virtual drone conference FAA UAS symposium

FAA’s virtual drone conference costs $375 — and people are angry

Coronavirus has made for tough times in the drone conference industry, as tons of event planners make tricky decisions to cancel or postpone their drone conferences.

But the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual UAS symposium is moving forward as a virtual drone conference, spread into two parts, both over two days — for a total of four days of webinars.

The total cost to attend all four days is $375 — and many drone industry participants are pretty upset about being charged that much to watch online videos.

A post to the FAA’s Facebook page announcing the news drew nearly two dozen comments, mostly negative — and dozens more reactions. Another post to the FAA’s drone-specific page drew a similar response. And a post to a private Facebook group called Commercial sUAS Remote Pilots drew about 240 comments or reactions (again, mostly negative).

“It’s digital! Why hundreds of dollars to attend?” one woman commented.

Some have pointed out that the costs disproportionately hurt small businesses — many of whom are already hurting due to coronaviruses’s impact on the economy.

“Enough of taking advantage of small business owners that have been severely affected by the government’s wishes,” another man said.

Most conferences tend to cost many hundreds of dollars to attend. But given the cost to rent hotel ballrooms, cater food and coffee, and pay travel expenses for speakers and staff, it’s easy to grasp where the money goes.

With virtual conferences, it’s less clear.

“What are costs covering if this is an online event?” one poster wrote on the FAA’s Facebook page. “The price seems a little exorbitant for the benefit.”

A study by virtual events platform VFairs showed that online events tend to cost 1/3 of what in-person events cost.

VFairs conducted an analysis of career fair costs (not quite a conference, but a close comparison) found that the average cost of in-person expenses include $8,400 for venue rentals; $1,000 for parking; $1,000 for AV and equipment rentals; $4,200 for hospitality like catering; and $4,000 for staffing. Their average career fair costs $27,715.

But they found that most of those expenses go away with virtual conferences. While virtual conferences may still entail marketing expenses, speaker fees, salaries for conference planners, many of the big conferences go away or get smaller.

There’s no food to cater and no venues to rent. There’s still tech gear involved (like video conferencing services that can support hundreds of users at once) but it’s less than setting up AV gear for multiple rooms. There are speaker fees to pay, but most speakers are charging less since they no longer need to take time and money out to travel to get there.

And while content will likely be the same in a virtual conference, many attendees don’t go for the learning alone. There’s more value to a conference than just listening to the speakers.

Many attendees say networking is a primary benefit to attending conferences. Meeting someone face-to-face can be invaluable in terms of landing future clients, partnerships or mentors. But many suspect you won’t get that out of a virtual conference.

That said, the virtual conference is still much cheaper than what it would have cost in-person. The full pass for the 2019 FAA UAS Symposium was $769, vs. $375 for this year’s virtual symposium. That makes the virtual version about half the price of the in-person one.

The FAA is also offering partial passes for less money. Attending just one part costs $249, and a one-day pass is $150. You can score some discounted passes as low as $175 per part (or $299 for all four days) if you meet certain qualification criteria such as being a student or working in the military, public safety, or for other forms of government.

Will you attend this year’s FAA virtual drone conference? Is the cost fair, or is it too much for an online-only event? Leave a comment below!


  • Harmon Ford says:

    Ridiculously exorbitant cost making attendance attainable only for the elitist and wealthiest. Typically what is to be expected by Federal Government Bureaucracies.

  • Joe says:

    The cost is ludicrous. Their largest cost center is speaker fees, and they are going to make a killing if any significant number of people pay for this.

    The way I see it, the speakers will benefit, the organizer will benefit, and the only people that will lose are the “attendees”. There won’t be any real opportunity to network, no real opportunity to ask questions of presenters, no opportunity to see what other companies are doing or offering.

    I’ll pass.

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