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12 Ways to Attend a Conference for Less


Part 1. Numbers one to six

As I veer wildly towards the close of my PhD and the conference season heaves into view, I’ve become aware that I’ve gained a lot of knowledge regarding the logistics and financing of conference attendance that other might find useful. For the average student or early career researcher conferences represent a double bind. Often you simply can’t afford to go. But more often you can’t afford not to. 

Conferences are valuable for airing your research and gaining expert feedback, building the contacts and networks that help forge the precious academic reputations that often lead to publications and employment. Conferences also often give you social access to the Big Names you’ve been reading as well as a sense of community within your discipline – this can be particularly important for PhD students in the arts and social sciences, where research can be a lonely business.

In this post, I’m aware that – to a certain extent – I will be delivering a backstage view of hacks I’ve used. This is a no-holds-barred account of what I have done previously to get in to conferences where cost has been the bottom line.  It’s not all pretty, although I like to think this demonstrates some of the tenacity and determination.

If you have any additions to this list, please post them as comments – it would be great to hear your thoughts. 6 more cost-cutters to follow next week….

1.  Pick Your Conference

When choosing what conferences to attend, there are various internal equations you will need to complete relating to the reputation of the conference, it’s projected audience, distance, size and so on.  There are certain trends in these factors that the discerning delegate-wannabe will want to note, for example, industry conferences tend to cost more; postgraduate and not-for-profit conferences, substantially less. Other factors may depend on the number of ‘star’ (read: ‘expensive’) speakers, sponsors backing the event, the calibre of the venue and disciplinary culture.  You need to investigate this to find what is viable for you.  Here are two further tips:

  • Factor in Transport and Accommodation
    Transport and accommodation can be huge financial commitments. Fortunately, many conference organisers are aware of this – leading sometimes to counter-intuitive outcomes. For example, I have found it cheaper to attend conferences in Norway and Sweden than in my home country of the UK.  This has been true when I have benefited from lower Nordic registration prices, favourable exchange rates, budget flights, and cheaper accommodation.  Another tip for Swedish conferences is pack your swimmies, every hotel has a sauna.  For great tips of cheaper travel and accommodation visit, I’ve also benefited from TripAdvisor’s reviews, which frequently help discern better budget accommodation.
  • Let the conference to come to you
    Whilst some routes and destinations are cheaper than others, remember that many international conferences tour like the royal courts of old.  If you break the bank to attend a conference in a far flung and exotic location, be prepared for the next years’ expo to roll onto your doorstep. Some major conferences purposefully alternate continents, if you can catch them whilst they’re close, you will save money, time and carbon.

2.  Be an Early Bird

First thing’s first, if you’re able to plan ahead, you will benefit.  Early conference registration can frequently result in substantial savings as many conferences offer an ‘Early Bird Discount’, this early registration allows the organisers to better gauge projected numbers and marketing and can save you approximately 20% on registration fees.

3. Be a Student

Some, but not all, conferences offer student discounts – however, these can be poorly signposted. If you are a student, be sure to check if a discount is offered – contact the conference organisers directly if no discount is offered.

As a student you may also be eligible to for a grant or bursary to attend.  Again, these are not always brilliantly advertised. It could be a line of text on the website, or even an unspoken understanding. I’ve found this to be particularly true of Scandinavian countries.

Finally, this might sound extreme, but if you are self-employed, or a freelancer, the savings to be made through student status (and via education discounts on software etc) may actually mean it is worth taking on part-time study.

4. Be a Member

In many academic fields leading conferences are organised by associations. Association membership may get you a cheaper ticked at registration. It may also come with added benefits in terms of a journal subscription, discussion list access, and/or professional newsletter. In my experience, membership is often far less than the saving you will make on the conference fee. Moreover, many memberships are themselves discounted to students, unwaged and other groups.

5. Be a Presenter

Presenting, unfortunately, does not necessarily imply that you will get any concession on conference registration or fees unless you are a keynote speaker. Some conferences will bank upon the fact that many delegates will attend because they are presenting.

However, your own organisation or institution may have funding for you to present at a conference. At the University of Nottingham for example, funding is available from both departments and the Graduate School. Investigate what awards are available and plan strategically where the money will be best spent. You may also be eligible for a grant from another independent body or a research council if you have a studentship.

Further to this, look beyond the conference. If you intend to present – can you expand your trip to include other presentation opportunities. For example, presenting your research to businesses, universities, NGOs or government in the same area? These organisations may pay, or offer to supply travel costs or a maintenance allowance that makes the conference viable.  Obviously this takes planning, but if you’re planning on going a long way, it makes sense to make the most of your trip.

6. Be a Journalist

If you’re confident of your writing skills and/or have any articles to prove your journalistic abilities, consider your target conference with an editor’s eye. Are there any Keynote or visiting speakers who might be news worthy? If so, it’s likely that Press will be there. As an expert and insider in the field, you are well placed to offer your services to any interested publishers. For example, in 2007 I interviewed Dr Peter Norvig for Custom PC. Norvig is Google’s Director of Research, he was visiting the UK for a keynote at the Association for Learning Technology conference.  I interviewed  him on the final day of the conference, having been queued up behind the BBC.  Alongside the benefits of professional writing and publishing, my editor ensured I had a press pass, meaning I could sidestep the not-insignificant conference fee of £495. Really, it’s worth a try.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 04/06/2010 6:05 am

    Be a volunteer for the conference.
    Maybe that is on your list for 7-12? I have been a volunteer at unconferences where the price was low anyway. I was also a volunteer at a rather expensive conference last year where I heard great presentations for free. I was a room monitor, a registration desk helper, and general all-around helper. This conference advertised for volunteers. Otherwise – just ask!

  2. slewth permalink
    04/06/2010 10:35 am

    Thanks for your comment, Karen – it’s a great tip. You’re right – I have ‘Be a volunteer’ slated for number 7-12 – but I don’t think I can offer the inside track as you do. Did you have the freedom to attend the sessions you wanted or was this dependent on where and when you were deployed? How arduous was the work? Was accomodation covered?

  3. 04/06/2010 11:46 am

    Sorry to steal your thunder. 🙂
    All the unconferences have been local, so accomodation wasn’t covered. Because they were unconferences, they had a fresher approach to accomodation, though. People were encourage to house those who came to the conference. “Couch surfing” sites exist around the world, so there are opportunities for free housing, where payment is usually great conversations and resulting friendships. You state allergies, etc. and hosts state their conditions, etc.

    In one unconference case, I fell into the journalist category. I got a free pass and helped prepare badges, etc. before the conference, but during the conference, I stayed in one session room and documented everything that happened there. You could call that a restriction, but it happened to be a good one. I heard some knock-your-socks-off presentations.

    In the paid conference where I got a free pass, I attended the conference in Nov. 09. Accomodation was provided free-of-charge as a part of their arrangment, but I chose to stay with family in that town because I could. I was allowed to declare which speaker I absolutely had to see, and I got to be the monitor for that session. I could also state which track I preferred and they tried to accomodate everyone’s wishes. As far as I know, everyone got what they wanted. Otherwise, they set my schedule for my tasks, which were easy, but necessary. For example, I reminded people to fill in the evaluation forms at the end of the session. I think me standing there scared everyone into doing so! That’s a good thing for the conference itself. Feedback is so vital, so having a body to remind and collect that info is an asset that is worth a free ticket.

    I think someone with fatigue issues would have found it overwhelming – it was 3 days in a row – unless on some sort of medication. With the exception of a few sessions in an older annex, all the rooms were wheelchair accessible, though with the light wheelchairs, not the bigger scooters (if I recall correctly). I mention that because narrow corridors and the door angle into a room can be a catch to what otherwise appears to be an accessible facility.

    I have recently heard that there are no discounts like this for helping at the DrupalCon events, but the idea there is that everyone is on equal footing. Even the rockstars pay because all are equal members of the community. There, all kinds of contributions are welcome and you can rise from obscurity to fame, which could have financial benefits elsewhere; for example, you develop some skills that the community values and which, when added to your CV, might land you a nice job with a salary..

    I hope this gives more of an impression of what is involved. I think many places do encourage volunteers, and if you are the one who takes action (makes contact), you may be able to shape the job.

    • slewth permalink
      04/06/2010 12:25 pm

      I’d not encountered the ‘unconference’ before – that is, I’d seen the term, but never investigated. It’s great to hear more about it from the inside, over the rather impersonal definition on Wikipeda.

      Thanks also for a timely reminder of the importance of the family & friends stop-over/sofa surfing option, a factor I’d genuinely overlooked – despite both having played significant parts in my travels over the years!

      But don’t worry about the Thunder Stealing. I’ve got plenty more up my sleeve for next week’s post. Further Comments notwithstanding…. 🙂


  1. 12 Ways to Attend a Conference for Less: part 2 « 32 Days Remaining

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