Stop worrying about having too many people at your event

You won’t have too many people for the event you’re hosting. Make a bet on it.

Many of us will host events at some point in our lives — choosing a date, creating some programming and inviting people to come. I do quite a bit of this, some 50 events a year for work, a dozen or more a year for social groups I’m a member of and maybe that many among friends or one-off special get-to-gethers.

Often you might hear someone express frustration with the delicate balance, that you don’t want too few people there but you also can’t have too many. I’m here to help you: in very nearly every case, it’s better to have too many people than too few so that’s exactly how you should optimize. Don’t waste energy worrying whether you have too many people coming.

Let me share a few examples I’ve been a part of in the last year that show different reasons why an event organizer should always strive for too many than too few attendees:

  • You’ll have fall-off — We at agreed to participate in the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, which takes place annually in the tiny upstairs room of a popular bar. There are just 10 seats and most recordings have fewer (it’s a podcast recording!) than even that many people in attendance. We knew was going to fill that so quickly we had 25 seats set out and we capped registration on our meetup, slowly increasing the max to 50 — and still kept a wait list of more than 40. In the end, 20 people came out. For free events, we always plan for 60 percent attendance accuracy but since it was the beautiful Sunday of Labor Day weekend, even fewer came. You should always plan for fall off as a rule. So, yes, we should have had an even larger cap. Judging by the meetup comments, even having a cap at all seemed to scare some people from coming, since they were worried about not getting a spot.
  • You have an excuse — Oh I’m sorry it is so crowded, people were just really excited by this event. That’s something I’ve said, like when we maxed out all three NET/WORK jobs fairs we hosted this spring in Baltimore, Delaware and Philadelphia respectively. We apologized to caterers, venue hosts, attendees, speakers and sponsors. In all of these ways, I would rather say that than Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t know why so few people came out.
  • You get great marketing — Once you know an event gets crowded, you know you better get to the event early because the seats will be taken or the food will be gone or the speakers will already be crowded. We’ve seen just this at our popular Super Meetups, in which we’re inviting all the technical meetup groups in a local market to come to the same venue so we can all network. At our latest in Philly, we had more than 500 people come as word had gotten out about the popularity. They came early and RSVPd accurately. Once you pack an event, the next event is easier to pack. Likewise, once an event flops, it’s harder to undo it.

Of course, there is an ideal number for any event, the number at which your guests are engaged, comfortable and feel they’re in a place people want to be. This is not to say you should always want more people, but it is to say you want to shoot for more than the ideal in almost any case. When you have to choose a priority, you should always push for the right number at the risk of too many (let someone bring a friend), rather than pushing for the right number at the risk of too few (capping attendance).

There are exceptions of course — expensive ticketed events with more accurate RSVP counts that are tied to specific deliverables that have limited capacity. But my experience is that these are fewer than you might think and that even many highly ticketed events have falloff and can be flexed on the higher end.

At the least, though I think this carries for all events, if you’re hosting a free event with little risk, then pack the place. If people have to be turned away at the door or leave themselves because it’s too crowded, then so be it. Whether you know it or not, you are making a promise with the number of seats available for the event you’re hosting. Deliver on that promise. Make the place full of people and the energy they bring.

I’ve been thinking about this most of this year while my home city of Philadelphia prepared for a high-profile public visit from the Pope. There were many distressing warnings about how crowded and congested and dangerous it would be. I just kept thinking to myself: this is a free event, stop scaring people away. We should only be telling people to come and then face the consequences of what too many people might look like. Instead, like this city did with its much over-hyped 1976 Bicentennial celebration, it’s seeming ever more likely that far fewer people than planned will visit.

So don’t disappoint the Pope, and resist the urge of fearing that too many people are coming. Put your energy into making sure enough people are coming first.

Above photo “Empty House” from August 2009 by Flickr user B Rosen via Creative Commons

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