Do we need Early Bird tickets?

Written on November 18 2011 at 00:24 and updated on November 22 2011 at 23:24

Have you ever missed an “early bird” ticket price? Ever wondered if they were really necessary?

(2011-11-25 Update: more information here)

(2011-11-22 Update! Scroll down!)

I had an interesting conversation via twitter with Alan Francis. We’ve had a few awkward exchanges in the past (almost certainly a result of my too-often brash demeanour), but I think this one was hopefully constructive and interesting.

To give you some context, I’m one of the organisers of Ruby Manor, a small conference with big ideas about what could be improved over the more typical conference experience. Alan is one of the organisers of the extremely successful Scottish Ruby Conference, which is very highly regarded in the Ruby world.

Anyway, back to the story. We begin with the announcement of the upcoming release of tickets for the 2012 Scottish Ruby Conference…

Alan C Francis: “In celebration of 48 Years of Doctor Who, @ScotRubyConf will be open for business at 3pm UK time, on Wednesday 23rd November.”

Alan C Francis: “We’re opening all the tickets at once, but there will three price tiers available to you depending on how quickly you buy.”

This intrigued me, because typically “Early-bird” means you bought a ticket a few days, weeks, or even months early. Conferences normally use it as a way to test demand, so they can alter plans (scaling up or down) appropriately.

So what’s the point if all the tickets become available on the same day? Scottish Ruby Conference has sold out completely, and quickly, for the last two years. Being “early” in this case just means being one of the lucky few who first click “YES YES ME ME” at the appointed time.

Hence my question:

James Adam: “@alancfrancis what’s the motivation for selling like that?”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom You mean all at once ? Stops us having to keep track of releasing chunks of tickets.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Tickets are just on sale until they run out. First X get super early bird, next X get early bird, last X get full price.”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis apologies, I should clarify - I mean why bother with price tiers at all if they’re all going at the same time?”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom They won’t necessarily all sell at the same time, …”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom … and its the usual reasons for early bird - encourage people to buy now rather than delay, so we have a cash cushion for expenses”

Alan’s right, in that this is the normal reason - cashflow. But as soon as you start selling any tickets, you start to grow a “cash cushion”; the only reason for discounting some is to drive those first sales. Normally it’s because you’re really not sure how many tickets you will sell, but as I noted above, you can almost smell the frenzy for Scottish Ruby Conference tickets when they are released. So I wonder:

James Adam: “@alancfrancis Is there any research (beyond the anecdotal) about whether or not “early bird” prices really help with cash-flow?”

Now it sounds like the first time they ran the event, they hit some serious ticket problems:

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom The first year we ran we didn’t do early bird and were in real trouble. Force of habit I guess. Maybe we don’t need them now?”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis my guess would be that lack of established following probably played a part for the first event, yeah…”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom That year we ended up having to do ‘late bird’ discount coupons etc to get people to buy …”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom …tickets, which (rightly) irritated people who paid full price.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Then lwe did a super-duper-earlybird form conf2010 where we sold 50 tickets at a 100 each as soon as conf2009 finished.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom super cheap as we didn’t even have any speakers announced. Again, nice to have a cash cushion.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom We run each conf at pretty much break-even, so start fresh each time.”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis understandably something you wouldn’t want to ever repeat! :)”

… I don’t envy that situation at all, and I probably would’ve done exactly the same things in that position.

That said, there are many plausible (and I’d argue likely) reasons why they hit problems. Principally, the conference had no reputation at all. Unfortunately, reputation is (I believe) the principal motivator when an attendee is deciding whether or not to buy a conference ticket. If they heard the conference was great last year, they are far more likely to buy a ticket this year. After all, none of us want to miss out, right?

It’s also possible that the tickets weren’t priced well enough for the first event, particularly given that the conference didn’t have the foundation of reputation to play upon.

The point is: even though they used the Early Bird mechanism, there were still problems, and that’s because Early Bird ticket prices frame a guess that the organisers are making about demand for the conference.

If you know demand is going to be high, then the reasons to make an Early Bird price available are far less compelling…

James Adam: “@alancfrancis I’d really love it if you broke the habit; and other conferences would see that they don’t need to follow a formula either.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Why? What is it about cheaper tickets you don’t like?”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis I’m not sure that’s quite how I’d frame the question! I’ll try to summarise why I think we don’t need “early-bird”…”

I go further into this in a bit, but it’s obvious that as an attendee, and from a quite rational (but unfortunately selfish) viewpoint, cheaper tickets are better tickets.

Perhaps I’m a stinking communist, but I think it’s worth considering more than just that.

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom I understand that RubyManor is kind of a different beats, but “following a formula” was what we had in mind for SRC.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom It’s RubyConf, but in Scotland. A fairly standard multi-track-multi-day-keynote-speakery conference.”

Now: Ruby Manor was my hope for an antidote to lots of these conference tropes - expensive tickets, opaque CFP processes, keynote speakers with little-or-nothing to say - so it’s not surprising that I don’t much care for another big conference replicated wholesale, good aspects and bad.

James Adam: “@alancfrancis I think you have a great opportunity to be better than RubyConf! Why copy aspects that are unnecessary or could be improved?”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis … even if you explore improving the experience in different ways from @rubymanor, challenging the status quo is never bad.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom We’ve chosen to differentiate around the conference, rather than inside it, I think. Party, charity day, assorted other stuff.”

I could be wrong, but I think lots of conferences now do these things. Perhaps Scottish Ruby Conference was the first?

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom But who knows. What we’ve done so far is innovate, then consolidate.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Two years or SoR in Pollock, two years of SRC in RCPE. 2012 is an innovate year, so who knows what’ll happen :-)”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Tickets all at once and new ticketing provider is this years innovation at the “sales” end. Maybe we drop EB entirely next year?”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis Why wait? I deliberately haven’t asked you how much the tickets are to give you plenty of room to drop EB this year :)”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Because I am not yet convinced of your argument :-) And there are three of us.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom And it doesn’t hurt us at all to do early bird, and it does help folks who might need a cheaper ticket.”

… but while it might help those people who need a cheaper ticket, in the envyable situation that Scottish Ruby Conference finds it self in - I am quite certain that it will sell out - it doesn’t help those who can’t buy on the spot.

Need to check with your boss if you can go? Sorry, tickets got more expensive. Need to rearrange some client work? Too late - “full” price for you. And what is the real meaning of “full” price anyway? Well, we’ll get there soon…

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom But I ask you again, what is it you don’t like about it? Seems a weird thing to argue against?”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom I’m glad you didn’t ask because I honestly can’t remember. Paul is the brains of the outfit. :-)”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis I think early-bird encourages a mad rush to buy tickets, and disadvantages as many attendees (if not more) than it helps”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom How does it disadvantage attendees?”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis when it’s very likely that you’ll sell out, it’s giving privilege to rapid clickers; if I’m in a meeting at 3pm, I miss out…”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis at least as many people pay over the average price than pay under the average, right?”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Well we don’t bump up any prices. We just discount some tickets for early sale. No early bird, means all full price tickets.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom we take a hit in potential ticket revenue for the sake of some peace of mind.”

(I could argue that you take a potential hit in revenue by not charging £1000 per ticket too, but I know that’s not quite whaht he means…)

James Adam: “@alancfrancis assuming you sell out* your average ticket price, when early bird is in play, is less than your “full” price, right?”

So there you go. What really is full price? Well, it depends.

Say you want to sell 100 tickets. Normally the number of tickets you can sell is relatively fixed (by venue size), so lets assume that’s a constant. I’m also going to have to assume that you’re confident that there is enough demand for 100 tickets (and I’m basing that assumption on my assumption regarding Scottish Ruby Conference, just so we are clear).

James Adam: “@alancfrancis (*I’m not sure it’s very contentious or far-fetched to suggest that you’re going to sell out.)”

As I said before - it’s sold out the past two years, it has a very strong following, and so unless something terrible happens, I think they’re going to sell out again.

So, back to our hypothetical conference. Lets also say you decide to price your tickets as follows:

Your total possible revenue is (50 * £10) + (50 * £15) = £1250, which covers your costs nicely.

Now, if you decided that abandoning Early Bird meant that you were compelled to charge every ticket at full price, your total revenue is now (100 * £15) = £1500, or £250 more. But - and again, this is an assumption - you only really needed £1250.

Now, you could certainly make an argument that the extra £250 could be used to make the conference better (for some value of “better”), but equally, I think this points out the fallacy of “full price”. If you really only need £1250 to run the conference, an equally rational decision would be to reduce the “full” ticket price to achieve that:

£1250 / 100 tickets = £12.50 each.

So some people might be “worse” off in that they’re paying more than the would, but some people are also better off because their paying less. Depending on the ratio of “early bird” to “full price” tickets, more or less people might be better off too…

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Of course, whatever we get in ticket revenue, we just spend on the conference. If we dropped EB, we might have, say, better food?”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis if you didn’t buy t-shirts you could get better food too, but that’s a tangent :)”

(While I don’t really want to dwell on the “what should conferences provide” aspect, since that really wasn’t what Alan and I were talking about, I think this reveals a relevant difference in thinking. My guess is that Alan sees every extra bit of revenue as something he can plough back into the conference. My position, on the other hand, is that every extra bit of revenue represents a ticket that was too expensive. Of course, I don’t think either of us are particularly hard-line about this - to argue against my own point, Ruby Manor has always had the spare money to put behind the bar after the conference - but I think the essence of my categorisation is probably fair. I’d rather conferences were simpler and cheaper.)

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Exactly. So thats why we don’t mind EB. We choose to take less revenue, and buy less stuff, in exchange for some peace of mind.”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom And the side effect is, some buzz is created around launch day and some folks get a discount for helping us out by deciding early.”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis I think you’ll get plenty buzz without early bird, and you could charge a bit less for everyone without it. But…”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis … ultimately that’s just my hunch. We need some empirical evidence and I can’t run the experiment without you :) Or…”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis … ask the people. See if they really like early-bird, or if they’d prefer a single price until all tickets sell.”

All credit to Alan, he does exactly that:

“Straw Poll: is early bird a good thing or does it just annoy you. reply with just +1 or -1 and #earlybird?”

Lori M Olson: “@alancfrancis +1 #earlybird”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis -1 #earlybird”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom So far a grand total of +1 and -1”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis I suppose I’ll have to settle this with @wndxlori the old fashioned way. SWORDS.”

It’s you vs. me, Lori, in the Early Bird Thunderdome! Two people enter, one person leaves!

But between Alan and I, there’s still the quite valid question:

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom I’m still not seeing what we gain from dropping it. You’re telling me what you think we “won’t lose”.”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis if EB isn’t actually necessary, wouldn’t charging the average price (which is > EB) actually increase your cash cushion?”

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Yes, if we we took that risk and the tickets did sell.”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis isn’t it a nice to say “you don’t need to go into a frenzy or be lucky to get a ticket, and you’re all paying the same price”?”

I think this is probably my best point so far, which may not be saying much given the overall set of really quite wooly and hand-wavey statements. (I am trying to improve my argument, but lots of it is, unfortunately, also anecdotal and intuitive.)

Alan is right that people are happy with Early Bird tickets, and it isn’t doing the conference or organisers any harm. But it may just be possible to construct a “message” (that’s marketing-speak, folks) that breaks through those expectations and appeals to a person’s (hopefully) innate sense of fairness and simplicity.

I believe that while Early Bird ticket sales can certainly serve a particular function in the conference world, that doesn’t mean that every conference needs to do it. Conferences have so many tropes and pseudo-traditions that are only really invoked because, well, other conferences do it.

And what compounds this is that conference attendees then learn to expect these aspects - the early bird tickets, the CFP, the t-shirts, the swag, the wifi-even-if-it-costs-the-earth - without really thinking about why.

I suspect that it’s a vicious circle, a loop of expectations and desire-to-satisfy between attendee and organiser, but I really want to believe that we can break out of it and make everyone’s conference experience a bit simpler, a bit cheaper and a bit better at the same time.

Alan C Francis: “@lazyatom Still unsure why you care so much about our conf ticketing strategy :-)”

James Adam: “@alancfrancis it’s because I think together we can change the conference world for the better :) I appreciate your time & patience.”

… and I really, really hope that’s true.

I struggle with this every time we think about Ruby Manor. Is there any point? I believe that there are some conference traditions that are unnecessary or often counter-productive, and that is why I help put Ruby Manor togther, but are we ever going to be able to impart that message clearly enough to people that they break out of the cycle themselves?

Early Bird tickets are just one aspect of the “conference formula”, and I don’t even really think it is the most in need of reform. I’ve written plenty about what I believe could be improved, which I won’t write again here. It could easily be that the approaches we are trying with Ruby Manor aren’t the best either, but that’s beside the point - I think there’s lots of opportunity to try out new ideas and push the envelope a bit more, and that is:

a) a valuable opportunity that conference organisers have b) something that I think conference attendees should care about, since it’s their money that’s funding it!

But.. maybe I’m wrong. Do people really care about improving these things, or am I obsessing with minutia, and they are quite correct to demand the tried-and-tested conference formula they know and love?

I don’t know…

“@paulanthonywils @Mathie Have you been following the convo with @lazyatom ? Should we just abandon Earlybird and have a single price?”

… but this, at least, gives me hope.

Alan - thanks for taking the time to talk to me, and let me think through my ideas via our conversation.

I’d love to know what you think, and I’d love for you to start engaging with your local conference organiser to let them know what aspects of the conference you care about. You don’t need to just be an attendee, buying a ticket, turning up and tuning out. You can get involved, and make things better where you see room for improvement! You can even organise your own conference, after all. It’s not that hard - even I can do it!

Let’s make the conference world a bit better. I dare you.

Thanks for reading.

UPDATE 2011-11-22

After posting this, there were a few more interesting tweets that are worth collating. To give some context to later tweets, here was the response that Paul Wilson (another Scottish Ruby Conference organiser) gave to Alan’s tweet above:

Paul Wilson: “@alancfrancis @mathie @lazyatom No I haven’t. It’s a thought, though.”

It is a thought indeed. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the Scottish Ruby Conference organisers talked about regarding prices between that conversation on Friday and announcing the prices, but - spoiler alert - I don’t think it really had much affect.

Anyway, here’s a lovingly-selected set of tweets from people who don’t agree with me. These are actually pretty much all the @replies I can find:

Joe Wright: “@alancfrancis +1 it rewards the frequent attendees and gives the organisers money ahead of time”

(I don’t see how frequency of attendance is going to help grease your trigger finger, and the “all at once” aspect of this release defeats the second benefit Joe cites, but fair enough)

Brian Swan: “@alancfrancis #earlybird +1 it’s a bargain anyway but the extra bargain of early bird is great”

Sara: “@alancfrancis as a… description? +1”

Oh, hangon…

”.@dotsara As a ticketing strategy. Does panic to get in early, and annoyance if you don’t, outweigh the chance of saving some cash.”

Sara: “@alancfrancis Oohhhh. Got it. So, revising. -1 (:”

Ah well. And now the people who are sympathetic to my argument:

Tom Stuart: “@alancfrancis So if I want a ticket, I’ll have to race to buy it to avoid feeling like a sucker? That’s a bit of a shame.”

It’s like the end part of The Crystal Maze, except there’s 500 people in the dome with you.

Matt Southerden feels pretty much the same as I do - if you’re releasing all of the tickets at the same time, rather than staggered over time, then Early Bird prices are probably worse for most people:

Matt Southerden: “@lazyatom @alancfrancis Just caught up on #ticketgate. While I agree with the EB ticket principle for scoping out initial interest in a…”

Matt Southerden: “@lazyatom @alancfrancis ..new venture before committing. I’m sure that SRC will sell out again, so having diff pricing on the same day..”

Matt Southerden: “@lazyatom @alancfrancis ..can create resentment amongst those trying/unable to buy tickets at/around rush hour. Much fairer overall..”

Matt Southerden: “@lazyatom @alancfrancis ..to have the averaged price for everyone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to book a ‘meeting’ for 3pm next Wed. ;)”

Yeah Matt - you and Chris McGrath both:

Chris McGrath: “@alancfrancis I’m way more worried about you selling out in seconds before I get a chance to buy”

Anthony Green: “Siding with @lazyatom on the question of #earlybird and @scotrubyconf; but I do wonder if 2012 will be an austerity year for many.”

Even Joe O’Brien, conference keynoter extraordinaire, agrees with me:

Joe O’Brien: “@paulanthonywils FWIW I think @lazyatom has a great point. Average the price and nobody gets punished. History says you’ll sell out anyway.”

And then, earlier today I noticed that the prices were announced:

James Adam: “I see @scotrubyconf have announced the ticket prices… with “Super Early-Bird” and “Early-Bird” prices. #slowclap interblah.net/early-bird-t…”

£180 “Very Early Bird”, £205 “Early Bird” and £245 “Standard” tickets. So if you aren’t fast and/or lucky, you’re going to pay £65 more for buying the same thing, on the same day (maybe even in the same hour) as Joe Schmoe sitting across the desk.

Recap: My Hypothesis

Let me just be super-clear again, because this is a really long post and it’s getting quite convoluted:

Fact A: Early Bird tickets are a mechanism that may help conferences generate some early cashflow while they need to bootstrap things, and help them plan when they aren’t sure how many tickets are going to go on sale.

Fact B: Scottish Ruby Conference sold out quickly in 2009 and 2010.

Assertion 1: Scottish Ruby Conference 2011 is going to sell out, and sell out pretty quickly.

Assertion 2: if a conference is likely to sell out, Early Bird tickets have little value in terms of planning.

Assertion 3: if a conference is likely to sell out quickly, Early Bird tickets create a rush to buy tickets that disadvantages those who don’t buy quickly, or who need to juggle other priorities before committing to the expense.

Assertion 4: if a conference sells out quickly, Early Bird tickets play no role in generating an initial cash “cushion” in this case, since the total revenue is fixed and received quickly.

So, for… erm… no particular reason, I wanted to know if there were any conditions associated with buying a ticket that we might be able to read before the rush to buy.

James Adam: “@scotrubyconf are there any T&Cs for tickets (refunds, transferability, maximum purchase per person) that we can read before Wednesday?”

Like, for example, can they be transferred, or returned? How many can people buy in a single purchase? That sort of thing.

Scottish Ruby Conf: “@lazyatom Sure, we can do those for you. As you asked.”

Cool.

But then:

Paul Wilson: “At @scotrubyconf we like to challenge the London-centric status-quo by being multi-track and having tiered pricing.”

Now, I spoke to Paul quite a bit after Ru3y Manor to try and make sure that he didn’t perceive the things I’ve said as being any kind of attack, and to hopefully get across that all I’m hoping to achieve is to make conference attendees engage more with what a conference really is. I thought we were cool. I even bought him a beer!

So I’m trying not to interpret this tweet as being passive-aggressive.

….

…. nnnnnngh ….

……… NNNNNNGGGGGHGHGNHGHNNNHGGHHHHH ………

Phew. That was close.

But you know what? I’m happy to put my money where my mouth is:

James Adam: “you know what: screw lawyers, I will buy every @scotrubyconf ticket that isn’t sold within a week if they drop Early Bird. That’s a promise.”

It’s pretty clear that the opportunity to do this has passed, now that the clamouring hordes have it in their minds that they can score a bargain for £180 (“Ha-ha! Too slow, you £245-payin’ suckers!”). As Paul says:

Paul Wilson: “@objo @lazyatom Alea jacta est.”

(“The die has been cast”)

But just so it’s clear: I’m quite serious. I was semi-serious when Alan first jokingly suggested it (scroll up), but I’m really serious now.

If enough of you want ruin decades of careful saving on my part, now’s your chance to do it! I am prepared to place a tens-of-thousands-of-pounds bet that they’re going to sell out, and this whole “Early Bird but all the tickets are one sale at once” probably wasn’t required, if the lovely, adorable, most-excellent Scottish Ruby Conference organisers are willing to help me test my hypothesis. But I guess we’ll never know.

Conclusion

I want Scottish Ruby Conference 2011 to be great. I really do. I want them to sell out and give attendees a great couple of days. I’m sure they will.

I just think that they don’t need to stick to the formula, that’s all.

You’re bored of this now, I can tell. I’m a bit bored of it too, but apparently I’m stubborn enough to want to make this post something approaching comprehensive.

Actual, Genuine, Properly-Final Conclusion, or: A Personal Appeal From Unhinged Conference Pedant James Adam

Hey you!

Yes, you!

No, not the person behind you - I’m talking to you.

You go to conferences, right? You buy the ticket, yes? You have the power here. If you think that a conference can be improved (in any way at all, not just Early Bird tickets or whatever I happen to be ranting about), then you can tell the conference organisers!

If there’s something - anything - that you’d like out of your conference, then let them know.

And guess what! They will probably listen. Because you are the customer, and you are the person paying for the whole thing to happen. You are buying their product.

I know you’re busy. It’s hard enough to carve out time for all the things that need to get done, let alone spending extra time talking about conference organisation, of all things. But think about it like a public service. Your idea could make the conference experience a little bit better for hundreds of people, and maybe thousands if other conferences pick up on it too. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

So don’t just sit back passively. If you have an inkling that you care about this stuff, then give yourself some credit. Your ideas are almost certainly great.

Cheers,

James

(2011-11-25 Update: more information here) (This content was originally posted via storify)


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