Researching events: Warning signs

In my previous post, I talked about researching events. This time, let’s look at some specific things to evaluate when considering events.

Why am I going into this in this much detail on a blog about research? First, it’s helpful (and I like being helpful!) but it’s also a concrete thing to evaluate, because we all have some experience in the physical world, and how some things work there.

Learning how to evaluate specific points with things we know something about helps us learn skills we can use when we’re evaluating things we know less about (like new information or subject areas.) It also helps us learn to ask better questions, which can guide our research.

Researching events: loaf of bread and bowls of grain and lavender on a table, ready to share

Information wants to be available

(Or rather, people planning an event should want to make it easy to find the important things about the event.)

One big warning sign – for events, for people, for research – is information that is seriously insufficient for what the resource wants to be able to do.

A well-planned event will want to tell you important things so you can make decisions about your plans in good time. They won’t make it terribly hard for you to find things like where and when the event is, practical details like what you should plan for, or any costs.

A poorly planned event, however, will often talk up guests or big plans – but they won’t mention exactly what those guests are going to be doing or focusing on (which makes it hard to plan.)

They may mention dozens of panels or activities, but not provide any kind of schedule in advance. They might talk about accesibility or inclusion, but not actually provide advance information about accessibility resources (or ways to ask) or think about different parts of the community.

No event can be all things to all people – but the good events will give you lots of information up front so you can figure out if it’ll work for you, if you need to ask some more questions, or if it’s not a great fit for you (at least at the moment).

You’ve probably known people in your life who talk up a thing, and don’t have follow through. You can apply the same skills here. If something seems a little weird to you, follow up further.

Where is that information?

Another warning sign is for an event of any size that doesn’t have some sort of stable web presence. Facebook and Twitter (and other forms of social media) can be good ways to get the word out, but there are plenty of people who don’t use them, or who don’t use them for parts of their life.

(I use Facebook for professional reasons, but avoid things that make my religious life obvious there.)

It can be really hard to find current information on a lot of social media sites – so if that’s the only place an event has a lot of information, people may miss important things or necessary details. That’s no good for anyone.

When is that information ready?

Obviously, it takes time to put together the details! However, if information isn’t available roughly along the timeline in the last post, that’s a good time to think about some alternate plans.

First time events often don’t leave quite enough time for programming information to be finalised, or they may have changes up to the last minute (if they have open slots, they may add things, or people may need to change plans and can’t do what they signed up for.

This is somewhat less common with large well-established events, but even then guests can get sick or have unavoidable conflicts come up.)

The plans are based on a sensible foundation

It’s a rare event that starts out and can have a couple of thousand people there the first year. Most first year events start with a couple of hundred people at best – and sensible event planners will start there.

Ambitious plans can be very attractive – but they’re one of the easiest ways for events to go wrong.

Think about the money

Some of it’s about money. If you are touting an event as really big, you need a place to put those people. Big event spaces cost a lot of money, and come with a lot of other complicated commitments (like AV and technology rental, stages, things like tables and drapes and chairs.)

With smaller groups and smaller spaces, you often have a bit more control over what you need to spend money on, and what you can find some other options for.

Even a small event (off-season, in a modest amount of hotel space that is not competing with wedding parties) can run $10,000 very easily, and often quite a bit more. So just because an event has raised a lot of money, doesn’t mean they have enough to make a huge event.

Some costs associated with the event are things that it’s hard to estimate if you’re not familiar with event planning in general (to have a sense of the range of things that will cost an event money) and the place the event is taking place in specific (because there are tons of regional or even neighborhood differences).

But you can spot some of them, like “More guests probably involves a lot more money” and you can make some rough napkin calculations about likely amounts for plane fares and hotel room nights for guests based on details the convention tells you. If those don’t seem to add up, you can tell other stuff might not either.

And about the infrastructure

It’s not just about money (though the money is an issue too). A big event needs a lot of infrastructure.

Running operations takes some people – someone’s got to register people or check them in, and be available for operational help (the AC is on too high, it’s too hot in there, we’ve run out of water, do you have some tape?) But someone also needs to be on hand for more complicated needs like managing high-demand lines or events, or providing security.

If there are party rooms, alcohol, competitions, or special guests who attract a lot of attention, you probably also need some kind of security or at least a plan for people to circulate and make sure things are going legally and smoothly.

Who’s providing medical support if medical issues come up? Smaller events in hotels or other rented buildings may not need anyone specifically focused on it, but bigger events or outdoor events do. Even in a hotel-based event without particular physical risks, a group of a few thousand people has a decent chance of someone having a significant medical issue during the event. You want the event to be thinking about safety concerns, and especially to be clear about options for events that are at campground or festival sites, have significant outdoor activities, or at times of year when things like heat exhaustion or cold might be a problem.

Competent staff don’t grow on trees – so where is this event getting them from? A lot of events run on a lot of volunteer help (especially for things like badging, supporting programming or panels, or the vendor/dealer room or art show). Where are those volunteers coming from? Is there a known number of people who are steady, going to show up for their shifts, and ask questions if they’re confused?

This list is woefully incomplete, but it gives you an idea of what to be looking for.

Follow the numbers

There are three sets of numbers you should pay attention to, especially for a new event. These are the advertised number of attendees, the number of guests, and the cost for the event.

Number of attendees

I touched on this one above, but it’s not that common for events to start big. Most events – even the ones that are now 5,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 people, started much smaller (often just a couple of hundred). Plenty of successful ongoing events started with a hundred or two hundred people in a reasonably sized rental space, and grew from there.

If an event’s success depends on it starting large – or if you see lots of urgent pleas for significant numbers of tickets – that’s a time to look closely at your options. Make sure you won’t get stranded if something goes wrong.

Number of guests

Bringing in guests is usually a significant expense for a convention – even the ones that are not big media conventions. It has to be worth it to the guest to give up their time (and for authors or other creators, it can often be a big disruption in their work schedule to be away from home from Thursday or Friday through sometime on Monday.)

It’s common for even very small conventions to offer their guests of honour at least housing, a food stipend, and often also transportation and at least a small honorarium. (Extremely popular guests, guests associated with big media productions like movies or major TV series obviously may have a lot of additional requirements).

Guests also involve time and infrastructure from the committee – someone needs to be focusing on where the guest is and needs to get to, that everything is ready for them, and to make sure the guest gets a chance to eat and sleep without disruption.

You can see why most small conventions often have one or two guests of honour. They may have other featured presenters, panel moderators, or people doing other programming, but usually those people are not getting the same sort of support from the convention.

So if you see a long list of special guests or guests of honour, be a little cautious. Or maybe a lot cautious.

Unrealistic funding streams

A lot of new events want to give everyone a discount! And yes, rewarding your early backers is great, but doing it with things that take money away from your event is not so great.

Take a look at similar events in the area, and what they charge for memberships or tickets or specific kinds of activities at the event. The chances are pretty good that a brand new, unknown event is not going to make a better deal for space rental or other kinds of expenses than a known event that’s been doing this for a while.

(Known events who bring in solid income for a hotel or conference center every year can sometimes make some really great deals – that can help them keep costs low, or bring in more guests, or do more special activities. But you need to build up a reputation of being easy to deal with and lucrative for the other businesses involved, first.)

If you see an event that’s half the price of similar events in the same area – what’s different? Sometimes you can figure out (One event is not doing a lot of expensive things that are at the other event. They’re in different seasons, and one of them is high tourism season or during some other regional big event when hotel prices are high, or whatever.)

If you can’t figure it out, be cautious of events that seem too good to be true. They quite possibly are.

Similarly. if the event is relying on crowdfunding, look for what the rewards are, and if those make financial sense for the event. It doesn’t make sense for an event to give rewards that take a lot of the money it needs for the event, does it? (That’s things like highly discounted attendance, or hotel rooms, or other big discounts.) Those things make sense if someone’s pledging a lot of money (like 10 times the amount of the ticket) but not just for the ordinary ticket price.

You will often see a wide range of ticket prices over the course of the event – that’s normal. Many events have an early bird registration that’s significantly cheaper, sometimes half the price of a later membership, to encourage people to register early and give them seed money for deposits for the event.

As it gets closer to the event, prices go up. But events should be pegging the costs so that their cheapest prices still would cover the expenses per person of the event, at a bare minimum.

Next in this series: evaluating smaller regular events.

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