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Free Events – It’s All About Expectations

Isn’t free enough? If you go to a free event do you have a right to complain? Or, if you lead a free event, should you have the expectation that attendees will appreciate all the hard work and ignore minor problems? A thorny topic for today!

The short answer is that even free events have to be well run, and more importantly, they have to meet the expectations of the attendee. You might say that it’s not fair, but it’s entirely human to want things to go well if you decide to invest your time. So rather than discuss if we should critique, I think it’s more important to talk about how to do it and how to react to it.

I try to coach event leaders to remember that it’s all about expectations. Tell them in advance what to expect from the moment they arrive. Tell them where to park (and if there is a charge), what to expect at check-in (do they need ID or a ticket?), whether food will be provided for breakfast (and what it is), the schedule, lunch plans, and more. Tell them what to do if a session cancels, remind them that’s entirely volunteer run, and don’t forget to mention speakers and sponsors that have made larger contributions.

When an attendee signs up, they automatically adopt some expectations based on what you tell them and how you present it. Put together a polished web site and they’ll expect the same at the event. Give them no information and they’ll ask questions, or just make assumptions. And maybe get frustrated in the process.

Then you try to meet the expectations you (and they) have set. Most people are fairly tolerant of small things, less tolerant of things that smack of poor planning or lack of interest. Running out of coffee at 8:15 am is horrible, running out at 10:30 am is survivable. Waiting in line for 5 minutes is fine, waiting for half an hour…very frustrating. Unable to figure out where rooms are at due to lack of or confusing signs, sessions that have been cancelled but no schedule posted, running out of lunch…free or not, people will get frustrated.

It’s all about expectations. As in any conversation, it’s easy to assume that they know what you know, or that you know what they expect. It’s almost impossible to message too much, and remember that if you tell them more than one thing in an email they’ll read and get one of those things. Repetition is good. Focused messages are good.

Want to know how you’re doing? Email a random attendee or two to set up a short call, ask them what they expect when they arrive, from speakers, lunch, etc. You might be surprised at the answers.


I'm Andy Warren, currently a SQL Server trainer with End to End Training. Over the past few years I've been a developer, DBA, and IT Director. I was one of the original founders of SQLServerCentral.com and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.


Posted by dwentzel on 22 March 2010

You are referring of course to "free" as a function of price, not cost.  Everything has a *cost*, even if the *price* is free.  The cost is non-monetary in this case, ie, the opportunity cost lost out by not doing something else.

It's always best as an attendee to keep this in mind and set expectations accordingly.  There's no such thing as a free lunch.    

Posted by brent.kremer on 22 March 2010

With the exception of groceries I research almost every item I buy. Even if I plan on buying this item from a box store I still look the item up and read a couple reviews and compare features. This sets my expectations of the item before I ever visit the store. You can say the same thing about booking a vacation. With all the tools online travel sites have I pretty much know what to expect when I get there. Google maps helps me plan what order to visit sights. No reason to drive back and forth across town if you map everything out before hand.

I think we live in a world where a person can use the internet to set realistic expectations on things that are unfamiliar to them. When it comes to my personal taste the more the details the better.

If coffee runs out at 8:15 and I know ahead of time that is perfectly fine with me. I'll make sure I'm there by 8:00.

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