How to Get Budget Approval for Conferences


If you’ve never been to a conference before, the PASS Summit and Dev Connections events seem like things that happen to Other People.  This year, I wanna help make you one of us.  You’re a geek, right?  Let’s break this down into numbers.

Lightning Talks at the PASS Summit
Lightning Talks at the PASS Summit

What It Costs to Attend a Conference

People usually think conference attendees fall into two buckets: people who paid everything, and people whose company picked up the tab.  Truth is, there’s a lot of gray area, and when you’re getting ready to attend for the first time, you want to aim for that gray area.  You don’t want to pay the full costs plus take vacation time to attend.  We need to make your attendance as easy-to-digest for everybody involved, so let’s break out the three costs to attend:

1. Your salary for the week. I bring this up first because it’s your negotiation tool.  Companies love paying your salary because it’s already built into the budget.  They don’t have to do any extra approvals or paperwork to get you paid.  It’s already happening.  Your goal is just to keep it going during the conference week.

2. The registration fee. Registration for a 3-day conference is around $1,500 for early-bird discounts and around $2,000 for late registrations.  Focus on the $1,500 number because we want to get you registered as fast as possible.

3. The travel & hotels. Companies hate paying for travel, and managers hate asking companies to pay for travel.  There’s a lot of opportunities here to save money by staying at cheaper hotels and eating fast food value meals.  Add these two things together, and this is actually a huge benefit for your negotiations.  Watch how this works….

How to Pitch It To Your Manager

Think like a boss: cost #1 is already covered, and they want to avoid touching cost #3.  Let’s make negotiation easier by starting from a place they might just approve immediately:

“Good morning, your highness, how’s it going?  Wow, you look fabulous this morning.  That combover takes fifteen pounds off for sure.  Just fifty more to go!  Comb harder.  Hey, I was thinking about going to training next quarter.  It’s not available locally, and I know it’s hard to get travel approved, so how about if the company just pays for the $1,500 registration and I’ll pay the travel?  Nobody needs to know it’s out of town.  Here’s the list of topics they’re covering, and I’ll brief everybody on what I learned when I get back.”

See what I did there?:

  • You erased the money and political problems of travel
  • You didn’t even mention your salary – it’s an assumed win for you
  • You’ve reduced the entire discussion down to $1,500 for a training class, which isn’t unreasonable
  • You didn’t say it was a conference – I know, it’s a little slimy, but negotiations are usually slimy
  • You gave a list of topics the manager wants his staff to learn more about
Don't tell your boss about this part.
Conference Downtime

Now that I’ve got your attention, I have to admit that I’ve skipped a few things.  Before you talk to the boss, you need to be armed with a few things ready to go.  When you walk into that office, you need to have the following:

A printed list of the most high-value sessions you’re going to attend. Don’t just print out the entire session list and dump it on your boss’s desk – cull through it to find the sessions that give the most value to your manager.  There’s no need to tell him that you’ll be attending those professional development sessions or the after-hours vendor parties.  Just keep it to 10 session abstracts max, one page front & back, and for every session, have one sentence about what the business will gain from you attending that session.

The registration link for the session. There is a slim chance your manager will say, “Sure, let’s do it,” and you want to be able to strike while the iron is hot.

Your next half-hour free. He may ask you to fill out some budgetary approval paperwork, and you’re going to need to track down the right people to do it.  Offer to do everything for him – just get the contact name of the person in accounting who manages this kind of thing, and hound that person.  Introduce yourself as the guy who makes sure their servers run.  (I play dirty.)

The Three Most Common Ways to Say No

Here’s some of the most common management objections to sending you to a conference, and how to neutralize them:

“I can’t have you gone for a week.” I’ll have my cell phone with me the entire time.  If there’s an emergency, I’ll leave the conference and walk across the street to my hotel where I’ve got free WiFi, and I’ll spend as long as it takes to fix the problem.  Work always comes first.  (If they continue to object, remind them about the last vacation you took.)

“We’ve already used up our training budget for this year.” Well, I really want to learn this stuff to do my job better.  How about we split the costs – I’ll eat the training cost as long as I don’t have to take vacation for the week?

“Let’s talk about this in a couple of months.” Only if you agree that the company will pay registration.  If I have to pay registration out of my own pocket, I need to have an answer this week because registration cost goes up.

After The Boss Says Yes

Optionally, Buy a Kilt
Optionally, Buy a Kilt

Register as fast as possible.  Ideally, you’ll get someone with a company credit card to pay the registration fee, but if not, use your own card and submit an expense report right away.  You don’t have to wait for the event to send an expense report.  You worked hard to get to yes for this cost, and it’s the single biggest barrier standing between you and a week of happiness.  Knock ‘er down fast.

During the registration process, you’ll be asked if you want to attend any pre-conference or post-conference sessions.  These are day-long events taught by a single instructor, so they tend to go much deeper into a single topic.  At the PASS Summit 2011 in Seattle, for example, I’m giving my day-long session on Virtualization and SAN Basics for the DBA.  These pre-cons typically cost around $400 and I think they’re a huge bargain.  You don’t have to sign up for these right away, but if you can get the company to pay for one, I’d highly recommend it.  It’s usually an easy sell to bosses, too: “I can spend a day learning about virtualization and SAN storage for just $400.”  Bam, out comes the credit card.

Block that week out in your group calendar.  When people try to schedule team meetings, software releases, projects, whatever, you want to be able to say, “No, I’m going to training that week, and I’ve had it blocked out in my calendar since June.  It’s already paid for.”

Book your airfare.  My personal favorite travel booking tool is Bing Travel because it has nifty sliders to change your arrival and departure times.  I would recommend flying in at least one day early, preferably two if you can afford it.  You’ll either decide to attend a pre-conference session, or you’ll want to join in as other geeks roam around town doing things like photo walks and tweet-ups.  It’s a great way to meet your fellow Twitterers in a relaxed session, and it pays huge dividends in your career.

Reserve your hotel room, but don’t pay for it.  Hotels will let you reserve a room with a credit card, thereby locking in your room and your rate, without charging your card.  It’s called guaranteeing the room.  You usually have to cancel by 6pm on the day of the arrival, but that’s plenty of time.  By prepaying your room, you get a discount, but you lose flexibility.  If you get the chance to share a room with someone else and they’ve already prepaid their room, you’re out of luck.

Finally, when it works, post a note here in the comments.  Your fellow geeks are just as scared as you are to approach The Boss, and they need encouragement to know it can be done.

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22 Comments. Leave new

  • Brad Harker
    June 20, 2011 9:29 am

    Sounds like a great plan to get the company providing some training to grow you as an employee. I used a reasoning from SQL Pass’ website and will take these key ideas in with me loaded and ready to get funded!!

  • Great article Brent. Also, if you’re employer simply won’t pay, it’s worth doing it yourself. I did, and will probably do it again this year.

    A couple of other points come to mind.
    1. Food is cheap because it’s provided at the Summit and vendor parties.
    2. Sharing a room can be a great experience and good cost savings. I shared a room with SQLChicken last year and we had a ball.
    3. Consider signing up for a Pre-Con for another reason. If you don’t purchase a pre-con, the price to purchase the recordings as dramatically higher. I wish someone had told me that before I attended my first Summit.

    The PASS Summit experience is simply too good to miss.

  • Why shoot for the grey area first? Wouldn’t it be better to try for a all-expense (or most-expense) paid trip early in the negotiations and then fall back on splitting the travel/registration fee as a negotiation tactic if that fails? I admit I’m not as experienced in asking for paid training like PASS etc…, but I would think it would be best to start high and come down to splitting it if needed…

    Granted, “it depends” on your employer and how willing they are to pitch in for training and your instinct on the travel aspect of it I guess. It just seems like your first move should be to aim high.


    • Aaron – the difficulty is that the instant most bosses hear a request for conference travel, they simply shut the conversation down with No, and then tell you to find something locally period. Any further requests for negotiation only result in the original answer.

  • Peter Szegedi
    June 20, 2011 1:04 pm

    Nice strategies, but the travel cost would be higher then the whole conference cost. Sucks to be in the eastern part of Europe.

    • Peter – gosh, it’s a shame there’s never any conferences in Europe.

      Oh, wait, there is! There’s SQLBits, SQLRally Nordic, TechEd Europe, the PASS European Summit, and Miracle Open World. 😉

      • Peter Szegedi
        June 20, 2011 1:25 pm

        Yes, but as always, i want the unreachable! 🙂

        I will google these btw. Only heard about the PASS European Summit and the SQLBits. Thanks for the tips!

      • Pavel Nefyodov
        June 21, 2011 4:54 am

        Brent, you have missed a point.
        Check this out:
        SQLBits 2011 – Brighton, UK.
        SQLBits 2012 – Manchester, UK.
        SQLRally Nordic – Stockholm, Sweden.
        TechEd Europe 2011 – Cancelled.
        TechEd Europe 2012 – Amsterdam, Netherlands.
        PASS European Conference 2010 – Neuss, Germany.
        PASS European Conference 2011 – I have no info about this one.
        Miracle Open World 2011 – Billund, Denmark

        None of these is held in EASTERN EUROPE. Obviously travel + living cost will be of great concern.

        • Pavel – no, I do indeed understand that point. You’re going to have to spend money and get in an airplane.

          Here in the US, I have always had to travel thousands of miles to get to conferences. Just because it’s one country doesn’t mean I can drive everywhere. 😉 You’re going to have to invest in yourself – just as you’re asking the company to invest in you.

          It’s your job to find the cheapest travel methods and hotels that you can feel comfortable in. Or hey – you can keep right on going where you are, frustrated and angry that there’s not a local SQL conference and that you haven’t met anyone in the community. Your choice. Choose wisely.

  • Great tips, Brent.

    I just had that conversation with my boss (and what a handsome fellow he is. He has a way with words also, heck he is really a pretty cool guy). It actually went really well – He told me “you can go for sure” but then he added “as long as we have money in the bank and some more billable clients”.

    Should I be worried?


  • great article Brent. If only it had been posted about 4 days ago when I emailed my boss about attending SQLPass – then I’m sure I’d have worded the request better 🙂 Not heard anything yet though and no news is good news, right??


  • Anyway, if the company’s policy is actually the one that you can go wherever you want until the cost is $0 or below, I think you can try what you want you simply can’t and won’t succeed.

    The only way remains to pay it by myself.

  • I consider myself somewhat lucky in that my company/boss LIKES to send me to training. still haven’t gotten to go to a conference yet, but i feel i’m getting close.

  • Brent,

    This is subject to people who are in U.S.A most probably. How about geeks like me who stay in India attending the conference… ;)..can u spell some ideas… I know no company pays…but some day i wish i will make it…

  • Good ideas – except for the “fast food value meals”. I generally avoid food that touts itself as a “value” 😉


  • B.J. Fentress
    June 23, 2011 9:18 am

    What if the argument your boss/manager uses is that in the past other employees have used conferences as vacations and have limited conferences to only director level employees? I have offered to be reachable by phone and through the interwebs for emergencies, but how do I crack the old thinking from mangement? I have even offered to blog/tweet about events so someone has an idea about what I’m up to. Any advice there?

    • BJ – Not everybody can use this technique, but here’s what I’ve done in the past when faced with arguments like that. Be aware that this technique can backfire, and you’re going into battle with this.

      “Let me make sure I understand this: I can’t get training because other employees have abused it. Is there anything I can do to change that, or do I just need to accept that the company will never help me move my skills forward?”

      You have to say it in a way that hints at the possibility that you’d look somewhere else for work. You have to be willing to do that, though. I know it’s a huge step, but your career is under your own control. Some companies are perfectly willing to let you vegetate for decades in the same position, and to them, that’s success. I blogged a little about that here:

  • Bruce Pratt
    June 25, 2012 7:27 pm

    Fine comments and approach, Brent.

    I know because I used just this approach to attend SQL Cruise Alaska 2012. Very worthwhile venture for both myself and my company.

    Would love to do it with SQLPASS, however, my compatriot DBA is presenting and both cannot be absent. Talk about bummer. But seeing you (and the rest of PLF) and chatting with you 1-1 on SQL Cruise was incredible compensation.


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