Cryptocurrency conferences are still a massive business, even if bitcoin's price has plunged this year.
When it kicks off this week, one ticket to CoinDesk's Consensus three-day conference in New York City can cost roughly $2,000. Well over 4,000 are expected to attend, up from 2,700 attendees last year. So at a minimum, the conference is likely bringing in $8 million.
More than 20 other events, some with similarly high entrance fees, are also scheduled during the days around Consensus. The bitcoin conference that began with 400 attendees three years ago is now the centerpiece of a full-blown "Blockchain Week NYC," an event run in partnership with the New York Economic Development Corporation.
Consensus conference attendance growth over the years
Last year's conferences helped drive the surge of attention on cryptocurrencies.
Around Consensus 2017 last May, Bitcoin accelerated its gains above $2,000, and was bolstered by the first TokenSummit and Ethereal Summit.
Prices then skyrocketed over the rest of the year, drawing Wall Street's interest and topping $10,000 for the first time after the "Consensus Invest" conference in November. Since then, however, Bitcoin has lost more than half its value since topping $19,000 in December, but it remains more than 4 times above where it was last May.
This year's speaker lineup also reflects significant inroads made by the cryptocurrency industry into the mainstream. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, whose mobile payments company Square launched bitcoin trading this year, is set to speak at Consensus on Wednesday. Other conference panelists range from government officials to start-up leaders.
Consensus "does have a reputation of, if you speak at that event you're on the map," said Michael Oved, co-founder of a token marketplace called AirSwap, and organizer of a blockchain conference called Fluidity, which took place Thursday.
He said he purposely under-priced his conference – tickets ran from $150 to $250 – because he saw it as "an opportunity for us to talk about the things we've been working on." About 700 people attended the Brooklyn event, Oved said. That would bring ticket sales to about $140,000.
Other events charge at least several hundred dollars for admission, including:
"Clearly there's a lot of money to be made in the enterprise IT world, and blockchain seems to be the flavor of month," said Bill Barhydt, CEO of Abra, which runs a mobile-based cryptocurrency storage app.
"This represents an opportunity for companies that are trying to jump on that bandwagon to take advantage of that confluence of factors at the same time," he said. "Obviously there's a lot of money moving around in terms of sponsorships. We're getting requests every day to sponsor."
However, not everyone in the cryptocurrency world is happy about the massive conference industry.
Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin tweeted on April 26 that he is boycotting Consensus this year partly because of the high ticket price.
"The conference costs $2-$3k to attend. I refuse to personally contribute to that level of rent seeking," Buterin said. He added that CoinDesk "is recklessly complicit in enabling giveaway scams," and called their coverage of an ethereum split "highly sensationalist."
In a statement, CoinDesk responded that it was "disappointed to learn of Vitalik's tweet today regarding a CoinDesk reporting error, for which we apologize. One of our reporters included an unverified link in an article; we quickly identified the error and fixed it. We strive to maintain the highest level of unbiased, ethical journalism in order to provide the best possible coverage of the blockchain industry."
Amber Baldet, former head of blockchain at J.P. Morgan, also criticized the increasingly costly cryptocurrency events.
"The irony of high-priced conferences is they're the ones least likely to be paying speakers within the community, who care the most & need the platform to share new work," she tweeted on April 28. "Corporate expense accounts subsidize people who rarely say anything novel, 'celeb keynotes' extract high fees."
She is a speaker at two of the primary events of the week, Ethereal Summit and Consensus. "I'm not getting paid for either," she said in another tweet, adding that their livestreams "are a great way to democratize access."
With all the hype and partying that conferences bring, it's also unclear whether they ultimately help start-ups progress along a planned production schedule — especially when many can struggle under inexperienced management.
"There are so many conferences now," Oved said. "It's crazy. In the Bay Area alone, there's a conference every week on blockchain. It's easy to get distracted by conferences."
However, some are betting that the conferences will be the catalyst for bitcoin prices eventual recovery.
"The rally post-Consensus has been strong and more supportive of our view that bitcoin has already bottomed for the year," Tom Lee, co-founder of Fundstrat Global Research said in a May 7 note. "Bitcoin has rallied 10 to 70 percent during each of these conferences."
Lee added: "We think alt-coins could similarly rally given the sizable increase in attendance."
Clarification: The Fluidity conference took place on Thursday, May 10.