SEO Conferences: Good Deal or No Deal?

I love SEO Conferences, but there’s a good possibility I’ll never attend another one. Why? Well, for one thing, after I tick off all the conference hosts today with this post, the SEO bouncers might block me from entering. But in reality, I may never go to another conference because the prices are just too freaking high. (please bear with me on this long rant, because really, you’ve GOT to read it all…seriously)

Yeah, yeah, I’m cheap, I know that. And I agree that conferences have a hidden value, especially in the networking, and that even one tiny nugget of information gleaned from a conference can make up for the price. And yep, I understand that it costs a lot of money to host one of those puppies because you have to pay an arm and a leg for the fancy conference hall digs, and give the keynote speakers a few bazillion dollars plus a promise of everyone’s third-born child. I get all that, really I do. And no doubt, there’s lots of big companies out there that don’t have any problem whatsoever paying all that money to send a couple employees to a conference.

And I agree that the first conference I went to was great. The second…pretty darn good too. But I just honestly can no longer justify the ginormous costs of these events any longer.

What got me started on this rant was the fact that PubCon’s prices have risen pretty dramatically since the last time I went. And while it’s finally in line with the rest of the conferences, it still didn’t make me happy. And it got me to thinking…how can all these people afford to go to conference after conference after conference?

Here, look, let me throw a few numbers at you. I picked just 3 conferences although there’s lots more every year. But I figured 3 was a good solid number, and I’m pretty sure quite a few people hit at least 3 each year. So I chose SES San Jose, SMX East, and PubCon Vegas as good examples of popular conferences that lots of people will attend. I then looked at the prices of the conferences, the hotel prices, the typical airfares, and included expenses for food and drinks (although I went really, really cheap on that part). Each conference has several “tiers”, including early bird pricing, and various options of what is included (full conference, expo only, etc). I used mid-range pricing for full conferences (meaning I used pricing that was early-bird, but not the deepest discounts), and figured out what it would cost to attend all 3 conferences…give or take a few hundred dollars.

The grand total was $11,225.* That’s right, the average conference is going to set you back nearly $4,000, and if you hit all three, you’re likely going to spend over $11K.

Guess what? There ain’t no way in hell I’d ever get that much ROI out of those conferences. So I decided to play around a little with that $11K and see if I could come up with any ideas to make that money work better for me. See if you don’t agree.

First, let’s take a look at what a typical conference looks like, with my head photoshopped over some other woman’s head. (Sorry for cropping you out of the picture, lady, but it’s really important for me to be able to stick my photoshopped head on other people’s bodies in this rant post, k? And I really wanted to see how short hair and bangs would look on me. Not so good.).

Woo. Doesn’t that look like fun. Yeah, k. Now, multiply that fun by 3 and that nets you 3 conferences for 11K.

Ok, moving on.

I could take that same $11K, grab a partner in crime, and spend 2 glorious weeks in Aruba at an ALL-INCLUSIVE resort instead.

(See, that’s my head below, at an Aruba pool, and yeah, that hair style looks better on me, don’t you think? So, ok, we’ll stick with this one from here on out).

But wait, let’s expand on this thought. What if we ALL spent that 11K by meeting up at this same all-inclusive resort in Aruba for two glorious weeks. and just hung out with each other all that time…imagine how much we’d get out of THAT!

Don’t like Aruba for some reason? Ok, let’s all spend that 11K by going to Disneyworld for 2 weeks instead? We can stay at the Polynesian resort shown below (with my head shown there, with above-chosen “do”) and choose one of their nearly-all-inclusive package deals.

Again…two weeks, with a loved one, just hanging out with all our buds. How much ROI do you think we can get out of that, huh? Now I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend that money in either Aruba or Disney than in three of those “lovely” conference rooms shown above. What about you?

Ok, so now that you get my point, let me get serious. Ever heard of WordCamp? Guess what? They hold that sucker for the lofty price of FREE. Yeah, free. I think we need more of those kinds of conferences in our industry. Who’s with me on that, huh? C’mon, raise your hands!

Either way…Free, Cheap, or Aruba/Disney…I’d take any of those choices over the expensive conference circuit right now. But hey, that’s just me. I’m cheap that way.

Wait, don’t leave… there’s more. There are, of course, even more options. You could actually use all that money to pay for – oh I don’t know – lots of good quality content? a decent link building/baiting package? creation of a kickass web app? outsource your entire seo campaign to Bob Massa’s new company for just $1000/month? Just ‘sayin… I mean, that doesn’t get you a photoshopp’d pic of my head on someone else’s body, but it sure as heck would likely generate some nice ROI.

* Here are more numbers (which could be significantly higher for you overseas peeps) in case y’all feel the need to do some number-crunching yourselves:

SES San Jose
conference: $1795-$1995 (+ $745 or $1345 for half day or full day training (optional))

san jose marriott $215/night
hilton sj $179/night

flight: $460

food/drinks: $250


SMX East New York City

conference: $995-$1595

hotel: westin ny at times square
smx east special rate is $359/night + tax

flight: $296

food/drinks: $400


PubCon Las Vegas

$899 -$1499 (+ $150 for pubcon on last day (optional))

no official hotel listed, but wynn is closest

sahara (kinda run down, but close and cheap)

flight: $458

food/drinks/entertainment: $500

(Now I’ll need to get plastic surgery so the SEO conference goons don’t recognize me). :)

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28 Responses to “SEO Conferences: Good Deal or No Deal?”

  1. Chris Dohman says:

    i’ve gotta agree with you donna, these things are spendy and that’s why i haven’t been to any of ‘em yet. one of these days hopefully it makes sense for me to do so, but until then i have to learn and network online & locally.

    thanks for the rant!

  2. Janeth says:

    I’ve never been to any since I am in Colombia S.A but I hear enough junk being posted on forums not to have any desire to go to one.

    Although the free one would be pretty neat. And if those guys are making as much as they claim they should really do some for free.

    I might do one here in Colombia for free as a matter of fact.

  3. You just paid for your plastic surgery with all the money you saved! Go, girl!

    I hear a song coming on from the conference organizers:
    “Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I want to take ya.
    Bermuda, Bahama, give me all ya mona!”

    I looked at my calendar Tuesday and realized I missed the PubCon early-bird deadline and crossed that off the list. If you’re self-funded, it is a bite.

    The value of the networking is hard to measure. But with such fantastic live blogging, we can pick some low-hanging fruit.

  4. Reuben Yau says:

    But I’ll still know it’s you :)

  5. Mike Wilton says:

    Wow Donna, that was a really good post. Conferences have been one of my biggest concerns since being thrown into the SEO industry nearly a year ago. I have still yet to make it to one because of the sheer cost alone. As a newer SEO I have so much to gain from something like a conference, yet as a new SEO I also can’t afford a conference.

    Free is always good, but as we all know, you get what you pay for. You may lose some of the quality with a free conference. Not to mention I am sure that paid conferences have a way of weening out some of the bad eggs.

    I don’t know that free is the way to go, but I definately think the prices are a bit on the insane side.

  6. Dave Dugdale says:

    I totally agree that they are getting too high. I am cheap as well.

    I totally understand what you are saying that the first conference I went to was amazing and then the 2nd one was so so and by the 3rd was duplicate content.

    I am going to PubCon. The reason I go to these conference is simple – I work out of my house and I love looking forward to getting out of it and meeting new people like myself that live and breathe this stuff like me. I go to two of them a year.

    I loved Pubcon at $450 a few years back. That is a price that I can live with. Danny Sullivan’s conferences are getting too expensive and I probably could get better ROI from spending the $ as you suggested.

    Two of my friends were going to attend PubCon with me because they remember the $450 prices, but once they saw it was $800 they said no.

    I think it would be cool to set up a small conference that is free, everyone meet up in some city that is fun. Each person make a 7 minute presentation without Matt Cutts in the room and enjoy the networking.

  7. oh, the pic in the post is most fantastic part, BTW you have good figure….lol

  8. Stuart says:

    Well said Donna but you forgot to take into account the days of lost productivity while you recover from those events.

    And it seems that you do lose days … how many come away from gatherings like that with some bug or other that knocks them out for a few days?

  9. Your post is very informative, pretty interesting as well.SEO conference is the best way to gather informations.

  10. David Temple says:

    Thanks Donna, my company read this and just cancelled my trip to San Jose. Not really but I agree you’ve gotta measure the ROI on these sorta things. I wonder like you how some of these people go to every conference that comes around, even the ones overseas. See you in Aruba!

  11. Julie Joyce says:

    The networking is the best part…however, considering I can see Evil Green Monkey whenever I’m in London, I’d prefer to spend my $11k per year flying over there and seeing him in his velvet jacket in a pub.

  12. GemStar38 says:

    Thanks Donna for the fun rant. I’ve never been to a conference but the price is definitely what keeps my bosses from sending me.

  13. Wit says:

    As has been said here and there, it’s often better to attend an un-conference to make wild plans and/or meet promising prospective partners. It’s like the bar session after the conference – only without the actual conference.

    One could even eaves-drop on some of the confidential stuff said in a group nearby (oops, did I just say that out loud?). Seriously, I’ve found that the best info is gathered while having a beer – without SE reps trying to cloud your mind with “content=king FUD”.

    In fact, lots of the UK-based SEO-Chicks appear to hang out at these gigs quite regularly. Of course in their case it a bit like a cross between work and standing around being pretty. Hmmm come to think about it… Ich bin ein SEO-Chick :p (j/k)

    As for actual (useful) info presented on regular (paid) conferences… well: I’ll just read the transcript tx.

  14. Yura says:

    Heh. $11k would only get you one linkbait from a company you know very well.

    On the other hand, that’s 33 (!) solid articles – or better yet, linkbaits to be, compiled by trustworthy web students. What ROI could you get from organizing, formatting and promoting those (if you have some strong profiles on social sites). *sigh*

    Now, add $2k for someone from Russia, consider my salary to be $600 ($1k, at best) and you get a picture :) I’d have to starve for a year to attend all three conferences :)

  15. Tom Goering says:

    Fireworks on the 4th of July!! Happy Independence Day! :)

  16. Dixon Jones says:

    I’ve been going since Orlando (Actually… I’ve been going since the first PubCon at the Cittie of Yorke. God I’m old) and certainly as you go to more and more you learn less and less (mostly because I get hangovers, so miss the sessions) but you DO get noticed more and more. Your London SEO session last month was a good case in point (although being free was a GREAT case in point). I actually had two networking events that evening. The first was about a mile away, with ecadamy. I had never been to one of their events and I new NOBODY. There must have been 400 people there (though only one free drink. Grr..). After drinking the free drink and deciding I was persona non-grata I came over to yours. That was GREAT! turning up to these events (conference or otherwise) for the best part of a decade seems to have a value that transcends the cost of going to just one or two events. the problem is that this REALLY is an investment for me. Last year I did SMX Seattle; SES San Jose; Pubcon; SES London; SMX Stockholme; Something in Copenhagen; SMX London; A4U London and Adtech London. Probably some others too. Looking at my accounts, the costs certainly weren’t as much in the end as you project – but measuring the success is an interesting one… I do that by looking at our client list. I can identify 70% as having a connection to one of the conferences in some way – but rarely can I associate the client with an individual coneference. If Rob recommends me to a client (Yeh – like he would… even though I gave him that Travel client that he lost lots of money on…) then would that have happened without going to the conferences again and again? Probably not.

    For me – the conferences are about a) having some fun as others say but b) proving that I am still in the game. Let’s face it, I’m long in the tooth now which ever way you look at it – but those that know me can’t deny I’m a survivor! The conferences have been a major part of that strategy.


  17. Jo says:

    Absolutely agreed. We go to an expensive meet to talk about ROI.

    My marker is quite simple. It costs me 10 quid to have a top class lunch at my local deli. 4000 USD is 2000 quid. That is 200 top class lunches. That means I could take a client to lunch every second day of the working year for the same money.

    Guess what!

    And the funny thing is that at the free unconferences heaps more gets done.

    The secret is this – most of the people who go to expensive conferences have gone on someone else’s time and money. They have no signing powers, they have no intention of doing any work (they’ve just escaped work), and their only interest is whether you can arrange for them to go to another jamboree.

    PS if you are over in London, look out for social media mafia unconferences – free. And I am sure there are plenty of others just as good!

    Thanks for saying what we all want to say.

  18. DazzlinDonna says:

    Yeah, yeah, all you Brits over there have all those unconferences to go to. We don’t have those here in the good ‘ol US of A (spoken with a redneck accent). If we did, I might not have had any reason to rant. :)

  19. Wit says:

    How much is a ticket to Ireland in October?

  20. [...] Donna got in on the act as well, with her comedicly toned rant about why SEO conferences aren’t worth the expense on the SEO-Chicks [...]

  21. Jay Ehret says:

    I will be attending SMX Local/Mobile in San Francisco later this month, but I’m going for free. The reason? I’m not going to the sessions, just the expo hall. I usually find that exhibits themselves have some great education, plus opportunities for networking. And that’s what conferences are all about.

  22. Clickfire says:

    The 2 week Aruba vacation does put things in perspective. Too bad you can’t write that off your taxes, though.

  23. @Julie: If you fly economy, you’d have a massive drink budget :D By the way, the jacket isn’t velvet, is it? Blame Cookie, she chose it – I just happen to wear it a lot :)

    @Dixon: What’s a 5 figure loss between friends? ;) Actually, I keep forgetting to pass on SEO leads that we don’t want – I’ll have to remember next time.

    @Jo: I have bar-tab signing powers, get more work done in a hotel room than I can in our office and must admit to loving a good jamboree! ;) We organise the free LondonSEO events mostly so that everyone can meet up in-between conferences, I wouldn’t underestimate the value of attending conferences though. I get quite a few leads from every SMX attended, unfortunately I usually forget to follow them up or lose their business cards :s

    @Wit: Don’t think you’re meant to mention the Ireland thing :p

  24. Brian Turner says:

    “Well said Donna but you forgot to take into account the days of lost productivity while you recover from those events.”

    Oh, boy – seconded.

    Even with wifi at events, the fact that your attention is directed at the conference rather than your business is definitely a cost.

  25. Donna,

    Good, thought-provoking post for Americans who can do a search conference almost every other month. Being in Australia and not always having a corporate sponsor has meant choosing carefully, as the airfare alone is around $2000 +/-$400. Being an old WW member, Pubcon has been the only choice for me since the Orlando event of 2004 and New Orleans 2005.

    In 2006 I attended “half a Pubcon” for free because I was in Vegas for a meeting that ended the day before Pubcon began, so I had drinks and dinner with the early birds. Then I flew to Seattle for another meeting and returned to Vegas on the last conference day, when I hung outside at the LVCC networking with others — without actually attending any sessions. Couldn’t repeat that since, but it could be an option for LV locals. :)

    I’ll be back for another (proper) Pubcon this year.

    The main value for me is networking with advanced SEO practitioners. I don’t consult, but I meet consultants who say that each event gets them lots of work. I have met some corporate types who are there because they want to learn or their boss sent them. Unless they take the trouble of being known to other attendees before they arrive, or network like crazy after they arrive, they will not get the full value by only attending the sessions.

  26. @davedugdale, I don’t think we’ve raised our SMX prices at all since we started. So when you say they’re getting too expensive, don’t really know how to respond there. I think you mean that they may be expensive compared to some lower cost networking events, if you can find things like that. That’s one reason we started SphinnCon, of course, so that people who want a low-impact event networking thing can get it. That’s also why we have “networking pass” at many of our regular SMX shows — so conference vets who may not want to hit sessions but still want to see people at parties, lunches, etc. have a nice low cost option.

    Donna, as a conference organizer who has been doing this for years, I’ve never expected that anyone will go to more than one conference per year. So when you’re pondering 3, well, that’s probably 1 or 2 too many. No wonder you find it so expensive.

    Hey, I know many people do get value out of going to a number of different events. And now that we have three different major conference series happening, some people may feel like they want to sample two or three different shows, sure. But I’d still say most people are going to be doing one per year.

  27. brett tabke says:

    An interesting post;

    > PubCon Las Vegas $899 -$1499

    We started at $699 in mid May, and were recently at $799 for all of June. After coupons, about 300 people have signed up under $599 a night. That is about 1/3rd the cost of our competitors. After overhead, this was less than our cost per attendee.

    It is only $1499 the last week at the door (when our cost go up considerably)

    > (+ $150 for PubCon on last day (optional))

    No, it is not added onto the cost. The $150 is if people only want to attend that day. It is included in the main price.

    > no official hotel listed, but Wynn is closest
    > $299/night

    No, we will not be at a that high rate – we will be about 1/3rd of that rate. Vegas hotels are doing good deals right now.

    > flight: $458

    Flights available from many major cities right now, for under $299 a night. MGM has a special right now for $89 a night and they give you a $300 travel voucher.

    > food/drinks/entertainment: $500

    That’s your business.

    I have a friend coming – who paid for the full conference – and his total bill is $850. That’s cheaper than just attending any competing conference.


    The average cost to feed an attendee for a day at a major conference center (breakfast, break, box sandwich lunch, break) in the US, is approximately $105-135 per day. If you get fancy at all, the price and easily breech $200 a day.
    Tech help at major conference center, $75 an hour.
    Modest sized conference room underwrite : $1.5 million in room guarantees.
    AV bill for average conferences $50-$60k.
    Ten internet connections at *any* major convention center in the us: $12,000-$15,000.
    Top independent keynote talent – $30,000-$125,000.
    Avg cost of a cocktail party in Vegas: $40 per hour per head depending on venue (avg night time cocktail party at a big venue, $150 per head. If you add food, it can skyrocket fast).

    I did a long long post two years ago on the cost of conferences in ye old robots.txt blog. The interesting thing to me, is how much prices have gone up since then.

    I doubt this is going to format very well, but here goes:

    # The Richter Scale of Conferencing
    # by brett tabke
    # 2/1/2006


    Last week Jeff Jarvis (buzzmachine – one of my ‘gotta reads’) talked about conferences in a blog post. His sentiments have echoed many I have heard. Scoble addressed many of Jeffs comments, but even Robert was a bit conservative in his estimates of what a conference costs these days.

    2000 of My Closest Friends for 3 Days:

    Lets say you are going to plan a conference for 2000 people for 3 days. To hold a conference that size, you are going to be pretty limited in what venues you can use. Those that will work – will cost you. If you are in a hotel, your rates will go down, but in a convention center they can increase significantly. At a minimum, you will pay about $1 a square foot. Or, a conference of 2k for 3 days, will run $50,000 to $80,000 for the space.

    Next, a you will need a contractor to handle the conference setup, and to work with the venue. Most cities and convention centers require union labor to handle things like booths. That will run you another $20k-$50k.

    You will need some AV. You can do it for about $10k on the cheap, or $20-$30k if you wanna be real.

    Then you’ll need security as mandated by the venue. About $5-7k.

    Then some labor to operate the thing. Another $10-15k.

    Conference books. About $10-15 per attendee ($20-$25k).

    Shipping all this stuff – another $5-20k (it gets out of control in a hurry).

    Figuring out how to get all this to sync – atleast $10k in consultants (very conservative).

    Computers to manage your registration on site and for presentations $5k.

    On venue site misc expenses (trust me) $10-20k.

    Hey, you want internet at your conference? That will run $500 to $1000 PER connection! (or $8k easy)

    You want a big shot keynote speaker? Figure $40-$150k speaking fees (plus expenses).

    Showing your panel speakers some love : $2k – xx,000

    Then your online site $7-10k a year.

    You gotta have some of them there perty signs to tell everyone what’s where when – $2k on the cheap – $5k to get real.

    Then your guys to build and run the conference (1 person per 500 attendees min) at probably 70k-90k a year.

    You need to get your people there right? Lets say $20k in planes, trains, taxis, and hotels.

    Who is that over there? Billy Joe Jim Bob Name tags: $3 each. ($5k)

    Taxes, insurance, offices, phones, internet – oh no!. $xx,xxx – $xxx,xxx per year.

    Decorators? Don’t even go there! $20k just for designs.

    Meeting planners? $10k just for the coffe talk. –$50k for them to actually do some work.

    Still with us? Ok, here is where we shake out the men from the boys:

    Getting a hotel for the conference? Lets say you reserve a room block of 750 rooms for 3 nights : 2250 times at say $159 a night. That’s a cool $380,000 you just guaranteed bucko. You still have the stomach for this? What’s more? you are probably going to have to make that commitment 1 full year out before the conference! Hello!?

    Oh wait – we were doing for 2k people right? And they will be there for the 3 nights of the conference plus the travel day. So that is 8000 room nights and you will probably spend $180-$225 for rooms. So a real figure closeer to $1.25- to $1.8 million. Yes, that is MILLION!

    Next you’ll need to feed some people. Most conference centers will run about $50 per person per day for a continental breakfast and box lunch package. Or for a three day conference, $150 per attendee. Any where from $300k to $500k for food total. If you get shmancy fancy, you could easily top $150 per person per day.

    Hey, so you are out of pocket for half a million to one million on this “little conference” and committed to several hundred more – you best be doing some marketing. add $50-$150k.

    Happy Fun Thoughts:

    As scary as that may be – lets think some happy thoughts and talk revenue baby:

    In order to build a conference of 2k, you will end up comp’ing about 25%. Those will include staff, speakers, friends, friends of speakers, and VIP’s. Every conference I have been around has a comp rate of 25% or higher.

    Then you will have deeply discounted rates for exhibitors and sponsors. If you have 50 exhibitors, you can figure on giving each 4-6 passes to go along with their package.

    Next, you will more-than-likely have a discount rate for exhibit hall only attendees. That will run another 10-20% depending on your conference style and attraction. Of that, you will probably have a discounted coupon rate for your exhibitors. I know of one large conference that regularly gives exhibitors a 50% discount rate that they can pass on to their clients.

    Then you will probably have a deeply discounted early sign up rate.

    Lastly, many conferences will have single “day rates” that cut prices in half for each day.

    So here is the big secret in conferences today – at a minimum, a modern conference of 2k will have less than 50% that actually pay to get in the door, and of those – only 30-35% will pay full price. For example, I know of one big new york conference that had 8k people attend last year. Of those, only 555 were paid in full, 1500 were single day passes and the rest were exhibit hall only and comps.

    Exhibits? Ya, those will require special handling. Rarely do conferences sell packages at full price. Even the largest conferences out there today often discount their sponsorships 50% for multi conference signups.

    So, as Scoble hints, it is exponentially harder to do a conference of 2k than it is to do a conference of 4-5 hundred. It is like that Richter scale thing where things start multiplying out of control.

    Our Orlando conference of 500 in Feb of 2004 was 7000% more profitable than our Las Vegas conference of 1500 last fall.

    I think 2006 will be a big year of shake out in the conference business. We will see many smaller conferences fade and the bigger ones solidify their standing. The Fad-Techs and the CES’s will grow in dominance. What will separate the big from the small will be marketing.

    Jeff did have some very interesting comments about a conference being a conversation, we will tackle those another day.


  28. Nina says:

    An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who had been doing a little homework on this.

    And he in fact bought me breakfast due to the fact that
    I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this….

    Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to
    discuss this issue here on your web page.

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