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Essential reading for conference organizers

Alex Gabriel has written an article about 10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy. I mostly agree with it, but I’d add another point, and his #8 is, well, problematic.

8. Pay your speakers—well.

Speakers’ fees are commonplace in U.S. atheism. Britain lags far behind. It shows. Our speaking circuit is far whiter, wealthier and more dominated by academics and national groups’ staff. It’s far less accessible to bloggers, artists, filmmakers and people who aren’t stably employed. This happens when speaking isn’t recognised as work.

Covering expenses—say, for travel—is not enough. Good speakers put hours into talks. They’re writers, researchers, editors, lecturers, comedians, orators, things we pay people to be. They’re often discussing costly activism. (Jonny Scaramanga, whose blog about creationist exam papers went viral recently, spends huge sums getting hold of them.) Speaking for free means a real-terms loss even before expenses: the hours of work that go into it, as with graphic designers, could have gone into paying the rent. Academics, wealthy authors and the stably employed comprise most of our speakers because they can afford this loss. Others can’t. You need to cover it.

Given what U.S. speakers earn, the minimum wage and the skill involved, I recommend offering a $200 honorarium. You can’t afford that? Bollocks.

Humanist assemblies: you found 20 people to pay for your childcare. Now find 40 to put extra dough on the collection plate (better still, give it by monthly direct debit). Student groups: charge non-members that much on the door. Foundations like Todd Stiefel or Richard Dawkins will sponsor local groups. Secular authors will donate books to fundraising sales. Online atheists will donate to your page. For more ideas, see Darrel Ray’s advice.

If you can’t pay all your speakers yet, ask them to consider waiving the fee if they’re well off. Don’t allow negotiation. Higher and lower individual fees mean a race to the bottom where those who’ll work for least get booked the most. You’re trying to prevent that.

First of all, there’s a tell here that Alex doesn’t know much about the conference circuit: first he says to pay speakers well, and then he gets to specifics, and he says…$200. That line would get a laugh if he were Dr Evil.

You are asking a professional to take two or three days out of their schedule to grace your event, and you think $200 is fair compensation for that much of their time? Add another zero, and maybe $2000 would be more like it; a few hundred bucks is just plain insulting. Are you seriously going to call up Richard Dawkins and entice him to sign on by waving a few bills at him?

Even I am not anywhere near the mid-tier of conference draws, and I would find it weird to be offered a few bucks to show up. I do it because I care about this movement and want to see it grow, and also because I personally think my views are an important contribution — I lose money every time I go off to speak anywhere (I have to have my basic travel expenses covered so I don’t fiscally bleed to death, but all the little details I just pay out of pocket), but it’s worth it to see atheism growing.

I’m relatively well-off, though, with a stable job and a reasonable lower middle class salary; I would waive any honorarium because I don’t need it. I think it is fair to offer some general compensation to cover the miscellaneous expenses of those who aren’t quite as secure as I am, but I’m not too keen on expecting conferences, especially the home-grown free ones, to cover the expenses of a professional atheist lecturing class, even while recognizing that it’s necessary to expand our list of potential speakers.

You know what I would appreciate as an honorarium? Instead of paying me, tell me that X hundred dollars will be invested in scholarships to cover the cost of bringing in attendees who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the event. That’s what matters.

Or if you do want to help out the working people who are encouraging atheism in their spare time, look realistically at their mean income and estimate what they’d earn over your conference weekend if they stayed home and roofed houses or did company accounting or sold televisions at their local Best Buy, and offer them that. Someone like me would still waive the fee, but contributors who are otherwise trying to make ends meet would finally be able to use their talents well.

I said I would also add a #11 to his list of ten.

#11. Take advantage of local talent.

I see a lot of the same faces, drawn from the same big national and international pool of well-known atheists, and effective as they are at being a good draw for an event, it’s also important to grow the local talent pool. Sure, try to get one or three recognizable big names, but don’t make the conference revolve around them — they’ll be leaving the moment the conference ends…or as I’ve seen a few times, they’ll flit in just before their hour lecture, and then they’re off to the airport immediately after.

It’s the locals, or perhaps regional or state-wide people, who are going to hang around and make a difference, and who will be aware of the specific issues your attendees are dealing with. Make a commitment to have at least half your speakers be drawn from the same group as your attendees — and if you want to bring in more atheists from the black community or the poor or the working class, try to bring in speakers from that very same demographic.

Comments

  1. Anthony K says

    Are you seriously going to call up Richard Dawkins and entice him to sign on by waving a few bills at him?

    And then where will we be if the Great Dawkins won’t deign to come to tell us how there’s no god?

    Remember, don’t worship your heroes, people. Just make sure they get the big conference bucks.

  2. says

    No, that wasn’t my point. Dawkins is wealthy; he’s not going to care that much about an honorarium, and the big fees are going to be more about limiting demands than anything else.

    But otherwise, from the perspective of a conference organizer, Dawkins is a Big Name and his attendance is likely to guarantee a financially successful conference. I’m not saying anything about whether he actually is the best person to get if you want to make atheism relevant to more people.

    That’s why I added #11. Getting more people who are in touch with local issues is more important than getting a few transient headliners.

  3. Anthony K says

    No, that wasn’t my point. Dawkins is wealthy; he’s not going to care that much about an honorarium, and the big fees are going to be more about limiting demands than anything else.

    There’s a better way to limit demands for Dawkins’ time. Stop inviting him.

    But otherwise, from the perspective of a conference organizer, Dawkins is a Big Name and his attendance is likely to guarantee a financially successful conference.

    Well, except for all the people who won’t come because he’s the big name on the bill.

    I’m not saying anything about whether he actually is the best person to get if you want to make atheism relevant to more people.

    Sure you are. Whether you meant to or not, sure you are.

  4. says

    Nope, I’m saying he’s the most popular person to get. I could also say that if you could get Rush Limbaugh to speak at your atheist conference, he’d be an even bigger draw to a new audience (although you won’t get him half as cheaply as Dawkins); that says nothing about whether he is the best choice to communicate your message.

  5. Anthony K says

    Nope, I’m saying he’s the most popular person to get.

    Well, of course he is, when even in a post that ostensibly touches on the importance of local talent and making sure conferences aren’t just for the wealthy, he’s the only speaker you name.

  6. says

    Weird. I named him because he’s the biggest name on the atheist circuit right now. Personally, I’d rather hear Matt Dillahunty or Greta Christina or any of a few dozen other people, but they aren’t listed on speakers’ bureaus as asking for $10K+ for an event. And that’s a striking disparity with the $200 Alex was suggesting.

    And it’s true, fame is sort of self-perpetuating.

  7. Anthony K says

    Weird. I named him because he’s the biggest name on the atheist circuit right now.

    And in the process, further reinforcing his reputation as the Default Atheist.

    And it’s true, fame is sort of self-perpetuating.

    Fame and privilege.

  8. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    estimate what they’d earn over your conference weekend if they stayed home and roofed houses or did company accounting or sold televisions at their local Best Buy

    So, about $250?

  9. says

    Your response totally befuddled me, PZ. What you’re effectively saying is that YOU’RE well off enough and YOU personally don’t care about some extra cash, and seem to turn your nose up at the idea of paying a “professional atheist lecturing class.” Well, good for you. Lots of people appearing at these conferences use their writing/speaking as either a part time or full time job, and even a $200 honorarium would be a huge difference over the current rate of $0. Like you, I often waived my speaking fee and asked for travel expenses to be covered, resulting in a net loss of income every trip. The few times I was offered a $100 honorarium, I was at least able to break even. But I realized that as a grad student with a limited income, that model just wasn’t sustainable. It’s very noble of you to expect all atheists do selflessly spend their time in pursuit of atheism, but it’s also very privileged of you. That was the whole point of Alex’s post!

    He’s asking conferences to do the bare minimum and actually pay something, anything to the people providing services.

    I totally agree that people need to utilize local talent more. It would make cons more affordable instead of flying people in from all over – and maybe then you could actually use that money to pay people for their hours and hard work. It would also expose people to a variety of new ideas, instead of just hearing Dawkins read the same passage from his book for the hundredth time. But I really can’t believe you’re poo pooing the idea of even paying speakers a couple hundred dollars. What?

  10. says

    @Anthony K – I think you are missing PZ’s point, so let’s try using someone else as an example.

    If you had a conference in, say, St. Louis, and wanted to invite Greta Christina to speak, would you expect her to come for an honorarium of $200? What about Maryam Namazie? Aron Ra? What if YOU were asked to take three days off of work to fly half way across the continent and discourse on a topic of your choice for an hour at a conference? Even assuming that the conference is willing to pay your travel expenses, food and lodging — and that is a big assumption — would you take the gig for $200?

  11. says

    @Jen #9 – I didn’t get that PZ was pooh-poohing the idea of paying speakers; rather, he was saying that $200 was too far below market value. Conference speakers should be paid as one would pay an employee, with consideration for how much prep work is involved, travel time, food, lodging, etc. and given a fair wage for that time. This ties in with using local talent: a plumber or student organizer who live across town is much more likely to see $200 as fair recompense for half a day at a conference, while someone who needs to fly in and stay a night at a hotel probably will not.

  12. gussnarp says

    $2000? To get people who don’t make a lot of money? I feel like I’m pretty well paid. I do not make anywhere near $2000 in three days. Admittedly, $200 is probably too low, but not by an order of magnitude.

  13. says

    I thought the $200 was a typo when I first saw it. I’m not going to waste my breath defending paying speakers, it seems to obvious to me. If it’s not to you, instead of thinking about either Dawkins or the up and coming grad student, think about all the people who are excellent speakers but not famous. It’s kind of like all the great talent you can find playing music at local clubs. Support them!

  14. says

    I get that $200 is too low, but it’s certainly better than the current going rate of losing money!

    Thanks for the kind words. Family health issues and grad school have been kicking my ass lately. Don’t have time to blog even when I want to, sigh.

  15. carlie says

    I read it the same way Gregory did – that $200 is not nearly enough to compensate speakers who can’t really afford to take the few days off to go to the conference otherwise, that his complaint was that Alex didn’t give enough value to the speakers and their time.(and that paying for transportation/hotel/food is a must)

  16. carlie says

    Jen, I miss seeing you around too – when and if you get the free time to blog again, you’ll have a ready-made audience sitting here waiting for you. :)

  17. says

    Yes, I’m saying that I personally do not need to get paid — but that doesn’t change the point that offering $200 is inadequate if your intent is to give speakers fair value for their time. I know that Matt Dillahunty and Aron Ra, for instance, struggle to afford the loss of work time involved in going to a conference. $200 would help a lot, but it’s not going to be what makes it worth their while to go to an event.

    What do you pay a plumber to make a house call? What would you have to pay for a house call that lasted an entire weekend?

    And Jen, I think you missed this point:

    …if you do want to help out the working people who are encouraging atheism in their spare time, look realistically at their mean income and estimate what they’d earn over your conference weekend if they stayed home and roofed houses or did company accounting or sold televisions at their local Best Buy, and offer them that. Someone like me would still waive the fee, but contributors who are otherwise trying to make ends meet would finally be able to use their talents well.

    I recognize that I have one set of standards that should not be applied to others. But $200 is also an unfair standard to apply to everyone.

  18. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Seriously PZ, how much do you think Best Buy pays? What color is the sky on your world?

  19. says

    I guess I didn’t interpret $200 as a standard, but as a new bare minimum. It would be an improvement over the going rate of $0. I rather start paying people $200 and slowly ramp that up to be an amount appropriate to each speaker as cons gain the means to pay those speakers, than to say outright everyone deserves

    Frankly, I don’t think you original post was very clear. It seemed to be dripping with “Well *I* I just donate my free time for the love of the cause!” which apparently was not the message you were trying to send. But it was the one I got. Perhaps it’s in need of some rewording.

  20. says

    I lost a chunk of what I wrote to bad formatting. I was trying to say “than to say outright everyone deserves X Large Sum of Money that is currently not feasible for the treasuries of most groups. But if they change their fundraising practices gradually over time, it might eventually become sustainable to pay speakers what they actually deserve. This is a start.”

  21. Anthony K says

    @Anthony K – I think you are missing PZ’s point, so let’s try using someone else as an example.

    I’m not missing any point. If PZ had used someone else as an example, I would not have commented on his choice of example as reinforcing Richard Dawkins as the face of Big Atheism.

  22. D-Dave says

    <CompletelyOffTopic>
    Hey Jen! Good to see your text again! Here’s hoping that Life gives you enough of a break sometime soon so that you can do the things you want to do. :-)
    </CompletelyOffTopic>

  23. BinJabreel says

    Holy shite, did a tank of grump spill in the water? I didn’t read any of this stuff you guys did into this piece. It just seemed like a call to pay speakers better and hire more local talent.

  24. says

    If people are concerned that I wrote too much about not needing the money myself — it’s because I’m making the case that it is not personal self-interest that is driving what I wrote. I’m most definitely not saying “PAY ME MORE!”

    I was agreeing that there should be a higher frequency of better honoraria paid to speakers, but it’s problematic. How much? What does it do to the free conference circuit? The amount suggested is simultaneously a token insult to people who can already get paid much more per event, and wholly inadequate to compensate people who don’t have an independent source of income.

    Malcolm Gladwell gets paid $80,000 for an hour of his time, and I wouldn’t pay Malcolm Gladwell a nickel to hear him talk. There are ridiculous disparities in pay scales on the lecture circuit, and they have nothing to do with the quality of the speaker. So how do you define a reasonable rate?

  25. whheydt says

    Let me start with some disclaimers. I have never been to an atheist convention. I have not helped *run* any science fiction conventions, but I know a fair number of people who have and I’ve been to quite a few. I have been helping run a gaming convention for about 30 years (specifically, convention registration).

    SF cons, to the best of my knowledge, provide their Guests of Honor with travel expenses, hotel room, and expenses. There may be some limits on the expenses, especially since SF writers have something of a reputation for drinking like fish. I don’t know one way or the other if an honorarium is attached on top of that. In exchange, said guests are expected to be on the program quite a bit (though usually with very little in the way of prepared presentations, most of it being panels done off the cuff) and generally out and about in the con. They are a draw for the attendees. They are also allowed–even encouraged–to do PR for whatever they have recently published, about to publish or even just working on (if they want to).

    Other speakers/panelists/people-on-the-program get, at most, a comp’d membership in the con.

    (This, by the way, strikes to the heart of how most SF cons are run. You don’t “buy tickets”. You “become a member of the convention”. It’s an attitude difference.)

    All in all, it probably depends on what you think of when you say “convention”. Are people there to sit in a chair, listen to speakers give prepared remarks and *maybe* ask a couple of questions? Or are they there to be part of what is going on, see old friends (possibly from far away) and meet new people of like mind?

    If atheist conventions are “entertainment” (sit down and listen), then, yes, the speakers should be professional rates, and the “customers” should be expected to pay accordingly. If, on the other hand, it is a gathering of people with common interests seeking a chance to see, talk with, bounce ideas off of (or have ideas bounced of themselves), then covering expenses for specifically invited “major” speakers should be done in order to have a chance to attract interesting people as a draw for those attending and otherwise keeping costs (and, therefore, expenses) as low a can be reasonably expected.

  26. says

    Thanks for the response (and also your number 11), PZ.

    I’ve never organised a conference; I have in fact non-hypothetically booked Richard Dawkins (and Sam Harris, and AC Grayling, and quite a few others) and brought in thousands of audience members. We didn’t offer honoraria – and of course, I’m writing from the point of view of (student) atheist organising in Britain, where honoraria in general are pretty rare.

    That in mind: when I say ‘well’, the term is relative to what people tend to be offered (nothing, or a gestural bank note) – not what would be ideal for a professional public speaker. Whatever figure I gave had to be feasible for groups, particularly in Britain, who’ve never fundraised or been able to pay speakers before, respectable enough to reward speakers for their work and make up for the opportunity cost but also achievable for groups starting from scratch. Chances are it was always going to be toward the lower end of the U.S. pay scale, but I think $200 is a reasonable baseline – it needs to be read as a starting point for hosting groups who’ve never tried to do this before, and find the idea of paying speakers at all incredibly ambitious.

    Richard Carrier speaks at universities for $250; so does Greta Christina; so do Matt Dillahunty, Aron Ra and Darrel Ray; Russell Glasser $200, James Croft $299. Are these special rates for student groups? Yes, probably – but it’s still a non-trivial, meaningful amount (I think Jen agrees) that will go some way to covering the rent. Would more be preferable? Absolutely, but that’s not feasible yet for a lot groups, and those are the groups I’m addressing. I also think conferences specifically can be a bit of a special case, as opposed to places like student or local organisations that have, say, one speaker a month – assume those are the people I’m addressing too.

    On the point of standard vs. minimum: I think it should be both. I think there should be a flat rate you offer all speakers, even one that’s alright-if-not-great – the alternative can sometimes be to book lots of people who’ll do the work for little or nothing at all, which gets us back to square one. Now: within this system, I agree with asking people you like you/Richard Dawkins/whoever else to waive the free who can afford it – I do have experience of this, and I know they almost always will. One suggestion that got cut from my piece in the edit: if you can’t raise the funds to pay all your speakers, raise enough to pay half of them (the same, standardised rate) and bank on the well-off ones waiving it.

    Once you can raise the standard rate? Absolutely, do. But I’d emphasise, again, that paying speakers is much more of a familiarity in U.S. atheism – you miss just how much resistance to the idea there is in the circles where I move, and how impossible it’s considered. More than $200 would be excellent, but as someone who actually is a hard-up atheist, that would be a very satisfactory rate for me and would make regular speaking a possibility.

  27. says

    I’ve been saying for years that I wish atheist con organizers would visit an SF con: it’s a very different model that emphasizes broader talent (with a few GoHs), and also really reaches out to poorer attendees. CONvergence has free staples (rice, PB&J sandwiches, coffee, etc.) for instance, and once you pay to get in, you can subsist entirely on what’s available for free.

  28. says

    Alex, I know you’re also uncomfortable with the WHC registration costs. How do you reconcile that with a suggestion that conferences pay speakers more?

  29. says

    Straight up, PZ: I think conferences are quite a specific scenario financially, and I don’t feel qualified to speak to that.

    I also know plenty of conferences, however, that are far cheaper than the WHC both in terms of ticket prices and (from what I’ve heard) overheads and also don’t pay speakers. Essentially, I don’t really want to mix those two issues together at this point.

  30. carlie says

    One suggestion that got cut from my piece in the edit: if you can’t raise the funds to pay all your speakers, raise enough to pay half of them (the same, standardised rate) and bank on the well-off ones waiving it.

    I was thinking about something like this also – is it a feasible model for certain organizations (particularly student ones) to pile all the money they do have on speakers of lesser means, try to get one or two bigger names for just the cost of transport/food/hotel, and use the big names to get a lot of conference-goers who then fill the coffers for the next year’s slate?

  31. says

    Carlie: yes, exactly. And in fact, people like Dawkins will almost never charge for transport anyway. If you’ve seen this discussion between him and Sam Harris, it was held by my student group in conjunction with RDFRS, Project Reason and the BHA – we had about 900 people paying £4 each for tickets. After venue hire, that’s about £2600/$4277. Proceeds that night went to charity, but I’d like to think speakers like Dawkins/Harris/PZ would generally be happy to speak in those contexts waiving their fee if they knew the proceeds would go to honoraria for harder-up speakers (and even if they wouldn’t, you’d still have more than enough for that after paying them).

  32. says

    A thought, too: Alex lives in a country where travel is just a completely different level of expense than it is in the US, not only in raw costs of travel across a vastly larger country, but also in time and opportunity costs in making that longer travel happen.

    E.g.: a train from London to Glasgow takes just under 5 hours, with no endless security lines as in TSA-mandated US airports. It costs GBP42, give or take, let’s call that roughly USD70, USD140 for a round trip, plus whatever transport you need to get to and from the train stations. Throw in an extra half hour for arrival at station, finding platform, dealing with luggage, et c.. Total commitment: ~ USD 150 on travel, plus maybe 6 hours after arriving at departure point.

    Short of travel from Devon to Aberdeen, or something, this is about the longest trip you’d have to make to get from one end of the country to the other in the UK.

    A quick google on prices from NY to LA gives USD263 as a low figure for a round trip, put in all the fees and parking and extra crap, and let’s be generous and call it just USD300. This takes about six hours flying time, plus having to be at the airport some 1.5 hours ahead of time, to allow for check-in and the endless security theatre performances.

    So from departure point to arrival at hotel, let’s call it eight hours, and USD300.

    Assume food/shelter costs are similar; the price has doubled, the time commitment increased by 33%. And the multipliers on time and cost only get worse on shorter travel; the NY-LA route is cheap because it’s enormously well-travelled, and so heavily-competed-for. Fly Minneapolis to Phoenix or Charlotteville sometime, with two or three hops, by way of regional hubs in St. Louis and Detroit and Houston. The time commitment grows and grows, and every airport has a landing fee. Also, if the distance is long enough to fly, the prices aren’t nearly as tightly linked to distance as train tickets are in the UK.

    And if you can’t afford to fly, then be prepared to spend days on buses.

    In the UK, a USD200-equivalent honorarium would be a useful contribution, covering the travel costs at least, and if the travel is shorter, much of the opportunity cost too. In the US, it’s a pittance that wouldn’t begin to cover most travel costs.

    So it could be that you’re both right, in your own context, to a certain extent. Yes, cons should be paying speakers’ way; yes, USD200 could be a useful amount. For me, it would be an absolute barrier, if there were no honorarium. I simply cannot afford to attend a conference outside my home city, unless they literally were paying for every cent I had to spend outside my own door. Not paying me as a speaker is an absolute barrier in this regard, so Alex is quite right. If class is to be less of a barrier, paying speakers reasonably well is a binary option: if you don’t do it, you won’t get by far the majority of working-class people to have a voice in that community.

    If the budget’s too low for the con to manage it, then that’s something, but it doesn’t change that the barrier will exist.

  33. David Marjanović says

    CONvergence has free staples (rice, PB&J sandwiches, coffee, etc.) for instance, and once you pay to get in, you can subsist entirely on what’s available for free.

    …Wow. I’d so love it if scientific conferences were like that!!!

    How many attendees does CONvergence typically get, and what’s the participation fee like?

  34. says

    What CaitieCat says.

    I’d also point out something I was very conscious of while writing: this is a topic we’ve tended to neglect. That’s partly I think why the piece is getting as much exposure as it is, but it’s also why there have been a lot of tangential discussions like this about the details. This was the first explicit ‘atheism and class’ piece I’d written, and there haven’t been many dedicated ones by other authors – it was never going to be able to address conclusively all the specific discussions that would follow. I’d like to think it’s started a discussion, though.

  35. says

    @PZ #29 – Speaking of science fiction conventions, might I slip in a plug for Norwescon, one of the largest fan-run, non-profit conventions in the United States? Held in SeaTac on Easter weekend, in easy commuting distance from both Tacoma and Seattle.

  36. says

    CONvergence has about 5,000 people (a mid-sized SF con is bigger than just about any atheist con I can think of — only the world atheist con in Australia came close), and fees vary over time. I think it’s $50 if you sign up 6 months in advance, something like $100 at the door.

    Then there’s the cost of getting a hotel room on top of that. Many of the locals don’t have to bother, and many of the attendees don’t, either — there are things going on for just about 24 hrs/day — but they are asked to at least somehow find a way to take a shower every day. Con funk can be legendary. I’ve known people who pack 6 or more into a room, which gets the price way down.

  37. says

    I guess I didn’t interpret $200 as a standard, but as a new bare minimum.

    This is how I read it, too. Especially considering the next comment:

    You can’t afford that? Bollocks.

    My reading is “If you can afford to organize an event, you can afford to pay your speakers a measly $200. Don’t pretend otherwise.”
    If this is meant as a generally acceptable fee, I agree that it’s too low, but I read it a a minimum gesture of appreciation.

  38. says

    By the way, to finish off my comparison of relative distance, NY to LA is approximately the same distance as London to Damascus. Syria.

    London to Glasgow is about the same distance as New York City to Richmond VA.

    The difference in scale is, I think, hard to grasp for people who haven’t lived both places.

  39. says

    CaitieCat @44: as the saying goes, in Europe, 100 miles is a long distance; in the US, 100 years was a long time ago.

    PZ @29: Yes, absolutely!! SF cons are a much better model, I would say. And I’m talking “real” (i.e., not corporate media driven, like ComicCon or Dragon*Con style mega-events) cons.

    At an intermediate level, some science symposia with multiple speakers geared at the general public will typically pay the travel, housing, some honorarium to cover food, but not much more than that. Not a bad deal, all in all, particularly if they pay for a day before or after as well to see the sites (or do some museum work…)

  40. carlie says

    E.g.: a train from London to Glasgow takes just under 5 hours, with no endless security lines as in TSA-mandated US airports. It costs GBP42, give or take, let’s call that roughly USD70, USD140 for a round trip,

    You just blew my mind. Seriously. Yeah, apples and oranges on the transportation costs, then.

  41. rorschach says

    I think remuneration for speakers should depend on the price attendees pay to hear them speak. (Don’t get me started on the WHC, I was looking forward to spending another year’s worth of leave on the trip there, but 299GBP? Get fucked!)

    I don’t quite get what conference organisers do with all their money, if they don’t give it to the speakers(apart from Australia, where Aron Ra gets flown in for free to do- nothing). The bigger atheist conferences charge from 100-400 dollars for the weekend, and with 500-2000 attendees, that’s a lot of dough, hundreds of thousands of dollars. And don’t tell me it’s for the venue hire, because it’s not.

    I think it’s quite embarrassing that not all speakers at our conferences get paid something. And I agree with PZ, 200.- is ridiculous. But as I said above, it should be connected to the size of the conference and the entry fees that attendees have to pay.

  42. whheydt says

    Re: Rorscach.

    What do cons spend their money on?

    Well, I’m on the committee of a medium sized (~1750 last year) tabletop gaming convention. Our hotel bill runs on the order of $7000. Then there is the program book, a flat payment to Committee members (we have to eat, too), general supplies to run convention registration (on the order of $1500 per year). Forms to be used for various purposes. Signs to be made.

    Because what you pay for hotel function space varies with how many rooms you fill for how long (the unit of measure is “room night”), the per person cost of the meeting room goes *down* when you have more people booked into the hotel. A 500 person event in a smallish (300-350 room) hotel is going to be much more expensive–both per person and absolutely–than a 1000+ person event in that same hotel. 2000 people in a full convention center are not only going to rattle around making the place look empty, but are going to cost an arm and a leg, on a per person basis.

    Then you get into how good your hotel liason is at negotiating. With hotels, *everything* is negotiable, but you have to know what is “must have” (for the hotel as well as the con) in order to do a good job.

    Just to take a simple example. If you ask for water stations, the hotel will charge to set each one up. They will also charge you every time to refresh/refill them. If you have a good liason person, they may get the refresh/refill charge off the bill, but you have to *ask* up front.

    The long and short of it is that hotels will take naive cons to the cleaners on the bill. A good, experienced hotel liason can save a small convention thousands of dollars.

    One problem with all this (at least in SF cons) is that those running the cons are not just volunteers, but also lack experience in running cons. This is even more likely to the case with newly formed cons and cons that move every year in response to bidding. E.g. WesterCon or WorldCon.

    One partial solution to this is the annual con for people who run cons…SMOFcon, which is in early December. This year it’s in the Los Angeles area. (I am hoping to get to it to talk to others that do ConReg and find out if I’m on the bleeding edge or limping far behind. I’ve developed some of what I think are neat ideas to make ConReg better, but I may be late to the party.)

    One last point on rates… For SF cons, and particularly the more popular ones, those high at-the-door rates are intended to discourage walk ins. If the committee thinks they’ll be wall to wall attendees, they’ll want to try to keep things from getting too crowded by those coming at the last minute, so they jump the late or at the door fees quite high.

  43. says

    @PZ #42 – Alas, both events are always held on Easter weekend, when convention rates are very affordable. In any case, if you ever want a change of pace or just would like to visit the parental units in Washington’s gloriously damp springtime, you would be very welcome back.

  44. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    @CaitieCat #26

    E.g.: a train from London to Glasgow takes just under 5 hours, with no endless security lines as in TSA-mandated US airports. It costs GBP42…

    You are joking? I just looked it up, and London Paddington to Glasgow Central is £132.60. That’s one-way, off-peak. Trains in this country are horrendously expensive.

    However, it’s still probably cheaper than the US, where you have to fly everywhere; and the simple fact it takes less time does indeed make covering lost income easier.

    As for Alex’s point; I agree. It seems obvious to me that offering some sort of honorarium to cover food costs and make up for lost income would help attract more working-class speakers. And I’m frankly amazed at the idea of paying our speakers nothing as a matter of course when it’s a non-chairty event. That said, I do agree with PZ to a certain extent, in that if the honorarium is not high enough to cover both food costs and lost income then it’s not going to do a lot of good. However, that said, as CaitieCat says the simple fact that travel times in Britain are shorter will mean that potential speakers are away from work for less time, so covering lost income will be easier. £200 will probably be enough if they are only away from work for 2 days, but for any more than that it probably won’t be.

  45. says

    What CaitieCat said at 36.

    I have to admit that I got confused when Alex seemed to be discussing British conferences but pricing them in USD.

    If an interesting but impoverished speaker can travel between most large urban centres in the UK in less than 6 hours by train, with even the most rural areas being only an hour by car or bus from a large town or city. Then £120, as it approximates a day wage for a skilled manual worker seems about fair to me, particularly if travel expenses are covered by the con.

    PZ again confuses ‘merica for the world, probably not helped by Alex pricing things in USD.

  46. says

    Thumper; apologies, I did, as I said, a quick Google, and found a train fare for the cited price. If it’s generally much higher, I believe you, absolutely. Similarly, the fare for NY-LA is quite simply the cheapest one I found in a quick Google search. It is likely that a more commonly-found price would be somewhat more.

    In any case, the specific numbers weren’t the point as such, rather than the concept of the greatly different levels of cost required to move around within the two countries, both in straight travel costs and in opportunity costs. Realistically, it is just a whole different level of commitment, to travel over here vs over there, and the biggest is the requirement that most travel in the US will be by aircraft, simply because of the distances. And once you get off the big routes, or outside the biggest cities, travel in the US is prohibitively expensive, where in the UK, it’s only quite expensive. :)

  47. Sarahface, who is trying to break the lurking habit says

    You are joking? I just looked it up, and London Paddington to Glasgow Central is £132.60. That’s one-way, off-peak. Trains in this country are horrendously expensive.

    Yes, but when are you looking for?
    The cheapest I could find that left tomorrow was about £60 (single, no railcards, and it’s an advance ticket, meaning you *have* to get the specific train you booked). If you’re looking for something at the end of February (The last Thursday thereof, in fact, because Fridays are always more expensive), then it’s £43.50 (again, single). And if you’ve been invited to a conference, you’re likely to know more than a month in advance, so it would probably be cheaper still. But even so, that’s less than £90 there and back, which is still a lot cheaper than the quoted American prices (£90 = about $150).

  48. gwarishah says

    rorschach:
    “I don’t quite get what conference organisers do with all their money, if they don’t give it to the speakers(apart from Australia, where Aron Ra gets flown in for free to do- nothing). ”

    Aron Ra was not sponsored by any Australian conference.

    @askegg did a fundraiser on his blog — ‘Get Aronra to the GAC!’ — & that’s how they got to have him in the audience. He was never asked to present. He probably didn’t even attend presentations but debated creationists outside, IMHO.

    If Aron Ra didn’t do anything, its because no one expected him to. Unless you donated to the Chipin thinking that they would do more than make videos of him while in Australia as Askegg said. Has Anyone asked Aron Ra about his side of the story?

    BTW; anyone pricing on how much it costs to have (Melbourne’s) Jeff’s shed hired for a weekend? I’d like to see pricing of venues for 4000+ as well as travel costs since we’re talking fees.

  49. says

    Sarahface @53

    As the news quiz joke headline went…

    “Today 1st Anglian announced profits of £10 million. They were about to announce losses of £20 million but someone forgot to book a London to Glasgow ticket in advance”.

  50. azureblue says

    I think you’re looking at this from a very American perspective – in terms of several days out of a schedule, attending big conventions. Alex Gabriel is British, obviously, as am I, and when he talks about Humanist assemblies and student groups organising events I think more of individual talks etc than 3-day conferences. Even if they are larger events, the fact that Britain is so much smaller (and activists etc tend to cluster in London), means that it’s not necessary to take several days out to give a talk – it may only be a half day or evening out of your schedule, in which case $200 would be adequate compensation.
    Also, there are a lot of bloggers and activists on minimum wage or less, to whom $200 would certainly not represent a dip in earnings.

  51. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    @CaitieCat #52

    No need to apologise, I figured it was a mistake. Clearly that didn’t come across in text. You can get it cheaper if you book online way in advance, but from £130 to £42 seems quite a drastic drop.

    Regardless, as you say the point is that it is, in general, cheaper and takes far less time, and on that basis I agree with you. I just thought I’d indulge that favourite British past time, and slide in a moan about the trains :)

    Also, over here, travelling “off the beaten track” is normally cheaper. Trains, in particular, charge more for what are termed as “peak routes” and at “peak times”.

  52. David Marjanović says

    CONvergence has about 5,000 people (a mid-sized SF con is bigger than just about any atheist con I can think of — only the world atheist con in Australia came close), and fees vary over time. I think it’s $50 if you sign up 6 months in advance, something like $100 at the door.

    Both of these are impressive.

    The biggest conference I’ve been to was the 2nd International Palaeontological Congress (Beijing, 2006); it had some 2,000 participants, and the fee for students (6 or so months in advance) was 300 to 400 $, IIRC.

    The conference I attend every year (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology) has 1500 ± 200 participants, sometimes more, and used to be 150 to 200 $ for students several months in advance before they started mandatorily including the price of the ridiculously expensive conference dinner. That conference does not serve any food even during the coffee breaks or the poster sessions anymore, explicitly to save money.

    I say “participants” because almost everybody who goes to a scientific conference presents a talk or a poster (or, at smaller ones, sometimes both/more than one). Consequently, nobody is usually invited, not counting occasional scholarships for poor students or people from poor countries. Of the conferences I’ve been to, IIRC, only the 2nd IPC had “keynote lectures” that didn’t have any other talks going on at the same time; I assume their presenters were invited.

    Does CONvergence simply have massive economies of scale that even SVP meetings cannot approach? Are large convention centers perhaps cheaper per person than the very fancy, expensive, and not that large hotels where SVP meetings are held?

  53. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    I see Danny Butts is also involving that past time at #55 :)

    I assume 1st Anglian are a train company, though not one I’ve heard of. Southwest Trains where I live, despite living in the southeast.

  54. says

    Thumper @ 59

    “1st Anglian” , a clumsy amalgam of a couple of the awful train companies Ive traveled with.

    Could have easily been “Great Western Southeast”

    Remember when it was all British Rail and we owned it rather than just subsidized it?

  55. Rich Woods says

    @Danny #60:

    Remember when it was all British Rail and we owned it rather than just subsidized it?

    And when it was run safely by engineers rather than by fucking beancounters with a fixation on hitting targets rather than serving passengers. And we even subsidized it by a smaller amount back then!

    I’m going to stop now, before I have an aneurysm. Apologies for the, um, derail.

  56. says

    @David Marjanović #58 – “Does CONvergence simply have massive economies of scale that even SVP meetings cannot approach? Are large convention centers perhaps cheaper per person than the very fancy, expensive, and not that large hotels where SVP meetings are held?”

    The convention I work with, Norwescon near Seattle, has no paid staff: we all do the work because… well, we’re fans who love conventions. The closest thing we get in the way of remuneration is a discounted ticket, and food if we work breakdown afterwards. We have between two to five Guests of Honor every year who are fully comped on travel, lodging, food, membership for the weekend plus an honorarium. Panelists and entertainers are given only a free membership; they come to attract new fans, or meet other writers/artists/scientists, or just for the fun. That, as much as the scale of our convention (typically around 3200 full memberships each year) is how we are able to keep our prices so low, at $60 for four days if you pre-register in advance and $70 if you pre-register late.

    CONvergence is run pretty much the same, except when I checked a few years ago, they didn’t even comp panelists. The people who put in the tremendous amount of work do so for the joy of having a convention they want to go to.

    It is not just scale or free labor: CONvergence, Norwescon and similar SF conventions have organized committees of hundreds of reasonably local folks. We can afford to do all the work ourselves without having to hire outside help. We do not need to hire a caterer for the Hospitality Suite: we have enough people with food handler permits to do all of the prep, cooking and cleanup. We do not need to hire a team of movers to set up and break down the art show: we already have two score people on tap, most of whom have been doing the work for years and know how to do it quickly and efficiently.

    Smaller, newer conventions are just going to be more expensive: you need to become big and successful before you can bring ticket prices down. The Catch-22 is that you will have trouble becoming big and successful unless you can keep ticket prices reasonable. It is a lot of work and not something that can happen by the fourth or fifth convention.

  57. stripeycat says

    Rorschach @47 The WHC is, for reasons best known to themselves, using high-profile Oxford Uni venues. They say they’ve booked the Sheldonian for some panels! (For anyone not in the know, it’s a small Baroque theatre used for University ceremonies, and some concerts. It’s murderously uncomfortable, cramped and nasty for crowd control, so-so accoustically, but very pretty and prestigious.) They also seem to have taken Schools as the main venue: this time, the building is at least functional (although electronic presentations were interesting when I was a student a decade ago), but it’s still a very prestigious, fancy building (Victorian, this time), when there are plenty of lower-key lecture venues in the Uni. I have no idea where they’re sourcing the catering, but if it’s through a college kitchen, you’ll be paying serious money for good quality. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re paying £20+ a plate for the cold lunches. The colleges are very, very good at making a lot of money off high-end events. Why the WHC have decided to go with swank and prestige over affordability is another question.

  58. whheydt says

    For some more comparison numbers…

    DunDraCon (the gaming convention that I’ve been using as a reference on the topic…which, Yikes! is a month away!) has rates at $40 (until 31 Oct.), $50 (until 1 Feb., the pre-reg cutoff) and $60 at the door. Tables in the Dealers Room are priced differently and come with a specified number of general memberships, depending on how many tables a dealer buys.

    However, while we comp everyone who does items on the program, including the GMs for the “con sponsored games” (which is, they’re in the program book and get a room for the game, not an open area with a zillion others going on), we have no GoHs and we don’t pay any of the people on the program beyond con membership. Even so, somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the con is comp’d in.

    The proportion at an SF con is going to be a lot lower.

    For those that went to the WorldCon in San Jose some years back…it was moved from San Francisco (Moscone Center) to San Jose because Moscone has a strong union contract. Even if the fans had done all the set up, the con would have had to pay for a full union crew to stand around and watch. The con couldn’t afford to do that, so the con site was moved 50 miles.

    All of this does kind of make me wonder if someone has a college-level course somewhere on how to run a convention using all volunteer labor…

  59. rorschach says

    Aron Ra was not sponsored by any Australian conference.

    That’s not what he told me, but I grant you that I may have misinterpreted what he said, in that case thanks for the info. Not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things when you’re raking in roughly 1800×300=540000.- through entry fees already.

  60. Sarahface, who is trying to break the lurking habit says

    Remember when it was all British Rail and we owned it rather than just subsidized it?

    Alas, no, I’m too young. I do know many of the complaints about the sandwiches, though. ;)
    And I would stay and complain about the trains, but I should really go and pack my stuff for my train journey tomorrow…

  61. says

    @whheydt #64 – Your mention of a dealer’s room reminded me that SF/F conventions have other revenue sources than just ticket sales. Typically, vendors will pay good money for the privilege of setting up and selling to a large and often fanatical group. Most of that income goes into renting the vendor space and getting the necessary bonds and insurance, but the rest goes into the convention’s general fund.

    Unfortunately, that is, again, the sort of thing that small, new conventions will have a lot of difficulty pulling together until they get larger and more established.