Revenue Sources: Attendee Registration
It has been said that free is not a business model, let alone a way to secure online or hybrid conferences as a sustainable part of your activities or mandate. For some membership-based associations their annual conference is a pivotal part of their business model requiring more than a break-even scenario. Regardless of the old model, with the world having turned toward the digital realm in the age of COVID-19, it is important to fully consider the implications of the price of admission.
The Price of Admission
There are four major considerations around pricing your online conference or event:
- value and perceived value
- setting precedence
- your expenses
- participants’ ability to pay
Value and Perceived Value
The amount you can ask participants to pay for your conference is based on their perception of value, which to some extent will be based on the price you charge. Pricing research has shown for instance, that people think wine tastes better when it’s more expensive, and a product is seen as having better quality if it has a higher price.
People aren’t merely buying a commodity when considering your online conference. They are buying awareness of leading practices in their field, insights about the future, solutions to their problems, and they buy new connections to grow their professional networks. Show them the value you provide, and people will want to participate. Provide valuable, timely content delivered by great speakers and experts. Put time and effort into your event production so that attendees become active participants, and come away with feelings of connection and belonging; an excellent learning and networking outcomes.
For some online conferences, events or online collaboration goes back 20 year or so. But many others have been thrown into the digital world unexpectedly, and are finding themselves on a steep learning curve while putting together online events quickly.
Notwithstanding the internal realities and challenges, it is important to guard against not charging for events, just because it is new, or because you are unsure people will pay for it. When there is an exchange of value everyone has to take responsibility in a reciprocal way for their role in the relationship rather than succumb to the short term benefits of setting an unsustainable precedence.
Truth be told, we don’t know for how long it will be necessary to gather online for all types of events. The again, we may find that we like it, that it makes professional development better and we may continue to do so even when we are able to travel and gather in person again. All to say, if we don’t charge a price for admission now, however small it may be, it will be difficult to expect people to pay next time.
There is no reason to abandon the basic goal of breaking even when shifting your conferences and events online. With conference revenues generally limited to the three main categories of sponsorship, public funding, and participant registration, it is no surprise that “solid registration pricing strategy is one of the most critical aspects of a successful conference.” Your online conference cost money to put on; finding the right balance of your revenue sources is crucial for sustainability.
Participants’ Ability to Pay
Recently, a general participant pricing rule of thumb has emerged. This rule of thumb says that it is reasonable to charge online events at 10 – 30% of the in-person experience, ‘10% for first time virtual events (such as through a member discount), and 30% for groups that have been producing virtual events for a while and have a good track record.’
Of course, your event is worth what it is worth. There are three main pricing approaches:
- You can use pricing strategies to target a certain type of participant, or to keep registrations to a certain level, as pricing functions as a barrier to attendance for some people. 
- You can use pricing strategies to create near open access based on your targeted attendees’ ability to pay. To that end you can present pricing options to potential attendees to ensure everyone who wants is able to attend. This can be as simple as a note on the registration page that invites potential attendees to get in touch to arrange a lower or zero rate registration. Another option is to simply embed sliding scale options in the registration pricing online up front, such as: pay 100% of full registration, pay 75% of full registration down to 0%.
- You can also offer several choices for registrants, including optional sessions/days, and incentives such as early bird rates. The basic idea is to anchor value high, while using incentives to obtain a lower final price. It is also worth to offer savings for multiple people registering from the same organization.
If your event is fully funded by sources other than participants, be sure to clearly state that attendees registration fees are covered by the public funder or sponsors.