Friday, August 19, 2005

Conference Crashers

In a popular summer movie Wedding Crashers, two friends go to weddings and receptions uninvited for food, drink, entertainment and to pick up single women. We have a similar problem with conferences, people who come, not really for the above reasons, but to see talks, visit with their friends and avoid paying the registration fee.

While small conferences don't have the manpower to check for registered participants, the vast majority of participants do register. But as conference costs go up (for reasons like extra proceedings sales going down dramatically) and grants getting smaller and harder to get, there has been a mild increase in people skipping out on registration. If this trend continues, the problem feeds back onto itself, as those who do pay feel foolish, and we have a serious concern on our hands.

If you don't get a copy of the proceedings or eat at the conference meals you might think that you are not costing the conference anything by attending and so don't feel guilty by not paying. But conferences have some fixed expenses and most of the other expenses are cheaper per participant if there are more participants so you are costing your fellow researchers real dollars by not paying your fair share.

Sometime the registration fee can make the different in a decision on whether to attend a conference. If so talk to the conference organizers; if you explain the situation sometimes arrangements can be made. Better to attend at a reduced rate than not attend at all.

On a side note, I'm off the web next week. Microsoft postdoc Ryan O'Donnell will guest blog. Enjoy.


  1. If FOCS & STOC were more reasonably priced then there would not be a problem. But when it was in the US recently you had to pay 200$ for flight, >200$ hotel, 400$ registration, it comes to close to a thousand dollars. There is no reason for it not to be much cheaper...

  2. Yeah, we could drastically lower hotel expenses by having it at the campgrounds of state parks.

  3. It is a surprise to me that there are "gate crashers" into theory conferences. May be my experience is isolated, but I haven't known for a fact anyone who attended talks at a conference without paying the registration fee. Do many people consider gate crashing a serious issue at our conferences? Of course, it is hard to seek statistics on the problem to evaluate its impact.

  4. First, let me state clearly that the conference being expensive does not excuse crashing it. Mercedes are expensive, but I don't steal one... I go without. And conference organizers are often willing to take into account financial hardship when asked, as Lance suggested.

    For the record, as someone who has actually organized 2 FOCS conferences, let me state that FOCS and STOC are (generally) fairly priced. You have to pay for the flight, you have to pay for the hotel, and you have to pay some registration to get things organized. Let's look at how we can trade off those costs.

    For cheap flights, you need to have a big city -- a Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. These sorts of cities are also good in that they tend to have larger numbers of students, and we do want students to attend (and cheaply if possible).

    Sadly, in such big cities, hotels tend to be expensive. And you are somewhat restricted to choosing a hotel that can actually handle the conference. I don't notice a lot of doubling/tripling up of rooms, though, except among students -- so I have trouble believing hotels are a deal-breaker. Some people try to avoid the conference hotel and choose a cheaper hotel -- but that's like not paying to attend the conference. (The conference guarantees the hotel will get a certain number of room nights to avoid paying for the conference rooms.)

    For registration -- well, let's just say FOCS/STOC are cheap. Try attending an INFOCOM, a Data Compression Conference, etc. sometime.

    Really, the only way to lower conference costs is to have conferences at schools (or campgrounds of state parks, indeed) instead of hotels. This is a viable idea, and it comes up all the time at conference business meetings, but as a community we've never seemed to take seriously moving in that direction.

  5. And yes, there are conference crashers -- small in number to be sure, but there certainly are.

  6. Crypto are held in UCSB
    every year. It charges
    $600 for registration
    and $300+ for dorm room.
    So it looks like that
    school is not a cheap

  7. First, let me state clearly that the conference being expensive does not excuse crashing it. Mercedes are expensive, but I don't steal one... I go without.

    The parallel between not paying to attend a conference and stealing a car seems rather weak to say the least.

  8. Most conferences have had at least $1000 U.S. total cost to attend (as a full-fee out of town registrant) for more than a decade.
    This is nothing new. The vagaries of airfares, not registration fees, have played the biggest role in costs.

    Registration fees have crept up a bit, however. It is pretty easy to account for about $50 or more of this for two simple reasons:

    1. In the past, STOC/FOCS could count on making additional money from those not attending by sales of hundreds of proceedings at a tidy profit. This is no longer such a major revenue source.

    2. Only relatively recently has it been possible to register by credit card. Allowing such registrations means a hefty hidden fee.

    Paul Beame


  10. -- Crypto are held in UCSB every year. It charges $600 for registration and $300+ for dorm room. So it looks like that school is not a cheap option.

    I do not know why Crypto is that way. Having personally organized several events (and having helped organize several others) I can tell you with certainty that hosting them in a University is, as a general rule, substantially cheaper than in a hotel.

    For certain conferences, such as FOCS, that overlap the school it is difficult to host them in a university (find an empty auditorium that can be booked for three days solid). Otherwise universities are wonderful choices. The SoCG experience last year speaks for itself. Cheap accomodations, great facilities and low registration fee, all while the conference was hosted in one of the most expensive cities in the USA: NY.

    Alex Lopez-Ortiz

  11. Don't print proceedings!!! We don't need them at all, no question, period. They serve _very_ little purpose, especially compared to the cost of printing them. Personally, I have ditched about half my proceedings for FOCS/STOC by giving them away to others (for free) because I didn't want to have to lug them back on the plane!

    No conference lunches unless they are in a remote location with no other decent options for food! Conference food always sucks, and it sucks a lot, and it's always too expensive compared to the quality.

  12. What if you are unemployed? Then is it okay to go without paying the registration fee?

  13. --- Don't print proceedings!!!

    Actually nowadays this makes for rather small portion of the registration fee. During a SODA business meeting, SIAM quoted a cost of approx $25 per volume.

    --- No conference lunches unless they are in a remote location with no other decent options for food!

    This is bang on the money. Conference food is 2-3x the price you would pay for the same thing in a restaurant.

    --- What if you are unemployed? Then is it okay to go without paying the registration fee?

    In that case you discreetly approach the conference chair or local organizer and ask for a break. Most will be happy to oblige.

  14. I think that having more options would help. If I'm going to have to cover the costs out of personal money, I'd rather have a range of hotels to choose from and have the option to not eat on site. I don't need snacks every hour (it's a bad and unhealthy habit anyway). I'd be happy being at a conference which would be set up more modestly, whose costs would include
    - rental of conference rooms and equipment
    - coffee in the morning and after lunch but no food
    - no meals.
    I know that this would be very unpopular, because it would indicate a lower status in society and many people would feel that that style would be beneath them, because people are used to their comfort (we are being treated like people in assisted living) and reluctant to spend any energy having to figure out who they want to go eat with, where they want to go, how to get there, and how to organize eating parties; and because they're used to having food and drinks around all day long and would complain about the lack of it. In short, we're spoilt and possibly snobbish as well. (From a different perspective, many people want to focus their attention to professional interactions and not worry about details of life. Same thing!) Only a total disappearance of NSF funding could possibly change that...

    Progress has been made in the sense that now we often see on the web page description of a possible alternate accomodation. That's progress, very useful for the minority who are ready to walk a few blocks in order to save money.

    It's still expensive, so we need more progress: namely, the option of not eating at the conference.
    Once that is set up, I don't think people will have much reason to complain any more.

  15. As a grad student, I once crashed a conference meal with a fellow grad student. It was a theoretical physics conference, and being in CS we figured we could get away with it. The mistake we made was sitting next to the conference organzier at the meal.

    He was quite a good sport about it.

    But never again.

  16. I have crashed occasionally. If the conference is nearby and I am only attending a few talks. If there are several colocated conferences and I have already registered for one. I feel that they are too expensive already, (particularly when coming from overseas or from a place with little or no travel budget), so I have no qualms about it. I also know a number of (well-known) people who have (discreetly) done it as well, on occasion.

    It doesn't have much to do with stealing a car, but is more akin to Jean Valjean stealing bread.

  17. Collocated conferences should either be cheap or offer a special price for those attending more than one event.

    The first FCRC didn't offer a discount, the ones thereafter allow you to attend any session of any other conference so long as you are registered to at least one happening at that time.

    A better way would be to charge a per day fee plus a proceeding fee. The per day fee is distributed among conferences according to the proceeding sales volume.

  18. For all those recommending no conference lunches, just remember that one of the key reasons to attend a conference is to meet and talk with people; this is much harder to do when everyone is running off in small groups to find lunch on their own, rather than eating lunch together. Also, sad though some posters seem to find it, food at the breaks does seem to be conducive to discussion.

  19. It doesn't have much to do with stealing a car, but is more akin to Jean Valjean stealing bread

    In fact not even that. Except in really exceptional cases, by sitting through a talk at a conference, you do not force anyone else to not attend the talk. So it is more like downloading and listening to a song that, if you had to pay for, you would not listen to. Comparing it to stealing a mercedes is absurd.

  20. The Mercedes comment was meant as an exaggeration, but I'm surprised by the response on it. Several of you have tried to make excuses, but all of you seem to admit that it's stealing. Jean Valjean's punishment did not fit the crime, but he did STEAL bread. Downloading a song, say through Kazaa, that you are supposed to pay for it STEALING intellectual property -- an argument the RIAA is making quite strongly and successfully (if possibly at the expense of the long-term good of the recording industry).

    I'm quite willing to listen to arguments that in this case it is "not-so-bad" stealing -- certainly it seems less bad than stealing a Mercedes -- but since all the counterarguments seem to be of this form, I'd appreciate people avoid calling the argument ridiculous. Particularly since it's clear that if EVERYONE decided it was ok just to go to a conference without paying for it, we couldn't have conferences -- my recollection of Kantian ethics says this is on definition of immoral behavior.

    I do agree that conferences should offer a smaller per day fee -- so people attending just 1 day don't have to pay for the whole conference -- and conference organizers should be open to allowing people to come for a couple of talks or just to come if money issues are a problem. We are a community, aftera all.

  21. Well, I think Jean Valjean was right to steal bread. He needed it, he couldn't afford it, so he took it. In my opinion that's much better than him going without bread.

    As long as the number of such "thefts" is not so large as to disrupt the economic balance, that's perfectly all right with me. If the numbers grew, it would signal the need to reorganize so as to make things more affordable. That may happen if NSF funding keeps shrinking...

  22. RIAA is certainly trying hard to make copyright infringement seem equivelent to theft. However these are very different structurally. I'd rather not go into the standard arguments on that.

    As far as conferences are concerned, an attendee
    not paying for registration seems similar to a listener not donating money to NPR.

  23. -- Well, I think Jean Valjean was right to steal bread. He needed it, he couldn't afford it, so he took it. In my opinion that's much better than him going without bread.

    If I recall my junior high school courses correctly, in Mexico stealing food a small amount of food in extremis was not a crime, much as killing in self-defense isn't in the USA.

    Alex Lopez-Ortiz

  24. As far as conferences are concerned, an attendee
    not paying for registration seems similar to a listener not donating money to NPR.

    But conferences are not really public events, are they? Its not like they broadcast on an open channel.

    I have to say that Hotel rates ARE a big concern for me (though I'm just a student). I cannot fathom why committees decide to hold events at overly priced, overly posh hotels when equivalent facilities are available.

    I don't understand why more conferences aren't held on college campuses--they are cheap, even free if its small enough.

    Also, I don't agree about plane ticket prices to smaller cities; they tend to be very competative with big-city plane ticket prices, but the difference in hotel prices is VERY great.

  25. But conferences are not really public events, are they? Its not like they broadcast on an open channel.

    I don't think that public/not public distinction is crucial.

    The marginal cost of an additional attendee at a conference (and NPR) is zero (as long as not
    material resources, e.g.
    proceedings, are being consumed).

    However by paying the fee the attendee supports the community. If everyone stopped paying, conferences and NPR would not be able to continue.

  26. I am interested to know how would you guys compare attending conference talk without registering for the conference to sitting in a class without registering for the course.

    Most people think the latter case is perfectly fine. However , the university needs money to maintain the lecture hall, to pay the salary of the lecturer etc.. Part of the money comes from the tuition of the students who registered for the class.

    The scenario for the conference is similar. Organizers need money for room booking etc.. while money comes from people who registered for the conference.

    If you think sitting in a class is fine, why would you consider listening to a conference talk (without registering) a crime? Of course, you could agrue that the (almost) sole income for a conference comes from registration fee while universities have other sources of funding besides student tuition. But I don't see the two things differ too much intrinsically.

  27. Wow. We should have a blog-discussion on IP rights. Usually I find I'm in a room with lawyers and I'm considered the wacko in the group, but now I'm in a room with theorists and I'm still considered the wacko in the group.

    I would expect anyone who wants to sit in my class who is not registering for the class to ask my permission, even if they are a member of the university, just so I am aware. While I would generally allow anyone at the university to attend the class, I would probably not allow a person off the street to sit in on my class, in part because they have not paid for it. Of course, I think Harvard's current policy is somewhat vague on the issue, or at least I am ignorant of it specifically, so I should find out. But basically my opinion is that Harvard pays me in part to teach -- unless they tell me it's OK to teach to non-registered or non-university people, I'd best assume it's not.

    If I wanted to teach a similar course, I could always to it on my own time, and charge nothing accordingly if I felt like it.

  28. One thing that typically differs between a university class and a conference: university students must register and pay before the class will appear on their transcript. In particular, you can't get a degree from a university without paying for lectures (whether you attend them or not). Conference talks aren't marked and metered in the same way. No one that I know of issues certificates of attendance for conference talks!

    I'm not saying that makes it right to be a conference crasher. Just that there is a mechanism which makes it more attractive for someone to pay the university. At least, if they care about having a transcript or a degree.

  29. I think that conferences should budget so that if one person from every accepted paper pays, then that would cover the costs. One thing that I found disappointing, for example, was to go to APPROX at Berekely and find that only a handful of people would come to the talks. Not even the PC committee comes. So, once you have put all that work into the presentation, it's nice if students or people from all the research labs in the area decide to drop by since this gives a bigger audience and more people to talk to. I would never feel upset that I paid and they didn't. I would be more upset if no one comes to the talk. Perhaps this is never a concern with FOCS/STOC. But for smaller conferences that are no so well attended, I think the chair should do their best to make sure that people attend so as not to make the speakers speak to a virtually empty room.

  30. I think the point about not picking big cities maybe right -- hotel costs in large cities can be an order of magnitude worse than small ones. And as long as you are careful about when during the year it is, (such as not holding conferences in a ski area during ski season) the cost to fly to a smaller city is not so much different. Do organizers actually try to take local hotel and/or airfare costs into consideration at all?

  31. But large cities are cheaper overall for many people, including students, because so many people already live there and can get to it easily. (And, in the case of students, stay with old friends.) Boston is a great place to hold a conference -- lots of people show, including tons of students, because they don't have to travel far. Same with SF/Berkeley area.

    Small cities often get small conference attendance, because they're a pain to get to (often 2 hops instead of 1) and, quite frankly, because small cities are boring and nobody wants to travel there.

    There are exceptions to this that I know of, but generally they're for conferences held in the same place every year. For example, Allerton at UIUC. Urbana-Champaign is, well, small-boring (sorry Jeff!!!), but they hold a great conference year after year, building a community, and attendance is over 300.

  32. I do not think of crashing a conference as stealing. To me, stealing refers to taking away a material object from someone. Listening to a talk is not stealing.

    Admittedly, there is a cost of the conference and we have to find some way of sharing the cost. Several ways of cost-sharing are known: e.g. we all pay for the maintainence of roads by paying taxes. Several countries have different ways of doing that. Some places charge per vehicle. Some others use income taxes for building roads, which are paid depending on income.
    Cost-sharing also occurs for maintainence of churches. In this case, some subset of church-goers voluntary donate money to the church.
    In both cases, if no one paid, the whole community suffers.

    While stealing and evading taxes are both considered breaking rules (while not donating to the church is not), I think stealing and tax-evasion are in two very different categories. In particular, any reasonable community considers stealing a crime. But the equivalent of tax-evasion is not a crime/sin in the church community.

    I'd like to believe that our community can manage in the church model. Those who can afford (i.e. most) will register and a few crashers do not hurt our community.

  33. Having organized, or help organize several conferences, let me add my 2c.

    First, conferences do NOT have to be expensive. As an example, there is an annual conference of Medieval Studies--the most comprehensive one in the world, at Kalamazoo. Registration is $125, $80 for students, and accomodations (in dorm rooms) are $32/day.

    The catch is that it is in Kalamazoo, MI, a few hours' drive from any major airport, you stay in college dorms, and, by default, eat dorm food.

    The CS community has mostly chosen not to put up with such conditions, and not to invest the time needed to organize a conference on our own.
    Mathematicians, who have a tradition of being poor, tend to organize very affordable conferences. CS instead has conferences in Greece, Tuscany, and Marina del Rey.

    There were exceptions, but the tradoffs are the following:

    1)If the conference is not in a major city, airfare tends to be outrageous. Also, it is often the case that around a major city/airline hub there is a number of nearby graduate programs: students can drive to the conference, and some attendees can crash with their friends instead of paying for a hotel.

    2)Hotel rooms are expensive. Even more expensive are the hotel services: food, coffe breaks, audiovisual services (the original estimate for projection services at the recent Chicago STOC was well over 10K), etc. The alternative is to hold the conference at a university campus: this requires that the university not be in session. Equally importantly, it requires that the organizers become catering experts. This saves a LOT of money, but consumes enormous amounts of time.

    3)Hotel lunches are ridiculously expensive ($30-50). If the conference is in a hotel, the alternative is to scatter people around town, looking for lunches. The main victims would be graduate students: their lunches are typically subsidised, and the experience of meeting the folks who prove the theorems they are studying, and work on topics that they are working on is very valuable. So for hotel-based conferences, captive lunches are considered good things. They add around $100 to the overall cost, which is only about 10%.

    4)Hotels in major cities can be cheaper, if located in undesirable locations (e.g. near the airport, or at some suburb) On the other hand this is no fun: many attendees enjoy the attractions of a big city.

    5)Remember that there are other fixed expenses involved in running the conference. Program committees have at least secretarial expenses, and substantial travel expenses if they meet physically.

    6)The point of proceedings is that while it cost only O($10) to print them, they were sold at 4 times cost at the conference, and at even higher rates later. Much of this profit was used to keep registration
    costs down.

    Most importantly, the culprits are not "them", it is US. If anyone is willing to organize a FOCS/STOC at a university, offer cheap accomodations, take care of audiovisual needs, rent coffeemakers and hire students to brew coffee, arrange for lunches, and do all of this in an area served by low fare air transportation, they should volunteer to organize a theory conference.

    As for conference crashing, again I think that some people do not seem to realize that we ought to be a community. Most of the registration costs do not go to unnamed bureaucracies or large corporations: they keep SIGACT and the Computer Society alive. Maybe there should be a special category of "short-term attendee" (FCRC conferences have daily passes), and peeking in on a friend's talk without registering is certainly inocuous, but I would check with the organizers if I wanted to do more. I would expect that in any reasonable case some accomodation could be reached: after all these are the conferences that went to great effort to get free lunches for students, and have been sending proceedings to researchers and libraries in poor countries.

  34. Why is it the going to a conference entitles you to good sightseeing? A lot of people here seem to be suggesting this is true.

  35. Many interesting comments here.

    I think the bottom line is that the expenses should be highly subsidized.

    Clearly someone like say Ron Rivest is not going to avoid going to a relevant conference because of the registration fee.

    But for a student the difference between a $500 dollar fee and $200 is ENORMOUS.

    I had a couple of cases recently where I could have driven to a conference and stayed with friends but the registration fee made it simply out of the question.

    So a system should be worked out where those who have more pay more.

    I would propose that student registration be capped at $200.

    Another (possibly controversial)proposal is to charge people with accepted papers more.

    I would be very much willing to compromise on quality of food and accomodations, so conferences in university dorms are fine, although I would still prefer them held in major cities(easier to get to, many local students and YES tourist attraction).

    So the basic principle should be how to redistribute the cost in some manner while still getting enough revenue.

  36. Attending a talk at a conference without registering is definitely not stealing.

    I hope this post does not discourage anyone who can not afford to pay the registration from coming to the conference and listening to the talks.

    Note that all the presenters are not payed to speak (in fact the opposite) and are happy to have as large an audience as possible. It would be wrong to deprive the people that are presenting and registered to the conference from the audience of those who can not afford the fee.

    I personally "crashed" a confernce once where the choice was to either pay from my own pocket, not attend at all or just go to talks without registering, and would recommend this option to anyone who's in a similar situation.

    On the other hand, I agree that it is important that those who have travel budgets (like me now) will pay the registration fee, so that we can keep the conference going.