Budgeting online conferences or events: The case of #LingComm21

In other posts we discuss the importance of creating a meaningful, functional, and accessible conference experience. Running an online conference or similar-scale event is not free of cost. In this post we want to bring some transparency to the costs of organising an online conference. Access to skilled volunteer labour and funding will be different for everyone, and we will try to avoid making presumptions about what kind of budget you have, but we discuss costs, revenue and some of our specific approach to balancing the budget.

Physical conference budgets are massive, and that’s even taking into account that the conferences outsource most of the costs of travel, accommodation and feeding people to the participants. People are used to getting things for free on the internet, and online conferences are much, much more financially accessible than physical events, but for a good conference to be run well, people should expect there to be some cost. 

As with many things, there is a certain amount of exchanging time for money or money for time that can be traded off depending on which one your organizational team has more of, but ultimately some of each is necessary: even if you hand-code every piece of software yourself (we do not recommend this), there are still server and bandwidth costs, and even if you delegate the entire running of the conference to paid assistants (we also do not recommend this), there will still be decisions that can only be made by the organizer(s).

Infrastructure costs
We chose to run the event in Gather to help foster social interaction. Gather has a public commercial pricing guide, but they also have heavily discounted custom pricing for universities, charities and similar non-commercial entities. An event like LingComm21 with 200 participants will thus need a budget in the hundreds of dollars rather than thousands, and with much more scaling flexibility than a physical space (we were rebuilding walls hours before the conference, which no hotel or convention centre can offer). We recognize reaching out to Gather (or a different platform) well in advance of the conference to confirm rates, as their pricing may have changed since our event (and they were also able to provide us with helpful feedback on our space design based on other people’s experiences).

Many of our other costs were mitigated by our networks. Several committee members had access to institutional Zoom accounts to run some panels, and the Lingthusiasm team had the Slack and YouTube accounts needed to make the co-ordination and streaming work. We ran ticketing through Eventbrite, which charged a percentage fee, but it made the registration process far more easy and flexible than we could have managed with another system.

Paying a third party company to run large-scale events is common for physical conferences and will undoubtedly become the norm for large online conferences as well. Much of the cost of these services includes the digital infrastructure they have access to, which can be costly for high-traffic events, and the labour costs of having people manage processes like livestreaming and captioning. We did the livestreaming in-team for LingComm21 using free software called OBS, which made it more affordable at a strictly dollars and cents level, but it also required a number of members of the organising committee to spend several days before the conference teaching themselves how to use the software as well as taking themselves away from participating in the conference to run the streams, so in future we would prefer to budget for someone else to run streaming. 

Accessibility costs
Although not all possible accessibility needs can be foreseen by conference organizers, and we did have a slot on the registration/participation forms asking about other accessibility requirements, the inaccessibility of audio content is extremely well known and formed part of our planning from the beginning. 

Because LingComm21 was conducted primarily in English, and involved an international community that spans many linguistic areas, we decided on live captioning for the event, rather than interpreting for a specific signed language or several signed languages. Captions also provide an ancillary benefit for attendees who are hard of hearing, have auditory processing difficulties, or who speak English as a second language, in addition to providing a written reference for the organizers after the event. We had live captioning for 11 sessions throughout the conference, including all the introductory and plenary sessions. This cost around $5000 USD and constituted the single biggest expense for the LingComm21 conference. 

We contacted captioning services for a quote as we were still figuring out the structure of the conference, which allowed us to reduce captioning costs by building in breaks for both the captioner and conference participants, meaning that we did not have to pay a second captioner to work in shifts to cover overly-long sessions (and also providing social benefits for participants as detailed in other posts). Reserving captioners early in the planning stages also allowed us to announce that captioning would be provided from the initial advertisement of the conference, rather than waiting for people to request it or invisibly assume that they were not welcome. Around 10% of participants who did the feedback survey said they used the captions, and the majority of the remaining 90% said that although they didn’t personally use them, they were happy to see them there, even though we didn’t solicit this information. (What can we say, the lingcomm community is pretty great.) 

Live captioning is a fixed cost that does not vary whether an event has 10 participants or 1000, and cannot be solved by additional volunteer or organizer labour, as professional captioners have specialized keyboards and training allowing them to type at conversational speed. Captioning labour can be delegated to presenters if presenters are required to upload videos of their talks in advance, at which point they can also be required to furnish them with captions; however, we decided that while this approach may work for some conferences, it was incompatible with the highly interactive conference we were aiming for. Automatic captions, while sometimes useful for individual or small-group purposes, are not of adequate quality for a conference and we did not consider them. 

There are other accessibility challenges that Gather, like all interactional spaces, presents. Proximity chat platforms aren’t the most accessible to blind participants, and people unfamiliar with 2D game navigation can find them difficult too. For the latter, we gave tours in advance to people who expressed reservations about the platform, and had conference volunteers available to provide one-on-one tech help where needed. We did not especially tackle the former challenge except by providing feedback to Gather’s staff that high contrast/screenreader friendly modes would be a good idea.

Labour costs
LingComm21 was organised by a committee of four people with overstretched full-time work commitments, so we knew that the only way the management of the conference would happen coherently was to have a paid conference manager. Our conference manager Liz McCullough spent around 200 hours on the conference, including 150 hours before the event, 30 hours during LingComm21 and 20 hours of post-conference admin (including helping to write these posts). 

We also had 11 volunteers who attended an hour of training before the event and helped people for 3-4 hour-long shifts during the conference, who were compensated with free registration and a certificate of volunteering. Our committee members also volunteered hours of their time to review submissions, build the schedule, and manage sessions during the conference. Many members of the lingcomm community also spend time preparing and moderating sessions, and running meetups on the final day of the conference.

A different organizational committee with a different ratio of time versus money available could have opted for a different balance of paid versus volunteer hours, although note that we’d suggest estimating for approximately twice as many volunteers or volunteer hours compared to paid hours, as volunteers (completely understandably) are more likely to have scheduling complications and last-minute emergencies.

Our commitment was to make LingComm21 as fiscally accessible as possible. To that end we kept registration fees very low, and offered free registration upon request (no documentation needed, as we saw no reason to add friction for people asking for assistance). Ticket prices were: $10USD for student/under-employed registration, $20USD for standard registration, and $30USD for standard registration plus subsidising student registration costs. We also had a $100USD personal sponsor registration option, and these sponsors were thanked on our website. We had 192 people register for the conference, with around 70 at each of the two lowest tiers, 39 people who subsidised student costs, and another 13 wonderful personal sponsors. We made it clear that registration costs were being used to cover live captioning for event accessibility. 

Revenue additionally came from sponsors and grants. We received a £300GBP grant from the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB) and commercial sponsorship from Wordnik. LingComm21 was able to incur upfront costs including staffing and caption reservation before any revenue was available because it was underwritten by Lingthusiasm, as part of our commitment to building lingcomm capacity. Lingthusiasm was capable of sponsoring the conference because of the support of our patrons on Patreon — in 2020, we ran a campaign for new patrons to help us give out more LingComm Grants, and many of them remained patrons afterwards, which enabled us to underwrite this conference, i.e., commit funds to the fixed costs of this conference before we knew whether anyone would pay to attend it. 

Balancing budgets
We expected that Lingthusiasm would underwrite the bulk of the cost of the conference, and indeed this was the case, falling around $5000USD short of running a cost neutral event in 2021. However, we believe that a future LingComm conference could be run in a revenue-neutral way based on two factors. 

First, we underestimated how many people would be interested in registering for the conference. Optimistically, we had hoped we might have up to 100 participants, and instead almost 200 people registered. Although the number of participants increased the expense of our virtual space (Gather charges per user, and we had to redesign the space at the last minute to fit more people), the majority of our costs (captioning and admin support) were fixed costs, which divided by 200 registrants rather than 100 made the necessary revenue per participant much smaller. 

Second, we underestimated how much registrants would be willing to pay for the conference. Many more people selected the subsidize-a-student and personal sponsorships tiers than we had anticipated. We think that with a more expensive fee for standard registration and further encouragement for those with external funding or comfortable employment situations to choose a higher tier, we could have kept the registration fee for students and under-employed individuals low while increasing the rates charged to people who can afford them. Participant feedback also overwhelmingly noted that people would have been happy to pay more to support the event. 

We did not do a very active job of soliciting sponsorship, which will become a more viable option as the conference becomes more established. That said, soliciting more sponsorship would have taken additional hours on the part of the organizers. 

We do not regret underwriting the conference in its inaugural year when we had no baseline from which to create revenue projections and when, due to a global pandemic, we were not spending much on travel. However, for the sustainability of this conference in future years, it is also useful to have a pathway to making it revenue-neutral. Part of doing so is noting that online conferences, while far more affordable than physical ones, are not free to run — even the most affordable online events have some fixed costs. Figuring out those costs before an event is important, as is communicating these costs clearly to participants so that they understand why registration fees are being charged. 

We feel very fortunate to be part of a community of people who care about lingcomm.

Part of a series called LingComm21: a case study in making online conferences more social. Stay tuned for the following posts during upcoming weeks, or subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter to get the full list of posts sent to you once they’re all out

  1. Why virtual conferences are antisocial (but they don’t have to be)
  2. Designing online conferences for building community
  3. Scheduling online conferences for building community
  4. Hosting online conferences for building community
  5. Budgeting online conferences or events
  6. Planning accessible online conferences

Published by Lauren Gawne

Research linguist interested in Tibeto-Burman language documentation, gesture and linguistic data.

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