Bullish Q&A: I’m Just Breaking Into My Field. It is OK to Ask for Free Stuff?

Dear Jen,
This may help others even if your answer doesn’t come in time to help me, so I thought I’d ask. Is it possible or advisable to ask the sponsors of an event for free tickets if you’re passionate about the topic? It’s a conference in my case, and I know “passion” is airy fairy but I’ve been taking numerous online courses and have some free real life ones lined up. I’m a woman and minority ethnic so I hope it’s not as entitled as a white man asking? Thanks for any response!

Hi, there! Good question. Of course, you can always ask. What do you lose by asking? As long as you’re polite, it’s a no-risk proposition.

Here are some ways to increase your chances of success:

You can offer to work in exchange for a conference ticket. Some conferences have openings for volunteers and might just need general labor. Offering a special skill is even better, though — photography, blog writeups, etc. It’s great if you can offer a writeup on a specific website or your own well-developed blog — that helps the event sell more tickets next year.

– A lot of conferences would like to be more diverse, but giving a free pass to one person doesn’t really do all that much to solve that problem. It is much more persuasive if you represent an organization related to the interests of an underrepresented group — you can then pitch either sending a small delegation from this group, or you yourself attending the conference, and then presenting back to the group.

– If you want to get REALLY ballsy, pitch yourself for a panel. Even if you’re a beginner/student, sometimes a panel could use a “youth perspective” (depending on the topic). Don’t be general (“I’m available to work or volunteer or even speak on any panel you have!”) — find a specific panel where you feel you could add something specific that is not already represented. If there’s a panel on diversity, or The Future of X, and a group you’re part of is not represented, pitch why you’d be a perfect add. Generally, panelists get into conferences free.

Personally, I get a good number of these kinds of pitches, and I tend to accept the ones that offer specific skills, and that come in first. (Incidentally, the Bullish Conference is full up on volunteers, unless one happens to be a professional photographer.) And while I have to turn down most such entreaties, I’m generally proud of people for getting up the guts to pitch, and even when I say no, those people are still on my radar.

Also keep in mind that a lot of conferences don’t sell out. If a conference is happening in three days and there are many tickets left, the value of those tickets is quickly approaching zero. I was recently offered a free ticket to an event that cost over $2K to attend! The offer came through a women’s group, about a week before the conference — the organizers apparently would prefer a packed house, even if they can’t sell any more tickets.

Go pitch!