Speaker reimbursement: oh, what a tangled web we weave…

How a simple exercise in updating our Speaker Reimbursement Policy turned into a spider’s web of considerations

We spent 2017 changing how we approached the delicate matter of speaker reimbursement - how we financially support speakers to join our events.

It was a huge undertaking. When we started, we thought it would be a quick job, batted out in a couple of weeks. The reality was more than a year of hard work, research, frank and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. We learnt from some amazing speakers, who were incredibly generous with their time, experience, expertise and thoughts.

Here’s what we did in the past:

A limited number of people on the team were aware of the financials and whether speakers were being paid or not. Others on the team didn't ask how we were doing things or otherwise get involved.

We did what we thought everyone else did. We’d usually discuss fees and/or expenses if the speaker initiated the discussion. A big name keynote could have a high fee agreed because they should bring in lots of ticket sales.

It didn’t enter into the psyche that some people may not realise they could or should ask for a fee - the assumption was people would ask if they wanted to be paid.

We operated in the belief that ticket sales were significantly linked to the keynote speakers we were using. We’ve since learned that whilst they do help people decide to come to an event, they aren’t the only factor. The importance of keynotes was overemphasised when we thought about what participants were basing their decisions on at the point of purchase.

Luckily for us, some lovely professionals were comfortable and confident enough to point out that our approach was actually an issue. They discussed their points of view and highlighted where assumptions were letting us down. They helped us see that what we were doing wasn’t fair and it wasn’t good enough. It didn’t fit with what we were aiming to do, which was to create an equal, inclusive environment.

This feedback fitted perfectly into the conversations we were having around inclusion, fairness, how to serve our community better and a wider discussion around misconceptions in event organising.

What have we discovered?

A fair speaker payment policy sounds simple enough to achieve, but in reality is massively complex because:

  • we want to be fair
  • we want our events to be accessible to any speaker accepted into the programme
  • we want people to submit because they feel safe, welcome and supported and that they’ll have fun and get value from being a part of the event
  • we want our creditors to be paid in a timely manner
  • we want participants to have a great and valuable time at our events
  • we (as individuals in the team) also want to get our payslips at the end of the month and still have jobs at the end of the year

In creating our Speaker Reimbursement Policy (version 1.4), we needed to do a very careful balancing act. I wrote the below and gathered thoughts, comments and additional points from the whole team.

The policy we’ve arrived at is a work in progress. I’m aware it might never be perfect, but we hope that we can keep it current, right and balanced against all the requirements, limitations, wants and needs we have.

Limitations we need to work within

  • Visa requirements mean we can’t pay fees to people who don’t have the right to work in the UK - UK-based event organisers take note. However, we can pay reasonable expenses to everyone who requires that support. This sounds contradictory, but it’s the political and legal limitation we have to work within.
  • We need to balance our ability to pay our creditors (venue, speakers, staff, suppliers including designers/printers/stationery/promotional material, insurance, materials, hosting, credit card payment providers, our accountants and legal advisers, caterers and so on) with our need to keep ticket prices as accessible as possible.
  • People have different cost pressures: those who live locally, travel across country, from Europe, from the USA or elsewhere in the world; walk/cycle vs public transport; short haul flight vs long haul flight; no accommodation needed vs needing accommodation; the differing ideas of what level of travel or accommodation is acceptable.
  • What do we need to do to offer fair treatment to people who speak as a requirement of their job and therefore may have expenses covered by their employer (ie are paid by their employer to speak, including receiving travel and accommodation)?
  • Our programme manager sees some speakers submitting the same sessions to several of our events, sometimes for 2 years or more. They are making the cost of creating the session work for them, but is it fair to charge each event they go to the full price of that work, or are they submitting it many times to cover the cost of that work? This becomes a bigger question for those who don’t then spend time modifying the work after each presentation to improve it or tailor it to the specific audience.
  • Some speakers prepare a new talk for every event.
  • We want to provide a level playing field for our speakers.
  • We want to be transparent.
  • We want to acknowledge that our speakers provide the content for our events and while they get the benefits of a free ticket to the event (usually valued in the £100s and unavailable for sale), exposure to our audience, professional promotion and so on, they have also invested in speaking through developing their expertise and spending their time on creating and presenting the session.
  • We want to make it possible for first time speakers to begin their speaking journey at our events - they may require more mentoring or financial support to do so.

We talked to speakers directly, read blogs and Twitter threads, did our own research (some of it carried out by our own Mark Dalgarno) and explored the depth of experience on the team. In doing so, we also came up with the following considerations and questions.

We all have different reasons for being at an event

Everyone’s circumstances are different. People speak at events for a whole range of different reasons:

  • to promote their work
  • to make money (professional speaker)
  • to share their passion
  • because it’s part of their role
  • to see if they like speaking (for first timers)
  • to support their peers
  • to get a ticket to an event that they couldn’t otherwise attend
  • to travel and see the world…

Fairness is all about perspective

What’s fair to me may not be the same as what’s fair to you. I might think everyone should be paid, but someone else might think:

  • we should support our communities and only do free speaking
  • rather than get paid, I’d like to be given a product or service
  • I get paid by my employers - none of this other stuff matters to me
  • it would be good if the event was fun/well organised/had a free bar in the evenings/had lots of freebies or some other perk to make being away from home worthwhile
  • a free ticket is worth it to me
  • I only support small local events and I understand they may not have the budget to pay me a fee or cover my expenses - that’s fair to me

Fairness to the organisers

A point that’s rarely spoken about is fairness to the event organisers. They too put in a lot of work to organise the event and their work is essential to making the event a success for speakers and participants alike. The on-site team puts in extremely long hours, from days or weeks before the event starts until after it finishes.

Every organiser is different - some rely entirely on volunteers, others only use temps, some have dedicated teams and others still are a mix of some or all of those options. Whatever the mix, being able to provide the team with travel, accommodation, refreshments, any uniforms, pay (if that’s part of the deal) and space to rest is a requirement - the baseline for fairness for the team.

And for the organising company themselves, there is a huge risk in investing in an event. No matter what happens in the end, they must front up money and time from the moment they decide to put on an event. Money they may not get back.

Can’t an organiser just get more sponsors to pay?

The ultimate wish!

Sponsors help to make events enjoyable (delightful even), bring buzz and conversation. Depending on the event, sponsors might bring freebies, exhibitions, competitions, products and services, a soft sell or a hard sell.

However, that doesn’t mean that there are sponsors lining up to bring those things to your event. Sponsorship relies on benefits to both sides. The event needs to meet a need (or want) for a potential sponsor and the potential sponsor equally needs to meet a need (or want) for the event.

And the unicorns - the big name company that apparently ‘has loads of cash’ - well, everyone wants a piece of that pie. Is your voice loud enough (is your event interesting, relevant and at the right price point?) to be heard over the thousands of others asking for exactly the same thing?

From the seat I sit in, sponsorship is vital to the success of an event - but you absolutely cannot ever depend on it. Ever.

Can’t you just sell more tickets?

Participants have a vast choice of events to take part in and generally go to 1 or 2 conferences a year, maximum. They choose those conferences based on a variety of reasons. For example, they may choose events that have a transparent, fair speaker payment policy; or ones that support inclusivity; or ones that only target a particular group of people; or only go to new events, or ones that have been around for a long time. It may be about events that support first-time speakers, or ones that only attract the big name professional speakers.

Or it could be all about events that are great rather than big - where you’re not stuck in a massive room all day listening to talks but feel like you can meet everyone there easily and enjoy practical, hands-on sessions. Or it might be about events/destinations where you are in a space that’s comfortable to be in for 2-3 days or somewhere quirky and interesting.

Others may decide based on where you get good quality food, or a higher level of organisation or goodies - or because the company you want to work for is exhibiting or speaking there. The list just goes on.

I don’t believe any event can meet all those needs or reasons and nor should they try - some of them are completely contradictory. It is those reasons that make ‘just sell more tickets’ a wishful statement. That’s without touching on things like venue capacity.

Can’t you negotiate with venues on their fees?

We do. They also need to pay their staff and make a profit. We don’t want them skimping on food or customer service, maintenance or training just to keep our costs down. As organisers, we also need our venues to be well-run or everyone’s experience suffers.

Can’t you use free or cheaper venues?

No. Our events are in comfortable venues that are relatively easy to travel to and stay near. Good wifi is not something we compromise on. Or decent food. Our participants are going to have a good experience at an interesting, well-run venue, be well fed and able to expect a good level of safety and support. That means we need to be working with venue staff who are service-oriented. Cheap venues don’t provide the standard we need.

Can’t you spend less money on swag?

Absolutely. But is that really a helpful saving? There is always a cheesy reason for having swag - because we want you to remember us fondly - but we also choose things you will find useful to make that spend work for everyone. Like when your phone/tablet battery has died and you need a pad and pen to keep taking notes while you charge it.

We also keep our swag to a minimum - those tickets our participants spend their hard earned cash (or carefully doled out training budgets) on pay for it, so we don’t go crazy. But we need to have at least a bit of stationery available and I wouldn’t be doing my job (marketing) if I wasn’t insisting on us spending a wee bit more to have our name on our giveaways.

So we approach swag carefully - either buying things we can make available for several years to spread the cost, or negotiating the best price or by getting things we know you will want to use while you are with us (and, hopefully, afterwards too).

All of that is a lot to understand. So we took the step of collating all of our thoughts for Speaker Reimbursement Policy. It looked like this:

  • Expenses should support the reasonable expected cost to travel and stay in the area of the event for its duration.
  • We budget for our maximum speaker expenses based on our expected income from the event.
  • Expenses take precedence over profit to the organisers, but must fit with paying venues, suppliers and other contracted costs.
  • Expenses should be available to everyone accepted for speaking. We have a segment in WeReview, our speaker submission platform, that asks speakers to confirm if they need expenses and an estimate of those expenses - we also ask where the speaker will be travelling from. To fit with budgeting and planning, we need to know this detail in advance, so we’ve tried to make it as clear as possible that everyone has a right to request expenses at the time of submitting.
  • Some people are expected to speak at events by their employer. The employer covers all their expenses and provides the time to prepare sessions within their contracted hours - is it right and fair for the event organisers to also reimburse those speakers?
  • We aim to provide expenses that enable good quality (not luxury) travel and accommodation. We do not have the budgets to pay for first class travel or accommodation.
  • Our submitter information (available on the event websites throughout the submission window) contains the details of what expenses are available. The submission form provides space to include your expected expenses and when we issue acceptances we make it clear how much we’ll pay in expenses. We regularly investigate the costs of travel and accommodation from a variety of destinations to ensure travel should be possible within the amount we offer. We expect speakers to take responsibility for deciding whether to accept or decline this amount. Speakers must contact us and let us know before they book travel/accommodation if they think they will exceed the budget. Where possible, we’ll see if we are able to amend our offer on a case by case basis (including when a speaker is invited to cover a last minute gap in the programme) but this would not be the norm.
  • We are unable to pay expenses we were not aware of at the time of accepting a session. We make this information as clear as we can at the time of submission - both in the submitter information and on WeReview.
  • We pay the costs of supplies needed to run sessions over and above agreed expenses (where we don’t already provide those supplies). This includes pens, paper, booklets, flip charts, cards etc.
  • People travelling a long way will require more funding.
  • A free ticket to the event is a benefit. We know that some speakers do submit to events for the free ticket as they would not otherwise be able to attend. We also know that some events don’t provide a free ticket to speakers. (It’s worth mentioning that we have capped the number of free speaker tickets available based on the length of session and we offer a discount for additional speakers where needed. This is because a short session should not require a lot of people to lead it.)
  • We want our speakers to have a good experience at our events. That’s why we don’t force them to commit to attending the whole event if this doesn’t fit with their schedule. So our budget includes all speaker costs for the whole event, and this impacts ticket price, but ensuring that speakers enjoy coming to our events is important to us. Balancing the cost so it doesn’t get out of hand is also important to making the event valuable and accessible.
  • Speakers will still be paid their agreed expenses regardless of how many tickets are sold - there is a surety there even though there are no contracts in place. We’ve been operating for a decade and have always paid the agreed expenses - even, in many cases, where a speaker has pulled out at the last minute.
  • There is an accepted hierarchy of speakers:
    • Keynotes have a higher profile and will help extend our audience/reach and should be reimbursed for that. Often, well known and respected speakers will only keynote, never submit or accept general programme positions. There are a large number who have a set fee (in the thousands) but a smaller number will accept to go somewhere interesting, to meet a new audience or because the policies and practices of an event/organiser appeal to them.
    • Invited speakers are currently an unresolved question. They come from various places (known to us already, known to our contacts, submitted to another of our events on a relevant topic and asked to share it again etc) but are not keynotes so may not help extend our reach. They may be filling a gap in the programme or replacing a speaker that has pulled out. They may have been unable to present at another of our events and been offered a place on ‘this event’ instead. So it’s hard to know if they should be offered a higher level of expenses or the same as the general programme.
    • General programme speakers should be reimbursed for coming to the event to share their content. They will benefit from their involvement in the event by: making new contacts and reaffirming existing ones; demonstrating knowledge, experience and skill; supporting their own learning. The event benefits by having content to share - the lifeblood of an event. Ticket sales happen as a result lots of factors, including the programme as a whole rather than because of specific individuals on the programme.
  • There is an issue of unfairness if we offer one keynote (for eg) £1000 expenses because they are travelling from the US/don’t have the right to work here but we offer a keynote who does have the right to work here £1000 expenses plus a fee. We learnt the hard way that this is a very poor policy. Speakers talk to each other. Luckily for us, a couple also spoke to us about their discovery of the difference in the reimbursement offered. We inadvertently made them feel like we treated them all poorly.

After weighing up the limitations, issues and known expectations we decided:

  • If we are not able to offer everyone a fee, we shouldn’t offer a fee to anyone. That is why we now talk about reimbursement and expenses - not fees.
  • For simplicity’s sake, the best approach we could see involved tiers of reimbursement broken into a grid of speaker type and zone of origin (where you’re travelling to the event from).

Our Event Producers have a good awareness of the general price of accommodation and travel for each zone of origin and so we set about crunching the numbers. It took some time. We’ve still got questions we suspect can’t be answered until we’ve used the policy a few times.

We will review the amounts regularly and are always open to feedback but we think, right now, our Speaker Reimbursement Policy balances the weights of all the limitations and considerations as well as we can.

Our policy is available in the Submitter Information on any site with an open Call for Speakers. If you spot somewhere we could make an improvement, please do get in touch.

About Cara Hanman

Marketing and Sponsorship at Software Acumen - creators of Great events from free evening sessions to day long workshops to multi-day conferences all over the UK. Primarily working within the software community in the East of England.