In an economic environment marked by inflation and increased travel costs, many associations have been forced to consider raising registration and other attendance fees for conferences. But that approach doesn’t just risk alienating potential attendees—it also fails to take a holistic look at what motivates people to come to your event.
“The straightforward approach of increasing the budget and charging 5 or 10 percent more than you did in the past doesn’t work—you have to have a different conversation and a different value proposition to justify charging more,” said Bill Zimmer, vice president of strategy at 360 Live Media, a strategy, marketing, and design firm.
One newer approach is to structure registration fees around the new pandemic-era realities involving travel. When registration opens for an event, typically months before the meeting dates, more attendees are uncertain about their travel budgets or their comfort level with flying to another city. So the traditional two-tier fee schedule—an early-bird and regular rate—ought to be broken up into more pieces.
“It’s just like buying an airline ticket with demand-based pricing,” Zimmer said. “Between the day you launch registration and the event, we recommend several price increases along the way to maintain urgency throughout the campaign.”
Benjamin Rabe, director of event services at the association management company Smithbucklin, says a multi-tiered pricing structure still offers a range of attendee discounts while allowing the association to respond to market realities. One of those is that more attendees are waiting longer to register.
“Many more people—30 to 40 percent of registrants—are now booking within 30 days of an event, because they’re able to finally get approval to attend,” Rabe said. “But there’s still some type of cost savings because the price only goes up the week before the event. There are groups that are going from a two-tier system to three or more.”
Along with those laddered fee increases, associations can introduce more targeted discounts for first-time attendees, students, and “adjacent audiences,” Zimmer says. Savvier marketing messages that emphasize urgency—48-hour discount offers, for example—can help stoke registrations. And offering more customized experiences onsite for a fee—VIP seating, access to speakers, signed copies of keynote presenters’ books—can also help offset the higher cost of hosting a meeting.
Such tweaks, though, should be made with an awareness of who is generally paying to attend. In cases where employers are covering travel and registration, those additional fees might not be off-putting. For a meeting where most attendees are individuals paying their own freight, these extra costs can be a deal breaker.
“For a percentage of attendees who are really budget-conscious, we can’t raise their reg fees,” Rabe said. “We don’t want to alienate them by pricing.”