I like going to conferences. One of my regular conferences remains Devoxx, but I’ve done a lot of other conferences the last couple of years. However, over the years, I’ve noticed a very unsettling trend: the prices of conferences have risen each year. And not by a little. Whether the content quality has equally risen is debatable, but it seems like there’s no stopping in the rise of the price of admission to one of the most crucial parts of IT: learning.
I’ll take a couple of examples.
SpringOne2GX is one of the more popular conferences amongst Spring developers. However, with it’s 1700 euro for 4 days, which is about $425 a day. Add to that a airline ticket and 4 or 5 nights in a hotel and you’re talking about a 3000+ euro conference. Granted, there is some nice content for Spring developers, but given the fact that most talks are either rehashes of earlier talks or most content can be found browsing Youtube or Slideshare, I really don’t see a justification for the 1700 euro pricetag. Another recent example is JavaLand. The concept is innovative: host a tech conference in a theme park. For a whopping 780 euro (975 after January 15), you get 2 days of conference with 100 talks to choose from and a day of workshops. That’s 260 to 325 euro a day. While this is not as expensive as SpringOne2GX, it’s still a lot of money for 2 days of conference and some workshops. And then off course we have the mother of Java conferences: JavaOne. Depending on when you’re registering, you’re looking an a registration fee between 1600 and 2000 euro. You do get 6 days of conference for this price, so around 270 to 330 euro a day.
There are a lot of other examples: Jazoon (EUR 1500+ for 2 days), GOTOconf (EUR 2400+ for 4 days), JAXLondon (EUR 1050 for 3 days). To put that into perspective, Devoxx is 750 euro for 5 days (well, let’s be honest, 4.5 days). So either the Devoxx team is taking a hit each and every year or they’re doing something fundamentally different. But they’re not alone. Geecon for example is 185 euro at its most expensive for 2 full days. And with speakers like Antonio Goncalves, you’re can’t really say it’s a low quality conference. Same thing with gr8conf. So what is wrong in this picture?
One could argue that most courses you find on the internet are equally expensive. But there’s a big difference between a course and a conference. In a course, you’re probably sharing the room with 20 to 30 people. At a conference, you’re sharing the room with 200 to 300 people. You’re less likely to get the chance to get your specific questions answered. You could talk to the speaker afterwards, but that would mean you would probably have to skip a talk in order to do so and chances are that you’re not the only one that wants to ask a question. Conferences love to distinguish themselves on the amount of content they present. What is often overlooked is the amount of talks you’re able to view. It’s easy to say you have 50 talks, but if there are 5 rooms, this means you’ll have to miss 80% of the conference, as you’ll only be able to go to 10 of the talks. In the case of SpringOne2GX, you’ll be able to attend 13 talks out of about a hundred. Again, you’ll effectively paying to miss out on 87% of the talks. Ouch.
Sure, you get most talks available on the internet for free. In the case of Devoxx, most talks are available a couple of months after the conference and free for those who had a ticket, using their Parleys platform. But in the case of SpringOne2GX, the talks were available as well a couple of months after the conference, but on YouTube… for free. Which makes you wonder why you paid for the $1750 in the first place (I guess the atmosphere must’ve been worth it). JavaLand doesn’t publish their talks and only provides some of the slides, so you’re effectively paying full price for only about 15% of the content. Here in Belgium, we’ve been more than blessed with Devoxx. The content is always great and the price is unbeaten. The food could be better (that’s a constant for the 6 editions I already went to), but at least after the conference I was able to see all the talks I missed. As bang for my bucks goes, that’s one hell of a deal.
But what is the real consequence of such high pricing models. Well, you get a completely different audience. The higher the price, the higher up the ladder your audience will be. Even at Devoxx, this becomes more apparent. You’ll find a lot of development managers amongst the full conference pass holders. At conferences like JavaOne, this is probably even more pronounced. No manager will spend 3000 euro per person to send his team off to a conference. He’ll probably go himself under the excuse that ‘he’ll tell his team all about the stuff he’s seen’. As far as I can tell from the comments I’ve seen on Twitter, this pricing model is intentional. Apparently to attract a higher level audience, you just raise prices. This picture is wrong in so many ways. Conferences should attract the men and women who apply the presented technologies on a daily basis. If decision makers accompany them, that’s even better, but the decision makers should not be the target audience. If the target audience for big conferences are the “enterprise practitioners” and not the students, aspiring tech leaders of the future and the devs that are shaping the future (which are mostly non-managers and non-enterprise), I really pity our industry and fear for its future. And if you want to attract “enterprise practitioners” that judge the worthiness of a conference by its registration fee instead of the actual content, that’s your choice. But stop pretending in that case it’s not about the money.
We as an IT community pride ourself in that very sense of community. I don’t know of a lot of other fields of study where interpersonal bonds are made so easily. At Devoxx, I had drinks with a group of people that I didn’t even know the day before. Every day. With the current pricing models, the audience will shift from the people in the trenches to the people calling the shots. It promotes the kind of trickle-down knowledge management that has been proven wrong so many times in the past. If cheaper conferences mean I have to ignore a couple of IBM (or other sponsors) advertisements more, so be it. As long as the content is there, I really don’t have a issue with that. But if every registration for a conference means writing down a 2-page justification because of the mere cost, just because I’m not an “enterprise practitioner” or a manager, I’ll stick to YouTube, Slideshare and the ad-hoc tech meet-ups that happen in my area. But honestly, I think that would be a real shame and a degradation of our craft.