How much do EAGs cost (and why)?
EAGs from 2022–2023 each cost around $2M–$3.6M USD at around $1.5k–2.5k per person per event.
These events typically cost a lot because the fixed costs of running professional events in the US and UK are surprisingly high.
We’re aiming to get these event costs down to ≤$2M each moving forwards.
We’ve already started to cut back on spending and will continue to do so, whilst also raising default ticket prices to recoup more of our costs.
Throughout this post, for legibility I discuss the direct costs behind running our events and don’t include other indirect costs like staff salaries, software, and our office space (which would increase the costs below by ~25%).
This year (2023), EAG Bay Area cost $2M and EAG London cost £2M (including travel grant costs). Our most expensive event ever was EAG SF 2022, which cost $3.6M. This gives us a range of about $1.5–2.5k per person per event.
In-person EAGx events typically cost $150–500k, with smaller events in cheaper countries on the lower end (e.g. EAGxWarsaw) and large events in the US on the higher end (e.g. EAGxNYC). The cost per person for these events is $300–900.
You can see historical attendance figures on our dashboard.
People are often surprised by how expensive our events are — this post seeks to explain why our events have historically been so expensive, why they’ll continue to be somewhat expensive, and how we’re working to reduce costs (see an earlier post here). We’re writing this partially in response to requests from the community, but we’ll also be raising our ticket prices soon, and hope that this post will add some useful context as to why.
We know event prices matter a lot in a community where people care so much about what donations can achieve and the importance of using money well — our staff feel the same way. And it’s worth noting that we still think our events are worthwhile, as they seem to have had a large effect at shifting people into high-priority work (though we plan to run them in a cheaper way now). We think that short events can be an effective way to accelerate people in building professional relationships, applying for jobs, and making other critical career decisions.
In this post I primarily discuss EAGs because they’re a much larger portion of CEA Events team spending and it’s hard to generalise across EAGx events, which occur in a wider range of contexts. However, similar principles and themes will apply to EAGx events (you can see more details in Ollie’s posts here). I’ve ended this section with an example budget breakdown for EAG London 2023, though I’ll note that the precise breakdown tends to vary a fair bit between events.
EAG London 2023
|Audiovisual and video recording||£170,975.93|
|Printing and signage||£106,658.40|
|Production company fee||£98,810.00|
Venue and catering
Our biggest spending items are venue and catering.
In a given city there are surprisingly few venues that can host 1500+ people. Some of these venues instantly get ruled out for being too expensive/flashy, being too far away from easy transit, not having suitable availability, etc. This means that in the Bay Area for example, there are maybe four venues that I would consider viable for a 1500+ person EAG (as it exists currently, with a main networking area, multiple content/meetup rooms, etc.).
Most venues force you to use their in-house catering company and don’t let you bring in your own food (i.e. we can’t buy a bunch of Oreos ourselves). These catering companies generally have a minimum mandatory spend, and significantly mark up the costs of their services. For the upcoming EAG Boston for example (prices include service charge):
$65 a head for dinner
$55 a head for lunch
$4 for a bag of chips/crisps
$8 for a cup of tea (i.e. hot water and tea bag)
And these numbers assume everything gets consumed. It’s pretty bad to run out of food and it’s hard to predict what people will eat (i.e. more snacks get eaten if the meals are bad), so we usually have a bit of extra for everything. This means that for EAG Boston, we’re expecting to spend $550k on three meals and some (minimal) snacks and drinks. Doing breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the event would cost us ~$1M. And for reference, these numbers aren’t the most expensive we’ve seen — at the Oakland Marriott in the Bay Area, dinner averaged ~$80 a head.
I’ve talked to other people who run events to get a sense of how much their costs breakdown, though it’s been hard to find good information (budget breakdowns are generally not very public and I’ve struggled to get good information from organisers outside of EA). I’ve found that non-profit conferences will often charge attendees ~$400 per person (tickets often being subsidised) — though most of these events don’t provide much food and often have fewer attendees in a less functional space (fewer rooms and less space for meetings). On the other side of the spectrum, for-profit conferences often charge people $1–2k for an event with less food and production value than an EAG (and are often subsidised by sponsors/vendors).
Why is everything so expensive? Here are some reasons we think may be significant (not a comprehensive list):
Big venues are just generally quite expensive to run (big properties, lots of staff, etc.).
These venues are often empty, forcing them to charge more when they actually do host events.
Catering costs are marked up in order to mark venue costs down. Many customers will anchor on an initial venue cost; by the time they hear the exorbitant catering fees later, they may feel it’s too late to switch. (We always ask to see both venue and catering costs up front.)
Similar principles apply to other items too. That is, generally things cost a lot more than one might think due to large markups. For audiovisual (AV) setups, companies will charge us $1,000 to rent a single laptop for a week that the AV technicians will need to use in the rooms that are being recorded. And labour is also expensive, at ~$1,000/day per AV technician you use. (We have plans to save on these costs — see below.)
There are also lots of other random costs that are hard to avoid:
Trash haul fees
Wi-Fi fees (to allow attendees to use Swapcard from different parts of the building)
Printing and signage fees
Contractor and other labour fees
Prices have also risen a fair bit in the last couple of years due to inflation, meaning that in general I expect it to be more difficult to reduce nominal costs, even while we are using fewer services like these where possible.
What are we doing to save money?
Due to the new funding environment, we’ve been cutting down our spending for the past few EAGs, and we’re planning to cut it down even further. In making these judgement calls we’re mostly optimising for trying to get as many high quality attendees networking together for a reasonably affordable rate. We’re aiming for scrappier events, with fewer meals, though we think we can retain a significant proportion of the value at ~75% of the cost. Some things we’re doing:
Cutting the number of meals served down to ~3 rather than 5 or 6 (cutting dinner at EAG Bay Area seemed to make the event a bit worse, but not massively so). And also cutting snack and drink variety — only having a few basic snack and drink options available.
Selecting cheaper venues (which may be in slightly more annoying locations, have fewer suitable rooms, have less natural light, etc.).
Cutting the number of sessions we record and making AV setups more basic — largely because our uploaded talks have historically had low view counts.
Generally negotiating harder and more aggressively on prices.
We’ve kept on doing travel grants but are being more conservative in how much money we give out.
Cutting other bits where we can, including inventory and certain types of labour.
We’re also considering moving back to running two EAGs a year rather than three, though we’re planning to wait and see how EAG Boston goes before making a decision for 2024. We’ve explored whether it would be worth it to make the events smaller, and it seemed like it didn’t cut costs sufficiently (per person) for this to be worthwhile, though we’d like to dig into this more in the future. We’re also thinking about whether we should change the structure of the event to open up our venue options (e.g., remove nearly all the content rooms), which could help us to create a more cost effective event.
We looked a bit at running our events in other locations or further out from cities. Generally things didn’t seem sufficiently cheaper but this is something we’d like to explore further. I do also think there’s a fairly substantial cost to running our events in non-hub locations, because some of the best-networked people in the community (people who can provide mentorship, advice, funding, and so on) will be much less likely to attend. It would also take more time and travel costs for non-local people to attend, reducing the appeal of doing an event outside of a hub.
We’re still working out the details, but we also expect to raise default ticket prices. That is, instead of people paying $200 for a ticket that costs us $1500, they’ll be paying maybe $500 for a ticket that costs us $1000. We still expect to have discounted tickets for students and people on lower incomes, and on the other end of the spectrum we may ask some people to pay for their ticket price in its entirety. This means that people can start expecting to pay more for a (hopefully only slightly) lower-quality event, and we still expect folks to get a lot of value in attending.
If you’d like to give us anonymous feedback you can do so with Amy (who runs the CEA Events team) here.
The venues and large parts of their set-up were booked before the FTX collapse. Our venue for Boston was booked afterwards, and we did re-check whether it still made sense to proceed with it. We concluded yes, though I regret not thinking about it harder (as I don’t feel super confident in our conclusions), and plan to do so for 2024 if we go ahead with a Boston event.
These costs don’t include CEA salaries and other indirect costs. They also don’t include revenue generated from ticket sales, but this has been fairly low in recent years and doesn’t strongly affect the overall figures.
As we explain later, many “venue” costs are instead categorised as “catering” by large event venues. It may be more helpful to think of this as a “venue + catering” cost of £1,272,598.00.
This includes things like the speakers reception, radio hire, Wi-Fi costs, Swapcard fees, and inventory items like stationary.
For example, the Ritz Carlton San Francisco seems like it could work for our events, but would just be more expensive than the Hilton or the Marriott hotels in the area.
These are the Palace of Fine Arts, the Oakland Marriott, Hilton Union Square, and the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport. (We’ve searched SF, Berkeley, and Oakland thoroughly over the last few years, and we’re fairly confident there aren’t other suitable options in these areas, though there may be other feasible venues located further out. If you have questions about a venue we didn’t name, or a suggestion for something you think might work, we’re happy to hear them, and may be able to clarify why we’ve ruled out a particular venue.)
You can generally get out of this if you pay a high enough fee, but it’s not usually worth it.
People sometimes ask whether doing all vegan food costs more. The answer is not really, though sometimes these caterers will mark you up a bit if you request certain fake meat products.
Our attendees also seem to eat more than most conference attendees (we’ve frequently run out of food or come close to doing so even when our attendee estimates were accurate).
If anyone runs large events or knows anyone who does, I’d love to chat!
It seemed like the number of overall connections reported and meetings booked throughout the event were not very different from events where we did serve dinner.