Does Early Bird Pricing Work for Your Event?
When I first started my new job in the marketing department of a renowned event organisation, someone asked me "How much event experience do you have anyway?" The answer was NONE. I already doubted my abilities, so the question did not help my confidence one bit.
The reality was that my new teammates and I were marketers who did not know much about the events business and yet were in charge of marketing the fastest growing tech event in the industry.
But then again sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Start by asking yourself why does early bird pricing matter?
If you look around, most events offer early bird prices. It must work, right?
Intuition tells you that it is “better” to have attendees register early and they should be incentivised to do so. From an organiser's viewpoint, it is good to know early that the event is generating interest. The more early bird registrants you get, the sooner you can lower your anxiety levels about the event being successful. But at what cost?
Instead of rewards, early birds can be viewed as penalties.
People do not register late to annoy the organiser (actually, they often do not care about the organiser's problems). They do it because they have to. Businesses demand faster reaction times than ever before, and it’s challenging to make commitments six months or even three months in advance.
When you provide a discount to the early registrant who is lucky enough to be in an established business or just in a position to plan, you are also sending a message to the majority of other buyers: "We like you less than those who can plan early."
Take a step back and think about why it’s essential to reward people for registering early. How about rewarding loyal customers, or an exhibitor who is creating amazing content for your show? I can think of several reasons that someone would be more deserving of reward than how early they register for your event.
The perceived success of early bird pricing may be a failure in disguise.
If 10% of your attendees avail themselves of the early bird offer, does this really make it a successful offer? Maybe not.
Use analytics and customer insights to understand who uses the early bird discount and why.
When we questioned the effectiveness of the early bird discount, we first said: "Let's analyse historical data and interact with customers."
The result was the opposite of what we expected.
The early bird discounts were mostly used by the largest (and frankly, some of the wealthiest) companies, who bought in advance in bulk at lower rates, only to switch their attendees' names closer to the event, when they finally knew who was going to attend. It was not foul play; it was a systematic approach we encouraged. In reality, we were rewarding the least price-sensitive customers.
We also learnt that early bird discounts were not enough of an incentive for some corporate attendees (who often don’t pay out of their own pockets), given that the discounts were only a fraction of the total attendance costs after taking into account flight tickets and hotel stay. The early bird savings were just not enough to warrant the inconvenience of booking early and risking that their plans might change.
When registering at the last minute becomes cheaper than booking early…
I have also worked on events that had early bird pricing and a higher price on-site, making a last-minute decision to attend the most expensive choice.
But in reality, what happened as the event approached is that more attendees were required to fill the pre-built auditoriums, and discounts were offered through channel partners and to a broader audience. "Now that we are a week away from the event and haven’t hit our target, let’s give a 50% discount!"... and, of course, think later about the consequences on the next event.
If you challenge early bird pricing’s effectiveness, also look at on-site price increases.
Nowadays, with online registration and on-site self-service, it is tough to argue the validity of an on-site price increase. It seems to me that this is more of a penalty for the latecomers to avoid organiser inconvenience. After all, you may not have planned for enough food (yet I mostly see food wasted at events – but that's another topic).
Consider other purposeful discounting strategies.
You can use discounts to attract a particular audience or to get a partner to market for you. For example, startups are more price-sensitive than corporations and you may need many of them to attend to create value for your event, so it may make sense to invite them at a discount or even for free. There also may be associations or groups who would send a message for you in exchange for a discount for their members. Of course, let's not forget volume discounts, which will always be legitimate.
Lastly, be creative. I saw one interesting behaviour-based discounting strategy where the organiser allowed an exhibitor to run customer competitions, while the organiser had a supporting role and provide discounted or free tickets as a reward.
Do what is right for you, not what the industry tells you is right.
At one large tech event that I had just started working on, we discontinued the early bird offer. This strategy has now worked well for the last 10 years. The pricing got simpler, attendees were less confused between their options, and we made more money. This will not be right for all events. Some events only accept 1,000 attendees and early planners should be rewarded. Festivals targeting price-sensitive families will get early bookings because of the lower cost.
In the end, ignorance, coupled with the audacity to question established concepts, helped us do better for our customers and generate more profits.
There is always something to improve or test – even the tried and tested early bird discounts.
Laurence Mourasse is the Founder & CEO of Equimore.
Equimore is an advisory and services agency helping convention and exhibition owners make event location choices and business strategy decisions.
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