So, You Want to Launch a Conference? — Here Are 10 Things they Never Tell You

A couple years ago I started a conference.

Since then, I’ve spoken to a whole lot of other people who also run conferences. Some, I helped before they launched. Others launched long before I did.

I’ve also had the experience of running community for one of the larger conferences around, LeWeb.

So I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to run a conference.

There are a lot of things that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from the outside. I’m going to share some of the things that I talk about with other conference organizers privately but rarely publicly. I hope they don’t kick me out of the club.

Hopefully these help you if you’re thinking about launching a conference.

1. Every organizer worries about ticket sales.

Seriously. I’ve never met a conference organizer who isn’t stressed about ticket sales.

Just keep trying shit. There’s no one silver bullet.

In our team we try to create “surround sound” which means that a potential attendee is hearing about the event from many different channels they trust over time.

We also always have a conservative estimate and an aggressive goal for all our ticket sales. This way even if sales are slow, you know what your finances look like.

2. Usually, 30–40% of your tickets will sell in the last 30 days

Ticket sales for one of our conferences.

Part of the reason organizers stress so much about ticket sales is because it looks like sales are slow right up until the month before the event. Usually that’s when ticket sales pick up. But not always so don’t count on it.

Keep in mind, about 10–20% of registrations are usually free tickets given to speakers, sponsors, press, influencers, etc.

3. Conference budgets have an enormous range.

I know conferences that have a budget of over $1 million. Our first conference cost us about $60k. My friends conference was bigger than ours and cost less than $20k.

You can be as scrappy or lavish as you want. Don’t let budget stop you from throwing an event. You can save money in a ton of places through partnerships and just by focusing on the 20% of things that create 80% of the value.

4. Locking in a date and venue is the bottleneck.

There are exceptions, but for most conferences, not much can happen until you have a venue locked in and a date. Speakers can’t commit, people can’t buy tickets and nothing really moves until you have those two things in.

Venues become exponentially more expensive when your event gets bigger. The bigger the event, the fewer options you’ll have. Hotels and conference centers will include everything you need. We always host our events in unique spaces, which is more work for us, but ends up being cheaper and more unique.

5. Announcing a your speaker lineup early is really important.

Our lineup for our upcoming event. I wish it looked like this 2 months ago.

In the past, we’ve sucked at getting our lineup locked in early but but have learned the hard way. People buy tickets based on what the lineup and the schedule looks like. They’ll wait to buy their ticket until all that info is there. If you wait to announce a full lineup for too long, you lose a lot of sales. The earlier you can announce a lineup of really amazing speakers, the better.

6. A lot of conferences don’t pay speakers.

People who speak a lot or do it for a living will charge you a lot of money to speak. Some charge $10k, $40k, $60k and up. There’s really no logic behind it other than if they’re popular enough, they can charge what they want. I’m speaking from experience… I charge $10k+ to speak at an event but I’ll sometimes waive that fee if there’s huge value in me speaking at the event. Most speakers will do an event for free if it’s valuable enough to them.

I know huge million dollar conferences with thousands of attendees that have never paid a speaker and I know smaller events that do pay speakers.

Usually, if it’s a corporate conference hosted by a vendor, there’s an expectation that speakers will be paid. They know you have the budget and that you’re using the conference for your own marketing purposes.

We’re a bootstrapped, community driven conference company with a very small budget so we aren’t able to cover those kinds of speaker fees. Instead we try to find speakers who are genuinely interested in our mission and make it a win-win for them. In the end, we actually get a much better lineup because every speaker is there because they care about being there, not because they’re getting paid to give the same talk they’ve given at 100 other conferences.

A lot of speakers have books, products or services they want to get out there. It’s also easier to get local speakers so they don’t have to travel far.

Make it a win-win.

7. Margins in conferences aren’t great.

CMX Summit has about a 26–32% profit margin (SF is better than NYC for us) and that’s with us being extremely frugal. Very few conferences are actually profitable and when I tell people who have built conferences that our conferences have always been profitable, they’re pretty surprised. Usually it takes 3–4 events before you become profitable. Our conference was great for self-funding our business but in the long run, it will not be our core business. They’re extremely powerful tools for branding, community building and reputation. If you want it to be a money maker, you have to be crazy about keeping costs low and keeping the team small.

8. It’s probably wise to hire an event team to handle logistics.

This will be the first year that we have someone in-house running our conference logistics (Evan is a champ). For our last 5 conferences, we hired an event team to run all of our logistics.

I probably would have started a conference a lot sooner if I knew that was an option. What was holding me back was not knowing all of the hundreds of details that go into running a conference. But it’s easy to hire out for that so you can focus on marketing and speaker and sponsor curation. These event teams already have relationships with all the vendors you’ll need and have a process for running an event that you can use. Don’t reinvent the wheel, hire out for this.

9. Getting sponsorships is hard but build up over time.

Our first event we had 2 sponsors. The next one we had 4. The third we had 6. Then 8. Then 9. Almost all of our sponsors have come back to each event after the first one (we host two a year so some only sponsor one of them).

The key to getting a sponsor onboard is relationships. You need an internal advocate who can get the right people and budget in place to make it happen. Almost all of our sponsorships have come from getting to know a single individual.

The key to keeping a sponsor is making sure they’re getting deal flow. Make sure they’re getting leads and that you’re putting them in a position to be successful. Don’t treat your sponsors like second class citizens. Go above and beyond to make them happy.

Over time, when your conference gets more credibility you’ll bring on more but it takes time. Don’t expect 10 for your first event unless you have really amazing relationships already. Also, let sponsors know as soon as possible. Some of them plan out their budget on an annual basis.

10. Content and community trumps all.

You will never be able to please everyone. There will be complaints about the food, the chairs, the temperature, the stairs… I guarantee it. But the one thing that trumps everything else is the content on your stage and the way you bring attendees together to interact.

That’s what people will remember, how the content and the interactions made them feel and the relationships they form at the event. The people who come back to our conference every year do it because they feel like they’re a part of the community and they trust that the content will be really strong.

We have crazy high standards for every single speaker we select and we don’t sell speaker slots to sponsors. We put a ton of thought into how we can create more relationship building experiences for attendees. Make your content and community great and your conference will be remembered.