Meetings in the Post-Pandemic Era
Money Smarts

New Pricing Models for Meetings

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Inflation and virtual options have made setting attendee prices for association meetings trickier. Organizations are using creative new pricing structures and marketing strategies to reach their attendance and revenue goals.

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.”

Tactical Tweaks

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.”

A multi-tiered pricing structure offers a range of attendee discounts while allowing the association to respond to market realities.

Hold Steady With Virtual Pricing

Contrary to the flexible approach to pricing that associations might take toward in-person events, more rigidity around fees for virtual meetings often makes more sense now. Zimmer says many associations have kept the cost of the virtual portion of a hybrid event stable—and even higher than early-bird rates.

That’s in part to incentivize attendees to choose the in-person meeting. But the tactic also recognizes that virtual attendees tend to be late decision-makers; for them, an early-bird rate won’t provide a meaningful extra push. “You’ll see 50 percent of all virtual attendees register the last week. They will wait till the very last second,” Zimmer said.

Ultimately, any approach to pricing should begin with a calculation of the cost to service an average attendee. New registration-fee pricing models and sponsorship options can help close budget gaps, but if an association wants to cut costs—especially if it expects fewer attendees—it should do so with an eye toward preserving a high-quality experience.

For example, “some [organizations] are reducing the number of concurrent sessions onsite,” said Francesca Malin, event director at Smithbucklin. “The rooms still feel full, but there’s stronger content in those rooms and lower costs because of less AV usage.”

But just as automatically hiking fees won’t solve an association’s budget challenges around meetings, neither will reflexive cost cutting.

“You’re not going to reach prosperity that way,” Zimmer said. “You need to find the key areas to invest in and be OK with sunsetting some of the other things you used to spend money on because they weren’t useful.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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