Ep. #64: Are Conferences a Good Investment?

A thriving business generates a good return on the time, money, effort, and attention that you invest in the business. Do conferences generate a good return on investment? Often, the answer is no. Listen to this episode to find out why. If you need help with your business, please set up a free consult at richandthin.com.


Welcome to Rich & Thin™ Radio, the only podcast that helps you achieve the true freedom that comes from earning more and weighing less. I’m Kelly Hollingsworth and if you’re feeling ready to get Rich & Thin™, you’re in the right place because that’s what we do in this show.

If you’ve been listening, you know that last week I was going to the Social Media Marketing World conference in San Diego, which is billed as social media’s mega conference, and I promised to share with you what I learned. There’s too much to share in one episode, so today I want to focus on one thing, and it’s a question: are conferences like these a good investment for your business?

Asking yourself this type of question, and doing the actual analysis before you invest in a conference, is critical to creating a prosperous business and a wealthy life, because anything that takes up your time, money, effort, and mental bandwidth must come with a payoff that justifies the cost. If the payoff isn’t there, you’ve depleted your wealth, and all too often, conferences tend to have that effect.

So today I want to talk about the costs of conference attendance vs. the benefits, so you can decide for yourself if they’re right for you.

The high cost of business travel

The first thing to think about, when analyzing whether a conference makes sense for your business, is the high cost of the travel. This isn’t something we think about very often, but the costs are high, and the price tag starts with the time commitment.

Business Travel is time-consuming

First, there’s packing. Even if you do it quickly, this takes more time than most of us think about. By the time you tally it all up, gathering the clothes you want to wear, changing your mind a few times, remembering to grab your running shoes by the front door, the back-and-forth through the house from the laundry room to your closet to your bathroom for toiletries and what have you, packing probably takes two or three times longer than we think it takes.

I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveler. I can pack in less time than my husband, and he’s a commercial pilot for a major airline, so as I’m sure you can imagine, he’s a pretty efficient packer. But I probably spent at least three hours on both sides of the trip, so six hours total, gathering the stuff I was taking for the trip, and unpacking and organizing it when I got home. And then there was at least an hour when I landed in the hotel, unpacking and getting organized, and another hour packing it all back up to get on the plane. That’s a full day—probably about 8 hours, just on packing and unpacking.

Add to this the time it takes to get out of town because you have to make arrangements to keep things running in your absence. In my case, that mainly involves dog-sitting, and even that’s not a small time investment. One of my dogs, Winston, needs some extra attention lately, so he had to go to my mom’s, and that involved packing his stuff up and taking him over there, and my other dog Sheffield had to stay home with the dog-sitter, and I had a new dog sitter this week, so I spent an hour or so arranging for her to come and showing her around the house and how to take care of the dog.

Then there’s the drive to the airport. The time to park. The time on the shuttle. The time in the security line. The time waiting at the gate. The time getting out of the airport and to the hotel and to leave the hotel and get back to the airport. Add to this the flight time. All-in, my conservative estimate for this part of the trip is at least 16 hours, and I was only flying from Idaho to California.

Business Travel has a High Fatigue Factor

On top of the time, there’s the effect on your sleep and the amount of rest you get, I usually go to bed around 10 p.m. and wake up around 6 a.m. but to make this trip to San Diego, I tried to go to bed at 7 p.m. and get up at 3 a.m. I think I fell asleep around 8:30, thanks to a little Tylenol PM, and I woke up at 1:30 am, thanks to my hard-partying 80-year-old neighbor who was just getting in from the bars that night.

I checked the time when I woke up when he came home, and I thought, shoot. I’m not going to get back to sleep and have it mean anything before I have to get up to go to the airport. So I didn’t really go back to sleep. I just stayed up until my alarm went off at 3 o’clock at the morning, and that meant I slept for about five hours that night. Maybe less.

I flew to San Diego, took a cab to the hotel, checked in and walked over to the conference, which was kicking off at noon. By the middle of the first session, I was feeling kind of sick and dizzy I was so tired.

Business Travel Usually Costs More Money Than You Think

On top of the time and fatigue, there’s the financial cost, and consider that the cost has at least three components.

Cash Expended

First there’s the obvious one, the cash outlay, and before we travel on business, rarely do we run a complete tally of the costs in our heads. We might think, “Okay, there’s going to be a plane ticket, maybe a few hundred a night for the hotel, a few bucks for meals, an Uber or a cab here or there. It’s no big deal.”

I was gone for three days and two nights. San Diego is fairly close to me, so it’s fairly cheap to fly there, and it’s not terribly expensive as cities go in terms of meals and cabs, but I spent about $1500. This was in addition to the fee I paid to attend the conference, which was about $700.

Opportunity Cost from traveling instead of working

But the $1500 cash outlay for the travel is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the financial cost. What’s the opportunity cost of business travel? The cost of schlepping to California as opposed to servicing my clients is the biggest price tag in this, and you don’t have to earn what I earn to rack up an eyebrow-raising number in terms of opportunity cost.

If you earn $100 per hour and you spend 16 hours travel and 8 hours in preparing to travel, that’s $2400 that the trip costs you. So now what’s our price tag? $1500 cash plus $2400 in opportunity cost puts you at almost $4,000 so far.

Attention Away from Your Business and Existing Customers

Add to this the cost of focusing on the distractions of business travel vs. focusing on your customers. This cost is difficult to estimate, but it can be intolerably high. A broker I worked with once lost her primary client, who represented almost 50% of her income, when the client grew tired of not being able to reach her when she was on the road attending conferences.

The Time Away from Your Life is the Biggest Cost of All

Then there’s the time away from your life. This is perhaps the biggest cost of all. When you travel on business, you miss things. You miss walks with your mom. You miss cuddling with your dogs. You miss time with your family and friends that you will never get back, both while you’re away and while you’re spending time getting caught up when you return.

So the question is, is it worth it? Are there benefits to attending a conference that justify all these costs and that can’t be had any other way? In my mind, the answer is generally no.

What Are the Benefits of Conference Attendance???

As I was getting ready for this trip, and taking the trip, and returning from the trip, I kept asking myself, is this even worth it? I’m going to go to this conference and everything they’re going to present is going to stream online afterward as part of the price of my attendance fee, and so is it really necessary to spend this time, money, and effort to fly to San Diego and attend in person?

Whether you’re going to make connections is up for grabs

When you can view all the training online after the conference, as is usually the case these days, a big reason to attend is the people you’ll meet, so as I was getting ready to go, I kept reminding myself, it’s not about the content. It’s about the contacts. It’s not about what’s being taught in the room, but who is in the room.

And working a room is something I used to be pretty good at. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this in the podcast before, but before I was a lawyer, I was a marketing and sales person, and I used to fly around the world and attend conferences and high-end cocktail parties to meet moneyed people and motivate them to invest in the hedge funds I represented. So although lately people often identify me as a lawyer or a coach—I do this myself, too–I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a marketing and salesperson. One of my primary motivations for becoming a lawyer was that when I wasn’t a lawyer, my clients’ lawyers were always taking the marketing materials I prepared and gutting the essential message under an incorrect view of what the law required, so I became a lawyer in large part so my clients and I could get dispense with the naysayer lawyers who were taking a resonant message and reducing it to legalese, because I thought we could have both—compelling copy as well as compliant copy, and that’s definitely what I found once I got my bar card and my clients didn’t need to use someone else as their lawyer.

But in any case, the point here is that I was feeling confident that if there were people to be met at this conference, I would be able to meet them. I have experience at that, it’s something I know how to do, and I actually enjoy doing it.

Did that happen? To a small degree, yes. I met a couple of nice people, and I even picked up a couple of clients. But mostly, it didn’t happen, and he reason is, because what did I walk into when I entered the conference?

A whole lot of noise. Entering the San Diego convention center on the first day of the conference was like walking into a discotheque. There were a bunch of tables set up for networking the entire length of the building’s entrance hall, and in the middle of them was a DJ with speakers set up at various intervals, to make sure that every area—anywhere you might want to sit–was blasted with sound. It was oppressive. And a wonderful metaphor for social media itself, because what are we all trying to do, when we’re marketing online? We’re all trying to cut through the noise.

And we were doing the exactly that same thing on that first day of this social media mega conference. There were lots of conference staffers posted throughout the entrance hall, and people were getting lunch and taking their food to the tables and yelling at each other over the din, and once in a while they’d complain to the conference workers, but on that first day, nothing was getting done about the noise. Then when the sessions started, we went upstairs and I was sitting in the first session, and I could still feel the bass of that music pounding through the floor.

People did complain—I was one of them–and on day two, they stopped the music, but this is one of the reasons conference attendance is a crapshoot. If you’re going to make connections that involve more than line dancing to a Britney Spears song, at one point that was happening during the conference, and the environment is set up for that kind of thing and nothing but, you’ve wasted your money.

Everyone is distracted

The other thing about conferences is that everyone is distracted. This is the crazy thing about conferences. Often, you go there to make contacts that result in more business or that advance your business in some way, but there’s so much going on that when a contact is right in front of you, you don’t see it, or you might not have time or the bandwidth to act on it.

This happened all the time back when I was on the hedge fund conference circuit. At one point I represented an investor—a business that invested money into other hedge funds–and often when I was talking to someone in that role, their eyes would be scanning the room behind me looking for investors. They were talking to an investor but they were still looking for other people to talk to, when they had one standing right in front of them.

I saw that at this social media conference, too. I was talking to a woman in the lunch line, she said she ran a digital agency and was looking for more customers, and I said I needed some help, but she hastily handed me her card and then dashed off to be somewhere else. This is so common. With all that’s going on at a conference, it’s difficult to make real connections even when they present themselves.

And often they don’t. This wasn’t a problem back in my hedge fund heyday, but now there are smart phones. People pay to attend the conference, but when they get there, they’re talking to people who aren’t at the conference. So if you pay to attend a conference looking to make connections, it’s even more challenging now. You don’t just compete for attention with people who are in the room. You compete for attention with everyone that person is connected to online, and everything that’s going on back at the office, and in the world, and on Instagram.

So Why Are Conferences All the Rage?

As a former professional conference attendee, I’ve been to enough conferences to feel qualified to make some judgments about why people go, and what I’ve found is there are usually three reasons.

Thoughtless Spending

The first is plain old thoughtlessness that results in thoughtless spending. You get the conference flyer, or someone says they’re going to go, or you hear about the conference in some way, and you think, That’s a good idea. I should invest in my business. I should go there and meet some people and learn something.

These are all great motivations. We all should invest in our businesses, meet people, and learn things. The question is, is a conference the best place to do those things? It’s only by going through an analysis that you can really judge if that’s the case. Part of the reason I just went through this after-the-fact analysis is that it will serve to remind me, next time I wonder about conferences, that the cost is often much higher than the benefit. If the analysis goes the other way for you, that’s great, but either way, you’ll never really know if it’s worth it and you don’t think about it and you just plunk down your credit card and decide to go before you’ve run through the costs and the benefits.

Conferences are a tax-deductible vacation

Another reason people attend conferences is that they’re a tax-deductible vacations. Conferences usually are in nice places, and you get to stay in a hotel, which is always a fun thing for most people, and if you venture outside of the conference into the city, you get to eat in great restaurants and see terrific things.

If that’s what you want to use a conference for, enjoy, but just do it with your eyes open. If you wouldn’t choose this spot as a vacation destination independent of the conference, you might be wasting your money, but sometimes the conference takes you to a new place that you love but you just didn’t know that you love it.

This definitely happened with this social media conference. San Diego is an amazing city. I love it, and I wouldn’t have reacquainted myself with it had I not gone to this conference. So that was one benefit of going.

Conferences are a way to escape

Here’s another benefit that I don’t think many people see, and no one likes to talk about. Often conferences are a lure for people who want to escape something. They either want to escape a business problem or they want to escape their life situation, if only for a few days.

The business problem they want to escape by attending conferences is usually a marketing message that isn’t working. They’re not bringing in customers from home, and they think that taking a poor message on the road is going to garner a different reception. This never works. If a message isn’t resonant when you’re one-on-one with someone, it definitely won’t resonate in a noisy conference where everyone is distracted.

The other thing that happens is that people who attend often are looking for something other than business, and they’re just not ready to admit that to themselves or anyone else, and they’re looking for a socially acceptable way to live a life that’s not appropriate to their current life circumstances, i.e. they’re married but they want not to be. They want to socialize as a single person, if only for a few days.

I see one or both of these things so often I can’t even tell you. Many of my clients who pay through the nose to attend conferences find, that when we go through the analysis on costs vs. benefits, that they are attending conferences for the wrong reasons: to solve a messaging problem that can’t be solved by taking the message on the road, and to solve a life problem that they don’t really want to deal with. The distraction can be fatal. A hedge fund manager who’s schlepping around on the conference circuit is not watching the markets. A lawyer who’s schlepping around on the conference circuit is not keeping up with what’s happening in the law or with her clients’ legal issues as effectively as she could. A coach who’s schlepping around on the conference circuit is not coaching anyone during those times. I don’t care what your business is, there is a business cost to business travel.

Conclusion: Most Conferences Aren’t Worth the Costs to Attend

So here’s my takeaway on conference attendance. If you can watch the content online and learn what they’re teaching at the conference that way, the cost of attendance is probably too high. If you have a poor message that doesn’t work at home, taking it on the road isn’t going to fix it. And connections can be made anywhere. At a conference, you may make one or two chance connections that bear fruit, but the likelihood of making those when everyone is competing for attention and very distracted is probably low, so if making connections is your objective, there are probably better ways to do that than at a conference.

And here I don’t want to be a total curmudgeon. If you enjoy conferences and you get a ton of energy from them and you love being in the room with all those people, have at it. Go forth and attend all every conference you can think of.

But if you suspect that conferences are a waste of your time and money, or you’d really rather make more scalable, strategic investments in your business, that’s perfectly okay. Often, “conference attendance money” is better spent elsewhere, and in a way that helps you leverage and scale your business. For the cost of attending a single conference, where you might not make one meaningful connection with anyone, you can craft a resonant webinar that will speak to your prospective customers while you are sleeping, spending time with your family, or enjoying a real vacation. If you want one of those, if you want a webinar that will help you bring clients into your business, let me know because working on those is what I’m having so much fun with this year, and please join me for our body episode later this week, where we’ll discuss what I learned from attending this conference in terms of weight loss and body confidence. Thanks and I’ll talk to you next time.

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