Everyday, I see an awesome conference or convention I want to attend. While some, like the various PodCamps are free or fairly inexpensive, big conferences like CTIA can cost well over $1,000 to attend.
Paying for every conference you want to attend is a fast way to go broke, even if you manage to grab early bird rates and other discounts. But there are a few ways to arrange for free tickets — not for every conference, unfortunately, but for enough to make the effort worthwhile. I’ve found that each conference and convention is different — not every method will work at every event. But for just about every conference, there really is some way to attend for free.
1. Cover it for the press
As a freelance writer, I’ve managed to get some free conference tickets because a magazine or website wanted someone in attendance to write up the event. If you’re covering a conference for a publication, you’ll want to take great notes, at least a couple of photographs and generally pay attention. You’ll be writing a pretty in-depth report for your editor when you get back. Covering a conference is definitely work. If an editor shells out big bucks for your ticket, he or she probably expects a great article for the money.
In general, editors tend to choose writers or photographers they’ve worked with before to cover conferences. But, if there is a certain conference you really want to attend, start querying publications that share an audience with that conference. You’ll need a sample of your writing to show editors — it doesn’t have to be published, but it does need to show your skills.
2. Look for contests
A lot of conferences and conventions give away tickets as part of their marketing. It’s never a sure thing that you’ll get a ticket through a conference. For conference you don’t absolutely have to go to, though, trying to win tickets isn’t a bad plan.
Usually, I just set up a Google Alert for the name of the conference and the phrase, “free ticket.” I seem to get most of the contests and giveaways that way.
3. Volunteer your services
Many conferences and conventions depend on volunteers to handle a lot of the work of putting together and running the event. Especially if you’re a member of the organization putting on the conference, you can often get a free ticket just by volunteering your time. The trade-off is that you won’t have the full convention free. If there are only a few speakers you really want to hear, that isn’t necessarily a problem.
The earlier you can get in on the set up process, the more likely you are to get a free ticket out of it. If you’re on the organizing committee of a conference, no one’s going to ask you to buy a ticket. You may also be able to trade certain services — like setting up a website or designing a brochure — for a ticket.
4. Ask your boss to send you
One of the good things about having a job is that many companies set aside money for marketing as well as developing employees’ skills. Both budgets often have money that can be used to send employees to conferences — and that employee can be you.
It’s often a matter of asking your supervisor and seeing what funds are available. If you can clearly explain why a specific conference will make it easier to do your job, you’ll be better prepared to convince your boss why he or she should pay your way.
5. Present at the conference
In my opinion, this is the hardest way to get a free ticket. In order to present at a conference (and hopefully get free admission as at least part of your payment), you either have to be invited or submit some sort of proposal to the conference organizer. Either way, you’ll need credentials that will convince a committee that you’re worth having around. You have to be an expert or have done something pretty cool in the field. Volunteering is generally less work.
But if you have good credentials in your field — and a great idea for a presentation — you can often attend the rest of the conference for free. It may even be one of the better ways to attend a conference. Other attendees may seek you out just to talk more about your great ideas and experiences.
6. Ask for a scholarship
Many conferences maintain a small scholarship fund for people who can’t afford to attend. Most of those funds seem to go to students, and I’ve seen a few conventions ask for some sort of proof of financial need. If you need to attend a particular conference but you just aren’t able to pay for a ticket, ask the organizers if they’re offering any sort of scholarship.
Even if you can arrange for free tickets to a conference or convention, you may still need to consider travel arrangements as well as a place to stay. Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does add a little legwork to your conference plans. I’m pretty fond of asking to stay on friends’ couches and carpooling to keep costs down, but I’ve been known to pay for the occasional airplane ticket if I managed to get free conference tickets.
Hopefully, I’ll see you around the convention circuit.