Participation by highly qualified judges is what makes the NHC work. Getting those judges into seats at the various competitions is a critical effort.
I noticed a recommendation for judges to get a pre-registration slot for the next year's competition. That is a no-cost incentive that AHA can provide judges and it is something that is reasonable. Those judges have already spent hundreds of dollars in some cases to support the judging. Another no-cost incentive for judges is to give them a pre-registration slot for the conference too. Both of these options are no-cost to AHA, but will require a bit of bookkeeping. This shouldn't be a big deal and given the exclusivity of these registrations, they could be STRONG incentives.
I do worry about the qualifications of the judges at the NHC and the potential for the opportunity for pre-registration to be abused or 'not effectively' used to get highly qualified judges in the seats. Therefore, I suggest that a certain number of pre-registration slots be allotted to each first round center with the competition organizer having the discretion of awarding the slots to judges, but it would generally be the highest ranking judges receiving those slots. This also provides the competition organizer a stick (or carrot) to make sure that judges are providing good feedback. At the BJCP meeting in Philly, we lamented the fact that even highly-ranked judges can sometimes provide poor feedback. This is a tool that the competition organizer might use at their discretion.
Although the NHC is one of the highest entry cost competitions, its the de-facto highest competition in the land and it should not be a surprise that it is more costly to run. The 2 rounds also increase costs. I am not embarrassed to have the entry fees higher than other comps. Raising this year's entry fee was a good move and it appears that another small increase to improve the support judges receive at the first round centers would be welcome. Those judges are spending a lot to participate and they get little from it other than the satisfaction of a job well done and comradery.
Its been several years since my last NHC entry, but I would hope that AHA membership counts for something. I'm hoping that AHA membership is a requirement for early registration to any AHA-run event. Like they say, 'Membership has its privileges'. There is no reason why a non-AHA member should have a greater opportunity to register for our events than a member. Again, a pre-registration opportunity for AHA members should be a consideration.
Finally, the number of entries per person is currently excessive. My review of the recent Ninkasi winners shows that no winner had more than 4 or 5 placings. This year and last, the winners each had 2 first places. There is no need to allow up to 15 entries into the NHC. I suggest that 5 might be the proper entry limit.