Conference organiser’s handbook
You must get an overview of what venue, catering, and speakers are going to cost. Then you must decide on a ticket price and a back office. Also you must create a budget and must handle ticket sales and marketing.
The natural instinct of first-time organisers is to make the ticket price as low as possible so as to attract even potential visitors who don’t have much money to spend.
Although keeping prices relatively low is the correct basic approach for your first conference, you shouldn’t take it too far. You just won’t be able to organise anything below €200 or so per ticket.
Subtract about 4% from the ticket price for handling — especially if you expect many attendees to pay by credit card. That goes to the financial institutions; the other 96% ends up with you.
Don’t assume that you will sell all tickets. Spending unexpected profits on free beers for all is a hell of a lot easier (not to mention more fun) than covering a budget deficit.
So make a budget that covers venue, catering, equipment, and speakers’ flight and hotel. Add 10% for minor items and buffer. Subtract any sponsor money you may have raised. Then, price the tickets so that you break even when 60 to 75% of the venue capacity is taken.
Venue capacity taken is not the same as tickets sold: your speakers, the organisers and volunteers, and sponsors will receive free tickets.
I’m not going to give you more advice on this one. There might be special factors in your country that I don’t know about. Keep prices low, but allow yourself some breathing space.
It is customary to offer discounted early bird tickets. In general the early-bird price should be about €50 to 100 lower than the standard price.
The end of early bird is the most important marketing moment of the entire conference. Besides, it’s good to get a few people to commit to your conference early, so that their friends and colleagues hear of your conference from their stories.
Set a maximum on the number of early bird tickets. It’s all great fun to have a big rush just before early bird ends, but if you’ve suddenly sold 75% of your tickets for early-bird prices you will likely have a big gaping hole in your budget.
What we usually do is set both a maximum number of tickets and a final date. Early bird ends when all tickets are sold or the cut-off date comes around; whatever happens first.
We’ll get back to the end-of-early-bird marketing moment later.
Sometimes there is a special high price for tickets bought in, say, the last two weeks before the conference. I have no experience with such tickets, but you could always try. And if there’s a lot of very late sales, it could net you some extra money.
Sponsors sometimes ask for free and discounted tickets. It’s customary to offer two free tickets per sponsor. Their representatives should be able to visit the conference, after all. Foreign companies will often send only one delegate, so they are the cheapest sponsors you can have.
If local web companies sponsor you they’ll ask for a special discount on further tickets. They will want to send their web developers to your conference, and expect some sort of return on their initial investment.
Add sponsor money and discounted ticket prices, divide it by the number of free plus discounted tickets, and you get the price per ticket your sponsor pays. This price should be higher than your regular ticket price. The sponsor’s logo is shown throughout the conference, and that is worth some extra money.
If sponsors try to beat you down, explain the mechanism to them. Usually they’ll understand once they see the figures.
The following people rate free tickets:
Furthermore you can spend a few free tickets on marketing, basically giving them away to a well-known blogger or site, who takes one ticket for himself and raffles off another one.
Remember that a free ticket costs you money. Every free ticket holder will eat one lunch per day, receive a goodie bag, drinks a few beers on your tab, and takes up a seat that a paying attendee could have occupied. In general free ticket holders should make up between 10 and 15% of your attendees.
In the last three weeks before the conference people will creep out of the woodwork who feel they’re entitled to a free ticket. You should ignore them — rudely, if necessary. These people deserve nothing.
Don’t fall for the “I’ve got many followers I can spread the word to if you give me a free ticket” trick. If this person has true influence in the community, you would know his name and he’d be on your marketing list anyway.
You must add your local VAT rate to your ticket price; you pay that money to the government through normal procedures. The question is how you present this VAT to your customers.
Krijn and I decided to publish the ticket prices without VAT, and add a note to the table that 19% Dutch VAT applies. After all, our customers are freelancers or companies who are used to working with VAT-exclusive prices.
Foreign attendees must also pay VAT, and generally cannot automatically deduct this VAT from their balance in their home country. They can ask for reimbursment, but the rules are abtruse and highly localised.
Intracommunautary VAT exchanges are a mess and badly need European harmonisation. This is not your problem, though: you are a conference organiser, not a tax consultant.
Your only requirement is to put both your and the attendee’s VAT number on your invoice.
Creating the budget is a bit of work, but updating it is fairly easy and won’t take much time. To make it easier for you, here’s a sample budget sheet (Excel).
Take the estimated venue, catering, equipment, flight, and hotel costs. Add 10% for minor items and unforeseen costs, and you have a first estimate of the total cost of running the conference.
Be sure to calculate catering and goodie bags on a per-head basis: if 20 tickets remain unsold, 20 lunches per day remain unbought.
Then decide on a ticket price, as we discussed earlier. Add the income from tickets and sponsors, and your budget is complete.
During the organisation you’ll occasionally add costs; for instance if it is necessary to hire or buy wifi stations, or if you decide you want to record the sessions. And of course you’ll regularly copy in the actual ticket sales.
But all in all the budget is fairly static, only punctuated by the deep sigh of relief once enough tickets have been sold and the negative result is turned into a positive one.
Despite generating quite a few tweets and blog posts, your initial announcement of the conference will generate only modest ticket sales. Potential attendees sit up and take notice, study the speaker list, and decide they might like to go. They won’t buy a ticket immediately, though. They have employers or spouses to convince, or calculate they can afford to go to the conference if they get that one job they’re currently pitching for.
So during the early bird period there will be some ticket sales, but not a lot. The first big peak comes with the end of early bird. Those who have already decided to go will be spurred to action in order to save €100 (or whatever), and you’ll suddenly sell a lot of tickets.
After the end of early bird ticket sales will drop sharply, but will settle in a plateau with roughly the same amount of sales every week. In the last two weeks before the conference ticket sale will once again spike. Potential attendees know that this is really their last chance, and will make the purchase. If you’re lucky you’ll sell out during this last spike.
Trust that last spike. It can be very unnerving to see a steady but very modest ticket sales about a month before the conference, especially when you’re still running a deficit. The last spike will help you through, though, as long as you keep steady nerves.
About 2% of your ticket holders will never show up. The exact amount depends on the ticket price: people will turn up more often for an expensive conference than for a cheap one.
Thus you can afford to sell a few more tickets than the formal auditorium capacity. Still, this is a gamble: what if all visitors show up after all? Thus it’s best to restrict your oversell to about 2 to 3% of total capacity — if you do it at all.
Although the main bills will come your way only after the event, you will have to pay deposits and advances to various parties, as well as all the flights, before the event. You need cash on hand in order to do so.
You should find a ticket sales system that allows both payment by invoice and payment by credit card or such. The reason is that many systems retain the money paid by credit card until after the event, so that you cannot use it to defray earlier costs. Money paid by invoice, however, never enters the sales system and goes directly to your bank account, so that you can use it straight away.
The reason that sales systems don’t give you your money until after the event is that sometimes “clever” people set up a fake event, sell tickets for it, and then disappear with the money. In that case, the recipient of the money is responsible for the damages, and that recipient is the sales system; not you. Thus, if they’d give you your money straight away, sales systems would leave themselved vulnerable to having to pay back the money to the buyers, too, after having given it to you. Predictably, they don’t like losing money, so they will retain it until after the event’s stated date.
Offering an invoice payment option solves the problem for you: part of the money comes directly to you, although the downside is that you have to check whether all invoices have been paid, remind laggard payers, and so on. Usually the system will help you by generating warnings, but part of the administrative chores rest with you. That’s the price you have to pay for having some cash flow before the event.
Usually a significant portion of attendees pay by invoice (at least, for us; this is a cultural thing), and the invoice money should be enough to pay all bills that arrive before the conference.
Venue and caterers, usually the most expensive parts of your conference, are aware of this system and will send their final invoices only after the event.
The bulk of the administrative work is setting up a ticket sales system, a database with attendee information, and maintaining customer relations.
The ticket sales system is the biggest problem, because finding one may take some time, setting it up requires all kinds of boring but necessary administrative steps, and you need to make sure that it’s properly localised. The system must be able to generate invoices in the local language as well as in English, after all. Ask during negotiations.
Customer relations can take quite a bit of time if there are many people who don’t read important organisational mails, want to transfer their tickets to someone else, have an improperly rendered character in their name that doesn’t occur in your language, or suddenly discover urgent reasons they should be offered a discount. Obviously, most of this traffic will take place in the last two weeks leading up to the conference.
The database is simpler. Once set up it must receive information from the sales system (preferably automated, but sometimes you’ll need to do it by hand). On command it must deliver an all-attendee mailing list as well as the master badge list that will be sent to the printer shortly before the conference.
Our Fronteers database contains name, country, billing address, email address, organisation, Twitter handle, and ticket type (we distinguish between members and non-members). Other than possibly an extra social media handle this is pretty much what you need.
Marketing is the sole subject I can’t give you much advice on. Because my site is so well-known, it generates a lot of interest in whatever show I put on, and I can easily sell 250 or so tickets only by pimping the conference on my own site (and putting on a good show, naturally).
But you’ll likely have a good idea how to go about marketing. Just do what comes naturally and approach people you think may want to help you. Below are some guidelines.
You’ll likely have a personal blog. Put it out there; some people will see the message. Ask your friends to do the same. Submit it to whatever sites you have that run general web news. Put it on Lanyrd.
These actions help. People that are enthusiastic about your conference will tell their friends, spread the word, and thus you can reach a surprising amount of people.
Still, it might not be enough. Make a list of all well-known blogs and sites you’d like to run the news. Send them a message; many will not pick it up, but some will be interested in what you have to offer but needed it to be brought to their attention.
The end of early bird sales is the most important marketing moment you have. “See these great speakers and save €50” remains one of the most efficient conference marketing statements in existence, and people will react in droves. In general it’s best to have something else to announce at the same time; preferably a few speakers.
Some conferences communicate only the cut-off date for early bird, and not the maximum amount of tickets. That’s fine, as long as you have an emergency procedure for what to do if you reach the maximum amount far, far before the cut-off date.
Make sure to call attention to the end of early bird in time: you want people to buy tickets, afterall. Aim for having about 25 tickets or five days left after the announcement.
You can also initialluy give out fewer early-bird tickets than you intend. For instance, you could initially make only 50 early bird tickets available, but once 45 of them have been sold you can announce that the great interest in your conference made you decide to release 25 more early-bird tickets. Of course your budget assumed 75 early-bird tickets from the start.
One of the most powerful marketing tools you have available is speaker announcements. Every time you announce a bunch of them, people will sit up and take notice. “Hey, is my hero speaking there? I must go!”
During Fronteers 2008, when I made the capital error of opening ticket sales far too late, I more-or-less accidentally invented the spread-out speaker announcement. I tried it again for Fronteers 2009, and it worked, kind of, but also has its drawbacks.
Basically what I did was spread out speaker announcements among four moments:
In each of these cases I announced two to four speakers. This was quite effective in drawing the attention of the target audience to my conference not once but four times. I carefully kept the best-known of my speakers for the conference announcement and the end of early bird, which I felt were the most important moments.
This works reasonably well, but it also has drawbacks. First of all, speakers will ignore your carefully-crafted schedule and put your conference on their public list when they feel like it. This doesn’t matter as much as you would think: few people read those lists.
Then, some speakers may not read your important organisational emails and be offended that they’re not mentioned on the Speakers page. An email usually settles the issue, but it’s still annoying.
The more serious danger is that employees of medium-to-large companies will not be able to pitch your conference to their bosses, who have to sign their budget requests. Generally bosses want to see a full list of speakers before they commit their training budget to your conference. This is a totally silly rule — bosses generally cannot distinguish good speakers from bad ones — but it works like that in companies. Go figure.
We decided to drop the spread-out announcements for Mobilism; we are not sure the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. But if you desperately need some kind of marketing gimmick you can use spread-out speaker announcements.
Sponsors can be a good marketing aid, too, especially when they have a large and loyal following among your target audience. Sponsors are naturally inclined to help you a bit with your marketing outreach: since they put money on the table anyway they’d prefer the conference to succeed. Ask your sponsors what they can do to help you. They’re usually willing to spread a news item once through their own channels.
Although it’s a contagious term by now, you need some sort of social media strategy. I work with Twitter naturally but am not on Facebook, so I use Twitter a lot and ignore the rest. Your situation might be the opposite. It doesn’t really matter which tool you choose, as long as you know how to use it best and at least some of your target audience also uses it.
Also, it might make sense to give out a few free tickets to well-known bloggers or site owners in return for some exposure. Don’t give out too many; I’d say about one each for two to three bloggers at most. Or you can give them an extra one to give away with some sort of contest.
Always ask your speakers to blog about your conference. Not all will do it, but the posts of those who do will generate some traffic.
Don’t hesitate to call out for help to your speakers if sales are still bad about three weeks before the conference. By then the speakers have been announced and thus have a stake in the conference. Not all will help you, but some will.
You can’t create a budget and ticket price without having some idea how expensive the locations are going to be, so that’s our next topic.