I think it's naive to mention that there are fewer attendees at $1000+ conferences this year than there were last year and the first thing you jump to isn't the worst global economy in HyperbolicNumber years, but that Codecamps are cannibalizing the attendance numbers.
Sure, the professional speakers are often better speakers. And, putting them together in a $3000 conference makes for a roster of good speakers. Congratulations, you've built a luxury product. Guess how well ALL luxury products are doing in a down economy?
If, somehow, it actually is the cheaper/free conferences are the reason for the erosion, it just means that your luxury product isn't nearly as luxurious compared to the competition as you think. That value that the company feels it was getting by sending someone is not there. The trick to selling a luxury product isn't to make it more like the cheaper product or blame the cheaper product for eroding sales. It's to make the luxury product so damned compelling that the price becomes irrelevant.
I'm a full-time self-employed consultant in Minneapolis and have been doing consulting here for 10 years. I've never been to ANY of the conferences you all mentioned. I have been to a few local CodeCamp-like events and to the regional Heartland Developers Conference (which was something like $200). I've watched lots of the video from the big international conferences. Sure, I can see a difference in the public speaking ability and in the refinement of those skills.
However, I can also see, in the more local conferences, that the presentations are often FAR more oriented to practical solutions to the problems people are facing on the ground. I tend to see more "case study" and "here's how we did it" kinds of presentations using real-life situations and fewer Northwind demos. Those presentations are often done by people who are available, should I want to buy them lunch and pick their brain.
Sure, they may not have the smooth cadence and professionalism of a paid speaker. However, I'll take a relevant presentation by someone who stumbles a few times, but mentions that this design surface really gets to be unusable when you put 95 entities on it over a professional speaker who happily click through a scripted Northwind demo that gives me the impression I'm not going to run into difficulty when I try this for real in my project.
And, I can go to those conferences without having to sit down with a spreadsheet and determine if it's really a good idea or not.