5 Conference Horror Stories You Should be Aware Of

Don't sponsor the next Fyre Festival

You've probably heard about the infamous Fyre Festival.

Organizers promised a VIP experience on the island of Great Exuma in the Bahamas, but it turned into a nightmare situation as guests were stranded with half-built huts to sleep in and cold cheese sandwiches to eat.

What resulted was chaos, hundreds of (angry) influencers and a six-year jail sentence for the event organizer.

Imagine if you had invested $25,000 out of your Marketing budget to sponsor Fyre Festival.

Chances are you won’t ever have to deal with such an extreme, but conference horror stories DO happen, and you need to be ready for when they do.

Below you’ll find five lessons from anonymous (but real) horror stories you should keep in mind when thinking about sponsoring that “great” conference your cousin Billy is raving about.

Double check who is attending

“When we showed up, we were shocked, and also not very shocked, to see that … Only ~30 customers showed up”

You just invested almost $10,000 and countless hours of prep to sponsor a promising conference.

Your team is ready and excited, Marketing and Sales have put a lot of effort (and hope) into this. You get there and... crickets.

That’s exactly what happened to this US company when they sponsored a high-end, customer-only conference in the tech space.

“One of our high-profile partners (well-known Silicon Valley startup with tens of millions in revenue) approached us to sponsor an 'exclusive' customer conference.”

Since they promised ~100 executive-level attendees from their customer base who were highly interested in new solutions and had a major budget to spend, they decided to pull the trigger.

“Because of their profile and our relationship, we didn't really bat an eye at the affordable $8,000 sponsorship. We would be a premium sponsor with swag, logo, banners, stage presentation... 'the works.'"

Sounds great? Well, check again.

“Only ~30 customers showed up, none above director level titles. The place was swarmed with their own employees (who didn't take it seriously) and other partners (who we were never informed would be there). They hosted 1:1 meetings with other partners during our stage presentation and only about half of the already small attendee list was present during the talk. Many left early and no one stayed for the after party.”

Lesson: Always double check the attendee list. If you want to engage with specific companies, email them in advance, and check whether the decision makers will actually attend this year.

Beware of radio silence from the organizers

“All in all, a complete waste of $8,000.”

This lesson comes from the same horror story as the point above, but I want to hammer on this point.

The conference was destined for failure from the start. What gave it away? The organizer’s radio silence.

“After three months of minimal communication and trying to extract more details out of them, we decided to bring some of our own sponsorship material and just see how it goes, being a little anxious about how it would turn out.”

What happened?

“When we showed up, we were shocked, and also not very shocked, to see that there was hardly any branding in the hotel venue, no banners, no logos, and no swag. All in all, a complete waste of $8,000 and we asked for our money back, which they were not happy about.”

Lesson: When considering whether to invest in a conference or not, reach out to everyone in their team and see how responsive they are.

Never sponsor the “Industry Fun Conference”

“$25,000 resulted in a few negligible leads, many of which said 'let's talk in 6 months.'"

Some conferences are jam-packed with engaging attendees and needle-moving opportunities. SaaStr and RailsConf are some great examples.

Other conferences… well, not so much.

“A friend of one of our founders was the conference organizer of a long-standing marketing conference at a really nice venue, with great sponsors, and promising great attendees. $25,000 (discounted from $35,000) would get us swag, logo, banners, and a stage presentation.”

It looked like a fantastic opportunity. This company had the chance to be the front and center at one of the top industry conferences, stage presentation included.

At first, everything seemed great. Branding, swag, and the overall sponsorship logistics were well executed. But things took an interesting turn:

“What wasn't well executed were the sales opportunities. We learned that this conference was basically the ‘industry fun conference.’ In other words, no one was there for business - they were only there to hang out with friends, get free drinks, and get away for work on their employer's dime. Zero sales meetings. Attendees weren't incentivized or encouraged to meet with sponsors at all and the conference organizers didn't make it any easier.”

The end result: “$25,000 resulted in a few negligible leads, many of which said 'let's talk in 6 months.'"


Lesson: Every industry has a “fun” conference where everyone goes to get away from work and have free drinks. If you’ve been in the industry for a while, you know which one is it. Do not spend a dime on them, unless you work for a vodka company

Understand the conference-company fit

"Objectification of the kind we saw at ICE is not ok, whether it’s a business event or not."

Onfido, a risk management & fraud prevention startup, attended ICE Gambling, a conference in the gambling space.

It’s a promising event, packed with fantastic speakers and new sales opportunities. But not everything went as smooth as expected:

“This is the third year Onfido has been exhibiting at ICE, and the third year that we’ve seen some companies using ‘booth babes’ to attract attention.”

It goes without saying that Onfido is opposed to it. But even though they never adhered to the practice, it generated backlash that can, eventually, come back to bite them.

“You might have seen and heard some of the backlash about this practice.”

Lesson: see if the conference you are sponsoring aligns with your company, brand and culture. If you see booth babes, run the opposite way (and do it fast).

Check for a healthy sellers-to-buyers ratio

"The business version of a 'sausegefest'."

A conference is like a tiny, closed economy that pops up for a few days and then goes away. Like in any market, there are buyers and sellers, and the ratio between the two determines the supply and demand.

If you go to a conference, check the buyers:sellers ratio. Too many sponsors and not enough attendees will be a problem.

“It’s the business version of a “sausagefest” — it’s tough to make money in most conference businesses so most conferences are overweighted to sellers because there’s no discipline to balance the numbers.”

If there is one seller for every buyer, you should be extra careful. It means the conference is hell-bent on making a quick buck now, instead of providing value to all stakeholders.

“Ever been to a nightclub where there was a line outside behind a velvet rope but it was almost empty once you got inside? Maintaining good ratios might mean slowing things down or turning business away at first, but it pays in the long run.”

Lesson: before spending your budget on a conference, try to get as much information on the ratio from sellers to buyers. Browse the site, talk to the organizers, and see past reviews to get a sense of previous editions.