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…
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:
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:
Now it sounds like the first time they ran the event, they hit some serious ticket problems:
… 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…
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.
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.
I could be wrong, but I think lots of conferences now do these things. Perhaps Scottish Ruby Conference was the first?
… 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…
(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…)
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).
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:
- 50 x Early Bird tickets at £10
- 50 x Full Price tickets at £15
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…
(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.)
All credit to Alan, he does exactly that:
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:
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.
… 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…
… 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.
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:
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:
(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)
Ah well. And now the people who are sympathetic to my argument:
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:
Yeah Matt - you and Chris McGrath both:
Even Joe O’Brien, conference keynoter extraordinaire, agrees with me:
And then, earlier today I noticed that the prices were announced:
£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.
Like, for example, can they be transferred, or returned? How many can people buy in a single purchase? That sort of thing.
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:
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:
(“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.
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
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.
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