Are you often a no-show?
Or one of those people who says “Maybe” on a Facebook event?
I’m a veteran events organiser. Throughout my career, planning and running events has been an integral part of the work I do.
Now, as a lecturer in a researcher development unit, convening programs is a big part of my job. It is my everyday. The joy of room bookings, mailing lists, registrations, and constant event promotion campaigns – they are all mine!
But before you feel that my life is just a big ball of enviable funstering (which, it must be said, it can be because I work with funsters), I think I should tell you about what makes me sad: When people don’t show up.
Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I have some very well-ridden hobby-horses (e.g. open plan offices). I’d like to introduce you to another one: people who RSVP for things, then don’t bother attending, cancelling, or sending an apology. This makes me particularly headasplodey when it’s a fully booked event and there’s a waiting list of eager folk.
We talk about this event ‘attrition’ regularly in my field. It’s a common problem across all institutions and disciplines. We keep stats on it. We brainstorm constantly about ways to address it. There are many ways that others have tried to increase their attendance ratios, including increased tracking of registrations, ramped up reminders, consequences for no-shows, etc. All of these options require significant time and resources to manage.
It’s a lot of work to put into supporting people to come along to something they have already said they’d come along to.
My fab colleague Rachel Loney-Howes wrote about the power of showing up and I was cheering along when I read it. So, in this post, I wanted to talk about why showing up matters – for the researchers, and for me. And I’m talking here of my experiences in my everyday work as well as the events I’ve convened over the years with the research network and other institutions, and for the Research Whisperer.
Why it should matter for people who register
It can help and it won’t hurt. When events and sessions are put on for researchers, it’s usually because they are meant to be supportive and useful. So, it’s a no-brainer why showing up and participating and/or learning can be a good thing. The bonus is that showing up consistently builds your network, and this is something where everyone can benefit.
Follow through helps build a good reputation. To me, it’s a question of personal integrity. Sure, it’s only a workshop, but why bother registering if you aren’t going to show up or cancel? Registrants have flagged an intention and if there was no follow through…it leaves a bad taste. I always have a spate of cancellations when I ask for confirmations and that’s kind of OK. At least I know. But if I’ve sent reminders, and specifically asked for confirmation or cancellation, and there’s neither, then hmmm! As I said earlier, this is especially the case if it’s a really popular session and people are hanging out for a slot.
Communication is a valued skill. Doing well on the micro-scale of RSVP’ing and notifying if you can’t / couldn’t attend is like communication cardio. To me, it’s indicative of someone’s care for the people with whom they work and share institutional space.
Why it matters to me
Sinking resources, losing resources. For many events, there’s catering. For anyone who has done any events organisation, catering is the aspect that can generate the biggest headaches and the largest invoices. So, if 50 people have RSVP’d and I said we’d provide lunch, and only half the people turn up, that’s a lot of wasted food and money. Many people argue that having catering is a big waste of resources and people should attend things just for the love of it, which is admirable…but it can be a big ask for a 3+ hour workshop to have no snacks or drinks at all. It’s not like people come for the catering, but the catering can make a longer event run more smoothly and comfortably for participants.
Besides catering, there’s also the special events where I have invited in a fabulous shiny guest facilitator or speaker, who may charge a fee. If the turn-out for the event is disappointing, it’s less likely that I’d plan that again because units can’t afford to invest lots of funding in things for which only a few may have benefited. It is much harder to justify. There’s a big difference between whether the registrations are disappointing (that is, not many people signed up) or whether the turn-out is disappointing (e.g. fully booked but few attended – that is, a high level of no-shows).
I am a colleague. People wouldn’t usually organise a meeting with me and not turn up. It has happened once or twice in my whole career. So, when researchers sign up for things and don’t bother turning up, cancelling their slot, or letting me know, I found it initially frustrating and felt it as somewhat disrespectful. I realise now that most people think it doesn’t matter because who cares if they don’t turn up? I’m here to tell you that I care, and that I appreciate it when I’m treated as a colleague. In fact, I know that life would be much easier if I didn’t care as much and just barreled along. But that’s not me, for better or for worse.
I recognise that life happens and this post is not about taking pot-shots at people who have crises/clashes/conditions in their week or day and, therefore, they couldn’t attend something. It’s an appeal to the serial no-shows: be deliberate about what you are signing up to and thoughtful in action when you can’t go. It does matter, and I do care.
I agree this is a problem, and I suspect we also see it in our students – many dont show up to lectures, just as our colleagues dont show up to workshops…. I have sometimes tried to rescind my RSVP to an event, and found it hard to do automatically. It does depend on the software used.
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It can be hard to cancel at the point of the reservation and we always have our details very prominent in terms of being the organisers – so just an email saying ‘can’t make it to X!’ is all we need. Many people are overcommitted and double-book (or triple-book!). An increasingly frenetic pace is probably partly to blame for it all…!
The solution is to charge people to attend… If they have to pay, they will be more likely to really want to come if they say yes.
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Perhaps – we still have no-shows sometimes, even when people have paid full conference registration (and we never hear from them…).
Sure, but there will be fewer. You could even have some kind of system where people get refunded if they do attend if you actually don’t want to make them pay (e.g. get a code at the meeting of some sort) 🙂 The alternative is just to use the expected attendance number based on experience, like airlines that sometimes end up overbooking…
I think the issues here run pretty deep. They certainly are not as easy to solve as “charge people” (though non-refundable fees do mitigate the costs of catering and so on).
Issues of overwork, people pleasing, aspirational registration (This looks very interesting, I’m sure I can make it work), and shame (I feel so bad that I can’t make it work that the thought of actually telling someone is too much), … I’m sure there are more. And under it all, there is definitely a sense that your event just IS a lower priority than whatever else they have on their plate and a lack of consideration not only for you, but for the other people who might genuinely want to attend but are on a waiting list.
I have been that external person, too. The Dean’s office had organised and had over 16 people on a list. Lunch was provided. 3 people turned up. It was actually really hard to do the thing I planned with only 3 people though they did get a lot more individual attention from me. But the event really suffered from the lack of interaction with a larger group of colleagues.
You’re totally right about the “aspirational registration” that happens! Our program is released each semester and people get very excited and book into All The Things (for our uni’s staff and students, pretty well everything is free to attend). Some are amazing and turn up to everything they sign up to, even if it’s sometimes several things a week for a few weeks. Others we learn to expect as no-shows, so I guess that’s an unfortunate ‘solution’. Another solution is that we just don’t put on as much catering as we might because it’s so often a point of wastage. Which can be a pity because we like being hospitable.
I love this. You know it’s one of those things that bug me too and I just recently had it happen on a daily basis and from people who I have a supervisory relationship with, oddly. One of my colleagues mentioned something that helped a bit for some events, *just* in terms of the MAYBE stuff on social media, and it was zooming/skyping if you can’t make it in person but you have still clicked MAYBE. I suppose the idea is that sometimes it is about location, opportunity etc, but people feel like they should support the work, initiative, opportunity etc but are unsure of commitment.
That’s a good thought. I avoid listing any events registration on social media because it’s so unreliable and functions almost purely as PR (which is fine for what it is). Had a fab colleague once who registered a full fee for a full conference – they wrote and said they’d done so but would not be able to make it to the conf but wanted to show their material support for the work we do. It was quite amazing.
I am one of those people who responds as a maybe on Facebook when it’s a public event. I won’t broadcast that I’m not going to be home.
As one has been on both sides of this situation, I do understand the frustration it causes. However, I also concur with others about aspirational attendance. I’d like to add that for some, like myself, I will register in the hopes of being able to attend. However, those with disabilities, chronic illness and mental health issues cannot always control their level of engagement and availability. Wanting to attend and being able to attend are two different things. And sometimes, the realisation that attendance is not in your best interests health-wise comes quite last minute. For me, it once happened after I parked the car at the venue before the event. Whilst I’ve always made attempts to let organisers know, a sudden health flare-up, bad case of social anxiety, realisation that a venue has poor accessibility means that courteously times cancellations aren’t always possible. I wholeheartedly support efforts to make events accessible online. Using platforms such as Eventbrite seem to help, with built in notifications and member accounts. Also, making invitations and reminders that little bit more personalised is great. I think most event planners do understand that 100% attendance is unlikely and plan as such.
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Big apologies, Cammi, must’ve missed your comment! Totally agree that it should be easy for people manage their attendance and notify, etc, and in this post I do not mean people with conditions or disabilities that affect their ability to attend. Researchers with these considerations are often the best in terms of letting us know if they can’t come, or need to leave early, or why they couldn’t make it (after the event). That’s all good. The mysteries to me are the ones who sign up to heaps of stuff, and never show up or contact us about things.