The price of free events

I just finished reading an excellent business book “Free – The Future of a Radical Price” and the business model of “free” is very often seen in our industry. I got interested in the topic after one of #EventPlannersTalk chats when we discussed event branding. Several participants mentioned TED – in which ticket prices are extremely high but all content is available online for free. I made some research and that is how I stumbled upon this book. Very well written and with extensive research, Chris Anderson talks about the economy of free. It looks at customers’ psychology and when customers are ready to pay and for what.

The book is not talking about free as “buy one get one for free”. It examines a more global practice, one we see in music, gaming, open source platforms, software and online advertising, to mention a few. The book talks about free content and business models around free. You will be questioning how bloggers and free software providers make money when they give out their content and services for free, but sometimes free will get them to another, more lucrative sources of income that only about 5-10% of existent customer base is ready to pay.

I don’t want to tell you more about the book as I highly recommend you reading it. But you get the point, in our society, economy and industry today – free is the new business model and one that is very hard to compete with.

In this post I want to focus on industry events, organised for event planners. Today, 99% of events for event professionals I attend are free. Event planners are invited to attend events at luxurious venues with lavish catering, entertainment and goodie bags, with the hope they will book the supplier in the future. For attending the event for free I am aware that the organiser will use my data, mostly name and email to “sell” to third parties, the suppliers who sponsored the event. In most cases I don’t have a problem with it unless I get bombarded with emails so I will never attend their events again.

But not only event organisers are invited to attend local events, they are also invited as hosted buyers to attend exhibitions in other countries, and such programs offer more perks for planners, hosting them in 4-5 star hotels, including dinners, incentive programmes etc. For that, hosted buyers are obliged to attend a fixed amount of meetings with the suppliers, and if they don’t do it there is a financial penalty.

I think that the major problem free events are facing is the high number of no-shows.

The other day I attended a free event and came late. Coming late I saw all the budges of no-shows and it was half of the registrations! How can you plan catering and other resources and be accountable to deliver “results” to your sponsors? When we organise events we hate people not showing up for our events, but more often than not we do it ourselves. This article from The New York Times perfectly discussed this topic. And I admit I was guilty of it many times, too. I signed up with the best intention in mind to attend, but work and family commitments prevented me from going, last minute. Will I act similarly if I paid? Maybe not – maybe I will sign up for less events, or schedule my time better. But one thing I can tell you for sure – I won’t do it again because, being there myself, it is not nice towards the organiser.

How can we reduce the number of no-shows?

Better venue, catering, content, networking, goodie bags?

What we need to start doing is setting up a price for our events and offering more value over just sponsored events. I would prefer attending less events, but with better content and better networking, less but more relevant sponsors for the event and for me.

Of course I understand it is not easy to set up a price, without being too cheap or outpricing yourself from the market. But I do believe when people need to pay they will value the event more – and the organisers will attract the right target audience.

I also think that the free event market is saturated. There are too many free events, especially in London. We can sign up for two-three events on the same evening!

We need innovation, more creativity, better content and more added value event planners will be ready to pay for.

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Comments (4)

  • Peter Cramer 9 years ago Reply

    Thank you for this good article! I guess the situation about free events for event-professionals has a lot of aspects. First of all I like to say, that free events are not events with a bad quality, because they are free. If free or not free has nothing to do with the quality. Event planners in general won`t be pay for MICE events – it doesn`t matter how high the content and the quality is. I will try to explain why.

    First of all, the no show problem by events for event professionals is much bigger as by events for other target groups. That’s strange because event planner really wants – when they organised an event – that all guests are coming. They don’t like to have any no shows. BUT if they got an invitation they will be often a no show…. Also this problem is from country to country and from region to region different. We organise a lot of MICE Business events for event professionals in Germany and there are differences between the regions.

    On the other hand it makes sense that the no show people need to pay – like the ibtm world and other exhibitions handle it. But trust me you will have big discussions before you will receive any money.

    An other aspect is the fact, that you can’t make events for event professionals in general as an event they need to pay. Why? Cause the most important aspect for suppliers is to collect buyers contacts. Why? Cause the overall sales strategy was build on this point: collecting contacts. The decision whether an exhibitor participates at an event depends only at this fact: how much I have to pay for how many contacts?!! For more innovation, more creativity, better content and more added value is no time and no interest. (…and of course they will swap and sell this contacts.)

    The other aspect is the fact, that event planners have a comfortable position. When they place large budgets, they don`t need truly to any industry events – the suppliers will come to the event planners office – with chocolate and flowers…

    Between this to aspects the MICE industry events are placed. It´s a double mill. Events with more creativity, better content and more added value would be definitely great for professional event planners – but this is not the supplier focus. Not now and not in the next years.

    What you describe is all right and it`s the next step in a very young industry. At the 18.12.1964 Switzerland created the first convention bureau in the world. But only in 1991 the incentive (and MICE aspect as we known) aspect was integrated. (The event industry is much younger than the Rolling Stones…) There will be many learning processes need in future and many things will be change.

    The high number of no shows is not a result because the event was for free. The high number of no shows is the result of an young industry, where every butcher is also a catering specialist and event manager or at least a wedding planner. Is a result of boring events, cause almost the focus from supplier side is to collect new buyer contacts (coming home and proud shown the business cards for the supervisor). And the fact that on event planners side you will find a lot of “soldier of fortune” and “freeloaders” – they take every invitation. We have a kind of “MICE-tourism”. Event-Planers are weekly guests of events and fam-trips, exhibitions and other MICE-events – or there are a no show, when the catering at the other event at the same day and same city is the better on…

    In my opinion is this only a snapshot. The learning process has began and it´s need time. Great article like you have wrote shows that the “situation” is identify. The process to better events and a lower no show rate has already begun as well as the process to basically better events. Because more innovation, more creativity, better content and more added value is also missing by the most events, event professionals organize for her clients.

    The MICE Blog 9 years ago Reply

    Thank you Peter for your comment! I absolutely agree with you that free is not an indicator of bad quality and it is hard to expect from event planners to pay for events for event planners.

    As you suggested, the industry is relatively young, and what started as a business model that worked well (free food, goodie bags etc.) was adopted by organisers and suppliers without asking what the ROI is, but doing it because everyone is doing it.

    I agree about the great amount of contacts you collect, and having organised free events myself I know how big the amount is. Here the organisers need to evaluate their ROI on these contacts and how qualified or senior they are. Starting in the industry I remember attending every event – but not being interesting for the suppliers.
    Today, knowing a lot of suppliers already, I don’t see the need attending many of these events, when their purpose is sales only, and no content or targeted networking with other planners involved.

    Also excellent point about the differences in regions, as I remember living in Switzerland and Germany I always paid for attending events (It might have changed since), but in London it is not the case.

    I do hope that suppliers will realise the need for better content, as the industry matures, saturates and the competition is growing, they will need to be more creative to get buyer’s time and money.

    The free, hosted buyer model is in my opinion also mature. Started at the EIBTM it hasn’t changed since, and even today more and more exhibitions are adopting it without changing the model. But I guess since suppliers are ready to pay exhibitions will keep doing it.

    The good news is, as the industry matures and standardise (with formal education and certifications, for example), there is a stronger voice to change things as well as higher expectations. The suppliers that adapt to these changes will win in the long run.

  • Matthew 9 years ago Reply

    Found this article very useful, particularly enjoyed the advice to reduced no shows.

    On the subject of free events, I don’t attend many myself because of the same fears as yourself, that my contact information will be sold to third parties and I’ll be bombarded with spam emails or cold callers. It is the biggest reason I don’t like free events unless I know you can just show up at the door, rather than sign up.

    The MICE Blog 9 years ago Reply

    Thank you Matthew and I absolutely agree, when I have the chance to show up on the day will do so over signing up.

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