December 4, 2012


admit one
Big business can afford to host free events and advertise them. They often have their own facilities. If not, they have the budgets to rent space and provide refreshments.

You may not.

A free-to-attend event is not free to run. If you don't have a good estimate of how many will show up, life gets stressful.


You can use an event organizing system like Meetup or Eventbrite to collect RSVPs (LinkedIn Events shutdown last month). You still won't have a good idea of how many will really attend. If you host events regularly, you'll develop estimates. Perhaps 70% attend. If your room holds 70, you can overbook and allow 100 registrations. Airlines and hotels have mastered this process.


click to readThe difficulty arises with newer or less frequent events. Attendance might fluctuate even if you registrations are relatively constant. As an organizer, the waiting gets nerve-wracking. If you have free speakers, it's unfair to them if the attendance is low.

I’ve organized events. My most embarrassing experience was with THE Social Media Workshop in 2011. The speakers were excellent. Since members prepaid for the year, they could attend for free. Yet attendance was low. The speakers say they forgive you --- the right people attended. Maybe that's true but low attendance is embarrassing just the same.

The Solution

You've probably guessed the solution: charge in advance. You then get solid facts. If you're going to be disappointed, you might as well find out early. Even a small ticket price boosts the commitment level. Otherwise, excuses like the weather get in the way.

You could have different prices:
  • early bird: limited quantity, limited time [could be 2 for 1, rather than a discount]
  • regular: ending 1-2 days before the event
  • at the door: have a surcharge to entice pre-purchases
You then encourage early registrations --- a nice way to reduce stress. Eventbrite and Meetup let you show how many have registered and how many tickets remain. There are costs for using those services but peace of mind has value too. You could boost prices, to offset the service charges.
If you don't sell enough tickets, you have advance notice to cancel or reschedule.


Free events raise suspicions. What are the organizers selling? Even if the answer is nothing, you may get too few of the right people (and too many of the wrong).

Besides increasing commitment, charging increases the perceived value. The ticket price needn't be high. If you're not aiming to make a profit, you could use the money for catering or donations. You could even give refunds at the door.

If you're worried that paying attendees will expect a better event, good. You'll now have even more reasons to give attendees value.

Refund Policies

If you cancel the event, you'd give refunds. If a registrant cancels, do you refund the ticket price? Maybe not. Make the ticket transferrable instead. That way you maintain attendance numbers. Isn't that what you want?

Why Bother?

Why are you organizing events in the first place? Maybe you team up with other organizers to create bigger happenings. Isn’t that a win for all?


PS If you're creating a big special event, you can use Picatic, crowdsourcing for events. Besides collecting money, you’ll gauge interest early.

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