Why do training workshop tickets cost what they do?

A week or so ago, I was lurking around a discussion on Twitter and Facebook about prices of our workshop tickets. The discussion was in the context of the workshops coming up next week, ahead of JSFoo. For those unfamiliar, JSFoo is our annual conference on JavaScript.

The discussion compelled me to jot down notes from my experiences of organizing workshops, and sharing the dilemmas that we, and workshop instructors, have faced, in pricing workshop tickets. We have also experimented with various pricing models — accidentally and intentionally. I also share some of our learnings in this post.

I won’t go into a discussion about the value of a hands-on workshop and why people pay to attend one instead of sitting through online courses. Suffice to say that individuals, and the organizations they belong to, believe learning takes place better and quicker in the presence of an expert on the subject matter. In technology, such learning is more than welcome especially when the instructor walks participants through concepts with hands-on coding exercises. This helps developers to internalize core concepts which in turn facilitate better logical thinking and problem solving.

There are at least three perspectives and parties we need to become aware of in order to understand the larger question of why workshop tickets cost the moon and stars in some cases, and don’t in others. They are:

  1. The instructor’s dilemma
  2. The organizer’s dilemma
  3. Demand for training in a particular technology / domain (and supply)

Before we get into details of the above, I’d like to explain the workshop models that we, at HasGeek, work with:

  1. We invite proposals on workshop topics when we open the call for conference proposals. This open call solves two problems: first, it allows individuals who have some training experience and who want to become seasoned trainers to get an opportunity to conduct a professionally organized workshop with a high-quality developer audience. Second, the call for proposals opens our eyes, as organizers, to emerging technology trends and areas where there is (upcoming) demand for learning. We’ve had a good number of success stories where individuals aspiring to be teachers / instructors (despite holding lucrative jobs) received recognition at our pre-conference workshops. Some of them went on to become full-time trainers and consultants. We’ve also been able to service the needs of the various communities we work with — data science, JavaScript, Android, front-end engineering — by providing them with quality instructors and content on topics where they’d otherwise not find avenues (such as deep learning, Apache Spark, AngularJS, etc).
  2. We invite trainers to conduct workshops on topics where there is demand and not enough instructors. In such cases, we pay instructors training fees for putting aside time to develop training materials and building a workshop curriculum. It typically takes anywhere from two to four weeks’ time to build solid training materials and a curriculum which will provide value to participants.
  3. In some cases, we invite individuals to conduct workshops on topics where there is a clear need. But such individuals do not have experience with conducting workshops professionally. We make a calculated bet on them, to put it crudely, and hope that the instructor will live up to the participants’ expectations. This model has usually worked out well for us, and we’ve again had a reasonably good history of participant satisfaction.

We’ll now move on to understand the perspectives of the three stakeholders in a workshop situation to answer the question about workshop ticket pricing.

The instructor’s dilemma:

  • There are at least two conflicts that a seasoned and budding workshop instructor has to deal with: number of people s/he can cater to in a single workshop versus the amount of time that goes into preparing training materials for each workshop.
    It goes without saying that if an instructor were to do more and more workshops (and iterate little, each time, on the content depending on the audience level and new developments in the field), s/he will put in less and less time in preparing for each workshop. This reduces the background time effort, making it lucrative for the instructor to do more of the same by conducting more workshops.
    However, there is also an attention challenge. If an instructor takes in fewer participants per workshop, it enables her/him to give more attention to every participant. This also reduces the potential to make more income if there were more participants. How do you deal with this issue? Pricing the workshop ticket higher is perhaps the only way to deal with this situation. For a participant, the value (and expectations) lie in the fact that if the workshop ticket fee is high, they are likely to get more personalized attention from the instructor, and also resources and training materials which they can later work with by themselves.
  • Since I have dealt mostly with instructors in the domain of IT and software, I have discovered another dilemma that some of them face. While corporate trainings — where the instructor goes to a large company and trains a battery of their staff over two-three days — are extremely lucrative in that they pay very well, good teachers and instructors rarely find intrinsic satisfaction in doing such trainings all the time. A good instructor is equally motivated and challenged by a good set of students. And a good set of students is what a good instructor often looks out for. We’ve discovered that instructors find it hard to independently market their workshops to a diverse audience — they don’t know where to discover people who will pay to attend their workshops. And they have to battle with time to prepare workshop materials versus spending more of their time in advertising their workshop and finding an audience. This is where we come into the picture. We provide and create the audience that will find value from the instructor’s training, and simultaneously provide intellectual stimulation for the instructor.
  • There is a final dilemma that stands above all of this. How does an instructor decide what her/his time is worth if they are to do a pre-conference or a general training workshop with HasGeek? This is where pricing becomes a difficult issue. A number of instructors we work with are consultants in the day time, and teachers for the love of pedagogy in their spare time. Their value of their workshop preparation time is influenced by time-based billing which is the norm for consultancy. This is a flawed model for professional training because, as I explained above, once you have base material and curriculum prepared, you have to iterate little each time and do more workshops to gain more economic value. In some cases, we deal with instructors whose profession it is to train developers and companies. Such instructors come with a higher value, and this reflects in their fixed training fee or shares in the revenue split. (This statement is not intended to cast aspersions on professional trainers. It is a matter of fact that a good teacher will command a higher value in a scarce market.)

    Now follows the organizer’s dilemma: the organizer, in this case us, has to work with the instructor’s dilemma, and with fixed and variable costs that influence our decision on how to price workshop tickets. Some variables are:

    1. Venue rental: we believe a good workshop must be held at a good venue which has facilities such as comfortable seating, air circulation, toilets in the vicinity, noise-free environment, among others. These factors affect the participant’s ability and motivation to learn in the two-three days. However, good workshop venues are as scarce as good instructors, especially in Bangalore. We tried to create such a venue some years ago, but were not successful. Hence, we went back to the trusted venues where such facilities are available. This means we pay a price which will eventually reflect in the workshop fee.
    2. Food: Food provided during workshops is of equal importance to us. Food should be nutritious and fulfilling, but not of a quality and quantity that will put a participant to sleep. We’ve been making various efforts to enhance the quality of food served at our conferences (by creating food courts and providing healthier options for participants to choose from) and workshops. The problem with food economics is one of scale. A caterer or supplier will charge less for more food provided — as the plate count goes down, the cost of food increases. While we have trusted vendors who don’t apply scale economic pricing for our workshops, they have fixed costs such as transportation and overheads which increase the overall food cost for a smaller audience. Again, this reflects in the workshop fee.
    3. Training materials: while we don’t provide physical materials such as books and photocopies, our latest experiment with a hardware workshop at JSFoo showed us how assembling hardware kits for this workshop left us with a pricing dilemma. We originally started with estimates based on the instructor’s past experience and online prices for components. Our partners for this workshop, Workbench Projects, after one and a half months of due diligence, found a vendor who was able to supply high quality materials at less than half the original cost we had estimated. This has brought down the workshop ticket cost drastically.
    4. Manpower: We put in a great deal of effort in preparing for a workshop. Preparations range from building a good website for the workshop, to buying storage equipment (NAS, pen drives, etc) so that participants can upload the necessary software on their machines with ease during the workshop, and attending to every possible detail. However participants don’t always prepare for hands-on workshops in advance. They don’t download the software needed for the workshop and read up on the prerequisites. Some of them come to the workshop with company laptops where they don’t have admin access to download and install software packages. As a result, we face two issues on a regular basis: time lost during the workshop in setting up the basic working environment on every participant’s laptop. And second, some participants are mismatched for the workshop in that they know too little to make sense of the workshop or they know too much and the workshop is useless for them. Having faced these issues repeatedly, we now have a designated workshop coordinator whose sole task is to keep in touch with every participant, inform them about the prerequisites of each workshop, and ensure they have set up their laptops well in advance of the workshop. We find this is at least a foolproof method to avoid expectation mismatch and disappointments. Besides the coordinator, we have at least one Wifi expert lurking at every workshop to ensure that internet connectivity is available at all times for the workshop. Manpower costs build into the overall costs of the workshop.
    5. Our refund policy: where we offer full and partial refunds if participants or their employers are not satisfied with the quality of the workshop. We believe the participant comes first and that we must do everything in our power to attend to their needs.

    Finally, we come down to the third perspective — demand for training in a particular technology / domain (and supply). Technologies change and they change real fast. Therefore the need to keep up is always severe. Instructors are not always available (especially in India) to train on every new development. Where we have to fly down instructors, their travel and accommodation costs reflect in the workshop fees.

    However, we have also managed to (mutually) negotiate situations where when a technology is fairly new and the instructor(s) are talented and capable, we adopt the breadth model. The breadth model means have more workshop participants, at an affordable fee (where the participant does not have to think twice before s/he buys a ticket), and introduce as many people as possible to that technology. Here, of course, the instructor’s comfort is primary — some instructors are able to handle between 50–80 participants without compromising on the quality of instruction and meeting participants’ expectations. Some are overwhelmed by numbers and want a huddle instead of a large crowd. We always work with the instructor’s comfort levels.

    The breadth model, however, does not always work. We have situations where the demand for training continues to be high (NodeJS is a good example) but there aren’t enough good (and willing) instructors. We then take a risk to organize workshops on such topics, at higher prices, and service those who recognize the value the workshop provides.

    I will end this long post here. There are a number of open-ended questions, some of which I will put down here. Feel free to share your comments:

  • What are some of the good models for workshop pricing which meet participant needs and expectations and simultaneously fulfil the instructor’s need for intrinsic (challenging and smart students) and extrinsic (monetary) rewards?
  • What are some of the scale models where workshop pricing has been a low entry barrier to train more and more developers? I am referring to offline models here.
  • What platforms and opportunities can we provide to individuals who want to take up teaching and pedagogy on a full-time basis, and where such individuals have the skills and talent to be good teachers and instructors?

    More questions, from your end, are as welcome as comments.