are going to be taking care of the event and the participants for the next few days. There is no request, no matter how strange, that the hotel team will not fulfill to make your event successful.
The conference program is now a 20-page glossy brochure giving participants full details about the experience they will have and what they will learn during each session. Not only will participants receive a copy of the brochure by mail, but they can also access it on the conference website or download “the app” to their communications device. These additional formats require expertise, staff, and money to create. Top
The program must offer participants not only keynote addresses, but also a variety of breakout sessions, panels, networking opportunities, and coaching/mentoring sessions, and all must be interactive and provide the participant with tips, techniques, and takeaways. Again, these extras require staff, time, and money.
Anyone organizing a health care conference knows about the time and work involved in applying for continuing professional development credits. The fees for this have increased over the years and the application process can be a little daunting. The National Standard for Support of Accredited CPD Activities describes a set of ethical standards and expectations relating to sponsorship support that physician learning activities must meet to be accredited. Physician participants are encouraged to attend events that are accredited.
Food and beverage
In the early days, when we asked participants to state any food observances/allergies, we would receive fewer than 10 responses, usually noted as severe allergies. At our most recent conference, close to 200 people reported food allergies/observances, sensitivities, and diets, which we then forwarded to the hotel.
One year, the hotel prepared a large number of special meals as requested by participants — at an additional cost of $5000 — and only a few participants actually picked them up. Those special meals were thrown out. Needless to say, we don’t do this anymore. Instead, we attempt to accommodate all food requirements and observances in a buffet-style format.
Again, the hotels continue to amaze me with how much effort they make to accommodate as many requests as they can, but this definitely entails an additional price.
One cost that most participants are not aware of is the price of tea and coffee. Some participants have asked why we can’t have a tea/coffee station available all day. The price, including all gratuities and taxes, works out to $6–8 for an 8-oz cup — no “bottomless cups” here. If you want to fill your large travel mug, consider that a $20 dollar cup of coffee!
I am sure no one is surprised to learn that keeping up with the demands of technology is a never-ending additional cost. Participant expectations must be met if we want them to return the following year. However, costs rise every year because of upgraded devices, the demand to provide parts or all of the event on video, webinars, etc.
In the early years, we would borrow one or two data projectors and bring them to our event. Today, we spend over $45K solely on the audiovisual component of our event. Keep in mind that for every additional workshop or session, we have to rent data projectors, screens, microphones, clickers, and any other device the speaker may require per day. Don’t forget the expertise of on-site technicians for the duration of the event. Other significant technological costs are website software and design, apps, and conference registration software.
Conference registration can no longer be by cheque only. Online registration is a must! Registration software must be purchased and significant annual fees paid to maintain the software.
Registration must include payment by credit card and, for some larger events, debit and electronic transfer. The conference host must pay significant credit card fees (3–5%), which participants don’t see; if they cancel, we pay it twice, which is why there is an “administration fee” for canceling. Top
As a small, non-profit organization, we set the prices so that we can at least break even or sometimes turn a small profit to invest in other CSPL activities like the journal.
Sponsorship is the part of event planning that I find the most challenging, but a must for small non-profit organizations like the CSPL. Asking for money is not easy, and there are fewer and fewer sponsorship dollars to be had. In addition, participants have paid good money to attend the event; so, the sponsors must be relevant and worthy of their attention and vice versa!
In the early years, sponsorship dollars were plentiful and ethical reviews were not required. This allowed for significantly lower registration costs for event attendees. Today, for a number of reasons, companies and organizations question the value of their sponsorship at your event. Guidelines, including ethical reviews, must be followed, especially if you are applying for accreditation.
“Less is more.” I believe our success in the past few years has been a result of having fewer but relevant sponsors. With fewer sponsors, it is easier to create a warm welcome between sponsor and participant. Allowing sponsors access to participants at breaks, meals, and receptions seems to work: sponsors are pleased with the one-on-one contact, and participants are happy to have learned or taken away some knowledge about the sponsor.
I hosted my 20th annual meeting in 2018, and it doesn’t get easier. My stress level definitely runs high before the event (just ask my husband). Only when the opening keynote speaker is on stage, the room is full, and participants seem to be engaged do I finally breathe. This is not saying that problems won’t arise during the event, but at that point I realize there is nothing more I can do. Then, I look forward to having a glass of wine or two during our welcome reception and getting caught up with returning participants and meeting new ones.
For anyone who hosts a conference or other event, I hope you at least nodded your head a few times and thought, “That is exactly right.” For those who have not, I hope I have provided some insight into the costs, staff, patience, and effort that go into our annual meeting.
Hope to see you at the CCPL in 2019! Top
Carol Rochefort, CAE, has been executive director of the CSPL since its inception.
Some interesting points and changes over the years
Chris Carruthers, MD
In the first years of the CSPL, Carol and I anxiously looked at weather reports and potential flight cancellations before a meeting. The absence of 15–20 attendees would mean a deficit. Minimal hotel room occupancy was guaranteed. We had no reserve funds in the early years to cover deficits.
We had to pick a city attractive to those attending. For many years Vancouver was the top of the list as participants added holiday days to enjoy the city.
Saturday and Sunday, traditional meeting days, became less popular as physicians wanted to spend more time with their families. Many left early Sunday for home, particularly from Vancouver for those heading east. We switched to Friday and Saturday to accommodate these wishes and it has worked well.
Five-star hotels are costly and you are obligated to use in-house services, such as catering. Conference centres are even more costly and require you to use union employees. Shopping around for competitive pricing on many of the services is not an option.
The expectations of participants have increased tremendously. At the early meetings, we held one workshop at a time for everyone. Today, we have to offer several options, so that attendees can pick a subject they are particularly interested in learning more about. However, this is much more expensive.
Carol’s 20 years of experience have significantly minimized the risks surrounding meetings. Carol is a pro! Top