It seems to depend, in part, on the kind of conference. Nonprofit groups like professional societies, research institutions and universities set a fee that covers the actual costs of the meeting. If an outside subsidy is available, the fee can be minimized or even eliminated.
For example, I recently organized a meeting in Jerusalem for the European Group for Rapid Viral Diagnosis. About 150 scientists from 14 countries attended. The meeting was held on the campus of the Hebrew University, saving us the cost of renting a lecture hail. We did have to pay for the usual services (cleaning, telephones, printing, and so forth). The total cost of the three-day conference, including travel expenses for two speakers from Europe, was about $6,000. That included a reception and a dinner for participants. Most of that amount was raised from commercial exhibitors. There was no registration fee. Moreover, the total hotel cost per participant (including sightseeing tours and some meals) was less than $400.
At a similar meeting held the next month at a five-star hotel in Tiberias, it was necessary to charge $100 to offset the travel, hotel and food expenses of 10 speakers from the United States and Europe and to offer reduced fees to students.
In contrast, the commercial firms that sponsor the highbrow biotechnology conferences charge $500 or more to cover the costs of the meeting and the honorariums to speakers, and to turn a profit. For example, in October 1986, IBM Technical Services in the United Kingdom sponsored a two-day conference on the therapeutic potential of drugs affecting the platelet activating factor. The registration fee was 295 pounds (plus 15% Value Added Tax) and dinner cost 25 pounds.
The following month, the same sponsor charged 310 pounds for a two-day seminar on genetic engineering techniques.
What can be done to reverse this trend? As David Lodge wrote in his book Small World (Penguin Books, 1985): "The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be entirely bent on self-improvement."
One answer, particularly for nonprofit sponsors, is to cut down on all the frills and the free entertainments, scale back the lavish printing of the abstracts or proceedings, and pass on the savings to the participants. The registration fee for the upcoming 23rd World Veterinary Congress, in Montreal in August 1987, for example, is $480 Canadian! Is that really necessary?
As Lodge also pointed out, registration fees are largely paid out of funds supplied by universities, institutions and governments. Thus, another solution is for the granting agencies to limit the amount of funds that can be applied toward paying them. Scientists, who find they will have to bear the difference between that limit and the actual registration fee will think twice about whether their participation is really necessary and worthwhile. And conference organizers faced with falling attendance might get the hint.