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.

Barcamp Philadelphia

The long version.

In April of this year I attended my first Barcamp, Barcamp Orlando. BCO was organized by Gregg Pollack of the Rails Envy podcast (one of my favorites). I really didn’t quite know what to expect other than what I saw from the previous years’ recap video. To date, my experience with technology conferences had been

Courtesy: aschek
Courtesy: aschek

mostly the seminar type; dripping with marketing pitches and tutorials describing the features of new products. I didn’t find anything wrong with these conferences but I didn’t feel particularly connected with the people I met in attendance either. I could tell that I wanted more.

I found what I was looking for.

In the two days that comprised Barcamp Orlando, I met the most passionate, creative, intelligent, and flat out NICE developers, creatives, and new media pioneers I had ever seen. Each talk I went to turned into a discussion. The pros of the speaker’s ideas were weighed vigorously against the cons of an audience member’s challenges. Groups of like-minded campers spun off into ad-hoc discussion forums to hash out the latest changes to WordPress or to talk about their latest open source project. Developers from every corner of the landscape brought their unique insight to the congregation. It was brilliant. And for the first time I felt like I was part of a discussion and not part of an audience.

A series of fortunate events.

At the same time and in an extremely fortuitous coincidence I had recently begun using twitter. This led to using TwitterLocal. TwitterLocal led me to gradually stitch together the tech community that had been right in my back yard the whole time. Soon I was going to workshops at IndyHall and attending community-oriented events like Ignite Philly. Around this time I met Roz Duffy who seemed to have as passionate a desire to bring Barcamp to Philadelphia as I had.

Over the next few months we announced Barcamp Philly and started actively looking for locations and volunteers. Geoff DiMasi from P’unk Ave introduced us to staff at The University of the Arts in downtown Philadelphia and it was obvious from the first tour that we had found our venue. Over time we obtained sponsors and raised a small army of volunteers who shared our interest in putting on a community-driven event. Roz turned the Barcamp Philly website into a brilliantly effective hub of information, promotions, and a list of interesting profiles of Barcamp Philly registrants.

Courtesy: Roz Duffy
Courtesy: Roz Duffy

On Saturday, November 8th, Philadelphia got its first Barcamp and it surpassed my wildest expectations. We reserved ten rooms and allotted seven one-hour time slots. All but a few slots were used before the end of the day. The talks ranged from community organizing, to making your own business cards, to rethinking the entire structure of a university institution. Carl Leiby made an amazing mobile schedule for us that has since turned into it’s own open source project! The attendees were bursting with enthusiasm. At the end of the day we made our way down to Old City to National Mechanics for our after party. Euphoric is a strong word but playing Rock Band with 150 of your newest friends at the end of a exceptional day comes damn close.

The following Monday I opened my email and found that the community was still buzzing. Talks of other local “camps” had started. Barcamp attendees were already organizing their new events. Leaders were emerging. Communities were solidifying. The momentum was strong and the excitement was palpable.

Helping to organize Barcamp Philadelphia has been one of my proudest moments. The community of volunteers, contributors, and sponsors involved with making it happen are ROCK STARS and are a credit to the city.

I can’t wait for Barcamp Philly 2009!

Photos of Barcamp Philly 2008

Barcamp Philly Wiki

Also, do check out Roz’s excellent post.