When you are organising a major external event or conference, one big question to consider is whether it should be free to attend, or if delegates should pay a fee. Webinars and internal events are a different matter, and probably always need to be free. For an external event, however, the question of payment is always a valid one.
First of all, you obviously cannot afford to run an external event at a loss. Sometimes, though, event sponsorship may mean that you could be in a position to be able to waive the registration fee for delegates. You may certainly be able to do so at least for particular groups, organisations or individuals. If so, should you?
The type of event matters
This may sound like a no-brainer. After all, surely you will get far more attendees if the conference is free to attend? This is certainly true for invitation-only events. These are different because invited attendees already have a reason to turn up, because they know that their contribution has been sought and will be valued. Where you have particular groups or individuals whose contribution is essential to the success of your event, whether invitation-only or not, you should certainly consider waiving their registration fee regardless of the sponsorship position.
For political or public relations purposes, you may also want to consider waiving or reducing the registration fee for other groups. For example, charging the full fee to representatives from charities or government agencies or departments can look bad and, sure, they won’t be authorised to pay the registration fee. Media representatives should always be able to attend for free, as they will provide you with much-needed publicity. Your speakers will also expect not to be charged. If they wish to bring a PA or other colleague with them, it is a nice gesture to waive any fee for them.
Consider event dynamics
For other types of events, and other delegates, you may find that free attendance has its disadvantages. In the first place, it is a natural human tendency to put a lower value on things that are free. A free event is therefore often perceived as less valuable.
If your or your employer have paid a large sum for you to attend a conference, you are more likely to prioritise that over other work. By contrast, a free event is easier to abandon if your workload increases suddenly, or there is some sort of crisis. The number of delegates who do not attend may therefore be considerably higher if you have waived the registration fee. It is also likely that participants will not bother to let you know that they do not plan to attend. Conversely, people you did not expect may turn up: after all, it was free, so why would you need to register?
This has knock-on effects on your planning and logistics. First of all, it may be hard to set up the event with the right number of seats. You want the event to look full, and the layout is crucial—but to get the layout right, you need to know the number of attendees. Having people drop out at the last minute could seriously upset your plans. Numbers also have an impact on catering. Catering may look like just a cost issue, but having too much food and drink makes it clear that your event is not as successful as you hoped.
If you have a large number of people drop out, you may need to reorganise breakout sessions, and perhaps even cancel some. This is something of a headache to manage on the day, especially if you have brought people in to run sessions, and they are now not needed. Again, this gives the impression that your event is not a success.
Preparing your delegate lists and packs will also be a problem. If you hand out a list of delegates either on the day or in advance—and for the press, this is essential—then no-shows will be obvious. Badges and packs may also be needlessly expensive if you have to prepare a lot for people who do not turn up. Put simply, having a large number of non-attendees makes your event appear less attractive, and therefore less successful.
A simple question of value
There are, therefore, strong arguments in favour of charging at least a nominal delegate fee for your event. In purely economic terms, it is a question of increasing the value of the event in your delegates’ eyes.
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