Who Is The Conscience Of Your Conference?

A thin, transparent sheet of ice is how I would describe some of today’s annual meetings and conferences. The line between education, promotion and sales has blurred.

Image by Kansas Poetry (Patrick).

That ice cracks as attendees experience conference sessions that have been sold to the highest bidder. Sponsored education sessions have become blatant promotions of services and products. Attendees are promoted to potential sponsors as captive audiences that will listen to and endorse any message sent their way.

Greed, the desire for power, and ambition have blinded organizers from basic ethical standards. The conference organizers are more concerned with creating contracts between sponsors than the standard unspoken contract that they have with their attendees.

Questionable Decision Making

Here are several ways conference organizers have embraced questionable strategies in order to make money. Even when their mission and strategic plan place a high priority on Education.

1. Pay To Play

Allowing businesses to pay a fee, often called a sponsorship, to speak to an audience.

Akin to media advertising, some organizers allow sponsors a brief two- or three-minute message during sessions. This is a fairly acceptable practice and most listeners know that the sponsor’s message is a commercial.

Some organizers allow a sponsor to develop and present information as a general session, plenary, breakout or workshop. In this situation, rarely is an audience given a disclaimer that the education they are receiving is biased and that the speaker paid a fee to present.

I understand the sponsors’ advertising. I don’t understand the sponsored education speakers.

Where is the integrity in “Pay To Play” sponsored education sessions? Would we allow children to go to public schools were businesses paid fees to be the teacher? Would we pay tuition to send our kids to college where each class was taught by paying sponsor?

Of course not. So why is it acceptable for conference hosts to sell education sessions to the highest bidder?

2. Selling Attendee And Membership Lists

I am always surprised that organizations feel it is appropriate and acceptable to exploit conference attendee and association member information for commercial advertising. When did I give permission for my information to be shared and sold? Why don’t all conferences and associations have a registration section where I can decline or give permission for my information to be shared or sold?

This past Fall I was appalled to discover that my contact information was worth $0.25 to a major meetings association. I received an email from a company that was selling this association’s member list and demographics. Ironically, the associaiton claimed as part of their bylaws that they did not sell or share member contact information.

3. Sponsored Attendee And Member Services

Some organizations are pros at cutting backroom deals with companies for sponsorships. Sometimes, those companies provide attendee or member services for free or at an extreme discount.

I am ok with this when the services are of value and easy to use. When the services are poorly constructed or difficult to use, I find it disenchanting. Attendee or member needs are sacrificed to the highest bidder, smoothest talker or best person to take golfing. The organization feels it has saved expenses and does not realize that in an attempt to reduce costs they have reduced their effectiveness.

Conscience: The Voice Within

Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment of the intellect that distinguishes right from wrong. ~ Wikipedia

Within the meetings and hospitality industry, who is the voice from within calling out conference organizers that cross the line? Within your own organization, who is the voice that questions whether conference hosts have crossed the ethical line?

Without a checks and balance system, a small slip can lead to a major spill. If a decision to allow a business to present an education session in exchange for a fee cannot be shared, then there is a deeper problem at hand. If a sponsorship decision only serves the bottom line and does not serve the true customer, then it should be questioned.

What are some ways conference organizers can keep their decisions in check? What are some basic questions they should ask themselves during their decision-making process that will serve as their conscience?

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  2. Dave Will says:

    Hi, Jeff,

    As always, I love how you get me all worked up. This time, I actually agree with many of your points. If the content of a presentation is compromised because a sponsor paid for it, then that’s disappointing, (even though some sponsors have valuable knowledge to share that may not be actually directly selling their products or services).

    But the point I wanted to make is that the desire to drive revenue should not be associated with greed. It’s a little presumptuous to assume the reason conference providers are bringing in sponsors is to get a bigger boat or a nicer car. That would be greed.

    I think it is a lot like politics. Now, I’m no politician, but I do know that if a politician really believes in something, he has to compromise other things to get his main objective to pass. The same is true with a conference. If an organization wants to keep prices low and still offer good content and cool perks, they MAY have to bring in a sponsor or two. This is not driven by greed but more by a balance of revenue and value.

    Again, I agree that sometimes sponsors are a little too blatant, and sometimes organizers don’t monitor their sponsor’s content well enough.

    Thanks for your thought provoking blog.


  3. chris uschan says:

    Jeff — Let me ask you about point number 2 above.

    It’s about revenue (as D Will indicates). Events need registration fees and sponsorship/exhibit fees to survive (and make money).

    Without sponsorship/exhibit revenues about how much more would you be paying in attendee reg fees? $200, $500, $1000 ???

    Perhaps to get off the list, you would you be willing to pay $500 more in registration fees to be excluded from the “mailing list”?

    As a sponsor/exhibitor it’s important to feel something gained from the expense. A low return = not exhibiting next year = lost revenue for the event. The mailing list give marketers oppty to reach targeted individuals.

    But to be honest, as a marketer and sponsor/exhibitor, I really don’t want to send everyone who attends information. I only want to get in front of people who have an interest (or problem) we might be able to partner on.

    How about this?

    You select the topics you’re interested in and organizers match that up with companies who fit that topic. No charge to the attendee. Opt out and pay $200 – $300 to be on the general mailing list.

    Just a concept Jeff… but just for fun, would you opt out for a fee?

    — On your other points… wearing my attendee hat, I agree.

  4. Sponsorship is often an economic necessity but it can be done ethically. I was once told I had to cut short my presentation by ten minutes to allow a sponsor to make a pitch. Not only did I think it was inappropriate, it stifled the momentum I had built in the room and reduced the positive impact of my presentation.

    The pitch should have been inserted in a place where it would not have detracted from the purpose of the conference.

    As an Executive Director, I did not let sponsors deliver educational sessions because they were only going to talk about their own products. I was willing to lose them as sponsors – but they stayed anyway because they still wanted contact with my members in whatever way they could get it.

  5. chris uschan says:

    Jeff — one thing that I have seen done well with sponsors and sessions is going on with HSMAI Affordable Meetings.

    Sponsors can sign up (and pay for) to introduce a particular session. Sponsors get 60 seconds to conversationally share their name and their pitch, then introduce the speaker/presenter.

    From our perspective, it has a positive experience for both the session and the sponsor.

    To David’s point above, I believe it’s not “should they” or “shouldn’t they” … it’s “how” do sponsors participate (ethically) or be in front of an audience.

    The end of the presentation is the last place a sponsor pitch belongs… and for 10 minutes? Whoa!

  6. Tracy Stuckrath CSEP, CMM, CHC says:

    Developing sponsorship packages need to be a win/win for both parties. I agree , that sometimes sponsors are a necessity (not greed) to keep attendee costs down while trying to turn a profit.

    I also agree that providing the attendee list is definitely an added benefit to a sponsor, but I like the idea (much easier in today’s technological society) to have the lists targeted (opt in/out) from both sides so everyone is not inundated with “spam.” Case in point, I recently attended a FAM in which the host gave all sponsors our e-mail addresses. Within a week, I was automatically receiving 5 new newsletters that I did not sign request. UGH!!!! I removed myself from all of them.

    Having worked in publishing for 7+ years, I equate undisclosed sponsorships of sessions as breaches of editorial content. Sales (sponsorships) and editorial CANNOT cross. Magazines & newspapers have “special advertising sections” for this exact reason.

  7. Jon Thomas says:


    Thanks for calling it as it is. I always felt awkward when it was obvious a speaker was paying to play. The “education lunches” are ESPECIALLY the worst.

    What I’d like to see is conferences and sponsors finding useful ways to work out sponsorships. Having your logo on a lanyard doesn’t help the sponsor. Interrupting your audience for a paid sales pitch isn’t fair to the audience.

    What if a session leader conducted an exercise with the audience where they find a solution to a case-study type problem the sponsor has in real life? The audience learns something, and the sponsor receives something of value. That’s also a lot more exposure than just sticking their logo on a backdrop or a logo. Just an idea.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Dave Will
      Thanks for posting your comments. I am for sponsorships and have had recruited many sponsors in my association work. What I am against is when associations blatantly sell education sessions to sponsors to present without a disclosure. It is a conflict of interest. If an association’s mission is to educate their members, then I expect them to offer non-biased, non-promotional education, especially if I am paying for it. When they don’t, I expect them to disclose their relationships.

      I think we are in agreement on this one.

      Here’s something #eventprofs learn in Meeting Planning 101 – you take the total cost/expenses of a meeting, divide it by the number of attendees you expect and you have your registration fee. That way if you don’t get any sponsorships or exhibitors, the event’s expenses are covered. In the association world, rarely do the sponsorships go to reducing the registration fee. They go to the bottom line of the organization.

      In three of the nonprofit associations where I worked, their annual meeting revenue provided 60%-80% of the association’s annual budget. That’s a big difference between sponsorships reducing the registration fee and sponsorships helping provide the organization’s annual budget.

      I am not against sponsorships going to the bottom line. I am not against associations making revenue or a profit. I am against when an association uses its members to make money at the expense of their members. There are better ways to create new revenue streams.

      @David Patt
      I like what you said, “Sponsorship is often an economic necessity but it can be done ethically.” Great point.

      Thank you for sharing how you as an executive director handled sponsorships. It can be done ethically and within reason.

      Thanks for sharing the HSMAI approach to sponsorship. As an attendee, I really don’t like when a education session begins with a pitch from the sponsor. It turns me off and means that the actual presenter must then get my attention again. (Where’s my remote to fast-forward over the sponsor blah-blah-blah.) It also teaches me not to show up on time for the presentation.

      For example, this past year, I was presenting a session at a conference. A sponsor paid to introduce me. After a three-minute pitch on why to buy his products, he got around to introducing me. The audience was not pleased. I had to recover fast from the poor beginning or lose the audience completely. That was tough.

      In my opinion, the better way would have been to let the sponsor introduce me without the pitch. Then at the end of my presentation, let me ask the audience, “Did you get something valuable from this presentation? If yes, please tell company x that you appreciate their willingness to sponsor this event. Without them, it would not have been possible.”

      Which do you think would have more impact, the beginning or my suggestion at the end?

      “Developing sponsorship packages that are a win/win for both parties,” is a gem of a statement. That’s when both the audience and the sponsors are pleased and want to return the next year!

      Your point about undisclosed sponsorships of sessions as breaches of editorial content is very powerful. Thanks for reading and sharing.

      Thanks for reading and posting. I agree with you that it is awkward when a speaker paid to play. Anymore, I will get up and walk out of that presentation, especially if it is an obvious sales pitch. I really like your idea of a case study from a sponsor. Great idea! I’m going to borrow that one.

  8. I appreciate everyone’s comments. As a Conference Director, I am very much hands-on with our sponsorship for our educational programming. Having a clear and strict guideline on your programs is key. In addition to our scientific sessions that can be sponsored, we offer “industry-related programming” that may include product mention or commercial messages. We don’t endorse the product(s), we don’t sanction CE credit and it’s clearly labeled and listed as industry seminars. It’s very popular and well received by o attendees, as well as provide good revenue for the organization. In addition, we require sponsors to provide a minimum number of box lunches (or breafasts) for anyone who attends. It’s first-come, first-served and it’s offered to higher level sponsors first.

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