Conferences: Worth the money – or Emperor’s new clothes?


Liz, November 16, 2016

This is a question I’ve been asking myself since I first dropped about £600 to pay the entry into one of them a few years ago.

I mean, £600 is a lot of money.

And what you get in return is usually a crowded, noisy hall full of stalls trying to sell you things, swiping your contact details from your entry pass as you walk by. (I’m STILL getting completely irrelevant, unsolicited emails from an event I paid to go to about four years ago from companies who either don’t provide unsubscribe facilities on their mails – or who just ignore them and sign you back up anyway.)

You also get talks. Some of which contain the odd gem, some of which are exactly the same as what you’ve already heard online or elsewhere – and exceptionally, some which are incredibly good. In my experience though, at least half are thinly-veiled sales pitches. Why? Because the people who are asked to talk at them very often have to pay for the privilege of doing so. So sometimes speakers are not selected because they have the hottest ideas and greatest insights to share – they’re there because they were prepared to sign a cheque.

And these entry prices – as I’ve found out recently – are going up and up.

A few weeks ago, I had (what I thought at the time was) the kind offer of a free ticket to a conference – which I gratefully accepted… only to get a call from a sales person who told me:

  • The comp ticket had been offered to me in error (as my company is classified as a “supplier” and not an “end user”)
  • Furthermore, that as a “supplier” the cost of the ticket wasn’t £500-odd plus VAT – it would be closer to £1500
  • But the sales guy could “do me a really good deal” and “give” me the ticket for closer to a grand

So either the organisers of this particular event had a scammy kind of sales technique… or they’d made a decision that they only want to give the “cheaper” or free tickets to “end user” corporations who might be persuaded to talk at or sponsor future events.

A small organisation like Wordtree might be great for insight and ideas – but it has bugger all to offer an event organiser in the way of corporate sponsorship.

It left a bad taste in my mouth – and I declined the revised offer.


Later, I was keen to hear if the conference I almost went to had been any good. I spoke to a couple of clients who’d attended. The verdict? “It was OK.”

OK? Is that all? Surely you want an event to be more than “OK” if you’re spending £600 a pop on tickets – as well as travel, hotels and having people out of the workplace for a couple of days so they can attend?

I put this to my clients. One person said they’d caught up with a couple of former colleagues they hadn’t seen in a while. Another said one of the talks contained “a gem or two”.

I know there are probably conferences out there that are mind-blowing. (Personally, I’d love to go to one of the many organised by the Disney Institute one day.)

However – and I’m going to call this for what I believe it is – there’s a hell of a lot of mediocrity out there too. A lot of utter crap.

And personally, I don’t want to be taken for a mug any more. You want my contact data? You can either pay me for it or give me something amazingly good in exchange. You want my money and my time? Here’s what I want back:

  • The latest industry insights (not just the same bloke from Twitter talking about jokes getting clicks – and certainly not someone trying to sell me their new platform because they stumped up the thousands required to bag a 40-minute slot)
  • Talks by thought leaders – published authors, CEOs, innovators and academics
  • Opportunities to network and meet people (and just to be clear, being in the same air hanger space as other people wearing entry passes on lanyards DOES NOT constitute a “networking opportunity” in my book. What I’d like to experience are opportunities to speak to people in sectors I’d like to work in – and I’d love the event managers to have the imagination to create interesting ways for that to happen)
  • Transparency – a real-time overview of which organisations are going to attend the event – as well as TripAdvisor-type opportunities to feed back (because, do you know, of all the conferences I’ve ever been to, not a single one has ever asked for my thoughts about what worked well, what didn’t and what I’d like to see there if I ever went again). I’d also like conferences to make it clear which speakers they’ve paid to come – and which they’ve taken payment from

According to the UK Conference and Meeting Survey 2015, the industry is worth just over £21bn. But, you know, the Emperor probably paid a lot of money for his new clothes too.

Like I said, there are probably conferences out there that are worth dropping £1500 plus per day to attend. I just haven’t been to one yet.

On the other hand, if I want a rag-tag, hit-and-miss source of the latest industry information, talks from thought leaders and sledgehammer “opportunities to network” – I’ve got my inbox, Google, YouTube and LinkedIn.

And between sitting at my desk for a couple of hours with a headset on and stumping up for a train to London/hotel/entry fee – I know which option is currently giving me the best ROI.

2 Responses to “Conferences: Worth the money – or Emperor’s new clothes?”

  1. Steven

    I finally made it to Contagious’ Now Next Why in April this year. The best day long conference I’ve been to.
    The talks given by the journalists were very well structured and that made the biggest difference – people who know how to structure and present content.
    They also stuck to time meticulously and used 5 minute mini presentations to keep things moving between longer talks.
    It’s the only one I’ll be going to next year.

    On the other had, Marketing Week live, of which I was a super premium special talk guest was the worst 2 days of this year.
    Within 30 minutes I was considering getting back on a plane home.
    The only good thing, and reason I attended was the Mark Ritson talk, but even that was a greatest hits set.

  2. Liz

    Ah lovely – we’ll put the Contagious event in our calendar.

    The big speakers very rarely bring anything new to these events, however entertaining they are. It’s a shame – and I think it’s high time the whole industry stopped wallowing around in the rubbish, gobbling up the dollars, and did something more imaginative.

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