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Stuff Costs Money

Over the holiday weekend, Dick Kaser, ITI’s VP for Content, posted a comment to my post about SWIFT, the not-so-swift “2.0 platform” ITI had invested in for its conference attendees.

In 418 words, Dick explained that stuff costs money. Thing is, we know stuff costs money. Everything costs money — even “free” stuff, like kittens or software. (Not that “turnkey” software is a walk in the park, either.)

To be fair, not everyone realizes that stuff costs money. My five years managing a web portal in California that many people thought could be run for “free” (I guess because it was mostly run by women) taught me that a lot of people don’t think stuff costs money. But even Wikipedia costs money.

The conference economy

The idea that stuff-costs-money also fuels the conference economic model. It costs money to hold a conference, it costs money to attend a conference, and it costs money to present at a conference.

ITI covers the registration fee for speakers, and that’s a nice offset. But Dick might check into how many speakers fly in just long enough to give their talks, and he has to be aware that registration fees are just a fraction of the total cost of attending any conference you can’t drive to on the same day.

This means (as is obvious to anyone already participating in the conference economy) that speakers at an ITI conference pay for the opportunity for face time. They might pay directly or through their institutions, but somebody pays, because to flog this poor dead horse, as Dick said in the DLib article he references — a point I had made several years earlier in an article published in The Bottom Line, “The Tao of Internet Costs” — stuff costs money. (In 2006, DLib even found out that DLib costs money.)

Paying for face time is an accepted part of the conference cost model. Of course, there’s more to it than that — informal networking and opportunities to meet vendors and the occasional fluffy white bathrobe. But fundamentally, we are investing in face time, either for ourselves or our institutions or in most cases, for both stakeholders. For many conferences, the payoff works out well for everyone involved.

As David Lee King pointed out, SWIFT breaks the conference economic model. It’s not that speakers and other heavy-duty conference types “don’t want special tools.” We already have “special tools.” They’re called blogs and websites. These tools costs money — to own, to build, to maintain — but they have a pay-off. Even with a modified term of service, for me to blog over on the SWIFT site makes no sense, because I’m making money (figuratively and indirectly) on my own site.

Money for nothing, and your wifi for free

About that wifi. Now, Dick doesn’t know me, and I don’t know Dick. (Some might add, on so many levels.) So I don’t know if he was trying to be funny in claiming he thought I expected ITI to pay $29 times 2000 so its attendees could have “free” wifi. Like, ha ha, I know you really know about negotiating for conference services, I’m just joshing you!

Because as several people responded to me privately, the obvious response is that the people who negotiated with the Otter Group for their 2.0 web conference platform thingamajig — and I know the Otter Group doesn’t give away their stuff for free — might have negotiated instead for a better deal for wifi — a service provided by the numerous non-library conferences I’ve attended in the last five years, where free-to-me wifi was part of the deal. Here’s how that formula could work:

  1. Take the money intended for a “platform” and hold it aside.
  2. Bargain for a group wifi discount.
  3. Apply the SWIFT money to the difference.

The SWIFT platform might seem to be a more obvious investment for ITI, at least from an Olde Worlde perspective. Eyeballs! Ad revenue! Bada-bing, baby! However, I’d suggest that free wifi (which we’ll use here to mean “or discount wifi”) has its charms from a stuff-costs-money perspective.

Free wifi is a “special tool” that could result in more people blogging and Twittering and chit-chatting about their marvelous, marvelous CiL conference experiences — right there at the point of service, when people are full of vim and vigor, before they get home and lose airspeed and focus. Free wifi also stops the grumbling about a “technology” conference that pushes its users off the grid for the duration. (If the answer is that ITI can’t charge enough for a library conference to underwrite free or discount wifi, then I circle back to my earlier point: money crossed palms for the SWIFT platform; somebody’s got cash somewhere.)

Free wifi is to us, the conference attendees, free like free beer — we use it, we enjoy it, we go home — but in terms of getting us to write about a conference in the moment, before we get home and face trip reports and overdue work assignments, it’s money in ITI’s bank. Give us widgets and badges to put on our sites that link back to ITI, put up a wiki and a blog for everything that doesn’t have a home, then wind us up and let us go.

(You see, the “SWIFT” model already exists; it’s just decentralized. It makes old-schoolers nutty to contemplate this, but they need to reverse the eyeball model from drawing people to a single site to tapping the diffuse honeypot on the Web. It’s as hard to get this across as explaining how the “many eyes” model for open source results in far better, more economically sound software than the old model where a bunch of dudes go into a room, swing their you-know-whats around, write a few checks, and sign NDAs.)

Engage us

It could be that the deal with SWIFT means that ITI is at a point with its conferences where ensuring overflow crowds and high-traffic exhibits isn’t enough any more.

I know that within ALA there is quite legitimate concern about the narrowing profit margins from conferences (a significant source of revenue for ALA). Not only does stuff cost money, but some stuff is getting very expensive, and in the next couple of years, people are going to have less money to buy it with. That’s problematic, and I empathize. Conferences such as Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries have to make money to survive.

But I would suggest that if ITI is experimenting with revenue streams, and if it observes, quite reasonably, that conference content can attract eyeballs, that it talk to us about how to make that happen within the framework of our existing conference economy. After all, we want to make money, too.

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23 Comments

  1. David wrote:

    My immediate reaction to Dick’s comment was not as broad-ranging as your’s, Karen. I just thought about the one conference I go to regularly that does offer free (at point of use) wifi: Access. Access is one of the cheapest conferences out there in terms of registration fees, and it probably has the highest rate of wifi uptake of any conference out there.

    If the random set of volunteers who organize Access each year (a different set every year) can negotiate reasonably priced wifi, then I’m sure a media company can do even better.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 7:34 am | Permalink
  2. As always, well said. My immediate reaction to Dick’s comment was: didn’t someone once say “The user isn’t broken”. :-) The users are giving you feedback, and you’re explaining to them why they can’t have what they want…why not put that energy into figuring out how to give it, instead?

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 7:44 am | Permalink
  3. Well said!

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  4. Dick Kaser wrote:

    You’re definitely right about one thing, we don’t know each other . . . on so many levels.

    I am supporting the Swift trial, because my trusted conference planner Jane Dysart, pleaded with me to let her do it.

    I made Jane take the set-up fee (a very few thousand dollars) out of her quite-limited program planning budget to pay for the test.

    Swift is crediting us with the payment should the service actually result in a future revenue stream to ITI. ???

    There isn’t any big, secret business agenda, presumably developed by guys in suits smoking cigars in a back room. And there is no pot of development money that could be diverted to free wi-fi or anything else.

    We are actually not actively pursuing other revenue streams or business models for our conference business.

    But we are under a constant barrage of suggestions from our very engaged and techno- savvy audience, including you.

    I guess once in a while, I just get to feeling guilty that we aren’t doing as much as we should be doing to try out new things. And that we aren’t being as supportive as we should be of our program planners. So I was putty in Jane Dysart’s hands when push came to shove.

    If you were on my staff or otherwise working for me, (Jane is a consultant.), I would let you try out new things too.

    As I said earlier I support wi-fi access at conferences. ITI will no doubt provide this, once the venues that we work with come along to your way of thinking and an equitable deal actually can be negotiated.

    Dick Kaser
    ITI, VP, Content

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  5. I think this comment is addressed more to Dick than to Karen.

    The attendees want ITI conferences to succeed–the Twitter buzz before IL and CiL is unbelievable; we’re all SO excited!–and we understand that in order to succeed, ITI has to make money. I, for one, would be willing to pay a reasonable fee for wireless at these conferences–say $5 per day of use. Venues charge outrageous amounts for technology and space, and ITI is nice enough not to pass that on to the speakers. We tell them what we need, and it’s there. There are many local and not-so-local library conferences where the same cannot be said.

    I suspect that at least in part, the Swift endeavor is a way to encourage speakers to share conference materials in order to lighten the load a bit: after an IL or CiL, an ITI staff member solicits and puts up content on ITIs website. With a platform that allows speakers to do that ourselves, this staff time is freed up. And staff time is ITI money as well. That said, I would like to suggest that ITI ask speakers and attendees what it is that we would like to see in the way of information-sharing and social networking tools. It was not the idea of having a central place to share information that we chafed at, it was simply that the Swift platform is inferior to other tools that we already use.

    Full disclosure: I was the one who created the ClaimID page for Computers in Libraries 2008, after trying out and not grokking Swift.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  6. “If you were on my staff or otherwise working for me, (Jane is a consultant.), I would let you try out new things too.”

    Dick, Dick, Dick… we are working for you, man. We’re your presenters.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  7. John Fink wrote:

    We’re (McMaster U) organizing Access this year, and while I’m not directly involved with the negotiations with hotels and etc, I know that the wifi thing isn’t even an option for us — it has to be there, it’s a requirement. And I haven’t noticed any friction from the hotel on this issue, so it can’t be that contentious.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  8. Soooo… who’s resolved not to go to another ITI conference as a result of Mr. Kaser’s contributions to this discussion?

    *raises hand*

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  9. Anna Creech wrote:

    In the words of the great Wil Wheaton, “Don’t be a dick.”

    Now, I’m sure he wasn’t talking about Mr. Kaser, but it’s certainly a lesson we can all learn about taking responsibility for our decisions and listening to the source of our bread and butter.

    Blaming SWIFT on Jane Dysart is a weasel-y way of getting out of taking responsibility for yourself, Mr. Kaser. Getting defensive and not listening to your critics doesn’t help, either, particularly when they are presenters (content providers) at your conference, and in some cases, attendees paying the full rate (income sources).

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  10. To the extent we could use a content platform at all… Dick made the mistake of buying software when he needed labor. That’s exceptionally sad because library labor is so cheap: offer 5 free registrations in exchange for managing the wiki/blog/twitter/delicious/etc. “platform.”

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  11. This year’s ASIST didn’t have free wifi. Conference organizers heard about it IN SPADES.

    Their response? “We heard you. Loud and clear.”

    Now, to be sure, we’ll have to wait for late summer and ASIST ’08 to be sure the message really got through. But just “We heard you” is an improvement over what’s happening with CiL presently.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  12. Bleh, sorry. Last year’s ASIST, of course. I can haz calendar?

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  13. oh – hey – they paid for SWIFT? I somehow missed that up to now…
    @Dorothea – no fair with ASIST – very small, very poor professional society with volunteers shouldering the load for a lot. (btw – the internet access was horrid in Milwaukee – even after you paid the money for access from the room! it could only get better)

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  14. Liz Lawley wrote:

    As a point of reference on finances, I’ve run an event at an expensive Seattle hotel (part of a major chain) for several years now. Last fall, the wifi access for our conference attendees for two days cost us under $2000. They did not ask for a specific number of participants (we had approximately 100 people, but certainly could have had more). They did not use individual logins; instead there was an event id and code that we distributed to attendees.

    Dick, I think you mean well, and I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to participate in the comments here. But sometimes it does help just to say “I hear you, and we’ll take this conversation into account as we move forward.” There’s really no need to assign blame, make excuses, or become defensive.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  15. Liz Lawley wrote:

    I should add that in addition to the wifi for attendees, that $2000 included dedicated connectivity for our tech crew so that they could live stream video of the event.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  16. @Christina: My point was that ASIST handled the matter well. They acknowledged that it was a problem and they promised to try to do better. They didn’t pull any holier-than-thou horse manure.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  17. Liz, that sounds about right. After all that’s $2000 more than the hotel had before the deal was struck, because attendees will suffer and grumble rather than pay. I believe Defrag worked that way as well. The other neat thing Defrag did was rows of tables *with power gottseidank.*

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
  18. p.s. Liz, in “Writing for the Web” I tell folks to write a brief, polite thank you comment and leave it at that. It’s good twopointohness. :)

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  19. Liz Lawley wrote:

    Karen, yes, one of our requirements for the symposium was a power outlet on *top* of every round table (so that people didn’t have to crawl around to plug things in).

    Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  20. Because after a certain age, “down” is not so hard, but getting back up again becomes a tad unseemly if not physically impossible…

    Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  21. Tom Hogan wrote:

    I wanted to respond to a couple of things here. For those who don’t know me, I’m the V.P. of Marketing & Business Development for Information Today, Inc.

    We realize wireless access is important to our attendees. With regards to wireless access at our events, we do provide wireless access points at both Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries. We did last year, and this year we are planning on again having wi-fi at the event.

    In response to having outlets for laptops in our session rooms, we have made it a standard practice to have a limited number of outlets brought to the seats in each session room at our events.

    I would like those involved in this conversation to know that we do our best to provide our attendees and speakers with what they want at our events. We try to make them affordable, we try to provide all of the services that they might want. We read their evaluations, and we try to make changes to our events to make it a better experience for everyone.

    If anyone has any comments on how to make our events better in general, or how we can provide better services, they can contact me personally at thoganjr@infotoday.com.

    Friday, March 28, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  22. Tom, I was at Internet Librarian 2007, and yes, you had *some* wireless, but as anyone who attended realized, the “hotel” side of the conference, where I spent half my time (and where Joe Jane’s keynote was), didn’t have free wireless. That’s why I very clearly said in my post, “What I missed at Internet Librarian 2007 (from the same company, Information Today) was wifi in the ‘hotel’ side of the presentations. If Information Today wants to spend money on an improvement, ensuring MESH wifi for their conference sites would be my vote.” (As for “limited number of outlets” — I was at Internet Librarian, and remember sitting against the wall for juice.)

    The extent to which this has been twisted around and rationalized is baffling. All you have to say is “that’s a good idea, and we’ll consider it for future conferences.” (Or, “that’s a good idea, and even after stiff negotiations they wanted so much for it we would have had to raise registration by X percent.”)

    Take off your suit jacket and shoes, and talk to me… or even walk with me through your own conference. (I would say “walk a mile in my shoes,” but chances are good that would be painful for you…)

    Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  23. By the way, just to be clear, I’m not in ANY way discouraging attendance at ITI conferences. If I wanted to do that, I’d say so directly… or simply say nothing at all. I’m offering suggestions to improve a conference that has plenty of followers.

    Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

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