Standard disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links that allow me to blog full time. All opinions are my own.
Conferences can be a great resource. Panels are often filled with some of the best in the industry and can help you learn about aspects of your industry that you may not have much experience in yourself. They almost always have mixers designed to help you meet other movers and shakers in your industry and help you expand your contacts. You can also often book one on one meetings with experts who can help you advance your career. Unfortunately, however, conferences are also often obscenely expensive. On top of the cost of passes, which often cost over $1,000 at the bigger conferences, there is also the cost of food, lodging, transportation, and supplies.
Luckily there are ways to help mitigate these costs. Even as a broke college student I was able to attend conferences by following these tips.
At the Game Developer’s Conference all access passes cost $1495 if you get them early enough, at SXSW passes are a $1345 person if you buy the year before, and even at a slightly smaller conference like ASCAP’s I Create Music Expo passes will still run you $450. There are two main ways to get around the crazy pass prices. The first and most commonly available is to volunteer. In my experience most conferences needs volunteers to refill gift bags, assist registration, etc. More often than not they have volunteers work half of the conference in exchange for free attendance for the rest of the conference. Some conferences like GDC will even pay their volunteers. Some conferences will have a page available on their site with contact information for perspective volunteers and others will not. If they do not have volunteering information available it doesn’t mean they don’t take volunteers. Just email an organizer of the conference and ask about volunteer opportunities.
The second way to get passes for free is more hit and miss. Occasionally there will be a way to win passes. GDC raffles off free passes for students and those who could not afford the passes otherwise. Make sure your scour the conference’s website thoroughly for free pass opportunities and google the conference to find giveaways through other companies.
Another tricky and expensive aspect of attending a conference is the food. Food around conference areas can be expensive and has a high chance of leaving you ravenous before your next chance to grab food again. There are three ways of helping mitigate the cost of food and prevent a growling stomach in the middle of a panel.
- The first way to help keep down the cost of is to plan ahead. Scope out the area of the conference ahead of time with the help of yelp or google. Know where the cheapest food is and where the healthiest food is. Also find out where the closest grocery stores are. Plan out your meals and snacks ahead of time and make sure you don’t go over budget. Pro tip: Coordinate your meals around the panels you want to see.
- The second way to help save money is to cook before you leave. Obviously you can’t cook all your meals, but making some granola bars to pack as a snack can go a long way to helping keep you away from the closest fast food. I recommend one of these yummy and filling bars.
- The final way is to talk to fellow conference goers to find out where the free food is. SXSW is known from free food and twitter accounts like South by Free Noms keep you up to date on where to score the best free food.
Transportation to and from a conference is probably the second highest cost associated with attending. Unless you live in the area you’re probably looking at a several day driving trip or a flight. The real trick to cutting down these costs is to plan ahead. The earlier you book your flights the cheaper you’re likely to get them. Check around on all of the discount hunting sites in order to get the best rates. If you’re driving make sure that your car is in good repair. Get the oil changed, check your tires, and make sure you don’t need a tune up. The better shape your car is in the better gas mileage you’ll get. Plus you’ll cut down on the chances of breaking down on the road. If your car is in poor shape you might look into renting a car. Groupon often has deals on car rentals and can make renting affordable. Finally, if you can, try and find out if there are others in your area, or on your way who are looking to go to the conference. Carpooling is a great way to cut down on the cost of travel. But if you carpool make sure to be safe!
As with transportation, the best way to cut down on the cost of lodging is to plan ahead. In fact, with extremely popular conferences like SXSW, planning ahead is the only way to guarantee that you’ll be able to find some place to stay at all. The earlier you find some place to stay the better your rates will be. Planning ahead also helps you to find someone to share lodging with or a friend in the area who will let you sleep on their couch. If you can’t crash on a friend’s couch try to find deals online. Check out sites that offer cheap stays like Airbnb, Hostels, Expedia, or Groupon for room packages. Last summer I stayed in the middle of San Francisco for just over $100/night for an entire apartment through Airbnb, which is pretty good for the area during tourist season.
The absolute basic supplies you need for a conference are a notebook, something to write with, and business cards. You can find notebooks fairly cheap on amazon or at your local target. Get something small enough to be convenient, doesn’t bulk up your bag, and looks fairly nice. If you live near an ikea they have handy little notebooks for $1.99. I always grab a few when I’m there. As for writing implements I’m partial to Papermate felt tip pens in both black and color.
Business cards get their own paragraph because they are so important. If you don’t bring business cards to a conference you might as well not go. No one will bother to look you up after a conference without a physical reminder. Seriously, get business cards. There are many, many sites out there that promise cheap or even free business cards but unfortunately you get what you pay for. The extra cheap sites use cheap paper, crappy inks, and bombard you with ads as you try to order. Get the most out of your money and get cards from Moo. They’re the only place I get my business cards (and no, that isn’t an affiliate link, I just really really love them). Get 50 regular cards for $19.99 or 100 mini cards for $19.99.
What are your best tips for saving money at a conference?