Red flag: Speakers having to cover their own travel

The Modern FrontEnds conference was held last week in London. It wasn’t a small conference, as the website touts over 100 speakers and more than 3000 developers attending. Not only that, the conference had some big sponsors and a hefty ticket price. 

But before the conference even began, I heard about some serious issues with how the organisers treated their speakers. That immediately raises some red flags. After the event, some speakers spoke publicly about their experiences. 

Now, I wasn’t there. I spoke at a different event in London the day before. But I chatted with some of the Modern FrontEnds speakers about this. And it still feels weird commenting about a conference I did not speak at or even attend. So I am not going to do that.

But I have some speaking experience: I’ve spoken at more than 50 events over the last five years. And I co-organised the Fronteers Conference for the previous three editions, so I have experienced firsthand the difficulties of organising a conference. And sometimes, you have to choose between two bad options or make difficult decisions because ticket sales are less than you hoped. And I have made plenty of mistakes, but I always try to learn from them to avoid them in the future. 

The following should be the minimum a conference should provide: A conference should always offer to cover travel and accommodations for the speaker. 

And, of course, this should be reasonable. Speakers should not expect business class flights to be covered, nor should the organisers put their speakers up in a hostel with shared rooms. But the organisers should always offer to cover an economy flight and a decent hotel. And for accommodations, the minimum is to cover the night before and the night after. And they should communicate that up front, not only provide it when a speaker asks for it. 

And even when you sell only half of your tickets, and there are serious financial issues, this is the minimum the conference should provide. The organiser is the one that takes the financial risk, not the speakers.

Speakers are already offering up their time and knowledge; it should not cost them money. Period. 

Now there are exceptions, of course. 

If you, as a speaker, are officially representing a company, it is common for the company to pay for your travel. Or for both your travel and accommodation. But the organisers should always ask and not assume that the speaker’s employer will cover everything. 

On the other side, there are also exceptions. Not every conference is a commercial venture backed by sponsors and rolling in stacks of money. Sometimes conferences charge next to nothing for tickets to ensure everybody can attend. That is okay. But in that case, the organisers should be clear, upfront and honest about their expectations and only invite local speakers who do not need travel or accommodation.

Sometimes, a third party will cover the travel and accommodations. For example, some of my travel was covered by Google as part of the Google Developer Expert program. That allows speakers to give a talk at conferences that otherwise could not afford to invite those speakers.

But I would only feel comfortable using that resource for non-commercial community conferences. If there is any way the conference can cover it themselves, they should.

And again, travel and accommodations is the minimum a conference should offer its speakers. Most conferences organise a dinner for the speakers to get to know each other. And some cover some extra days for sightseeing. Some pay a speaking fee. 

Now I don’t expect every conference to go all out. But if it is a commercial venture, I expect a little more. Not less.

In the end, how a conference cares for their speakers tells you a lot about how they care for their attendees. 

Are speakers and the topics they cover essential for them? Or are they just something they need to organise, like the venue or catering? Do they randomly pick a couple dozen and give them a podium to speak on? Or do they carefully make a program that is interesting for the attendees? Do they spend time on money on having good speakers? Or will any that shows up do?