10 Strategies to Attend Conferences for Free
Conference badges seem to only ever increase in price, but not attending at least the occasional conference means that you’re missing out on major business opportunities.
It’s not always possible to attend every conference for free, but there are several options to consider if you just don’t have room in your budget.
1. Organize the Conference
Many big conferences got their start because someone wanted to attend a certain type of conference that just didn’t exist yet. You might consider starting your own conference or, more practically, get on the organizing committee for any conference you want to attend.
This strategy requires a lot of planning in advance — you’ll probably need to get involved close to a year in advance. But it can be an option to not only get a free ticket but get to meet a lot more people involved with the conference in question.
2. Speak at the Conference
Many conferences post open calls for submissions at some point before the plans for the conference are finalized. If you feel comfortable speaking in public and you have some expertise, consider putting in a proposal to speak. You’ll be more likely to get chosen for bigger events if you have some speaking experience under your belt, but many small conferences draw from a local talent pool.
3. Cover the Conference for the Media
Many conferences set aside a certain number of media passes for journalists covering the conference. You need to be fairly established with a publication, but if you’ve been blogging, operating a podcast, writing for someone else’s site or otherwise building an audience online, you may qualify.
If you feel comfortable speaking in public and you have some expertise, consider putting in a proposal to speak.
4. Volunteer to Help Out at the Conference
Especially for big conferences, there may be a call for volunteers who are willing to work for part of the conference in exchange for being able to attend the rest. For particularly popular events, volunteer badges go fast, so make sure that you get your name in early.
It’s also worth noting that you may have a much harder time attending the parts of the conference you’re interested in because you may not have a lot of freedom in setting your own schedule.
5. Give a Client a Reason to Pay for Your Ticket
It’s a bit more rare of an option, but I’ve known a few freelancers to pull it off: sometimes, if you can find a reason that a client has to bring you along. In general, it’s better to wait to be asked in this sort of scenario, rather than coming off as the sort of person who would ask a client to pay for a conference out of the blue. But if you can make a good pitch about what you can do for a client at a particular conference, it may be worth floating the idea.
6. Score a Scholarship to the Conference
Some conferences offer scholarships to prospective attendees who just financially can’t make it happen. It’s become more common for such scholarships to be targeted — it’s been a successful strategy for many conferences looking to increase the diversity among attendees. Occasionally scholarships may also be available to people who are new to the field or recent graduates.
Another inexpensive, if not always actually free, option is to buy an exhibit hall pass.
7. Use Your Student ID
If you’re still a student of any type — including graduate student or going to school on the side — you may be able to turn your student ID into a discounted or free ticket. It’s less common that student badges to a conference are free (but it’s not unheard of), but they often cost what’s effectively a token amount to anyone who isn’t relying on what can be earned at most of the jobs available to full-time college students. Don’t use this approach if you aren’t still in school though; it’s very ethically uncool to use expired student IDs to score conference tickets.
8. Get an Exhibit Hall Pass
Another inexpensive, if not always actually free, option is to buy an exhibit hall pass. You won’t be able to get into conference sessions, but if your main goal is to hang out and network, it can be just as effective an option. Exhibit hall passes can be a great way to test the waters and figure out if it’s worth the effort to get involved with a conference in the coming year, letting you set yourself up for strategies like helping to organize the conference.
9. Trade Work for a Conference Ticket
The good old barter system may very well provide a ticket to a conference if you’re willing to work for it. Conferences need graphic design, web development copywriting and many other services to get off the ground. Big conferences usually pay for such work, but smaller events may be willing to trade a ticket.
10. Win a Ticket to the Conference
If you’ve got no other options, you may be willing to try your luck. Many conferences, as well as individuals who buy tickets, offer giveaways in the days leading up to the conference. I’ve actually won a conference ticket in the past, letting me attend a conference I never would have checked out otherwise.