Conference sponsored by…

A very interesting blog post published a couple of days ago by David Dodgson got me thinking about teachers’ conferences and what they are about. I am not talking about the very large scale conferences organised by IATEFL or TESOL, but rather events organised by local associations in various parts of the world, with more or less success. I have myself been involved in organising such conferences for my local association of teachers, TESOL Greece, of which I was a board member in the distant past. It seems, though, things have changed quite drastically since then.

Teachers’ conferences some time ago

This was an era before the world wide web was invented: there were no blogs, no internet forums, no tweets, no chats, no online events, so teachers really depended on such conferences to get information on what was going on in the profession, to share ideas with colleagues and to further their own professional development. A teachers’ conference, even in a small country like Greece, was an important event, which attracted quite a few hundred teachers as well as some of the biggest names in English Language Teaching globally. This may also have been due to the fact that there were not that many ELT conferences worldwide, ELT publishers did not run as many road shows as they do these days, free seminars for teachers sponsored by publishers, examination bodies and language school chains were very sparse, and perhaps the big names were not in such high demand and had time and energy to devote to preparing and delivering original talks and workshops even if the conference was not very widely publicised.

Organising a teachers’ conference in the 21st century

It seems that organising a conference of this scope now is a completely different story. At a time when face to face conferences are becoming less and less relevant, it has become more essential than ever to ensure that they are attended by a large number of people, so that the conference fees collected can at least meat the ever rising cost of the conference itself.  However, to attract those large numbers, the conference must be worth its salt. As a bare minimum, I would expect the following:

  • The keynote speakers must be people who have something to say, who can say what they have to say attractively, and who have not said the exact same thing in the exact same way before.
  • The focus of the talks and workshops cannot be to promote a commercial product or service (such as a book, an exam or a course) but must be on teacher development: the exchange of ideas, the evaluation of current practices, the discussion of new developments in our field, and so on.
  • The premises must be decent, the equipment the presenters need must be in good working order and the room available should be adequate for the turnout expected.

But face to face conferences have become very expensive: venue costs are rising (a conference centre in Athens, Greece, can charge € 20,000 + for a two-day conference attended by 400 people or so); most keynote speakers ask for hefty honoraria in addition to their travel and accommodation expenses; conference publicity, invitations, badges, etc., can also cost quite a bit; insurance may well be another unavoidable cost; and there may well be a need for paid admin staff to assist in the conference (security, ushers, etc.) in addition to the volunteers who organise it. So even if the conference managed to attract 400 people, and they each paid a € 70 conference fee for the privilege of attending, the costs would still not be met.

Enter the sponsors

What is a poor teachers’ organisation to do? Seek sponsors, of course! This is how most small-scale conferences manage to survive! This would not be a problem if the sponsors were hotel chains, airlines, mobile phone companies or e-shops; this kind of sponsor, however, is highly unlikely to be interested in a teachers’ conference with a few hundred attendees. The people who are interested in reaching a few hundred English teachers are those who have things to sell to the teachers and their students: ELT publishers, exam providers, language school chains, teacher training institutions, and so on.

Let’s have a look at two examples of ELT conference sponsorship:

  • The conference organisers will naturally ask ELT publishers if they can sponsor a speaker; the publisher will equally naturally sponsor the author of one of their latest course books to give a talk and indirectly (or occasionally not so indirectly) promote their book.
  • The conference organisers may ask a large teacher training institution to offer their premises; the institution will gladly host the conference as it gives them the unique chance of promoting their services to four hundred of their most likely customers, i.e. teachers evidently interested in professional development and willing to pay for it!

Exit the point of the conference

Clearly, there is no such thing as a free lunch and there is no such thing as a disinterested sponsor. The ELT-related businesses that sponsor teachers’ conferences do so for the exact same reasons that businesses that have nothing to do with ELT do not: because they are focused on what there is to gain. Relying exclusively on sponsors to pay for the venue and determine the content of the conference inevitably results in a conference that will, more or less shamelessly, promote the products and services of the sponsors rather than the professional development of the attendees.

Sooner or later, conference goers do realise precisely how irrelevant all this is to their own development. If insult has been added to injury and they have also been asked to pay for the privilege of having products and services advertised and sold to them, then they may well feel cheated out of their money and start to resent the conference, the conference organisers and the association that is behind the conference. And if they have made the mistake (as I know I have) of actively participating in the conference by presenting a paper or leading a workshop which they have carefully prepared so that no product or service is promoted which they themselves may have an interest in promoting, then I would argue that they rightly feel doubly cheated: out of both their money and their self-respect.

The more teachers realise how irrelevant many of these conferences are, the more commercialised the conferences have to become, as the only alternative to commercialisation is to organise a conference that people will want to go to, will need to go to, and will be willing to pay for. Otherwise, there eventually comes a point when even the ELT-related sponsors lose interest in the few faithful (or perhaps naïve) conference goers, withdraw their support and the conference dies the death that it should have died some time before.

9 thoughts on “Conference sponsored by…

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  2. Hi George,

    Thanks for this addition to the discussion. As I said in the comments section on my post, there are so many new conferences starting up (many of the ones taking place later this year in Turkey are prefixed with ‘1st/2nd International ELT Conference’) – why do they all feel the need to run a 3 day event with several ‘big name’ speakers? Why not a 1 or 2 day event with one ‘ELT celebrity’ and some locally-based teacher trainers, DoS types or experienced teachers? I find this kind of low key event much more beneficial to me personally as the speakers are more closely connected to the context the majority of the attendees work in.

    Don’t get me wrong – I still feel the draw of a well-known ELT writer on the conference bill, I just don’t see the need to fly a couple of professors and PhDs halfway around the world for a small scale local event. I am looking forward to attending ISTEK in Istanbul this April, where Scott Thornbury, Ken Wilson and Lindsey Clanfield to name but a few will be presenting but the funny thing about that event is it’s the most affordable of the lot AND it asks for no fee from the workshop presenters AND offers them free accommodation! How is that possible when others want in excess of 100 euros from presenters for a less-star studded bill?

    The debate goes on…

  3. Wow! Really interesting to learn this about the ISTEK conference? How can ISTEK afford to offer speakers such treatment???

  4. Hi George,

    Thank you for this blog article, it is interesting to hear from someone who has been on the inside as well. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. It is such a tricky thing to organize one of these and when you try to and you have the best intentions it is hard to have the conference you want with the current trend in conferences. I know (as I am in the middle of organizing one). Istek is still a mystery to me and tomorrow I am going to ask around about it. However I think that if we had confidence in not relying on big named speakers and believing in what we have to offer beyond what is produced in America and Europe then we can move forward. The debate rolls on:)

  5. Hi David! I, too, think that in a local conference there should be no need for ELT celebrities, with their lack of contextual knowledge and prepackaged presentations; but even though there is no need, there is evidently a desire for these “celebrities” which is related to their symbolic value – the allure of the signifier, almost completely divorced from everything else.

    It would be interesting, indeed, Ansa, to hear how conferences like ISTEK manage to succeed in satisfying that desire, among other things. I am sure sponsorship has a role to play in this, but from what I have heard about ISTEK it does not seem to have led to the kind of commercialisation that I speak of in this post.

    Sharon, I agree of course: as David suggests, contextual knowledge may be a lot more relevant to teacher development than imported wisdom; it is a question of confidence on the part of the conference organisers, but the proof of the pudding is, I am afraid, attendance and it may well be that the desire of the attendees for a word or a touch or a bit of blood or a piece of the ELT gurus’ hair or their clothes is stronger than their actual needs.

  6. Really great to read your thoughts on this, George. Also, thanks for commenting on my similarly themed post.

    As much as I appreciate what organisations like IATEFL do, I no longer relish going to the big international event because of many of the factors you allude to in this great post. I by far prefer SIGs (special interest group) events, as they tend to attract people with specific interests and presenters that have a lot of interest to say about the subject in question. The mega-scale international conferences can be a really dispiriting experience as far as the commercialisation is concerned. Necessary evils?

    I also totally agree with Dave that smaller, national events need to focus on giving plenary opportunities to local experts and shouldn’t be flying in celebs for the sake of it.

    I’m genuinely impressed with what ISTEK is able to offer, although I desperately fear that the whims of the administration might change in the future. This is only possible because someone in the organisation is willing to foot the bill. Let’s hope that lasts.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Adam.

    In my experience, I fear, a lot of the “smaller” events tend to be a lot more commercialised and commercial than the big international conferences. But the issue remains that the main desideratum in a conference is the quality of the sessions, and that can, unfortunately, not be easily guaranteed by flying in an ELT celebrity that will do one of their prepackaged plenaries!

    As for ISTEK, I, too, am impressed at what I hear about it, but I have no direct knowledge or experience of it, so cannot really comment.

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