Conferences are (not) difficult to get right

Since 2010 I have co-organised 6 conferences (4 in procurement - Procurement Week) and took part in 12 or 14 as a speaker. By and large my experience in both sides of the table has been positive and I tend to have a lot of respect and tolerance for conference organisers. It is hard to make all pieces fall into place and the run up to a big conference usually comes associated with incredible levels of stress. Are we getting replies? Has Big Name X confirmed his presence yet? Are people registering? Did we get enough sponsoship money? S*** we have a last minute cancellation. Believe me, I have seen most of these happen more than once. No surprise then that I try to cut some slack to conference organisers and try to make their life easy and straightforward as possible. Case in point, for Catolica's Summer School last week I was offered a main airline flight via Amsterdam to Porto (horrendously expensive...) and offered instead to take the easyjet flight Bristol/Porto without need for hold luggage. And no, I am not above having made mistakes on the past as an organiser.

But there is only so much slack I can cut a conference organiser.

Last week (Monday) I was contacted by a commercial/professional conference organiser who wanted me to speak about a procurement topic (let's call it Topic #1). I said yes in principe although thought ___________ would have made for a better fit. Communications ensued at good clip with the organiser as I explained the motions I needed to go through on my side (being abroad at the moment, getting a colleague to replace me in a class, obtaining authorisation from Head of College, finding flights to minimise teaching disruption) as to get my puzzles pieces in place.

Fast forward to yesterday where, out of the blue, the organiser announced having recruited ___________________, recommended by common friend ___________________ for Topic #1 and asking me to move instead to Topic #2. I know jack **** about Topic #2 and even if I did it would not change a thing. One does not invite a speaker and when working with him/her goes behind the back and tries to get another speaker for the same topic. I am sorry, but I am not a filler that can be moved to a certain area of the programme at the whims of the organiser, particularly for a commercial/professional conference which is not exactly cheap. Turns out that the person who ended up accepting the speaking slot is actually better suited than myself for Topic #1. Plus, said person is an early career researcher getting his/her break at a big conference.

This scenario is compounded by a previous interaction I had with this particular conference organiser. I was invited for another conference a few months ago and after moving my schedule around and a long radio silence on his part, the conference was suddenly cancelled less than 2 weeks before the due date.  Adding insult to injury, on a previous email I was being questioned why no one had registered with a discount code he so kindly sent me (hint: speaker =/= conference promoter...). That left a really bad impression on me.

One of the balls I *always* kept my eyes on as conference organiser was on keeping them happy, even when faced with strange requests ("I only travel on airline XXX and want the airmiles credited to my frequent flyer number 9999999999999"). Why? Because without speakers you have no conference. It's that simple. No monkeys, no circus. No money in the bank either.

But it is more thant that. Every conference implies an opportunity cost for the speaker: less time with family, less time for other work, more miles in our bodies, sometimes jetlag and so forth. Even when there is a fee attached (rare these days) it does not cover the opportunity cost incurred. In commercial conferences whereby the organisers capture all of the upside, the balance of accounts is even worse for obvious reasons.

I suspect the organiser (an employee) does not know how these things work. Reputation is damn hard to build and really easy to destroy. And once word starts making the rounds about how you treat your prospective speakers, it suddenly becomes really difficult to recruit speakers which people will pay for to see talking. And conference is only as good as the speakers it puts on stage.

24 hours since my last email I am yet to hear back from the organiser(s).

PS: Many thanks for the kind words of support I have received since yesterday. Most appreciated.