It is not only important to criticize publishers for making a lot of money on academics’ backs (which end up being covered by university budgets, partly subsidized by the state and partly by students’ tuition fees), but also conference organizing companies. FYI I paste here for you my exchanges with “Easy Conferences”, the outsourced organizer of last July’s ISSEI (International Society for the Study of European Ideas) conference that took place in Cyprus. It is to your interest to read it, and that is why I publicize this exchange and my criticism (I edited some mistakes, ad hoc).
From: info ( Easy Conferences) [email@example.com]
Sent: Thursday, December 27, 2012 10:08 AM
To: Christos Hadjioannou
Subject: RE: XMAS Wishes
Thank you for your email and I hope you had an enjoyable Christmas; since it was also your name day. As per your comments, I have checked your account and have found that you paid 140 euro for student registration. You did not take any other of our services. If you think that the registration fees for the conference were high, please advise what the fees were for the 3 previous issei conferences and I would also appreciate if you could point out what the fees are for the other conferences you usually attend.
We organize several events every year and the issei registration fees are some of the lowest fees around, which by the way are not set by us.
thanks for your email. Of course the fee was extremely high. I know how much the previous ISSEI conferences cost, and that was again equally high. The fact that the previous two conferences of the ISSEI also charged that much does not justify the price. It is rather a continual overcharging of students.
I have five important points for you:
The first is the fact that I have personally participated in the establishing and running, for three consecutive years (now going to the into the fourth), of a very successful phenomenology conference at the University of Sussex. I have seen first hand what kind of costs are involved and how much we can charge participating students: 25 Sterlings. So that would be around 30 Euros. If we also offered the other kind of services you guys had offered (for example the gala dinner), that would probably go up to 50 Euros, but no more.
It is my assumption that there was a big profit margin involved in the conference you organized, and it is my responsibility, as a student and as an academic, to point that out. But the burden of showing how these high costs were unavoidable should fall on your side, not mine: would you be kind enough to release an analytic statement of the costs the conference had, how much you were charged for each facility? Then we can see whether the charging reflects the market prices of Cyprus, and whether things could have been done differently, and what kind of profit was involved at each stage.
The second point is this: As you correctly pointed out: I paid 140 Euros. What I got was this: 1) Access to the University of Cyprus classrooms (and I assume that the UoC did not charge you for usage of the rooms. Or has it charged you? If yes, how much?); 2) To have coffee and pastries twice for three days. That would be about ten-fifteen cookies and six cups of coffee per person altogether; 3) To receive a name-tag and a bag with some material that is anyway always supplied to any conference organizer by the Cyprus Tourism Organization (CTO); 4) I got to listen to two talks by established academics. And that’s it. That was it. The question comes back to you: do you think what I got is worth 140 Euros? I say it is worth 20 Euros.
The third point is this: Cyprus is a very expensive destination, whereas the previous ISSEI conferences took place at destinations that were much easier to reach, with lots of cheaper flights and also trains etc. Turkey and Norway if I am not mistaken, were the previous two conference places. A student had to pay lots and lots of money in order to get to Cyprus in the first place, and their universities don’t fully reimburse these days as there is a financial crisis. You have to take into consideration your client, the situation of the market (in this case, the situation of the academia as a market).
And then on top of these financial burdens that Cyprus in itself carries, we had the excessive fee that the ISSEI & Easy Conferences set. This had the following result: LOTS of cancellations by students, and a *low* attendance. Do you have the numbers of students that attended the previous three ISSEI conferences and this year’s? If yes: let’s compare them.
In addition: I was personally a co-organizer of a panel. My panel was probably the biggest of the ISSEI conference, with 16 speakers. But here’s the catch: Most of our speakers managed to come because I had personally arranged for them free accommodation. Otherwise most of them, all of them being fantastic academics by the way, wouldn’t have managed to come. We also had 4 cancellations due to the high cost (despite me offering free accommodation). So please, when you count attendance, don’t include the numbers of my panel because that panel was so successful due to the fact that my colleague and I (we were two co-organizers) managed to lower the cost of our speakers through our own means.
Fourth: I have attended similar sized conferences with a lower fee. If you don’t trust the prices of the conference I co-organize at Sussex (with a registration fee of 25 Pounds) (please see:http://philevents.org/event/show/1659) do check out this very big conference organized by FEP-SEP, which I attended and gave a talk: http://sepfep2009.wordpress.com/registration/ Full registering cost: 60 Sterlings.
Fifth: I was a co-organizer of a panel at the ISSEI conference in Cyprus. Don’t you think I was personally entitled to a reduced price, as I actually managed to attract to the conference, along with my colleague, 14 other participants, who paid 140 Euros each, and thus managed to summon about 2000 Euros of extra revenue for Easy Conferences and ISSEI? (14×140= 1960Euros).
(Sixth: If you are not the ones setting the fees, and if my criticism should not be addressed to your company, please do pass my critical remarks to the ones who set the fees and are responsible for the things I criticized, and we can continue the discussion and further analysis.)
Thank you very much again for your response. I wish you a Happy New Year, and look forward to your response.
Associate Tutor & DPhil Candidate in Philosophy
University of Sussex
thanks for your email.
The differences in opinion need not be unbridgeable. There is a common interest for the both of us in my criticism and your responses.
1) I quoted the 2009 SEP-FEP conference because it was the one that I attended myself. I did not attend this year’s, so I did not know their prices. In addition, I quoted a 2009 conference because you had also referred me back to ISSEI conferences of the past. But it seems to me there is no way to compare really, because we do not know exactly what they offered. But one obvious thing that the SEP-FEP conference offered more, was an extra keynote speaker. In addition, their conference was 3 days of a full program: yours was 4.5 days, but one day being without any academic events. Also: I do not know if and how their conference was subsidized, and neither do I know if and how your conference was subsidized. One critical question is this: did the University of Cyprus charge you for the usage of their rooms? [After I sent the email I asked and found out that the University of Cyprus does not charge for regular classrooms, only for auditoriums. C.H.]. UK universities normally do charge, if it takes place outside term times. But if you do not release your analytical costs and incomes, our discussion will remain pure speculation from both parties. So I again urge you to release more information.
2) You are right, I have inadvertently undermined them and I am sorry. Your conference did not last 3. But it did not last exactly 5 either! The pure conference days were 3.5 days. The service was good, but the problem was not the service but the price for it, especially the one concerning students. The fact that you received good comments about the service doesn’t respond to what I have said. Have any students approached you to thank you? In addition, as you probably know, the rule of thumb in marketing is this (textbook marketing rules): every positive comment you receive from a customer counts as one, but every negative comment counts as three, since people who are unsatisfied with your services avoid communicating it to you. You received the positive comments, but I received all the negative comments, which were not communicated to you, and are hereby finally communicated through these lines. You should not take my complaints as isolated or subjective: I received many complaints myself about your prices, being the co-organizer of a panel, and therefore I urge you to take my complaint as being representative of many other students. I speak for many. You should not take my complaints as counting just thrice: due to my role and position in this conference, and the access I had to the real opinion of many students, it should count for at least 20 students. We also got blunt cancellations just before the conference, due to the high prices. So my previous question still stands for you: how many cancellations in general did you have? And how does this year’s attendance compare with the previous ISSEI conferences’ attendance? And I insist on this point, for the reason that I have experienced it myself, as co-organizer of the biggest panel: how many students cancelled after the fee was announced? Or: how many panels had just one or two participants? Did you not find that phenomenon disappointing? Did you not notice it? How many panels were cancelled altogether?
In addition: how many students would have expressed an interest and attended had you set a lower student fee? Many more, I am certain. In business parlance this is what we call opportunity cost. The opportunity cost for you, as a profit-making company on the one hand, and the academia, on the other, was great. Charging less would have benefited both you as well as the students and the academia in general.
I still think that I could myself organize the same event with a lower cost for students. The prices were overtly high for students. (I suspect me organizing a conference in Cyprus will happen sooner or later, so we will all see how it can be done).
3) My reference to the subsidies, services and material, offered by the Cyprus Tourist Organization was not false or manufactured. The information were given to me by the CTO itself, when I had inquired myself in order to organize a conference in Cyprus. Please find herewith pasted the email I received from a Tourist Officer in 2011, and I have attached for you the relevant official forms that had accompanied that email [I have erased the names, for matters of courtesy].
“Αγαπητέ κ. Χατζηιωάννου,
Αναφορικά με την επικοινωνία που είχατε προχθές με [ONOMA] σας ενημέρωνω ότι ο ΚΟΤ λειτουργεί Πρόγραμμα Φιλοξενίας Συνεδρίων, μέσα από το οποίο θα μπορούσατε να λάβετε επιχορήγηση ως συνέδριο.
Ειδικά σε ότι αφορά τα έξοδα ομιλητών, το Πρόγραμμα επιχορηγεί έξοδα αεροπορικού εισιτηρίου και διαμονής μέχρι €800 για ένα κύριο ομιλητή (keynote speaker).
Επιπλέον μπορεί να επιχορηγηθεί ένα γεύμα (μέχρι €15 για κάθε συμμετέχοντα από το εξωτερικό) ή μία εκδρομή (μέχρι €19 για κάθε συμμετέχοντα από το εξωτερικό). Σημειώστε ότι στους συμμετέχοντες συμπεριλαμβάνονται και οι συνοδοί των συνέδρων).
Επισυνάπτω το Πρόγραμμα Φιλοξενίας Συνεδρίων μαζί με την αίτηση την οποία θα πρέπει να υποβάλετε συμπληρωμένη μέσω email στη δική μου διεύθυνση. Μαζί με την αίτηση να μας σταλεί και μία καλυπτική επιστολή σε επιστολόχαρτο του Πανεπιστημίου η οποία θα δίνει γενικές πληροφορίες για το Συνέδριο και θα αναφέρει την παροχή φιλοξενίας που ζητείται.
Αφού λάβουμε την αίτησή σας θα επικοινωνήσουμε ξανά μαζί σας για να σας ενημερώσουμε για την έγκριση της επιχορήγησης και τις υποχρεώσεις σας που απορρέουν από το Πρόγραμμα.
Μη διστάσετε να επικοινωνήσετε μαζί μου αν χρειαστείτε περισσότερες πληροφορίες ή διευκρινήσεις.
Επιπλέον μπορείτε να παραγγείλετε έντυπο υλικό του ΚΟΤ για τους συνέδρους. Για αυτό το θέμα παρακαλώ όπως επικοινωνήσετε με τον αρμόδιο λειτουργό του Οργανισμού, [ONOMA] στην ηλεκτρονική διεύθυνση [ΔΙΕΥΘΥΝΣΗ] ή τηλεφωνικώς, στο ΧΧ ΧΧ ΧΧ ΧΧ.
Cyprus Tourism Organisation
P.O. Box 24535
1390 Nicosia, Cyprus
Tel: +357 2269 1309
4) Our own conference at Sussex was sponsored for only 200 pounds. Which means that, had we charged 40 pounds per speaker instead of 25, the university sponsorship would have been replaced. Still much cheaper.
Now to your unnumbered points: I did not say I arranged accommodation for 16 speakers, but for “Most of our speakers” (quoting myself from the previous email). The number of students I arranged accommodation for was 11. The answer is very simple: My whole family resides in Nicosia and we are a big and hospitable family. We hosted all 11 of them.
Lastly, concerning this comment of yours: “From your email, I understand that your benchmark regarding registration fees is GBP25.00 for a three day event. I suggest you stick to these events and thus you should not have a problem.”
This comment is very bad, both for the academia and for your business. There are three points:
Firstly: This has nothing to do with my benchmark, but with the general interest of the academia, and especially the students who are being taken advantage continuously by overpricing. And it is not my problem. It is a problem of many others, and I hope to convince you that it is also a problem for your company as well, and a problem for the whole academia, and at the end of the day, in this case, for Cyprus itself and Nicosia.
Secondly: Trust me, most students are sticking to these 25 Pound conferences. That’s a loss for you, but it is not easily quantifiable. But here, through my response you could perhaps get an idea of the numbers involved.
Thirdly: There is a financial crisis that is breaking the academia apart. More and more students, as well as lecturers, have less and less money to spend. They will all be sticking to these 25 pound conferences soon. Either we like it or not, things have to change with respect to prices charged.
Best wishes for a Happy New Year and thanks for taking the time to respond to me,
Associate Tutor & DPhil Candidate in Philosophy
University of Sussex