Every day, I see an amazing conference or convention that I want to attend. While some, like the various PodCamps, are free or fairly inexpensive, large conferences like CTIA can cost upwards of $1,000 to attend.
Paying for each conference you want to attend is a quick way to go broke, even if you can get advance rates and other discounts. But there are a few ways to get free tickets—not every conference, unfortunately, but enough to make the effort worthwhile.
I’ve found that every conference and convention is different: not every method will work for every event. But for almost every conference, there really is some way to attend for free.
Cover for the press
As a freelance writer, I got some free tickets to the conference because a magazine or website wanted someone to be there to write about the event. If you’re covering a conference for a publication, you’ll want to take great notes, at least a few photos, and generally pay attention.
You’ll be writing a pretty detailed report for your editor when you get back. Covering a conference is definitely a job. If a publisher pays a lot of money for your ticket, he or she probably expects a great article for that money.
In general, editors tend to choose writers or photographers they have worked with to cover conferences. But, if there’s a certain conference you really want to attend, start checking out the posts that share an audience with that conference. You’ll need a sample of your writing to show editors; You don’t have to post it, but you do need to showcase your skills.
Look for contests
Many conferences and conventions offer tickets as part of their marketing. It is never certain that you will get a ticket to a conference. You don’t have to go to the conference, but trying to win tickets isn’t a bad plan.
I usually just set up a google alert for the name of the conference and the phrase “free admission”. I seem to get most of the contests and giveaways this way.
Offer your services
Many conferences and conventions rely on volunteers to handle much of the work of preparing and running the event. Especially if you are a member of the organization hosting the conference, you can often get a free ticket simply by volunteering your time.
The downside is that you won’t get the entire convention for free. If there are only a few speakers you really want to hear, that’s not necessarily a problem.
The sooner you can get into the setup process, the more likely you are to get a free ticket. If you are on the organizing committee of a conference, no one will ask you to buy a ticket. You can also exchange certain services, like setting up a website or creating a brochure, for a ticket.
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Ask your boss to send you
One of the nice things about having a job is that many companies set aside money for marketing and developing employee skills. Both budgets often have money that can be used to send employees to conferences, and that employee could be you.
It is often a matter of asking your supervisor and seeing what funds are available. If you can clearly explain why a particular conference will make your job easier, you’ll be better prepared to convince your boss why they should pay you.
Attend the conference
In my opinion, this is the hardest way to get a free ticket. In order to present at a conference (and we hope to get free admission as part of your payment), you must be invited or submit some kind 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 great in the field. Volunteering is usually 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 might even be one of the best ways to attend a conference. You may be contacted by other participants just to talk more about your great ideas and experiences.
Apply for a scholarship
Many conferences maintain a small grant fund for people who are unable to attend. Most of these funds seem to go to students, and I have seen some conventions ask for some kind of proof of financial need. If you need to attend a specific conference but can’t afford the ticket, ask the organizers if they are offering any kind of scholarship.
Even if you can get free tickets to a conference or convention, you may need to consider travel arrangements as well as a place to stay. Travel doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does add a bit of legwork to your conference plans.
I love asking to hang out on friends’ couches and hitchhiking to keep costs down, but I’ve been known to pay for a plane ticket from time to time if I can get free conference tickets.
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