A few weeks ago, I was asked if I wanted a free ticket to a conference about the health industry. The line-up of speakers looked pretty interesting, so I said yes. I speak at a lot of conferences, and sometimes it's nice to go as a guest.
Even though I'd agreed, the conference organiser started with the hard sell. The location was at a famous sports club (yawn!) and we'd get a behind the scenes tour (errr... not for me) and there would be a free cocktail reception at the end (I can think of better ways to spend an evening). And then she slipped in "of course, if you can't attend, we'll need to charge you a cancellation fee."
Hold up. What?!
"Yeah, it will be £500 if you don't attend. Unless you can supply us with someone of a greater or equal seniority from your organisation."
I'm not ashamed to say that I laughed in their face and told them that I'd never heard of anything quite so ridiculous. There was no way I was putting the NHS on the hook for £500 if I unexpectedly couldn't attend.
I get that conferences have fixed costs - but that's why they over-sell tickets to account for drop-outs.
If a speaker drops out, that can be disastrous for a conference. But it happens, and while a no-show doesn't get paid, I've never heard of them being charged.
I've been a guest and speaker at literally hundreds of events over the years. And I've never heard of someone being penalised for not showing up. Apparently, this is rife in healthcare.
Perturbed, I looked at the Terms and Conditions of all the other conferences that I was due to visit. I found another one where I'd inadvertently clicked through and agreed to a massive cancellation fee. Even worse, it had this clause:
Delegates agree to attend one-on-one business meetings and other group activities. You must attend all pre-booked meetings and sign the meeting registers. Non attended meetings will be charged at the full cancellation rate of £495 + £195 per non attended meeting.
These conferences are - it seems - a paid opportunity for companies to connect with me. They pay heavily for a ticket and get to pick me out of a brochure for their sale-pitch pleasure. In return I sell myself for some canapés and a "glamorous" location.
I asked my network if they'd experienced this sort of thing:
One of the worst offenders runs residential events @HeythropPark Lots of NHS speakers.
Transparency is key here. The cancellation fee is almost impossible to find on their website.
I would love to know how many NHS staff have been caught out or charged. https://t.co/KdAlFRrh4E
— Simon Eccles (@NHSCCIO) March 1, 2020
This is the kind of crap conference #localgov senior managers love as it's 'free' - they even do overnight accom I think - but you are herded past suppliers and have to have a card stamped to 'prove' you attended. Fuck all that - never again. Unconference only for me— Neil Lawrence (@Ox1Digital) February 29, 2020
That’ll be the cost of re-printing their promotion materials to remove your name from the “people you’ll get to interact with” list.— Matt Stibbs (@MattStibbs) February 29, 2020
Lots of event organisers have this in their t&cs. I spoke to govnet about it recently and they said they are never enforced but still, it’s something we are aware of when agreeing to sign up to speaking at events— Rosalie Marshall (@RosalieMarshall) February 29, 2020
I've seen this pattern before. It's because you're the product - the organisers will let sponsors pick the people they want 15m 1:1 with. Strongly recommend (with my CS hat on) that you run for the hills.— Jonathan (@jonodrew) February 29, 2020
I think you sent the right message. I remember some event in Oxfordshire where they fine hundreds of NHS workers every year for not attending even though they over subscribe, yet the same event uses free #NHS speakers. over time people will just pull out of this type of event— Sam Shah (@healthyopinion) February 29, 2020
I was signed up by someone for one of these once. Didn’t go because of family bereavement - emailed them to say wasn’t week in advance. They not only demanded £500 but said they would take a CCJ our against me, personally, and ended up getting a solicitor to call me.— David Walliker (@InsideHealthCIO) February 29, 2020
Spoke to someone who was chairing one of these events once and he was doing it to pay off his debt to them for not attending a previous conference!— Nick Hopkinson (@nickex5) February 29, 2020
Good move. It’s common sadly. At least you noticed the fee as many don’t. Key for me is transparency, so no one is caught out. To reassure you we are trying hard to stop these events being marketed to NHS staff.— Caroline Wright (@Caroline_Symes) February 29, 2020
I was approached last year and very keen to arrange attendance. However, it was only upon hearing , rumors,that I asked the question directly in regards to the fee. Transparency from the onset would be fair.— Nikki. Digital Pioneer Fellow (@Nikki_Kahllon) March 2, 2020
So, the next time you're invited to a "free" conference - make sure you understand what you're signing up to!
Of course, COVID-19 has meant that these conferences have all been cancelled.
I wonder if I can charge them a fee...?