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Picking Your Pricing

When it comes to setting registration fees, making the numbers work is essential. Registration fees can go a long way toward paying for an event, or, if it’s the organization’s goal, generating a profit. But a lot of factors play into getting the price just right, including rising costs that have stretched everyone’s budgets a little tighter in recent years.

So how does an event planner charge enough to cover costs without charging so much that it drives potential attendees away?

Here’s what three expert event planners shared about the ins and outs of determining registration fees.

Deciding Factors

Setting a registration fee requires going back to the basics of budgeting, according to Sarah Cissna.

“It comes down to basic math,” said Cissna, owner and event producer at The Side Lobby, which specializes in producing events for small and midsized nonprofits and arts organizations. “Registration should cover what it costs per person to host that event.”

Ultimately, that formula considers fixed expenses, such as venue price, and variable expenses, such as food and beverage costs. For a for-profit event, the desired profit is added as an expense. The total expenses are then divided by the expected attendance to determine a per-person registration rate.

Of course, it’s important for the estimated attendance to be pretty close to the real thing, so getting accurate  costs for event components like catering and hotel space is essential. And, it’s especially important to accurately estimate attendance.

“Try to have some point of reference that you can pull from to make an intelligent guess,” said Dara Hall, vice president and co-owner of Event Source Professionals, which plans events for the federal government as well as corporate and incentive events.

If it’s a recurring event, looking at attendance history from years past can give a planner an idea of trends. If there is no past data, Hall recommends asking CVBs or hotels for their data to get an idea of past attendance. And if it’s a newer event, planners can look at attendance at a competitor’s event. If there is absolutely no history, contingencies should be built into the budget.

Market rates should also be considered. How much do similar events cost?

“Market is definitely very important from the standpoint of knowing who your competition is,” said Tamra Gaines, a coach, speaker, author and meetings strategist with experience planning for corporations and associations. “Organizations only have so much money in the bucket for professional development. What is going to make them choose your event?”

Added fees must also be considered. Registration platforms and financial vendors often charge processing fees, which should be factored into the equation.

Tiers and Packages

While registration fees primarily serve to pay for the event, they can benefit planners in other ways based on how they’re tiered or packaged.

One of the most useful tier systems is based on event deadlines. Registration fees can encourage attendees to sign up early, which helps a planner estimate attendance more accurately. The last thing anyone wants is for a bunch of last-minute registrations to throw off their carefully planned budget.

“People will wait until the last minute to book their registration,” Gaines said. “So, I believe in threes: having an early bird rate, having a regular rate and a late rate.”

This sort of tiered pricing  rewards attendees for booking early and penalizes them for being late.

For membership organizations, member and non-member rates are a way to lower the cost for some.

“If you are member-driven, you may have a member and nonmember rate because you want to add value to those members,” Gaines said.

Offering a VIP registration that costs more because it includes additional experiences is another way to tier fees.

However, Cissna cautions planners not to rely too heavily on VIP registrations unless they can back up the added cost with an exceptional, exclusive experience.

Another way to package registration is to offer discounted group rates. Guaranteeing a number of tickets from a certain organization  can drive up attendance and ultimately lower costs for everyone. Multi-event packages, through which attendees commit to more than one of the organizer’s events, are also an option.

There are countless other ways to organize registration fees, from offering discounted rates for sponsors to selling single-day event passes.

Managing Cost Expectations

Rising fees can put a damper on an event’s attendance, so it’s important to manage attendees’ expectations of the event’s price and value upfront.

“Economics play a lot into it, even if you have a wonderful established program that people love to come to,” Hall said. “You have to have a strong steering committee or advisory board that you can talk to and get their input in terms of how [the cost] would affect attendance.”

It’s important to keep in mind that in addition to registration fees, attendees incur other expenses.

“When you look at the ticket cost of the event, you have to look at the full experience cost,” Cissna said. “What are they investing with flights, trains, hotel, food and beverage? How much time are they spending out of the office and leaving their family?”

These additional costs add up and can make it harder to convince attendees to attend an in-person event. That’s why it’s important to know your audience and be transparent about the value a conference provides.

Attendees probably expect a small price increase from year to year due to inflation, but if a registration fee has risen dramatically, its essential to make sure the event’s value has gone up proportionally.

“If it’s much different, there needs to be some sort of value-add that will warrant that,” Hall said. “In that case, you need to advertise that value in big, bold neon.”

That might mean highlighting and promoting keynote speakers, masterclasses or fun off-site experiences.

Hybrid and digital events can also affect the amount of money that registration fees generate. While they can boost attendance by making events more accessible and affordable, they can also reduce in-person attendance, which can impact the budget. Planners should keep this in mind when setting fees.

“There is a psychological breaking point at which you’re going to lose attendance, or they will transfer into the virtual side,” Hall said.

To encourage attendees to attend in-person instead of getting similar information by attending an event online, in-person content must be compelling, and the cost should be reasonable.