Rational approach to conferences

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When I went to any conference in the past, I would try to extract the maximum out of it: stay for the whole duration of the main event and attend all satellites. Now I think I might change my conference strategy.

So what changed?

Previously, I would stay in hostels, usually €20–25 a night. Once I travel somewhere for a conference, there is little cost to stay longer there. In comparison, fixed costs were high. In addition to the cost of the flight, I needed to apply for a visa to travel anywhere, which usually cost me €100–200, a trip to an embassy in Kiev, and quite a bit of time and effort to gather all the necessary documents.

Now I stay in hotels, usually around €100 per night, which makes the marginal cost of staying an additional day non-negligible. On the other hand, I no longer need a visa for short trips to continental Europe, so that reduces the fixed costs of going to a conference.

(The argument about the fixed costs sounds like a sunk cost fallacy: because I paid for the visa and flight, I now need to stay for the whole event. Yes, I am susceptible to sunk cost fallacies.)

Then there is the time itself. When I was younger, I did not value my time too much and probably didn’t have better alternatives than to stay in a different country and attend another day of the conference. Nowadays, I’d rather do some work, spend time with my family, or study.

Finally, thanks to my past experiences, I can now better predict what I get the most value from, and when the diminishing returns kick in. The best time at a conference for me is the first 2–3 days. This is when I am fresh and excited. After these first few days I get tired, going to the talks becomes a chore, and I’d rather sleep in than attend a keynote.

Another observation is that when an event has satellites, the satellites are usually more interesting to me than the main event. I don’t know how universal this is, but I found it true about ICFP and RECOMB. That the satellites are usually cheaper to attend than the main event is a nice bonus.

So for future conferences, I am going to only attend the satellites or, if there are no satellites, limit my attendance to the 2–3 most interesting days of the conference. This may allow me to go to a larger number of conferences. That said, I should also conduct due diligence on the content/programme of the conferences I plan to attend. Some of the events I went to this year were so disappointing that they mostly weren’t worth attending even for a day.