This post is part of an ongoing series: Events in EA: Learnings and Critiques. This post was co-written but is written in Elika's voice from her experience organising EAGxBerkeley.
Elika worked (as a contractor) for the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) to run EAGxBerkeley. These are written in her personal capacity running the conference and are not endorsed by CEA. Neither of us is working for CEA currently.
TL;DR: Cancel your EAGx ticket as early as possible if you can't attend.
Note: This isn’t true of all EAGx’s. Some of this likely applies to EAG’s but we don’t speak for the EAG process / team. This is based on organiser frustrations and feedback from EAGxBerkeley and EAGxBoston.
Why? It sometimes takes spots away from other (often new) EA's, it impacts the organisers and the other attendees, and wastes money and resources. We aren't saying don't apply to EAGx's, just apply and register only if you seriously plan on attending. And cancel your ticket as soon as you know you can’t make it.
Why This Matters
Conferences cost money.
A lot more money than people realise. The biggest costs are (in rough order): catering, travel grants, venue, organiser salaries, merch. Catering estimates are often given 1-2 months before the event (e.g. we will have 600-700 attendees for X meals), rough food orders are often placed a month before, and final catering numbers are usually due a week before the conference. This is tight timing with when admissions and registration close (which we try to keep open as late as possible to let the most number of people apply and attend, usually about a week - 10 days before the event).
For EAGxBerkeley, applications closed on November 21st. Registration formally closed on the 25th, and the conference started just 5 days later on December 1st. Our catering numbers of 600 were planned a month in advance and solidified at 630 a week before the conference due to a flurry of additional applications we we're extremely excited about. About 500-550 people attended the conference. We planned on 630.
We spent about $35,000 (lower bound) on meals for no-shows. We spent roughly $350-$500 per person on catering for EAGxBerkeley. The full estimates are about 100 extra meals at $67-$100 a meal x 5 meals = $33,500 - $50,000. EAGxBerkeley provided less meals than typical (5 instead of 8). With 8 meals, snacks, and drinks (which we didn't provide) that's roughly $60,000 - $100,000.
The same situation happened at EAGxBoston, which accepted 100 late applications in the week leading up to the conference. The team didn't know "the final number of attendees for the event until a few days before the event … vendors who needed quantities (such as catering, merchandise, security) were given rough estimates which had to be overestimations, further raising costs.".
It impacts the applicants who would be good fits and can come.
When events get to capacity and there's still applications left to review - which often happens for EAGx’s - organisers have two decisions: either increase event costs (which happened at EAGxBoston) or reject people (which happened at EAGxBerkeley). Letting in late applicants is often not logistically feasible.
When we run out of capacity, it’s often first time applicants (new EA’s or people exploring EA) who get rejected. This is because as we have fewer spots available, the bar (of what qualifies you to get in) for admissions often increases and many first time applicants apply close to the deadline (presumably because they are unsure about attending and the application can be overwhelming).
This is a separate post about why you should apply early to conferences, how you're more likely to get in, but most people apply the night before applications are due. It's not just 1 person, or 10 - it's a good number of applicants.
This is the application trend for EAGxBerkeley.
On Nov 21st (when applications closed), we had about 100 spots for 150-200 applicants at EAGxBerkeley. About 70 - 100 people who registered, didn't show up (most didn't communicate either). Those spots could have gone to someone who we wanted to admit, but didn't have the capacity to.
It impacts the conference itself
We try to plan for a certain ratio of new EA: highly engaged EA, make sure there's diversity and representation and more. Because EAGx's are often younger EAs, geared towards students, and career advising focused - not having enough to balance that does impact the value attendees get out of the conference.
It causes organisers time and stress.
We spend a lot of time organising the event. There's venue, catering, legal, admissions, marketing, merch, stewardship, communications, volunteer management, AV, production, and more. Most EAGx’s have a team of about 5-10 people, including contractors and CEA support. We put months of planning into this event. We read through all your applications. Much like community builders - organisers control a key entry way to further involvement in EA. That comes with a burden of having to reject people. When we want to admit someone but can’t because we’re at capacity is when it’s hardest.
The EAGxBoston team estimated an extra 100 applications in the week leading up to the event (the busiest time for organisers) cost them 0.5-1 FTE. The counterargument is to say that organisers shouldn’t have accepted late applications, but that’s not always easy (as we elaborate on below).
These things add strain and overload to organisers, some of which we discuss in a previous post and will discuss in future posts.
It sets an unfair culture and norms
I was upset to see many engaged EA's in the Bay ask last minute if they could attend EAGxBerkeley. I think that's unfair to the people we rejected, to attendees who applied on time, and to the organiser. At the same time, it was hard to say no knowing we had the capacity from people not showing up, but I couldn't admit them knowing we rejected other people prior because we were at capacity. This also happened at EAGxSingapore and Boston. The EAGxBoston team’s reflection on this sums it up best:
Even with the application being open for ~3 months, the deadline being clearly stated in multiple places, and numerous emails sent to [partial complete applications or previous attendees] … we still received ~100 applications after it had closed. It is worth noting that the majority of these applications were not from first-time attendees or intro-level EAs.
This follows a trend in the community where a small subset of regular EA conference attendees has been allowed to get away with applying after the deadline and still been accepted. As a result, there is now an expectation that if you apply after the deadline, or email the organisers (especially if you have a personal connection with them) asking to register when registration is closed, that your request will be granted. We should be striving to be better than this as a community.
Rejecting people hurts.
When we reject based on capacity, it hurts (or at least it hurts me). And I wish we had space for everyone excited about coming, but we just often don’t. Attending an EAG was the most valuable thing for getting me further involved in EA. It’s why I’m doing what I’m doing - including why I organised an EAGx. To deny someone excited about EA the opportunity for what can be a life-changing experience because of conference capacity and then to end up having capacity because of no-shows hurts. Don’t do it.
How to update: proposed applicant norms for EAGx applications
If you're unsure if you can make it, but want to apply in case you can, here's what we suggest (especially if you're a more engaged EA and planning helping others):
- Fill out the application properly - not every event organiser knows who you are. It's very time consuming to evaluate improperly filled applications.
- Apply if you're 45-55% (or more) confident you'll end up going
- If you get accepted -
- Register as soon as you know you can make it
- Cancel your ticket as soon as you know you can't make it
- Don't register for the conference if you're unsure. Usually registration closes about a week after applications close, so you have time to decide and register. Ultimately events have very strict registration capacity limits. Releasing your ticket helps reach our max. capacity without going over capacity
- Don't register if you aren't coming. I understand sometimes things come up, you get sick, etc. Things happen. But I've seen of general trend especially from more engaged EAs of registering for conference and not attending, without realising that that has a literal cost (catering costs money, more money than people often realise and we can't change the catering numbers week of), the other attendees, and those that got rejected because of capacity.
We want people to apply and attend EAGx’s. Please apply - just cancel your ticket as early as possible if you can’t attend
We're working on a separate post on criticisms of the events application process and ways to improve it.
We don't want to discourage people who could get a lot of value out of attending or people who are new to the EA community. We also understand sometimes things do come up. This is a message for those who are more engaged EA's who don't realise that by applying to an EAGx (often in good faith wanting to contribute) and not planning on attending / not cancelling your ticket - you are often taking someone's spot.
This is a rough cost for meals in California at conference venues. The estimated total cost per attendee was $700-900. Compared to EAGxBoston, the overall cost of a conference attendee was $535.78 per attendee excluding travel reimbursements. I can't speak to meal costs at other EAGx's.
It's very conference dependent. We are writing this as a suggestion but don't take it as set truth.
I wonder if Berkeley had a notably high rate of both no-shows and last-minute interest in attending because the FTX crisis two weeks prior probably changed a lot of peoples' calculus about whether and in what ways they want to be engaged with the EA community/EA network. (Some in the direction of 'actually I don't want to attend; I have lost a lot of belief that EA is worthwhile', and some in the direction of 'I've been trying to make sense of this alone and would particularly benefit from attending discussions and talking with likeminded people').
A fixed rate of no-shows is much easier to handle than an unprecedented rate, and a predictable surge in interest right before/right after the deadline is much easier to plan for than an unusual one. I'm curious how Berkeley compares to other recent EAGs that way.
EAGxBerkeley did have a higher rate of late applications than other EAGx events. % of applications that came in the last 3 days:
I'm unsure whether the FTX crisis was the cause - it could also be how the team marketed the event (a big last push, maybe?) or norms around how early to apply to events. But FTX seems plausible.
I don't have the data on no-shows to hand but the rate also seems slightly higher to me, based on eyeballing leftover badges/people admitted (an imperfect measure).
I still think many of the norms suggested here are reasonable asks, even if Berkeley was unusual in some ways.
I suspect that students had more hesitations about EAGx Berkeley than about other EAGxs because of end-of-semester timing (e.g. concurrent with exam preparation). One third of the undergrads whom I encouraged to apply ended up skipping the event citing the time conflict with schoolwork. Thus, the end-of-semester timing seems to explain some of the procrastination and absentees.
As a data point, I was extremely tempted not to cancel my EAG SF ticket, as doing so meant giving up access to Swapcard, which to me provides >70% of the value of EAG(x) conferences (since many talks are recorded and I could do remote 1-1s).
Thanks for writing this. I want to make sure I'm understanding one part correctly: For each meal, you budgeted $67-$100 per person? If that is correct, that seems extremely high to me, unless I'm missing something.
It’s the correct figure - catering in CA especially is just that expensive.
Yeah, a lot of conference venues make a lot/most of their money from their catering arrangements and force you to use their catering, so the catering bill in-particular often ends up quite inflated.
I think catering at a conference venue might actually be this expensive.
Thanks for writing. I will say this phenomenon isn't specific to EA. I used to organize a large ish non-EA event and huge numbers of people would fail to show up and others would try to register the day before. After enough iterations, we knew the fraction of people who did each, and we just planned for that. I wonder if you could do something similar for these events? But if it's extremely variable based on year/location, that would be harder.
Also, I realized I've been assuming that for virtual conferences, there is essentially zero downside to being a no show. But maybe this isn't true? Do people have to pay per swapcard profile, or some other variable cost I'm not aware of? If anyone knows, this seems relevant. For an in person conference it is a lot more obvious that money can still get spent on you if you don't show up.
Even better — there aren't too many EAGx's per year. Why not set up a prediction market or hold a forecasting platform question?
"What percentage of those who've registered for tickets at EAGx____ will not attend?"
Let people bet on the question, and use that estimate as the best-guess as to how many people will be no-shows.
This is consistent with my experience. I agree these norms are good and make organizer's lives easier, but there is always a drop out rate and it is possible to plan for that. Did Berkeley have an unusually high number of noshows? For EAGxPrague we worked with an estimate of about 10% which ended up being quite accurate. I don't remember the exact number but I think we had about 450 registered and about 410 showed up (this does not include the people who actually canceled since they no longer show up as registered in the system). I think it would be possible to do a more detailed analysis of the drop out rate in time and the final number of noshows in case it's useful for future organizers.
Thanks for this post - getting more of those ~85 no-show spots filled seems pretty valuable.
Why not put the tldr as the title? (It would communicate your message to those who don't click and it's a more accurate description of the post.)
I agree that this post seems useful, and also that changing the title to something closer to the TL;DR would probably be good. Though maybe something more like "Please register for EAG(x)'s early & cancel ASAP if you can't attend"? (Since it seems like registering early is also a key part of the suggestion.)
I do think the other norms in the final section seem noteworthy, but still overall it's probably a little better for the title to get the two most important points across.
Another small argument for changing the title is that the current title sounds like how an org / group who very regularly run EAG(x)'s would title a post, and so made me feel like there was a ~2/3 chance this post was written on behalf of CEA - even though I also saw the author names, and know that at least as of November you two didn't work for CEA. I think that effect would be slightly reduced by a title like what Holly or I proposed.
Could you ask people when applying if they would like to join a waitlist? Presumably some people (e.g. locals) would be able to take advantage of last-minute vacancies in a lawful fashion.
For what it's worth, I thought that not picking up my ticket would say that I wasn't coming.
What do you mean by "not picking up"? As in registering after being accepted? It is certainly the case that some people think the way you do. Also, many people procrastinate on finalizing their registration. Now, how much of which is in your "unclaimed tickets" pool is an open question. For EAGxPrague quite close to the application/registration deadline we had maybe up to 150 people who were accepted but haven't registered (and I had roughly 500 capacity). Not knowing if they are not coming or may just all register on the last day made it harder to accept other people and plan meals etc.
Once there is a confirmed registration number, that's a bit easier to work with regarding estimates of who will show up but I find the conversion rate of accepted -> registered more unpredictable. Especially since it was possible to apply for more conferences at once.
Thanks for this post! I appreciate the transparency, and I'm sorry for all this suckiness.
Could one additional easyish structural change be making applications due even earlier for EAGx? I feel like the EA community has a bad tendency of having apps for things open until very soon before the actual thing, and maybe an earlier due date gives people more time to figure out if they're going and creates more buffer before catering number deadlines. Ofc, this costs some extra organizer effort as you have to plan more ahead, but I expect that's more of a shifting thing rather than an whole lot of extra work.
This is not directly related, but I would love a way to interface with EAGs where (I pay no money, but) I have access to the Swapcard interface and I talk only with people who request meetings with me. I often want to "attend" EAGs in this way, where I don't interface with the conference (physically or virtually) but I'm available as a resource if people want to talk to me, for which I will schedule remote 1:1s over Zoom. It'd be nice to be helpful to people at a time where they're available and can see I'm available on Swapcard, but I don't want to pay to do this (nor make the event organizers pay for my non-physical presence if I do end up applying-- I usually want a "virtual only" ticket).