10 secrets to ensure your guests turn up

10 secrets to ensure your guests turn up

Top tips and clever techniques to ensure your guests turn up to your events. Put these great ideas into action and you'll never have to worry about your attendance rates again.

Ever since I went to Howard Willis' seventh birthday party (cowboys and Indians in his impressive hayloft) I was acutely aware of the importance of a full and varied guest list. Many of Howard's friends couldn't make it on this particular occasion but his older sister (who I massively fancied ever since I saw her bright red pants - I digress) had luckily invited her friends. The 'bigger' boys.

Fast-forward two hours and Howard and I (having had the living crap beaten out of us repeatedly as the only Indians in the haystack) are standing under a huge tractor trailer, innocently having a wee. I was at first confused, then mildly horrified when I put two and two together and realised that the laughter from above was directly related to the warm and wet sensation cascading down my over-elaborate Disney-esque Indian headdress.

Yes it was indeed funny. And yes, the bigger boys were weeing all over my head.

Still, a quick stop in a petrol station loo, hours later and after the birthday tea, enabled my mum to clean up the mess that was my bowl-themed hair.  

Alas, a lack of guests or, more specifically, a lack of the right kind of guests (that's your target audience) has resonated with me ever since. Granted, I haven't yet experienced a guest who has pissed all over my head, but there are plenty of time-wasters about and it's crucial that as high a percentage of your desired guest list attends or you'll be left with egg on your face (or worse!)

When staging an event, one of the most common concerns is whether your guests are going to show up. All sorts of factors can effect this. Traffic, tube strikes, other events clashing, the Champions League (I've skived a few events due to Man United games, although its looking increasingly like that's all in the past!), rain, snow, even a cold day...or a particularly sunny evening for that matter.

The truth is there are so many events on, every night and the food and drinks are free. It's almost boring. But, amongst the melee of showcases, launch parties, awards ceremonies and networking events, there are a few that really are worth going to. Somewhere buried deep within your junk folder, one of the six hundred and sixty six invitations is tantalisingly tempting.

I can't quite put my finger on it but sometimes I apply myself just enough to RSVP immediately and slap it in the diary. So, this article is all about why.

All my musings are streams of consciousness and although I never know what my next sentence will reveal, I'm pretty sure it'll contain at least most of the best ideas that are currently out there!

So, here goes:  

1. Go somewhere different, off piste, unusual

A recent survey revealed that law firms considered a venue that their delegates have never been to before was more important than its location or budget. If you think about it, that's perfectly logical because the event is all about making your guests feel stimulated, special and therefore engaged with you and your brand. We've proved on several occasions that venturing more than a few tube stops from Piccadilly Circus can be done (Biggin Hill aircraft hangar, the Audi Quattro rooms, Forman's Fish Island at the Olympic Park and Aynhoe Park are all great examples of venues we have filled to capacity despite the perceived transport challenges). In fact, get the mode of transport correct and it can enhance your overall experience. See my previous article on making an entrance.

Find unique and unusual venues

2. Make it super easy, even fun, to get there

Lay it on. Whether it’s a bus, a car, a plane or a tricycle, if it’s laid on, it’s another reason for your guests to be there. There are three psychological reasons for this.

Firstly, they will feel obliged to be there as you’ve clearly made an effort to enhance their personal experience – don’t underestimate the power of genuinely making that effort.

Secondly, it’s hassle free and there’s a specific time/deadline to adhere to, giving them a heightened sense of importance.

And thirdly, it’s not going to cost them anything.  An event with even the transport thrown in really is a no-cost evening and subconsciously screams that no expense has been spared on your target audience.

If communal, en-masse transport is your mode of choice then you can even incorporate some gameification to entertain/educate your guests pre-event. A great way to do this is with a simple quiz about your brand or even your event, possibly via a dedicated event app. If it’s a secret destination venue (a la point 8) then perhaps some clues as to where you’re headed could be a nice topical touch?    


3. Create a great teaser campaign via email invitations

I learnt this back in my PR days. At Ketchum we used to do all sorts of mailers (and I don't even mean email) for brands from Vidal Sassoon to Wrangler Jeans, Jimmy Choo to Wonderbra.  I seem to remember a particularly elaborate one involving posting a duck's nest followed by an egg and noodles but God knows what that was all about. It created a stir though (excuse the pun!).

Another memorable and ingenious 'teaser' was from someone applying for a job. As anyone in the PR or Advertising world will know, CVs arrive by the truckload every day (because everyone thinks PR and advertising is sexier than it actually is). Its not all strap-lines and white lines, that’s for sure!

This inventive person sent us a tennis ball. After a while it became apparent that we had to cut it open and, inside, was their CV. The clever bit was yet to come though. To distinguish herself from the masses on interview day, she simply turned up in her tennis whites. She was instantly memorable and got off to a considerable head start.

Nowadays, its mostly about email-based teaser campaigns, because they're the most simple and economical way of creating a guest list. My advice would be as follows:

  • Identify the best writer in your office - someone who can dream up great stories but can also articulate them.
  • Think of the purpose of the event and brief them to reflect that in an exciting, intriguing way.
  • Come up with a great subject for your email invitation using key trigger words such as 'secret'.  
  • Design the template simply but meticulously and make it as visually stimulating as you can.

A picture of an empty venue space screams "UNPOPULAR!" however cool you say it is. It’s a subconscious thing…


4. Give them a corporate gift

Give them a corporate gift and let them know this is going to happen. In the age of free food and beverage being expected, an added dimension (by way of an elaborate goody bag or parting gift) will go a long way. There's nothing like a quality gift to commemorate an event and help make it live on in the memory of your guests. So often these days, goody bags are a library of hard copy brochure-ware which was ordered in error before the memo was received that print was not only disproportionately expensive but also un-environmentally friendly and, of course, dead! If you show how much you value your guests by giving them a quality gift - something they will value and actually use - it goes a long way. We work with Links of London and you'd be surprised and what you can on even the most modest of budgets. Choose something that will remain on their desks – field of vision, front of mind, all the time.

5. Have a high-impact keynote speaker

Have a great, yet short and high impact keynote where your guests will learn a useful skill. One of the most popular events we’ve ever staged was at the magnificent Mayfair hotel. 

The venue was fairly (excuse the play on words (again!)) new and exciting, particularly in light of their instantly legendary private theatre complete with Ferrari-designed red leather cinema seats, but it was something else that drew the crowds. Networking. But not just the usual networking opportunities that a room of 250 top corporates and industry people throws up (not a pun this time).

The key to this event was the keynote. Internationally renowned networking expert, Andy Lopata, delivered a short, sharp and eye-opening session on the ‘art of successful networking’. For a subject that sounds like it should be entirely based on common sense, it was amazingly popular and the entire audience seemed to embrace their new-found skills with immediate effect.  I’ve never witnessed a room so full of able, engaged, enthusiastic, willing and effective networkers.  What’s more, everyone had a common goal, and there was no taboo in getting down to business (so to speak!). 

I’ve always professed that the best form of networking is, actually, not working and, although this is a slightly softer and more subtle approach to networking, the notion that it all comes down to building relationships remains the same. 

Another popular one was all about body language in live networking situations (talk into someone’s left eye, for example, and 65% of the time you’ll get what you want, seriously!). I’ve seen some phenomenal keynotes from all over the world over the years including Olympic athletes and space shuttle commanders and the key to a memorable (tweetable) one is simple. Stories.


6. Reward attendees with free educational downloads 

Reward you attendees with a free educational download from your keynote. People are generally hungry for knowledge, even if they don’t actually use it. I equate this to the traveller who chooses to stay in a five star hotel. He or she wants to know there’s a swimming pool and a spa, yet there’s an 80% chance they’ll never even see it. It’s nice to know it’s there though! If your delegates know or, just as effectively, are told that they will ‘walk away with a guidebook of hints and tips for a successful social media campaign’, for example, a higher percentage of guests will show up on the night. Fact. The more relevant this is to your event content the better.  Your guests have to show up to access the content and even video if you’re really astute.  

7. Gamification & apps

The Wikipedia definition of gamification is “a mechanism to leverage people's natural desires for competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism and closure”. So, if you can do that for your events, then it’s got to be a good thing, right?

Interactive game-based invitations could be fun and engaging although that may be dumbing-down gamification to a whole new (annoying for employers) level. The reality is that the key to a successful event is delegate engagement. As initially demonstrated by Angry Birds and more recently reiterated by the much more basic Flappy Birds, people love games, especially on their mobile or tablet, however simple they may be. In fact, the more simple the more engaging they become. 

Statistically 70% of corporations in the USA claim to be planning to utilize some form of gamification in their marketing campaigns this year. The event industry lends itself perfectly to this concept as there’s a common touch-point to build up to. The event itself. Apps are a superb way to do this because if you can give your delegates a good reason to download it (such as making it the only mechanism for downloading data and communicating with other delegates) whilst incorporating a fun way to engage them, you’ll be capturing opinions and data until the (virtual) cows come home.

I would wholeheartedly advise sourcing a professional event app building partner though because unless you get full engagement from every delegate, it’s not going to work effectively. It’s about pooling resources and sharing ideas. In addition, your tech partner can ensure everyone has an ipad mini, so there are no excuses…

If you're looking for an app partner, we recommend Crystal Interactive who built our fantastic event app for LiveTECH 2014.


8. Make it a 'secret venue'

We did this once when we knew that everyone would love the venue but nobody would make the effort to go there if they knew what and where it was! This also enabled us to incorporate point 3 - a teaser campaign. We were able to send a series of cryptic and enticing invitations, crucially involving the word 'secret' in the subject.

It's no coincidence (avoided using the word ‘secret’) that, statistically, some of our most popular features have the word 'secret' in the title (including this one!). Secret disused tube stations, secret gardens and roof-terraces have all captured the imagination in months gone by. In fact, we also incorporated point one - a Routemaster bus. This ticked lots of boxes - a communal meeting point at a set time and a reason to be at this meeting point, a shared experience (resulting in pre-event camaraderie) and, above all, a sense of excitement and intrigue.

This all meant that when our guests arrived in a car show-room on the A40, it seemed much more exciting than a....erm....car show-room. In fairness, the target audience we delivered that evening were all fascinated by the hi-tech, innovative spaces that the Audi Quattro Rooms has to offer (brands like Innocent Drinks subsequently booked) but almost all of them admitted that, had they known where the event was, they almost certainly wouldn't have made the effort. Despite the fact we had Jonathan Ross speaking (admittedly though, it’s not the one you think, but that didn’t necessarily come across on the invitation!).

The secret venue is a great tactic, as long as you're laying on the transport and as long as you're willing to make the effort. Interestingly, we once exploited this tactic to our advantage when we were forced to cancel a Bugsy Malone themed event with Secret Cinema at the Troxy.  We’d successfully deployed a variety of ‘teaser’ invitations to our huge guest list of nearly eight hundred people but when a potential tube strike (which was subsequently called off) loomed, the venue were unwavering in their desire to surrender and cancel the event. 

After much deliberation (aka arguing) we had no option but to contact every guest 24 hours before the Splurge-gun-infused speakeasy themed event began. We effectively cancelled the event ‘in theme’ by claiming that ‘Fat Sam’s been busted – we’ve had to scram! Do NOT turn up tomorrow night or you’ll be arrested and thrown in the slammer’. We also offered everyone free tickets to Secret Cinema on another night.

Amazingly, as a result of our rearguard action, only one guest mistakenly showed up on the night. And it was a social media phenomenon. This has to be the most positive (and effective) event cancellation of all time, surely!     


9. Put a value on the ticket and make them pay

Statistically, over 90% of guests will turn up if they've bought a ticket, compared to 50% if its free, because there's no perceived value in a free event, whichever way you look at it.  There’s an arrogant sense of entitlement that’s rife in the industry at the moment and worse, a feeling that the venue is ‘lucky to be graced with my presence’.

I would never advise anyone to take the latter approach because I am of the opinion that any event you attend (even a birthday party where you get wee’d on) will give you something useful to take away. The intro to this article is (tenuous) evidence of this fact.

If you are providing a genuinely informative keynote or series of sessions or even making personal introductions, then your primary target audience should at lest be willing to pay for the privilege, regardless of whether you choose to put a price on it or not.

As Beyonce would probably say “If they like it then you should have put a price on it!”. Don’t miss a legitimate opportunity.


10. Create a hash tag and a buzz

Create a hash tag and let your community create a buzz for you. Perhaps the most simple and obvious tip but you'd be surprised how many people don't do this. And those that do often leave it until the last minute which defeats the object because the conversation/brand buzz needs to start from the outset. Always therefore use the hash tag from the very first invitation and then in every subsequent piece of correspondence thereafter. And after, of course, it's amazing how much reach you'll achieve - particularly if you can blatantly engage your most followed guests (often the keynote speaker) in the pre/post-event banter... 

But beware. If you use some of these tactics, you’re going to need more canapés!   


Will Broome, CEO