Paul Kei Matsuda

Please read if you are planning to invite a speaker for an academic event.

If you are thinking about organizing an academic event--such as an invited talk or a conference--that involves one or more invited speaker, here are a few things to consider. (This information is based on my years of experience as a conference organizer and invited speaker.) 

To avoid miscommunication (which can be expensive for you or for your organization), designate one person as the invited speaker contact, if possible. That person should coordinate with others about transportation, introductions, escorts, dinners, receptions, hotel and travel arrangements, honorarium payments and reimbursements, etc. Don't make the invited speaker play the organizer role. Coordination is your job. The speaker's job is to show up and deliver the talk and/or workshop.

Before inviting the speaker, be sure that the event does not conflict with major religious holidays or other important events locally or elsewhere. Also make sure that the venue is going to be available for the invited talk and for the whole event. (Reserve rooms before contacting the invited speakers.) Also reserve hotel rooms for the speaker(s) and for out-of-town participants. Think of the speaker invitation as the point of no return. Once you invite, you gotta make the event happen.

When you contact the invited speaker, be very clear and upfront about what you expect them to do and what compensations you are able to provide. Here are some questions to consider when you invite a speaker. 

What would you like the speaker to do?
  • What is the status of the speaker at the conference? The keynote speaker? One of the plenary, featured, or invited speakers? Invited workshop leader? 
  • In addition to giving a talk, what other roles do you expect the person to play? An additional workshop? Session chair? (If there are additional speaking roles, mention that upfront, not as an additional request later.) 
  • When do you need the title, abstract and biographical statement? (Make the request sooner than later and provide reasonable time.)
  • Do you need a promotion photo for publicity materials? If so, what are the specifications? (Format, size, etc.) How do you plan to use it?
  • Do you expect the invited speaker to attend sessions? (I would attend sessions and interact with participants anyway, but some people don't.) 
  • Do you expect the invited speaker to be at certain occasions (opening and closing ceremonies, photo ops, dinners, receptions, informal gatherings with graduate students, etc.). (I usually try to show up for these events as much as possible, but it helps to know what to expect.) 
  • Will you be requesting a manuscript for proceedings? If so, how many words? By what date? Is it required or optional? What publisher will publish it? How widely will it be circulated? (I prefer not to write for proceedings with a limited circulation.)
  • Will you be requesting a copy of the script, handouts, PowerPoint slides or other materials? If so, what do you plan to do? How do you plan to protect the speaker's intellectual property rights? 
  • Will you be audio- or video-recording the presentation? If so, what do you plan to do with it? How widely will it be distributed? 
What do you plan to provide for the speaker?
  • Will you be providing an honorarium? How much? (Note that some speakers have a standard speaking fee. Be prepared to find additional funding sources, if necessary.) In what form (e.g., check, cash, wire transfer)? In what currency? When will you be making the payment? (It's usually after the conference, but it helps to know the time frame.)
  • Will you be providing transportation? Up to what amount? Are there any restrictions (e.g., discount economy, upgradable full fare, first class, airline restrictions etc.)? Who will make the arrangements? (I prefer to book my own flights and be reimbursed.) 
  • Will you be picking up the speaker? If not, will you arrange and pay for a ride? If the speaker is to take a cab or shuttle, will you be reimbursing the speaker?
  • Will you be providing lodging? Where? For how many nights? Be prepared to provide lodging for the night before the conference and on the last day of the conference. If the funding is limited, mention how many nights you will be able to cover upfront. (Or consider reducing the number of invited speakers so you can provide full funding.) 
  • Will you be providing meals? For meals that are not provided, will you reimburse for meals? Or will you provide per diems? If so, at what rate?
  • What kind of documentation and receipts do you require for processing honoraria and reimbursement? A copy of passport? A tax form (W-2 in the U.S.)? Receipt? Boarding passes? 
Here are some additional questions to consider that might help the speaker provide the best service: 
  • What is the theme of the event? 
  • Is there a website? There should be a professionally designed website with the title, date, location, description of the event, list of speakers, schedule of events, local information, registration information, etc. 
  • Why are you inviting this particular speaker? Are there a particular issue, question or topic you would like to see addressed? 
  • What is the format of the event? How many people are going to attend?
  • What is the itinerary for the speaker? 
  • Who is in the audience? Researchers in the field? Faculty members? Graduate students? Undergraduate students? People in the community? 
  • When will the talk be scheduled? Will it be the opening or closing plenary? Luncheon talk? (A good speaker can sometimes tailor the talk depending on the occasion.) 
  • What kind of equipment will be available? Projector for PowerPoint? Sound? Internet connection? Document projector? Microphone? If so, what kind? (It's OK to ask the speaker what they need; be prepared for last minute requests, however.) 
  • Who are the sources of funding? What are their interests in providing the funding? 
Book the hotel room for the invited speakers before or shortly after sending out the invitation. The standard check-in time should be the night before the first day of the event and the check-out time should be the day after the last day of the event. It's easy to modify or cancel the reservation later; it's extremely difficult to find appropriate rooms if you wait too long. Use the institutional credit card, if available, or use your own credit card. Don't make the speakers call the hotel to give their credit cards. It is OK, however, for the hotel to ask the speakers for their credit cards for incidentals.

Double check hotel rooms for the speakers. Sometimes hotels lose reservations. Don't let that happen. 

Some organizers try to simplify things by adding a lump-sum payment to the honorarium amount and asking the invited speakers to make their own arrangements for transportation, accommodation and even meals. That's fine if the lump-sum amount is clearly larger than the expected expenses. But keep in mind that this amount is going to be taxable to the invited speaker (it counts as their income) and they will have to do additional work of finding a hotel room (in an unfamiliar area) and claiming unreimbursed expenses on their tax returns (which counts only partially). I don't recommend this approach because it is not the best way to treat your guest. It reflects poorly on the organizer, the event, and the hosting institution. (As an invited speaker, I only suggest this when I sense that the organizers don't have their acts together.)

A few weeks before the event, provide a complete (and finalized) itinerary with cell phone numbers and email addresses for all the key people (e.g., pick up, escort, meal hosts, organizers, etc.). Photos of these people, if available, will also be useful (though not necessary if they arrive on time and introduce themselves to the speaker right away). 

And whatever you do, never, ever disinvite a speaker. (Unless the event itself is canceled.) That reflects poorly on you and your organization. 

I know this is a lot. If you can't handle all these details yourself, find someone else who is dependable enough to handle them responsibly. If not, you might want to think twice about organizing an event that involves invited speakers.

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Last update: January 6, 2008