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Part 2 of a blog post in two parts. Part 1 asks ‘What do physical conferences cost?’ (see here). The introduction to both parts is identical.
Social media (at least my little bit of it) has been in an uproar recently over the announced fees of a few academic conferences that are to be held wholly online — in the range of €250 for early-bird registration. The basic argument is that such fees are outrageously expensive, given that there is no need for catering, location rental or entertainment.
Yet conferences – even digital ones – do not organize themselves. Every conference triggers expenses that must somehow be compensated for. The real question is what conference fees are supposed to ‘buy’. What exactly are we paying for? Ideally, conference organizers should publish their budgets (income & expenses) to make such costs transparent and to generate greater understanding for the ‘hidden details’ of what goes into the making of a conference.
I served as the head of the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) for a scientific conference that was scheduled for June 2020, to be held in the Faculty of Education at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences (INN) in Hamar, Norway: RaAM 2020, the 13th biannual conference for the Association for Researching and Applying Metaphor (RaAM). Clearly, that physical conference never took place. Rather than cancelling, however, we choose to run the event digitally as RaAM 2020Virtual: parallel in all respects to the originally planned physical event. (And we pulled it off! Read here for details!)
Having to plan two conferences means that we now have two budgets for the ‘same’ event: the physical RaAM 2020 and the digital RaAM 2020Virtual. How do they compare?
This blog post discusses the budget for the digital conference, RaAM 2020Virtual. The budget posts mirror the entries in the budget for the physical RaAM 2020 conference, to allow for direct comparison of the two conference versions. Please see here for a discussion about the RaAM 2020 budget (maybe before you read further!).
First let’s look at the income side of the RaAM 2020Virtual budget:
|Regular delegate including VAT|
(Regular conference fee)
|Regular delegate excluding VAT||kr 232||180||kr 41 760|
|Student delegate including VAT|
(Student conference fee)
|Student delegate excluding VAT||kr 140||50||kr 7 000|
|Support from scientific association (RaAM)||kr 1 000|
|Support from publishing company (Benjamins)||kr 0|
|Support from local municipality (Hamar)||kr 0|
|Support from organizing partner (Multiling)||kr 0|
|total income||230||kr 49 760|
When we converted to a digital format, we lost almost all of our direct sponsorship. The sponsors of the original physical conference had agreed to supporting specific events (such as the opening reception) that would now not take place — with the exception of the paper prize, which the John Benjamins Publishing Company kindly continued to sponsor.
The scientific association RaAM chose to support our conference by offering extra bursaries to scholars from low-income countries who wanted to attend, rather than by sending funding to us in Norway. The Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan (Multiling; our partner organization based at the University of Oslo) offered their continued support in terms of work hours for one academic member of staff to join our Local Organizing Committe (LOC). These contributions were not reflected in our budget.
Most of our income, however, had to be generated through conference fees, and had to be sufficient to meet our expenses (see below). To budget, we needed to make a realistic estimate of the number of regular and student delegates we could expect. Here we had no previous information to guide us, as no previous RaAM conference had been held digitally & this was also our first international digital conference. In the end, we thought that more delegates would attend a virtual RaAM than a physical RaAM, given that no one would have any travel expenses and that our aim was to make our ‘virtual’ conference fee substantially lower than our ‘physical’ fee had been. We did, however, have to add in additional 25% valued added tax on the conference fees, to be paid directly to the Norwegian government. The fees we ended up charging, 290 kr for regular delegates and 175 kr for students, were the result of trial and error after we had figured out our most likely expenses & added in some goodwill (contrasted with the physical RaAM 2020 fees of 3200 kr for regular delegates and 1700 kr for students).
A look at our expenses:
|Fees and salary/redemption||Salary/cost||Explanatory note|
|4 international speakers||kr 0||no speaker fee|
|Entertainment/ Conference opening||kr 0||none|
|Entertainment/ PhD party||kr 0||not applicable|
|Entertainment/ Other||kr 5000||professional musician, live YouTube concert; 30 minutes|
|Redemption / Local organizing committee (LOC)||kr 30 000||60 hours; academic staff|
|Redemption / External operations support staff||kr 20 000||44 hours; administrative staff|
|total fees/salary/redemption||kr 55 000|
|Other expenses/operating costs|
|Marketing||kr 0||free on social media, linguist list, etc.|
|Opening reception||kr 0||none|
|Student bursaries||kr 0||none offered by INN|
|Conference material||kr 0||none|
|Travel, keynote speakers||kr 0||not applicable|
|Accomodation, keynote speakers||kr 0||not applicable|
|Day package, 4 days (non-paying delegates)||kr 6 000||lunches, dinners, breaks for Zoom hosts|
|Day package, 3 days (paying delegates)||kr 0||not applicable|
|Conference dinner (non-paying delegates)||kr 0||not applicable|
|Food/drink PhD party||kr 0||not applicable|
|Conference management system||kr 0||EasyChair, free version|
|Conference registration system||kr 0||INN system, no charge|
|Digital conference platform||kr 0||INN licence, no charge (Zoom meeting & webinar)|
|Meeting rooms at college||kr 0||INN offices, no charge|
|Gift for keynote speakers||kr 0||none 🙁|
|Poster prize||kr 1 000|
|Paper prize||kr 1 000||sponsored by the publishing company|
|LOC incidental expenses||kr 6 000||hotel x 1 person x 4 nights|
|total, other expenses||kr 14 000|
|TOTAL, all expenses||kr 71 000|
As this budget shows, our number one expense was time (= MONEY), but even this overview far underspecifies the number of hours spent in making RaAM 2020Virtual a success. While organizers of a digital conference do not have to plan excursions, dinners, travel arrangements or accomodation, they do have be competent users of digital platforms and provide clear instructions to delegates. We chose Zoom as our conference platform, with live parallels sessions and social events held as Zoom meetings and plenary sessions held as Zoom webinars. Zoom is not free, of course, but we were allowed to take advantage of our institutional license rather than add that cost to our conference budget. But we had no professional support to help us out, had to spend many of our own hours experimenting to find the best solutions, had to be creative when it came to our social events. For many conference organizers, Zoom is not a viable option (sometimes due to national regulations). An alternative is thus the employment of professional event management software systems, most of which allow for more flexibility than Zoom alone and provide technical support during the conference — but cost (often lots of) money that must be incorporated into a conference budget.
The final result = Expected income minus Expected expenses (kr 55 000 – kr 71 000) = minus kr 16 000. In other words, this conference was budgetted to lose money. The only way to run this conference was for my faculty to step in with support. As with so many other institutions of higher education, my faculty’s finannces are often pressed and t cannot normally exercise the luxury of underwriting conferences. In this case, however, we were given the green light so as to increase our competence in this area. Remember that this was relatively early days (June 2020), and we had a long way to go when it came to digital competence, but knew that this was needed. That said, my faculty cannot continue to underwrite international scientific conferences in the future. Rather, expected income must match expected expenses.
One of the fantastic advantages of digital conferences is SUSTAINABILITY — in terms of climate, but also people ( & check out this list of benefits of digital conferences). Virtual conferences open up fields to researchers who otherwise would not be able to participate in these academic discussions. Cost is of course a huge barrier, and we need to strive to hold fees as low as possible. That said, we have to recognize the costs involved in holding digital conferences, which will necessarily vary by institution and country. Remember that organizers of digital conferences do so for the love of the field, not for profit.