Conference Integrity in the Balance: The Perils of ‘Pay to Play

Many years ago I worked in sponsorship sales at a for-profit conference company and one of the tools (tricks) that we used to get big money sponsorship dollars what to allow large sponsors the opportunity to present a session during the conference. This was not a “hey introduce the keynote” type thing, it was pure “pay to play”. You ponied up the tall cash money and you get on the speakers list.

The conference planners would always be up in arms, pouting, yelling and stomping their feet but they always gave in because this company was for-profit and the boss was an ass… all he wanted was the money, he could care less about the content (I was not there long).

I was just reading Jeff Hurt’s post about conference education titled “Why do conferences offer education sessions” and it got me thinking about the good old days and how conference sessions have gone downhill, and yes,  they have gone down hill. In many instances they have not only gone downhill, they have plummeted off of a cliff and exploded in a fiery mess at the bottom of the ravine.

Across the board, with limited exception, conference education is sucking pond water. The question is, are you making it worse?

Back in the good old days, “pay to play” was accepted at the for-profit conference shops because it helped make a buck, it was the economic engine. These sales departments were set up like a scene from the movie Boiler Room with 10 sponsorship guys making 100 calls a day. If a conference could not sell sponsorships, it was dumped.

Sponsors were happy to pony up to get a speaking slot because this is where they were able to get them, they were not going to get them at the large, industry association events because the associations had integrity and presented straightforward stuff…. no “pay to play”, no way, never, hit the road dude…. nothing to see here..

This is changing, especially in these tough economic times. Good, honest, association planners are having to sell out to the sales department because revenue is falling and the association needs the moola.I have seen it happen at really, really, good association events that you would never think would fall victim to this money trap.

This is a REALLY bad idea on a lot of levels

First, there is the event’s integrity. You are going to take a hit when you play this game because attendees always know and no matter how much you tell a “speaking sponsor” that their session cannot be a sales pitch, these sessions always end up being a sales pitch because speakers talk about what they know and what they know is their product or service. Conference planners will not win at this game.

Second, is the rule of “once you start it, you can’t stop it”.  A planner may make the conscious decision that “only this one time” or “only this year” will I allow a sponsor “pay to play”.

Good for you! Only this time! But just like the drug addict who swears, just this last time and never again, this is never the way that it goes. There will always be a next time and there will always be more. It will become and insatiable need… a thirst that cannot be quenched. Money is an amazing motivator.

Once you head down this slippery slope you are doomed. The sponsors that ponied up for that coveted keynote, seat on a panel or educational session will always expect it from this day forward and they will never sponsor again unless you give up the goods.

Times are tough, we all know it, but you have to keep your conference integrity if you hope to survive the long haul. Offering pay-to-play may get you over the hump and get you past the recession but in the long run it is dooming you to failure because attendees know… they will always know and they will leave you like the rats off a sinking ship.

No one ever said the rats were stupid.

Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston

Keith is the Managing Partner of i3 Events but is most widely known as the outspoken publisher of the event industry blog PlannerWire. In addition to co-hosting the Bullet List and Event Tech Pull Up Podcasts, he has been featured in Plan Your Meetings, Associations Now, Convene, Event Solutions, and has appeared on the cover of Midwest Meetings Magazine.

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