Skift Take

Event overload is causing attendees to register later than ever, and early-bird discounts are so yesterday. It's time for planners to get innovative.

Meeting and event planners are increasingly having to deal with last-minute attendees: those individuals who, regardless of the amount of lead time given, wait until the 11th hour to confirm their attendance.

The result is a domino effect. Planners end up confirming numbers with venues later and later, often forcing the managers at those venues to scramble to accommodate the latecomers without sacrificing service.

“It’s a problem that we all face,” said Dana Ellis, president of Ellis International. “It’s been going on for a long time, and it may be getting a little bit worse. The main problem is we’re all in so much competition for people’s time, and there are a lot of events every single day. People are really busy and have to pick and choose what they can attend, and may not know their schedule, so they wait to register at the last minute.”

Another factor in late registrations might be changing traveler behavior in that consumers are getting used to doing many things last-minute, including booking a hotel on the day of a trip.

Ellis added that her instinct and 25 years’ experience tell her that many people simply don’t know if they’ll be able to take time away from work, and don’t want to over-commit until they know their workload.

Mahoganey Jones, owner of Event Specialists in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, said she has definitely seen an increase in the problem, and also attributed it to event overload.

“Not only are people going to events in their own industry, they are starting to realize there are ancillary events that may benefit them as well,” said Jones.

One incentive traditionally used to encourage registration — an early-bird discount — can sometimes actually discourage it, according to Jones.

“Everyone is taught that we need an early-bird [incentive] to entice people to register, but planners don’t hold firm to those discounts,” Jones said. “If there is a conference happening in six months, early bird goes four months. What would entice me today to register when I know I have four more months to get the discount, and I know that every year they extend it to the month before?”

The reality is that attendees often wait until past the deadline to register, often up until days before the event. Knowing this, Ellis said that planners have to use their expertise to put in the food-and-beverage guarantee, knowing that number may not be the actual count on the day.

“It’s not a guess. You have to use your knowledge to come up with the closest answer to where you are going to land in terms of numbers,” said Ellis. Venues will extend deadlines as much as they are able, but they have to order food and staff appropriately, so they can only push the deadlines so far. We either can’t extend the deadline to attendees as much as we would like, or put a guarantee of a number we haven’t achieved, and then work on our end to sell the additional seats.”

Waiting for those numbers are catering managers who understand the pressures on the planners, but also have their own logistics to consider.

Cheron Rubenstein, catering sales manager at Lancer Hospitality gives corporate clients a seven-day deadline, but concedes that changes made two to three days before an event are pretty typical.

“This happens a lot, and what many clients do not realize is that on our end we’ve scheduled staff and ordered food.” Rubenstein said. “We don’t want to tell a client they can’t add that extra 25 people, but if the numbers increase and it’s a dramatic change, that can change the staffing for the event, which can lead to the service not being as good or the way we had intended; and in some cases, we simply may not have enough food. It’s a Catch-22 because, although last-minute changes and increases in attendance can be challenging logistically, we want to do everything in our power to accommodate our clients.”

What then, can planners do to mitigate the problem? One tactic might be to make last-minute registrations expensive or inconvenient, but its effectiveness depends on the market, according to Ellis.

“If the company is paying for the registration and they only have a certain amount of money budgeted, they will go for early bird every time because they need to maintain their budget for their company,” said Ellis, adding that late registrations have more to do with time than money. Instead, she uses other enticements, such as offering gift certificates or an autographed book from the speaker.

Jones thinks part of the problem is that people are bored with the same old model. She cited the pop-up event as an example of an innovation that generates excitement and buzz, and gets early registrations.

“It seems to be taking everyone by storm, people sign up before the event even happens because they want to be the first in the gate,” said Jones. “If you are on a list, you are going to find out where it happens and when. If you can create an exclusive opportunity and make people want to sign up, you have to give them reasons to sign up early.”

She has translated this strategy to corporate events with a tactic she calls “closing the loop.” It means continuing the conversation after an event via monthly blogs and webinars, thus creating community, awareness, and buzz throughout the year.

“Then, it’s not a surprise when your event comes up, because people are already part of the movement. If you’re being a little proactive, your numbers are a little more consistent and you are better able to anticipate what’s going to happen. I find that’s a huge help in understanding where people drop off and where they pick up momentum,” said Jones.

If all else fails and you suddenly have 50 last-minute attendees, Jones suggests including a hybrid element to the event.

“Instead of adding them in person, consider adding to you’re A/V [audio-visual] and stream it live. That way, you’re not increasing food and beverage costs or room capacities that you’ve already set,” Jones said.


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Photo credit: Attendees line up to enter the the Skift Global Forum in New York City October 9, 2014. More conferences and events are confronting issues with last-minute attendee registration. Skift

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