Your Open Source Event Should be Free
I think we charge far too much for open source events.
Why do we hold community events for the software we use? Most of the time, it’s to encourage more people to get involved.
I see ticket prices for camps varying between $35 and $85, but how accessible is that? $85 is more than many people make for a day of work.
An $85 ticket price immediately means that only middle-class people with plenty of time off can attend.
We can and should consider making more events free to attend if we’re serious about getting more people involved.
Here’s some proof that it can be done …
Option #1. Completely free ticket for everyone
Think your event is too large to offer free tickets? Here’ s DrupalCamp New York which had 1,000 attendees:
Here’s last year’s Bay Area Drupal Camp which had over 800 attendees:
Also free is Capital Camp, the large Drupal event in Washington DC which expects over 500 attendees.
Option #2. A sliding scale for different attendees
For DrupalCamp Colorado 2014, you can set your own registration price. If you want to pay $0, you can. You only get a t-shirt if you pay more than $25.
For Joomla Day Atlanta, we had a sliding scale for prices:
- $20 student ticket
- $30 regular ticket
- $50 personal sponsorship ticket
We also made sure there were a lot of free tickets available everywhere. The average Joomla Day Atlanta attendee paid only $10.
Our attitude was, if people want to come, there should be nothing stopping them.
However, there’s also a large number of people who are involved in the community and willing to pay more when asked. Even with free and $30 tickets available, the hardcore members of the community were happy to pay $50.
Should you consider free tickets for your event?
Yes, if your main goal is increase the size of your community.
This isn’t the right approach for every event. In fact, there are quite a few types of event for which this would be the wrong approach:
- If you’re running a very large event with very large overhead costs such as a DrupalCon.
- If your goal isn’t to increase the size of the community. Some events aim to be small and exclusive.
- If your event location has very strict limits on how many people can attend.
- If this is your first time running an event and you’re really nervous.
But, for many open source events, free tickets can be a great option.
If you want to increase the number of people using your community, you should leverage your event to attract as many people you possibly can.
If you charge $50 or more, you’ll only ever attract the same old people. If you want to attract new people, try and remove all barriers that might stop them from attending.
How do you make free tickets work financially?
Here’s what we did a Joomla Day Atlanta:
- Focus on attendance. Our goal at Joomla Day Atlanta was “Bums in seats”. Everything we did had that aim in mind.
- Cut the junk. Approximately 80% of our costs were the venue and 15% was lunch and coffee. We spent nothing on normal conference swag. No t-shirts, no goodie bags, no expensive name tags, no banners.
- Grow as you can afford it. We grow the event as we made money. Every time we passed an income mark, we could add more features to the event. We did it this way because we wanted to make sure we could always afford free, or almost free tickets.
- $4000 revenue – the event would have 2 tracks, because we could afford to rent two rooms
- $5500 revenue – the event would have 3 tracks
- $7000 revenue – the event would have 4 tracks
- $8500 revenue – we could feed people lunch
- $9500 revenue – we could feed people coffee and drinks through the day
Here are some other ideas that people have told me about:
- Piggy-back on other events. DrupalCampMA is able to provide free registration because they are piggy-backing on the larger NerdSummit event.
- Get a cheap venue. Universities are often willing to host open source events for free or at a low cost. The venue is often your largest expense and so is your best chance to save a lot of money.
- Take really good care of sponsors. Based on our experience and stories from people we talk with, 90% of sponsors are disappointed by events. There’s not enough publicity at the events, there aren’t enough thank yous on social media and there’s often no communication with sponsors after the payment is taken. If you take care of sponsors, they’ll take care of you.
- [update] Read the comments for more great idea.
Over to you
Have you run an open source event?
Would you consider giving away free tickets? If you did, how did you make it work financially?
In general I agree although I have seen this go horribly wrong at some free events where over 500 signed up to attend and only 200 actually turned up. Leaving lots of excess food and incurring costs to the organisers that they didnt need to spend.
That’s a good point, Brian.
60% non-attendance is very high. But I’ve heard from people giving out free tickets that they normally do get a non-attendance rate of about 30%.
Some of them charge $5 or $10 just to give attendees a little skin in the game.
Plus, it’s worth noting that you should plan on being extra-communicative with free attendees (people paying $100 are less likely to forget the event). But, that’s all part and parcel of trying to attract more people in from outside the community.
For this years JoomlaDay Minnesota we had Early Bird tickets at $50 and normal tickets at $75. Our cost per attendee (venue, food, etc) is $80 we needed to cover our costs not knowing the turnout we would get .
However we sold out three weeks early and have a large waiting list. Also thanks to our great sponsors (like OSTraining) we were able to make a drastic shift for 2015. We booked the Mall of America and have three ticket tiers:
300 Tickets at normal $20 level
100 Tickets at name your own price
100 tickets are early bird $15 level (if people get them at this years event the price is only $10)
We are trying to make it as attainable as possible while still having a world-class venue which is our largest cost for next year. But as Brian said if people don’t pay something they won’t care to not show up. I assume we will have a lower no-show rate this year due to our higher cost.
Great work, Mike
Yes, you guys are a first time event and have a beautiful venue [url=http://joomladay.mn/venue.html]http://joomladay.mn/venue.html[/url] and you’ve completely sold it out. There’s a noticeable risk factor there.
Given how well you’ve done this year, I’m sure you’ll do great next year too. I’m excited to see it.
Nice article Steve – Great inspiration for the JDay planners.
Like Brian, I too have seen events have out of control catering costs due to the no-show factor. One solution was to charge a significant gate such as $60 and give guests a “passport” that they get stamped by visiting the exhibitor tables. Once they get their stamps, they trade it in for a $50 Rebate (VISA Gift Card or cash) and the passport is also their entry into the end-of-day drawing. If they no-show, they have paid for the cost of the food they wasted. If they show, net cost was $10 and the promo price can be $60 ticket reduced to $10 after on-site rebate.
If the rebate is not needed, then another possibility is to treat the passport as a ‘same as cash’ script to use when purchasing a vendor’s show special. The event reimburses each vendor for the scripts they redeemed for sales made day of the event.
The other is perception of value – if the event has a significant price it will be perceived as having significant value, then you can discount off that price with all kinds of promos and enticements to get your target audience in the door at the price you really want to charge. Too low of a full price develops “banner blindness” due to suspicion that it will be a huge infomercial / vendor sales event. Once you have a reputation for content like a Drupalcon or an established JDay, you no longer have to worry as much about this misperception, but for attracting first time attendees, in my opinion you need to set expectations that there is serious content worthy of their time and then discount to make the net price accessible.
What great thoughts, thanks Duke!
Yes, a reputation goes a long way. For example, I’m sure it helped that the Drupal New York even was at the United Nations.
The rebate idea is interesting too. I’m sure that could be done on a lower level, perhaps to cover the cost of lunch.
I understand both sides being both a show promoter and a attendee.
If I take a day off to go to a Joomla Day, Expo/seminar I will gladly
pay $65 or so for a ticket knowing that you can provide me with quality
speakers and programs. I’m not sure I’d make the 3 hour trip to a free
event… you usually can’t get much for free. At the same time why not
include some free sessions one afternoon with general overviews and
intro level how to’s, to entice newcomers.
–and of course Brian’s right… If you don’t have to invest anything to attend, the commitment to attend will be low.
Yes, that’s another great idea and perhaps one worth of adding as Option #3 … an event that is partly free so people on the fence can sample what’s going on.
A lot of professionals also get a lot of value out of these events. The fact that it’s open source shouldn’t make the entire ordeal not-for-profit. Free speech, not per se free beer, although free beer is good too. The $85 that you start this article with is really fair in my opinion. It’s always more worrisome that it costs you a full day of productivity. You’re gonna hopefully gain that back by your professional development, but that’s a long-term investment eating into your short-term earnings. (This equation works from your own perspective as well as that of a company, in case they’re still paying your salary that day.) Next week is OSCON, here in Portland, and single tickets range from $1,195 to $2,495 (although I’ve heard of some discounts, but you get the picture).
Sure, there are lots of events for which free isn’t the right option.
We tried to list a few, including “If you’re running a very large event with very large overhead costs such as a DrupalCon.”
You’re right – OSCON would definitely fall into that group.
Decent alternative is to state on the registration “No one will be turned away for inability to pay. Email xxx” I’ve done that at several events. People prove very shy in asking and never more than a handful took advantage of the offer. Many of those were, for example, in between jobs, the kind of people you’d ordinarily comp if asked.
That achieves the goal of serving those who can’t afford the regular fee. It costs very little because few do sign up for free.
Now that’s an excellent idea, Dave. To some extent it’s saying, “Pay what you can”.
From what I’m told, the DrupalCamp Colorado team suggested $25 and ended up very close to that as the average payment. Some paid $0 and some paid a lot more.