Free Events: The No-Show Problem

This past weekend Roz Duffy, Kelani Nichole, and I hosted our second Barcamp Philadelphia at the University of the Arts. It was, by just about any measure, a success.

One issue we’ve struggled with over the past two years is whether or not to charge an entrance fee. The spirit of barcamp, in one sense, is a free exchange of ideas. Anyone is able to come, anyone is able to speak, and everyone can afford it. Because it’s free.

The downside of organizing a free event is that someone has to pay for it, especially if you want to provide some basic amenities like food, drinks, and additional nice-to-have’s like t-shirts. This stuff isn’t cheap. And finding sponsors willing to pony up their hard-earned revenue, especially in this economy, isn’t easy.

This year’s Barcamp Philly was a pretty hot ticket. We worked really hard to make it a great event. In fact it was so popular that we “sold out” of tickets a full month before the date! A waiting list quickly started and eventually we re-opened registration to let those folks who waited patiently in the doors. In the end we had about 365 registrations and folks were still writing to ask if they could come or be wait-listed. We didn’t want to turn anyone away but we also had to contend with capacity issues at the University of the Arts based on our estimates.

On Saturday we had about 260 registered users attend. (give or take) Don’t get me wrong, I’m THRILLED with that number. And to be fair, we had about 20 or so legitimate last-minute cancellations. That still leaves about 80 people who were no-shows.

That’s unacceptable to me. Planning these things isn’t a science. We have to try and decide how many t-shirts to order, how much food to buy, and how many classrooms and spaces to reserve. Then we have to ask other people to pay for it. When you don’t show up we end up with extra and waste. Not only that but we reserved a space for you that we could easily have given to someone who probably WOULD have shown up but couldn’t because you didn’t tell us you weren’t going to come.

I don’t want this post to sound angry because I had an amazing time yesterday and I’m proud of the event we put on. But this particular scenario annoys the heck out of me.

For next year I’d like to consider some alternative incentives for attendance. Randy Shmidt had a suggestion this morning that was echoed and validated by Becky Clawson:

Let people sign up for free. And if they don’t show, charge them.

This would effectively keep Barcamp Philly a free event and at the same time motivate folks to get out of bed and attend… unless they want to lose their $$$. Can you tell Randy has some experience with alternative pricing models?

Don’t get me wrong. Barcamp Philly 2009 was very successful and I couldn’t be more proud of the results. I just want to find a way to improve on what we’ve got and shoot for accurate planning figures!

I’m curious to hear what others think of this idea and hear other suggestions.

About JP Toto

JP is a devops developer in Philadelphia, PA. He works at eMoney Advisor by day and attempts to cook by night.

20 Comments

  1. Restaurants often do this, especially for big nights like New Years. They’ll take a credit card #, and the reservation no-shows, they charge for the cost of the meal for how ever many didn’t show. This prevents people from making reservations all over town and deciding where they want to eat at the last minute. Implementing this in a barcamp setting might be tricky though. Might just need to expect 15-20% no-show, and explain to keep the event free, extras like food and t-shirts are first come first serve.

    Glad the event was a success, maybe one of these years I’ll get up there.

  2. That’s a great analogy, Michael. There’s no reason why this couldn’t be an automated setup. Next year we’ll have to talk to different ticketing/event systems to see if they can accommodate that workflow!

  3. I was going to say ban the no-shows from next year. But charging is a good tactic too!

  4. Yes. This would be VERY helpful with the t-shirts specifically. Because we are always expecting no-shows and changes in attendees we order a range of t-shirt sizes/genders that is informed by the info we gather at registration.

    BUT as people come-in it always breaks out differently, and many end up with shirts choices that are either too large or too small. If we could get this down to an exact science (i.e. we record shirt size at registration and then give EXACTLY what was specified at the registration table) I think everyone would be a lot more pleased with their take-away. Perhaps it would make sense to only ask for a credit card number guarantee for those that do want shirts, and they are the only ones who get one. I feel like this will be most everyone, so it will definitely help curb the problem.

    Food is less of an exact science, but I agree that it sucks to have waste. I will be making mad pies this evening 😉

    Thanks for getting this issue out there JP!

  5. For FlashCamp (which happened the weekend before this barcamp), we did charge an entrance fee of $20(student) and $45(regular). That did keep our no shows to a minimum as well as kept the logistics sane (we bought food for the number who said there would come, its not too bad to have extra but awful if its less). Conditionally charging is a good idea but it may be difficult to conditionally return (ie what if everyone says they had a legit reason).
    A flat fee is not a bad idea esp considering the popularity of the event. You can even donate the money collected to charity and have a general feel good thing there.I dont think 10-20$ would be too big a deterrent.

  6. Great points, both Arpit and Kelani! I’d like to get creative next year and see what we can do and what models different event sites will support…

  7. As one of the organizers of Philly.net Code Camp, I can relate! We struggle with this for every event. For our free event, to get attendance around 500 people, we typically let about 800 register! But this is risky in many ways, not to mention annoying. We’ve talked about these ideas too – charging for no shows, or charging even a small fee of $5 to register. But these have their own challenges. In the end we keep on letting lots of people registerand hope for the best.

    Good luck and keep sharing the ideas, I’d love to figure this one out!

    And congrats on another successful event.

  8. First off, hats off to you, Roz, and Kelani for throwing an awesome event. BarCamp Philly 2 was top notch in terms of facilities, organization, and attendees. I know that only happens because you organizers put in an insane amount of effort prepping and planning.

    No-show attendees are a logistical nightmare and a total pain. Some nominal fee might help mitigate some of that pain. But don’t discount the negative impact of a cover charge on the overall vibe of a camp.

    The spirit of a BarCamp is all about inclusion and openness. The no cost ticket and open schedule format of the event are the first contacts most uninitiated people have with the camp format.

    After two city wide camps and a few niche camps, that format might feel like old hat to some of us. But it’s just starting to scratch the surface with the larger community of die-hard Philly residents and up-coming student types alike. I’d hate to start coming off like just another conference and shutting people out just to cover the cost of some nice-to-have features.

    T-shirts are definitely a nice-to-have. Nicer space and better food/drinks are also nice-to-have things. But I’d gladly give those up to keep the camp atmosphere “open” from the planning stages through completion.

  9. I’d suggest charging for admission ($10 or $15) which would include a tee-shirt. Indicate that tees will only be available during the event for pick-up, and any not picked up would be given away at the after-party. The tees are only a fraction of the cost (maybe $5, based on the numbers you’re probably running) so you still recoup a fee for anyone who doesn’t show.

  10. Maybe charging $5 would be enough to keep the non-serious attenders from registering but low enough to feel free to those that really want to attend. When something is free almost everybody will register “just in case” but $5 means pulling their credit card out.

    The money could go to paying for parts of the event, you guys (my favorite), or some charity *cough* shareurmeal.com *cough*.

    Anyway, you guys did a great job! If you need any help with anything next year let me know.

  11. Hear hear! At some point, I heard a friend comment about another friend’s lateness with indignation that should the late-comer drop out they took away the opportunity from some else to attend. That they robbed the community of that other person’s presence.

    From other the original post and people’s comments it seems like there’s a couple of goals:

    1) Get as many people as want to attend to go through the doors
    – So if someone signed up 3 months ago and needs to drop out, someone can take their place

    2) Provide just the right amount of stuff for everyone there
    – Ensure that those who do commit actually show up, thus reducing waste

    I like the idea of a penalty for non-attendance while giving people the opportunity to fix the problem themselves. Perhaps early on they give their ticket back to the pool. Perhaps a week ahead, they have to find someone themselves. BarCamp StubHub?

    There is also the idea of charging even a dollar. Something nominal that gets donated to the operational expenses, or directly to the Cause of Getting Everyone to Show Up.

  12. Charging for no shows sounds brilliant. Especially because their reserved spot is essentially taking the spot of someone who may have really wanted to come to the event.

    IA had an interesting article a few days ago about dynamic pricing (http://informationarchitects.jp/dynamic-pricing-for-digital-goods/). Basically charging as demand goes up…

    This could possibly be applied to the Charge-if-canceling policy by charging more the closer it gets to the event. Start the cancellation charges a week before the event at $5 and increase the charge each day leading up the event. This may deter people from waiting too long to cancel and giving others that may not have a spot at the event time to plan their attendance.

  13. @Chad,
    That’s an interesting idea and article.

    @Bonniea,
    I love those ideas. Flexible ticket prices by demand is super interesting. I could see that approach creating some resentment by the people that pay more but the approach is certainly innovative. Of course, we’d need a provider gateway that would support a model like that.

    @All,
    I’m definitely NOT apposed to charging money up front – even a small amount. Certainly, it’s an easy logical step. Seeing as how it’s barcamp, though, I wanted to come up with a pricing model that is more innovative. I really love Randy’s idea about charging for now shows because it effectively keeps the event free up front and uses a creative incentive to keep everyone honest.

    In short, this is definitely not a new problem but it feels like a fun opportunity to find an innovative way to try to mitigate it.

  14. Charge up front, escrow, then refund for those who show. Total refund for early reservation, partial refund as date draws closer. Total cost for those who show up that day, or partial charge for stand-by wait list and refund if don’t get in. I think there are lots of ways to creatively charge and cover costs in the event of no shows. Short of that, sponsors are the only other way to go. Good or bad, money correlates directly with value. Would you take a set of free tires and feel good about driving on them? Same tires priced at $150. First Price: “what’s wrong with those tires that they’re giving them away?” Second: “Wow! What a deal on those pirellis!” When setting a price, make it meaningful, people will come.

  15. As you know, we charged $5 for a guaranteed spot for Ignite Philly. We sold 150 of the 300 spots. All of that money was donated to a charity (The Food Trust).

    The other 150 spots were free for first-come the night of the event.

    This may not be totally practical for those traveling, but maybe a hybrid like that could work.

  16. This discussion reminds me of economist Dan Ariely’s study of the day care center in Israel that started fining parents when they didn’t pick up their kids on time. Instead of reducing the number of late parents, fining them actually increased the number: The parents no longer felt guilty about flaking because they figured the money they paid made them even.

    If the goal is to reduce no-shows, charging them might not be the answer. If the goal is to raise money, I think there are better ways (raffle, optional donation on the day of the event, etc)

  17. This discussion reminds me of economist Dan Ariely’s study of the day care center in Israel that started fining parents when they didn’t pick up their kids on time. Instead of reducing the number of late parents, fining them actually increased the number: The parents no longer felt guilty about flaking because they figured the money they paid made them even.

    If the goal is to reduce no-shows, charging them might not be the answer. If the goal is to raise money, I think there are better ways (raffle, optional donation on the day of the event, etc)

  18. Very late to this party but I like what PodCamp did. Charged for the event, had sponsors pay for all or nearly all of it, and donated the excess fees to a great charity, Covenant House.

    I don’t think free is practical above a fairly low number, especially with the how-many-of-which-sizes-of-T-shirts-to-get problem. If there is food that can’t easily be given away if not eaten, sized giveaways, or even items like books that can’t easily be given away, you really need a good count, and charging is the best way to get that.

  19. Thanks Reed- for the past two years at Podcamp Philly, our walk -ins (paid at the desk) have equalled our paid no-shows. The “box office” goes to support a local charity, this year, Philabundance. Again, with the walk ins, we had 99% attendance- we had 102% last year. (Walk-ins surpassed no shows). Small up front charges make planning easier and and helps people commit to the event. I strongly support this move by Bar camp because I think it will ease your headaches. (Although I will admit I’m slightly annoyed by all the flack we’ve gotten from Bar Camp folk in the past for charging at Podcamp Philly, despite explaining our rationale time and again as tested and well thought out, with the $ going not to benefit an individual, but going to the greater community at large- the community sprit of all the ______Camp conferences.) You run a great event, and it’s worth at least $5 and much more to attend. It’s the price of a latte, for goodness sake.

Leave a Reply to bonniea Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *