5 Creative Ways to Conquer Conference Costs

CreativeWaysToConquerConferenceCostsby Carrie Niesen

One of the best ways to get a feel for a career area and to start building your professional network is to attend a conference in your desired field.

If you haven’t been to one before, it’s essentially a large meeting of the minds, with a particular genre binding conference attendees together.

Conference genres all over the board.  They can range from a hobby, such as the popular culture event Dragon Con in Atlanta (hello, the cast of True Blood was there this year!), the Internet Cat Film Festival in Minneapolis, to the academically or professionally inclined, like the annual conventions for the International Communication Association, American Educational Research Association, or the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

If you have an interest in a particular area, chances are there’s a convention, conference, or at least meetup in your area to share ideas and meet people with similar interests/goals.

The unfortunate thing is that it isn’t easy paying for these experiences.  The expenses add up quickly:

  • Conference registration (which, oftentimes is cheaper if you are also a member of the organizing association, but that means more money.  The payoff is credibility on your resume and building your professional repertoire)

  • Travel to the conference location

  • Lodging

  • Meals during the conference

  • Transportation around the conference city (typically by taxi)

  • Excursions (because part of the benefit of attending conferences is to explore the city!)

photo credit: Floris M. Oosterveld via photopin cc
photo credit: Floris M. Oosterveld via photopin cc


The good news is it doesn’t all have to come out of pocket.  Goodness knows career hopefuls aren’t made of money!  Part of it is realizing the resources and network at your disposal, part of it is doing your research, and the other part is getting creative.

Since I first discovered the magical land of conferences, I’ve been scouring ways to make it affordable and accessible.  To make things easy for you global career hopefuls, I’ve compiled five things that helped make my conference attendance experiences possible.

#1: Use Your Resources and Network

In my last professional contract position, I had an amazing network of funding at my disposal.  There were innovation grants, professional development funds, and the like available if I took the initiative to seek them out.

If you work at a university, you have fantastic resources that you may not even realize are there for you.  If you aren’t sure of where to look first, ask your colleagues.  Ask the if, how, when, where, and what of conferences and of obtaining funding.  Even if they don’t have specific answers for you, they’ll know who to direct you to who does.

If you don’t work at a university (but have a degree), your alumni status can take you places.  Universities love it when their alumni do great things (ahem, read good PR for their school), and there may even be grants available for their former students to apply and pursue.  Reach out to your former advisors and professors–they love to hear from their former students, and enjoy helping them achieve their goals.

If you’re a graduate student, lots of doors are available for you to knock on.  For example, when I was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico in the Communication & Journalism department, we had a student associated called CommGrads.  When we attended conferences to represent ourselves and the department, they would sponsor part of our meals, and the department itself would sponsor a predetermined amount to support some of the expenses from the bulleted list above.

On top of that, we could apply for grants available from university’s Graduate and Professional Student Association.  Chances are your particular graduate school or program has something similar, so ask!  On top of the local connections as a graduate student, you also get discounted membership and conference registration fees, so use that status to your advantage.

Above all else, be vocal about your goals.  Of course, don’t be overkill, but the more people know about your goals, the more they can help you realize them.  Even if they can’t help you at the moment, they may come across something later on down the line and think of you when a grant or funding opportunity comes to mind.

Who knows what direction those conversations can take you!

photo credit: Ian A Kirk. via photopin cc
photo credit: Ian A Kirk. via photopin cc


#2: Do Your Research

What area do you want to work in?  Where would you like your career to take off?  Find professional associations that will introduce you to people doing your dream job.  A good place to start is your former professors, otherwise turn to trusty Google to pull up professional associations and conferences.  If it’s legitimate, they’ll have a dedicated website with information on how you can get involved.

Even if Google and your professors don’t turn up the information you want, reach out to the hiring committees in which you’re applying for jobs.  Ask them for advice on professional networks, associations, and clubs they’re a part of to gain experience, establish contacts in the field, learn about professional development events (such as conferences and workshops), and be one of the first to hear of position openings.

For me, it was anything related to intercultural work and international education.  Part of attending helped me realize what I don’t want to do, and others helped me grow professionally in a week than I ever imagined.  If you’re looking for the same kinds of conferences, here is how I made these ones happen:


Photo credit: http://www.sietarusa.org

Society for Intercultural Educators, Trainers, and Researchers (SIETAR)

SIETAR branches in a number of countries all around the world, ranging from Argentina to Spain to India to the USA and many in between.  In the U.S., there are even some state-specific chapters that host their own events.

My experience speaks to the SIETAR-USA conference, where I was awarded a scholarship to offset costs.  Part of the agreement in receiving a stipend was to volunteer in facilitating conference logistics, and as a result, I made connections, learned the significant amount of work involved to execute a successful conference, and more.

If you aren’t eligible for a scholarship or don’t receive one, you can still receive a reduction in your registration by volunteering. Even though the deadlines have passed for this year, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask to see if volunteers are still needed or even if there are funds still available for scholarships!  The worst they can say is no 🙂

The SIETAR-USA conference includes career track specific sessions during its 2012 iteration (one for business, another for education), well-known speakers in the field (such as Dr. Gary Weaver, Terence Brake, and Luby Ismail), an exhibition area for publishers, companies, and organizations, dine-arounds at night to taste the local cuisine and network with colleagues, and even a game night for practitioners to share best practices.  One of the benefits of SIETAR is it’s a much smaller conference, so it’s easier to see more faces you recognize over time.

As a result of attending SIETAR, I met Cate here at Small Planet Studio!  I connected with her online far before the conference, and after reading that she’d be there, I sent her a note.  While at the conference, we had lunch together and lo and behold…a virtual internship was born.  I’m not saying this will happen at each one you attend, but you never know what connections you’ll make!

Photo credit: http://www.forumea.org

The Forum on Education Abroad

Even though 2014 will only be welcoming this now annual conference into its 10th year, it’s already proven to be a well-known conference in the field boasting substantive collegial conversations about sending students on experiences abroad.  It also has an exhibition hall, a fabulous keynote speaker (such as Lilli Engle), pre-conference workshops, and endless amounts of networking opportunities.

While they don’t have a volunteer reimbursement system yet, they need volunteers to help run the show.  They do, however, have two grants that they offer to members, one for an influential education abroad innovator, and another for general travel (with preference given to conference presenters).  It pays to submit proposals!

On top of all of this, the Forum also sponsors undergraduate research awards to support students’ endeavors abroad.  During the luncheon on the final day, these students presented their findings, and boy, was it the highlight of my conference last year!  It was incredibly inspiring and I doubt that there was a single person in that audience that didn’t feel inspired by how much they learned and yearned to do more to make our world a better place.

photo credit: http://www.nafsa.org


Originally standing for National Association of Foreign Student Advisors, NAFSA has since expanded and isCarrie-NAFSA

now known as the top association of international educators.  Its annual conference typically attracts close to 10,000 attendees annually from all parts of the world.

The conference highlights include well-known speakers (such as Rick Steves, Leymah Gbowee, Kofi Annan, and Rye Barcott), sessions, exhibit hall, dinner meet-ups, and near-daily excursions, it’s a fantastic place for international educators to connect.  On the downside…the price tag is a hefty one.

However, they have one of the best volunteer systems that pay off significantly!  If you aren’t a member of NAFSA, the conference registration fee could be more than your plane ticket, but if you volunteer at least 20 hours during the week, you can earn 50% of those funds back.  40: 100% reimbursement.  On top of that, you’ll have a perfect excuse to reach out and talk to people!  I made many-a great connections this way with folks that I still keep in touch with to this day.  Want to hear more?  Check out this post for more volunteer secrets.  And who knows, you may eventually end up in a conference publication

#3: Look for other ways to save money:

  • Scour Twitter for the conference/association’s Twitter accounts and hashtags (#ForumEA14 or #NAFSA14) Reach out to people using these hashtags, too!

  • Search Facebook for event pages, official pages, and groups about the conferences–chances are attendees are planning events, discussing shared housing, and more!

  • Get on listservs to connect with folks looking to share hotel costs.  I did this the first time I attended NAFSA and my roomie coached me through a job interview and we’re still in touch! SECUSS-L is a good one to get started (but, be forewarned!  It’s an active one.)  Diversity Abroad is a newer one in the field, and WIVA-L is another goodie, too.

  • Get involved in your local organizations!  In Minnesota, I’m spoiled with SIETAR-MN and the Minnesota International Educators (check out their Facebook page, too).  I’ve been an active member of MIE, and as a result, I was awarded a conference registration grant to attend the 2013 NAFSA Annual Conference in St. Louis.  Not only was a weight lifted off of my shoulders, but I recognized even more faces at this large annual gathering.

#4: Get Creative!

If there’s a will…I’m convinced that there’s always a way to make things happen!  It may be my U.S. American mentality, but it’s served me well.

  • Couchsurfing, AirBnB, or Vacation Rentals by Owner are all culture-rich and wallet friendly ways to cut down on lodging costs

  • Use the Super Shuttle for transportation to and from the airport in large cities

  • Take advantage of B Cycle in larger cities as a more sustainable, economical way to get around (plus, let’s face it: you’ll be sitting all day during the conference, so it’ll feel good to move around!)

  • Feeling brave?  Reach out to an organization you’re interested in interning or working for and see if they’d sponsor your registration fee, a night at a hotel, or even a meal if you promote their company or organization.  It’s expensive to send representation to each conference, so they may take you up on the offer if you reach out to them far enough in advance.

#5: Above all else, ask questions!

Email a contact that you find on a conference website and ask if there’s any funding for first time attendees or a volunteering system for registration reimbursement.  There are plenty of funding opportunities (despite a tough economy), so don’t hesitate to ask!  The worst answer you’ll get is no.

What other ways have you made attending conferences affordable?  We’d love to hear your secrets–comment below!