It’s a catch-22: conferences help you network with people who could help your business grow, but attending them often costs a small fortune. Expenses like airfare, transportation, hotels, meals and other activities often put these events out of reach for ambitious entrepreneurs whose dreams far exceed the size of their bank accounts.
Instead of writing these opportunities off as prohibitively expensive, get creative and resourceful. Here are four strategies that have helped me attend major conferences without spending a dime — including the exact emails I sent.
Many conferences offer free meals and access to most programs and activities in exchange for working one- to four-hour shifts. You may also receive additional perks, like free parking and attendees-only post-conference activities.
To find volunteer opportunities, go to the conference website and look for a request for volunteers or a contact name and email. You will either find instructions on how to email a request or complete an application.
When volunteering, you’ll either work before the conference, during the conference or both. In 2012, I asked the Executive Director of Blogging While Brown if I could volunteer to get into the conference in Philadelphia. I helped assemble swag bags, prepared name badges and performed other duties as needed for six hours. In exchange, I was able to enjoy free conference meals and activities, and put the $299 I saved from the entrance fee toward my travel costs.
2. Apply as Media
Bloggers, podcasters and video bloggers are increasingly being recognized for their media influence and welcomed by conferences.
Contact the conference’s media department to request a media pass. Let them know who you are, the name of your site or podcast, why you want to attend, and the topics you cover. Sometimes they’ll ask for the size of your audience, and they may be very specific about the topics you’ll need to emphasize in your coverage. For instance, in order to get into the National Restaurant Show as media, you have to write about food. Even if you’re not a food blogger, food has to be primary topic on your site.
Sometimes, however, it’s as simple as asking the question. Here’s my request for a media pass for the 2014 Illinois Governor’s Conference on Travel & Tourism, which cost $445 per person, including lunch and an exhibit hall pass:
3. Apply as a Presenter — If You Have Something to Say
This year, I presented at New Media Expo in Las Vegas, the world’s largest blogging and social media conference. It has a price tag to match: a whopping $1297. At 50% off, that’s still $649.
I knew presenting at such a well-known event would be a long shot, but I thought I might as well try. Needless to say, I was shocked when I received this message:
By presenting, I received an all-access pass which included meals, entry into the Podcast Awards, parties and speed networking. I used the money I saved for lodging, transportation and other fun stuff.
This strategy isn’t always a good option, but if you have unique experience or expertise to share, applying as a presenter might be your ticket into a conference.
4. Ask for Help
It sounds obvious, yet this way to get into conferences is often overlooked.
I was rejected from volunteering at BlogHer, the world’s largest blogging conference for women bloggers, in Chicago in 2013. About a week before the conference, while reading about the exciting things to expect at the event, I resolved that I was going to be there — somehow. I emailed the person who sent the rejection message:
“Hello, I am financially strapped right now and would like to attend Blogher ’13 in Chicago. I applied to volunteer, and was denied. What other volunteer opportunities are available? Please advise. Thank you.”
She responded immediately:
Thanks so much for your interest in attending BlogHer ’13. Unfortunately our volunteer opportunities are currently full, although I am copying our volunteer manager here in case any last-minute spots should open up.
Otherwise, we are happy to offer you a 20% discount off the Blogger Full Conference Pass. Or if you would like to attend one of the pre-conference days (HealthMinder, Viewfinder, or Pathfinder Day) we are happy to offer you 50% off any of the pre-conference passes.”
These discounts were great offers, but I needed her to know that while I wanted to attend, I really didn’t have the money. Here’s what I replied:
“Good morning, Ms. A,
I am unable to pay anything at this time; however, please let me know should a volunteer slot becomes available. Thank you.”
The volunteer manager responded just as quickly. Here’s her email:
I was in! In exchange for three hours of service, I saved at least $600 on all of the conference activities, including pre-conference workshops, meals, Voices of the Year reception, the fashion show and all of their parties.
Your Turn: Have you ever gotten into a conference for free? How did you get in?
Marcie Hill is a freelance writer, blogger and author of 62 Blog Posts to Overcome Blogger’s Block who loves technology, roller skating and photography. Find more about her and her written successes at Marcie Writes.