LISA Conference Early Bird extended (and how Game Theory applies)

LISA is extending the Early Bird discount for a week. It’s now lasting until October 22nd, and for the first time in my memory, the hotel block room rate is also being extended.

So, it strikes me that a lot of people don’t have any transparency into pricing on conferences or why things like “Early Bird” registrations exist. I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain.

The LISA conference is the largest conference for system administrators that I know of. It’s basically a week of training, tech sessions, and invited talks from people who are blazing new trails and who invented the technology that you and I use every day. That’s a “sales-y” pitch, but it’s kind of the underlying reason for the cost.

LISA draws trainers from all over the world. In order to get those people to teach, you’ve got to pay for travel and hotel expenses, of course. And once they’re on site, you’ve got to have somewhere for them to teach, so you have to get a hotel….and that’s where the real costs start to kick in.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with LOPSA-East, but it’s a small community conference that I helped organize in its first year (2010) and then the next year, I served as program chair. It was about a tenth the size of LISA, it lasted two days, and cost in the neighborhood of $50,000. Yeah.

Hotels are a lot of money, and it’s because they’re (generally) nice places to have these kinds of events. They have lots of A/V equipment on site, they have a built-in catering department, people from out of town don’t have to leave the facility at night, and there is usually transportation from the airport. A hotel is really the perfect place to put on a conference.

It’s like pouring money. Delicious money. (Photo by moominmolly on flickr)
Of course, the hotel has to dedicate significant staff to the event, and staff costs money. That means that each pitcher of water you see at a conference may cost the organizers between $30 and $50. Coffee may be double that. Each can of soda is billed for at least $2. You really don’t even want to know how much the lunch and dinner meals run. Or how much A/V costs, for that matter. It’s obscene if you’re not in the hotel business.

All of this adds up to the fact that the conference isn’t cheap to attend. It would be practically impossible to make it inexpensive given the size and scope, but there are some things that the conference organizers can do to make it so that more people can attend.

One of those things is setting an “Early Bird” price where people can register at a discounted rate. The benefit to the attendee is obvious, but there are multiple benefits to the conference, too.

Advertising money by sponsors is more readily given if there’s a high attendee count. Companies really do want to spend money on advertising, but they want it to go to the largest number of people with the largest influence possible for the least amount of money. This means that if a company is going to advertise at LISA, they need attendance to be high. (Incidentally, it’s also why conference organizers want your title – titles are perceived to be related to purchasing or influencing power).

By registering early, you allow the conference organizers to appeal to companies who might have passed on sponsoring earlier, because guaranteed attendance numbers are much better than projected attendance numbers.

As for the hotel room, there are definite advantages to conference organizers when you buy a hotel room at the conference rate. The way this works is that the hotel will set aside a block of rooms for the conference, and it will rent those rooms to conference attendees for a lower rate than the normal “retail” price. The conference typically gets a discount on some of the other things listed above if it sells out of the conference block of rooms. This is why you should get a room at the conference rate, if at all possible.

Obviously, we’re all concerned about saving money, and I think attending LISA is important enough that if the only way you can do it is to stay at a cheaper hotel, then you should do that. But if you have a choice between the AAA room rate and the hotel room rate, picking the hotel room rate is probably the right choice, if the prices are at all similar.

And just so you know, I’m not saying this because I volunteer for USENIX. This actually goes back to Game Theory. It’s a classic decision where you have to choose between optimizing between the good of the group and the good of the individual. Saving the conference money typically means that they can afford to buy more or better options in food, drinks, entertainment, and AV. Saving yourself money means that you have more resources at your disposal. But if everyone optimizes for themselves entirely, you end up with a Tragedy of the Commons situation.

I get the room block if at all possible. If work won’t pay for the room block because they’ve negotiated a lower rate, then you’ve kind of got to go with what they say. But if the sticking point is that you can’t afford the hotel at all, it’s possible to find someone to room with, or even stay at a different hotel. Obviously not ideal, but hey, you get to come to the conference, and I honestly think that it’s important enough to your future that you should do it.

What do you think about things like Early Bird registration? Are they useful? Is there something that would be better? What could be done to improve on the way things are done now? Comment below to let me know!

  • Jennifer Ash-Poole

    I am glad they extended early bird.

    Considering sequester and the shutdown, most government people can’t make a decision to go until approved, and that has been delayed by 2 weeks at least. So maybe that helped with the decision on extending the room rate? (and the conference is in DC, the heart of shutdown and sequester. The hotel should understand that)

    I am local, so I don’t have to worry about the room, but I am hoping someone makes a decision soon so I can register on the early bird discount, or at least get to go.

  • John

    Frankly, I can recall when many of these technical conferences were free to attend. Obviously with corporate sponsors sitting on billions and some trillions of cash with record profits and lots of very good folks out of work (by the way, what happened to those job fairs at the conferences?), they can’t afford it!