If you’ve run a free-to-attend event, you’ll probably understand the disappointment that comes when half of the people who said they’d come don’t turn up. Unfortunately, dropout is a fact of life when it comes to gratis gatherings.

When an attendee hasn’t laid out cash for their ticket, it’s far easier for them to find a reason to give your event a miss – perhaps they’re feeling tired or running late at work, or maybe they simply got a better offer?

Whatever it is, it doesn’t make it any easier for you; left with a half empty room, an overabundance of tea and biscuits and possibly some rather miffed speakers, sponsors and exhibitors.

We asked 9 planners to share how they manage attendance at free events, mitigate the risk of no-shows and keep everybody happy!

Handbook: Best Practices For Running Free Events

1. Adam Usher, Crossrail

“Coffee is a good way to get people to attend a free event. When I do cycle safety events, these are usually roadside in central London in the morning rush from 7:30-10am. As an enticement to get cyclists to stop we offer free bacon and/or egg rolls, tea and coffee, and a chance to get their bike checked.

“So apart from food and drink, if you were to offer a service or giveaway it has to be relevant and something which will help or interest people.”

2. Louise Triance, UK Recruiter

“In the recruitment agency space dropout of free events is up to 50%. In an attempt to combat this problem, we ran a few events where people paid a “deposit” to secure their place, which was refunded after they attended. It worked really well in terms of getting numbers through the door but was an admin nightmare.

“One thing that has worked for me is having small group workshops at the event and allowing people to sign up when they register. Having secured an “exclusive” space in one of these I’m sure they feel more committed.”

3. Karla Jobling, BeecherMadden

“All events will have a rate of dropout but when events are free, we have found this is a little bit higher. We want to keep our events free, so to make sure we have enough people in attendance, we make sure our events are oversubscribed.

“We aim for double our target number of attendees and then find that we have a very busy event! Maybe 25-30% of attendees will drop out on the day so we still end up with a good turnout. The quality of our speakers and useful content is what most people tell us they value. This is what has secured repeat attendance from some valued clients.”

4. Anonymous, Public Sector Organisation

“Obviously it won’t work with every event but we hosted a CPD accredited event last year and you had to attend to get the CPD points (we checked everyone in and only emailed the certificates to those that came). Other organisers could look at doing something similar i.e. offering attendees points to redeem on products they sell or rewarding them with something that can be emailed to them afterwards. It depends on budgets and how much you can spend on a welcome/loyalty gift.”

5. Claire Dibben, Noisy Little Monkey

“I am responsible for organising a series of marketing meet-ups and conferences called Digital Gaggle. The purpose of these events is to educate and inspire marketers about all things digital marketing. Previously they were free but from September I’ve decided to start charging to try to reduce dropouts.

“Someone once told me that to reduce dropouts at events, you need to create FOMO. I always do my best to make the event a great experience for the delegate from start to finish. In fact, they got LOADS of great stuff in exchange for their free ticket: bacon sandwiches on arrival, tasty cupcakes in the break, competition giveaways during the event and the best speakers in the industry (I bagged Steven Bartlett (CEO of the Social Chain) to come along and talk at the last event – he was incredible). Despite this, you still get people who just don’t turn up. I even send out reminder emails the day before the event; they’ve helped reduce the no-show rate slightly but not astronomically.

“I think it’s important to build up a real sense of anticipation and community around your event – get people talking, get them excited about it and people will start to get that “I just can’t miss this” feeling. It’s taken me a few years but I now know that having people not turn up to your events is just the very nature of event organisation. It’s not personal; we’re all busy creatures and sometimes life/work/whatever just gets in the way.”

6. Aman Brar, Printkick

“From my experience of running free events, dropout has been around 50%, perhaps even higher if it’s raining! My absolute favourite way to reduce this is to send a guilt trip email a few hours beforehand.

“So it’ll be something like “Can’t wait to see you at XYZ event tonight!” with lots of personal detail. My old university (York) did this and I definitely felt guilted into going on more than one occasion when I was tired!”

7. Mike Spencer, The King’s Fund

“When we run free events, as a rule we typically plan for a 50% dropout rate. Usually they take place in the evening and are informal in style and feel, but recently we’ve started organising free-to-attend full-day conferences, where we’re seeing even more people turn up on the day than have registered!

“I think it’s about the audience – if you target people who don’t get invited to many things or wouldn’t normally be able to afford to come, then they’re more likely to be grateful to come to something for free. In that case, turnout can be much higher than 50%. However, if it’s a smaller, more senior and professional audience and an informal, after hours setting – where the pressure and expectation is less, then you might be more likely to get a higher dropout.

“Predicting turnout to free events exactly, or to within 10%, is very difficult though because even things like the weather can impact attendance! It’s important to understand your audience and then agree on expectations on turnout with all stakeholders early on, whether that’s within your events team, with partners, sponsors, or even other senior people in your organisation – and then try to beat those expectations.”

8. Nick Lawson, EventTribe

“We ran an event last year with free tickets and were aiming for 400 attendees. Previously we had relied on a 50% dropout rate for free events, but because this was a larger, more expensive event to put on, we wanted to get a clearer idea of attendee numbers. We decided to use a ballot system where initially people could apply for a free ticket to the event, and then we could allocate tickets at random.

“We thought this would improve our dropout rate as people who had been allocated a ticket would feel grateful or fortunate and so would be more likely to attend. We had around 1,000 applications for tickets, and as we started allocating tickets we could see who claimed their ticket and who didn’t. This gave us a running idea of our attendance number and allowed us to re-allocate the unclaimed tickets to other applicants to reduce the dropout rate.

“We anticipated some dropouts, so we over allocated by around 50-60 tickets, and had almost exactly 400 people on the day, which meant our attendance rate was roughly 85%!”

9. Sara Robertson, Glasgow Young Professionals and Scottish Beer Tours

“Our dropout rate is 30% typically but we’ve found that we can fill events to capacity and drive demand by informing people when tickets have sold out and encouraging waiting list sign-ups.

“We then schedule three reminder emails ahead of the event emphasising the importance of cancelling if their plans have changed. This results in very few no-shows and ironically drives demand for future events as it raises awareness of the level of demand.”

Conclusion

Free events will always suffer a higher rate of attrition than paid for events, but as these organisers say, there are a number of ways this can be reduced. Incentivising attendance through food and drink, free gifts – and most of all unmissable content, all helps. If you can create an air of exclusivity and scarcity too, you’ll have one hot ticket event!

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