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.