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Respect your conference speakers and volunteers

Really old post – This post is from 4 years and has not been updated, some if not all of the information maybe out of date. Proceed with caution.

I’m really sad to announce that I am no longer going to be speaking at WordCamp Birmingham UK. I know my appearance has been advertised via the WPUK website and from a link on the WordCamp Birmingham site. However this was published prior to the official you are accepted  email which only arrived last Thursday and unfortunately having read the email I simply can not accept their terms.

TLDR; WordCamp Birmingham UK is requiring speakers and volunteers to buy tickets to the event, while this is not explicitly against WordCamp guidelines it is something that is frowned upon and a practice that should be stamped out. From a personal perspective I believe this shows a lack of respect and appreciation of their volunteers and speakers, topped off with the way this requirement was communicated after announcements had already been made.

Before going into the details of the what, where and whens I’d like to pre-qualify everything I’m about to say. I have been lucky enough to speak at numerous conferences around the world from my own local  city in Leeds, London, to San Francisco. During the last 10 years I have been in a mix of circumstances, sometimes I have been paid to speak, sometimes my accommodation has been paid, other times my travel.

I have also organised conferences, both traditional speaker led conferences to non traditional un-conferences like BarCamps. I have been there during the discussions on speakers expenses the cost of speakers and when ticket sales are going strong but the sponsorship is not matching and a shortfall is occurring.

I’ve also volunteered at conferences, be it helping with the AV, on the door checking tickets, to introducing speakers. It’s a great way to meet people especially at community events like WordCamp.

While this post is about a WordCamp it’s really about all events, and though I use WordCamps as examples this issue is found across a spectrum of technology events.

It’s important to bear in mind that WordCamp is a branding term for WordPress Foundation and WordCamp Central, but here in the UK so far they have been in traditional conference setups, and this is the case in Birmingham. Why mention it? Well, a lot of attempt is put into trying to make out that WordCamps are un-conferences, however the way in which they are run in the UK currently they are not un-conferences.

Though they could be, and it’s something I would love to see.

So what is an un-conference? An un-conference is simply a participant driven event, where ANYONE can set the agenda and EVERYONE is free to choose to participate.

A good example is a Barcamp, I love Barcamps, the organising team finds the venue, food and supplies sells  tickets. But pretty much as soon as the introductions are over it’s up to the attendees what happens next. A Grid with timeslots is put up and anyone can put down sessions, as participants you are free to choose which session to go to, and you are welcome to come and go out of rooms as the mood suits.

Here is the important bit, nothing is preplanned session wise, you as an individual might have a plan for a session you want to run but when you arrive at the venue you have as much right, chance and opportunity to put your session on as anyone else.

This concept is really important it’s fundamental to an un-conference that the individual attendee has the option to put a session on or choose to not put one on.

Why is this important because, when your conference asks for speakers, asks for a talk title, description etc. you are no longer an un-conference, the speaker is no longer an attendee they are a speaker.

  • As a speaker there is an expectation you will turn up
  • You will talk on a pre determined topic at a given time
  • Normally an expectation you will answer questions
  • Your name, bio and often picture will be used in marketing promotion to sell  the conference

This is very different to an attendee at an un-conference or at a regular conference, not only are you speaking but you in effect become part of the conference. Without speakers, volunteers and organisers their are no WordCamps.

Being a speaker can be hard work even if you are a seasoned pro

It’s also not just about the 30 minutes you are up on stage, there is the prep time to build your slide deck, prepare your demos, rehearsal time and modifications based on feedback. Not to mention the sheer bureaucracy aspect and paper work. Chasing up where you are meant to be, when do slides need to be delivered etc. It all quickly adds up. Not only that but most speakers take time before their talks to prepare on the day, missing the conference at the start, and assuming your talk was interesting you can be quite literally flooded with questions for the rest of the event.

Wait am I complaining people are talking to me, I might be getting work leads from this? Well yes there is a small chance I might, but conferences rarely bring work directly as a speaker, certainly no more so then if you are a confident networker working the crowd. What it does bring is people asking questions wanting to chat to you, to get to know you and pick your brains.

Ultimately all of this means one simple thing, speakers rarely get to go and fully participate in conferences, unless you are extremely lucky and are on early you will miss sessions. You will miss discussions. That’s ok you are a speaker that has benefits, it improves your standing in the community, it hopefully made you come across as knowledgeable about your subject. It also helps to build your personal brand.

If it’s a free event or a community based event like WordCamp you have also hopefully helped the community and the knowledge you impart will be used by others in the community.

If its a paid for profit making venture, you should receive some return on the profit.

This is my very simplistic take on conferences and speakers GETTING paid:

  • If I speak at an event designed not to make a profit, or where any such profits are being driven back into the community or the conference. I would not immediately expect to be paid, I would also assume none of the other speakers were too. Where people were being charged entry, their is some expectation that either travel or accommodation costs would be taken care of, though that’s not always the case and WordCamps are a good example of where this doesn’t happen.
  • If I speak at an event designed to turn a profit, for people to make money out of it, then I expect to be paid. If I’m helping you make money, well guess what I want my fair share. Simple. Because of this I have turned down a fair amount of offers to speak at some pretty big conferences simply because they refuse to compensate speakers.

So what does this all have to do with WordCamp Birmingham?

Well like all UK based WordCamps Birmingham is funded partly through ticket sales and partly through sponsorship. They like all WordCamps try to keep the costs down low, and this is a good thing, as it lowers the barrier to entry.

Like most WordCamps they put out a call for papers. I submitted a talk on HHVM & Hack, a niche topic but one I know a core group of developers will find interesting. The application was simply a Google form with no terms and conditions etc.

A few weeks later I got a few tweets from folks about being at WordCamp Birmingham and how it will be good to see me. Eventually finding out my talk was up  on the Birmingham UK site. Turns out that’s not quite right a link, from the official WordCamp site to an unofficial planning group which had my talk on a proposed running order.

That was a month or so ago, and on Thursday I got my acceptance letter  the bit that stung was:

as a speaker you will still need to buy a ticket for the WordCamp. If you haven’t bought one yet, please do so asap at http://2015.birminghamuk.wordcamp.org/tickets/. They are selling out fast so you’ll need to hurry! Please contact me if you find that tickets have sold out. This applies to everyone attending WordCamp including organisers.

The emphasis was theirs not mine. So let’s with everything I have said previously think about this.

You are charging me to speak at your conference?
Yep, but it’s important to understand that we are also charging ourselves and volunteers to!

um, that makes it better?

I will get onto volunteers and organisers being charged in a minute, which to be honest in many ways is the bigger issue.

But let me reword this statement into something similar to a work environment

Hi, we would like you to design us a website, so if you just send us over Â25 you can get started.

Ok so what it’s just Â25 what’s the big deal?

For some that Â25 might be a huge deal, a first time speaker especially a young speaker, who already has travel and accommodation costs, that £25 might be a deal breaker.

Regardless Speakers, Volunteers and Organisers are giving up their time to volunteer. Is it right to ask them to pay for the privilege of volunteering?

Does it show them any respect, or are they just cash cow mugs? Not only did we get their money we are getting them to work for us for free.

Now I don’t for one minute believe that is the attitude in Birmingham, I think a combination of factors the biggest being naivety is more likely to be at play than any malicious intent.

In Birmingham’s case it was further compounded, by the communication, the acceptance email sent after Early Bird tickets sold out and just during their last push. It was included in an email giving you 4 days to decline over a weekend period. An easily missable deadline. Again it’s easy to twist this into a deliberate attempt to avoid people like myself speaking up. I don’t think that’s the case, and feel it’s just sheer disorganisation that seems to be the cause rather then malice.

It’s sad when you are saying, it’s a good thing that it was incompetence not malice that causes these issues .

This is not just happening at Birmingham, this is an issue at events across the world. It’s also not the worst case after all it’s £25 some places actively promote sponsor to speak  and bid to speak auctions where new and first time speakers can bid in an auction to get a slot.

So why charge?

I should at least attempt to put a argument for why you charge and pulling a few quotes not just from Birmingham Team but more generally:

WordCamp are community events, so you are not really buying a ticket but supporting the event and the community.

Which is weird, because that’s exactly the pitch you use for volunteering, organising and speaking. These are great ways to help the community and monetary donations are not the only way, also you are making the ability to volunteer, organise and speak exclusive to those who can pay. People donate  in many ways. I would actually be intrigued to know what the legal aspect are of such events, maybe a lawyer can chime in?

It’s the way we have always done it, no one complained in the past

Well that’s just wrong on both accounts, this is not a new issue. It’s been challenged over and over again and fuels one of the reasons for this post, my anger is that I thought we had stamped it out at least across WordCamps in the UK. Historically we have done many things, just because we have always  done something doesn’t mean it’s right. We used to burn people as witches, I suspect most people would would think it’s probably a good thing we don’t do that any more.

Money is tight we just couldn’t put the event on without charging everyone and we kept the price low.

This is the only one I have sympathy for. Even the best laid plans can go wrong but if you didn’t plan your speakers, volunteers and organisers into your costs you only have yourself to blame. WordCamps present tremendous value for money and plenty manage to do so without resorting to charging their volunteers. Sometimes people feel they have to put on super special early birds, for Birmingham this was to reduce to £15 which is indeed low for the UK, but did that actually help ticket sales or simply devalue what was already an amazing value ticket?

Where do we go from here?

So this is a lot of rambling but I think it’s an important, time to narrow it down:

  • I won’t be going to Birmingham, I have asked for my speaker application to be withdrawn. To be clear I will not speak at or attend events where I know speakers are being charged to attend. While I appreciate this is not as bad as sponsor only  speaking events it’s still a type of exploitation.
  • I will be at WordCamp London, who are covering their speakers tickets and I hope I will be at several other WordCamps in the next few months.
  • We as a community need to stand up and say no when WordCamp organisers try to charge speakers, especially if you are a speaker you are being exploited. I know its hard to say no and if you are already agreed to an event I’m not suggesting you cancel. In future ask up front, will you be charging speakers and volunteers if so I’m sorry but thats not fair.
  • Find out about how volunteers are being treated. Think about it, everything I’ve said here is more of an issue for volunteers. While you could make the case that speakers get it easy, volunteers don’t so find out if volunteers are being charged.
  • Sponsors, consider sponsoring speakers tickets. This was done at WordCamp Manchester 2014 quite successfully. A sponsor paid for the speakers tickets, if you are a WordCamp organiser consider putting a specific sponsor level for speakers and volunteers.

Perhaps more problematic and specifically WordCamp related, I think it’s time for WordCamp Central plan guidelines to be tightened currently the advice stands as:

There are some situations in which tickets should be free or discounted. All your speakers are donating their time and should be given comped tickets. Likewise, your organizing team and the volunteers usually get comped tickets. That said, if you have a very active meetup group and everyone is volunteering or speaking, that doesn’t leave anyone to buy tickets! In some cases it makes more sense to have the volunteers get a discount or comped ticket only if a certain number of hours have been put in. Some WordCamps don’t comp any tickets at all, including speakers, if they have kept them priced very low, which is another way to go.

http://plan.wordcamp.org/planning-details/selling-tickets/

I would like to see the last sentence removed entirely, I don’t think there is any justification for including it and it is used as the basis to argue for charging speakers to speak. While I think WordCamp Birmingham represents terrific value for money, I would argue that as its prices are on par with other WordCamps in the UK who haven’t charged their speakers they can’t say they have priced them very low  compared to the rest of the market. They did sell Early Bird tickets at a cheaper price then most WordCamps do did that increase sales or devalue the already good value ticket. Likewise the WordCamp Central advice is perhaps focused on the US market, in the UK where we are much more geographically constrained our WordCamps while local in nature are attended by people across the country, likewise events like WordCamp Norway and similar, while put on by local user groups are expecting travellers from around the world. Therefore it’s ok if most of your user group is volunteering, indeed I would say we should be encouraging it there will be plenty of attendees!

Finally let’s stop thinking about WordCamps in just financial terms when it comes to donating, people donating days of their time to the community be it organisers, volunteers and speakers deserve respect. The least you can do is give them a ticket.

Remember if you don’t give them a ticket you are charging them to come work for you, morally and possibly legally that’s just wrong and is utterly disrespectful.

Before opening up to comments, I want to make it clear in the past I have as a speaker bought tickets and sponsored events even where I have been speaking. I do so because I wanted to donate  both money and time to the community. This is not just about me being a cheap skate and I was devastated and shocked when one of the WordCamp Birmingham team suggested I wanted special treatment, this is about making our community events better and fairer for all.

Please keep comments civil, and no personal attacks on anyone.