How to get attendees to actually turn up to your free events

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‘m across in Dubai this week running a free event so it’s the perfect time to release this post. We asked our customers to tell us the number one topic they wanted to hear about on the bog and this was it! I hope you like it and please check out our amazing attendee ticketing and registration system over at

How to get attendees to actually turn up to your free events

It’s the problem every producer faces at some time. You’ve done all the hard work, the venue is ready, the catering ordered, the name badges laid out. So you pace around….and wait….and wait…. for the first attendees to arrive. You don’t know if everyone will come. Will it be 80%? Will it be half? Will it be noone? The first attendees arrive and you relax a little, but now much.
We’ve all been there. At our company AppsEvents we have run over a hundred free events, ranging from small promotional sessions, to large conferences funded by sponsors. Along the way we have learned a lot and refined our approach, so that now we know to a reasonable degree of accuracy how many people will show up on the day to our free events.
Of course free events can take many forms. From a small ‘conference room presentation’ to show potential customers your product, through to massive trade shows with thousands of attendees like BETT in the UK. They all share one common factor: You will always get a lower % of confirmed attendees showing up to a free event compared to a paid event.
We asked our network of event managers what topic they would most like us to discuss and the number one topic by far was ‘how to get people to come to their free events’. We gave this a lot of thought and came up with our top five tips that have actually worked for us to get attendees to free events. If you use one or more of them please let us know….We’d love to hear from you.

1. Get the wording right on your website and initial emails

The most important thing is to take a step back and ask yourself ‘are you actually making an event that people will be keen to come to’. If it’s an event to promote your product or service you ideally should be combining this with some relevant education to the industry or sector of your attendees…noone wants to sit through a pitch fest. But let’s say you have done this….you have  great content and speakers you need to really let attendees know that this will be a popular event that will fill up. What marketers call ‘introducing ‘scarcity’ is what you need to do for all your communications about the event.
Use text like ‘places limited’ and ‘first come first served’. If possible add a counter on your website and at the top of all your emails. You can update this manually and it should show for example: ‘Last 18 tickets available’

If you have ran similar events before it’s important to share photos and testimonials. This shows you are reliable, as remember attendees probably do not know you and will often suspect a free event might not actually take place. As a side point if you are repeating an event always try to get repeat attendees, so make sure you change up the schedule with new speakers.

Another approach is to send an opt in email (either a few days after registration or just before the event). This will give you some more info on potential numbers.

2. Keep a wait list / Overbook

The model used by airlines is your friend here. If you have ran events previously you can use this as a starting point.. E.g. ‘20% didn’t attend last time, we felt the dates were good so now with our improved marketing approach we are aiming for 10%’
The actual percentage to overbook by depends on multiple factors (cultural-e.g. In some countries it’s more acceptable not to turn up, the type of event, the day of the week, the weather, conflicting events), but a good place to start is to look at previous events you have run and the percentage of no shows.
You need to be careful too, and you need a contingency for the event if all your attendees show up. We’ve had this too and we made it work with some hustle. It led to some attendees sitting and standing round the sides in sessions, but actually we find this actually lead to a better atmosphere, when it really is ‘standing room only’. For smaller ‘round table events’ where we have had extras we have normally managed to pull in some extra chairs and make it work. Catering is the other problem but again with some judicious ‘rationing’ you can make this work to.
This is a live issue for AppsEvents we are running an summit in Dubai this weekend and planned for 10% no shows. But for you this may well be higher.

3. Don’t make your free events free

This counterintuitive approach to actually charge a small amount for events is one we employ often. We have found time and time again that if you charge an attendee a small amount, lets say $10, there is an exponentially greater change they will come to your event. Generally we would add this as a catering cost if drinks or snacks are provided.
The downside is that adding a small fee will deter some attendees, so for sure it is a trade off. If you have a relatively high costs to put on the event that are not covered by sponsors this is a solid approach.
Note that if your event is focussed around promoting your product and service you probably can’t use this.

4. Make sure you communicate correctly before the event

Your overall communication in the two weeks before the event is crucial to maintaining high numbers. Some basics:

At the very least send a reminder email two to three days before the event. Keep it high energy and indicate how you are looking forward to see everyone,  and add any new info about the event. Ask people specifically for attendees to indicate if they cannot make it ‘so we can open up the wait list’. You can even send two confirmation emails, one in the week prior to the event and one just before the event. Make sure you always include some new info about the event though so it does not look like a begging email (side point:ever email you send should have some new info about your event).

Another option is to send an email where attendees need to re-confirm by replying to an email. This is not something we would not generally do but it is good if, for example, you are worried about overbooking (a good problem to have!)

Finally if you really want a boost you can do a telephone ‘ring round’ of all attendees. We have done this for small events, for example 20 attendees in a conference room, but have not done this for larger numbers. If you have staff free though to do this it will definitely turn up extra attendees-Final check emails week before and day before
Now to come back the the waiting list which we discussed earlier. If you decide to go back to the waiting list make sure you do it AT LEAST a week before your event, and for sure have one full weekend before the event. People have busy lives and an invite the week of event is statistically very unlikely to attend. Better is two weeks.

5. Have an outstanding networking opportunity

Events are as much about the networking as they are about the content. Industry professionals use events to network to explore business opportunities and professional goals…and new job opportunities! Use your event as a springboard into a post-event networking party. Try to get a sponsor to contribute to have a fantastic networking party on site or at a closely located bar or hotel. Even just one or two refreshments will be enough to get event the most hardened of conference goer to stick around!

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