Expecting the Unexpected: What to do When Your Event is Over Capacity

September 5, 2018

Brad Wayland

Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.

In a perfect world, an event will never be oversold. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Eventually, one of your hosted events might end up with more attendees than your venue can support. Here are some tips on ways to handle the situation.  

I recently attended a conference where the event team was woefully unprepared for the number of people who showed up. As a result, the building was far over capacity - the fire marshall informed everyone that they couldn’t allow anyone else in. I was among those turned away, even though I’d registered months in advance.

As you might expect, I wasn’t happy.

Ideally, you never want to oversell an event. As an event management professional, it’s your job to make sure that whether you’re hosting a conference or running a trade show, you only book as many attendees as the venue allows. Here’s the thing, though — people make mistakes.

The conference mentioned above isn’t the only one I’ve seen that was oversold — people do it all the time, from weddings to trade shows to fundraisers. Sometimes it’s a numbers game, depending on the type of event: not everyone who registers actually shows up, especially if the event is free. But that’s a big gamble to take.

I’ve seen even seasoned event professionals stare in shock at their guest list, their stomach sinking with the realization that they simply don’t have the space to accommodate that many people. And I’ve seen events where the people responsible for registration didn’t bother listing the venue as sold out when it got too overcrowded.

The first thing to do is of course to see if you can get additional space, either within your current venue or by moving to a new one. Obviously, that may not always be possible or feasible within your budget though.

If you do not have a solution that will enable you to add capacity you’re going to need to acknowledge as soon as possible that somewhere along the line, someone goofed. That means going down the list of people who registered late and telling them they were confirmed in error. That also means giving them a refund if there was a fee associated with the event. But you don’t want to leave it at just that.

You’re going to want to offer those guests some additional form of compensation. After all, you turned them away from an event that many of them were probably quite excited to attend. They’re going to be (rightly) angry with you about that — especially any who someone missed your communication and still showed up, or any who had already incurred travel expenses preparing to attend. If you don’t step up to address their anger, you’re figuratively spitting in their faces.

Consider offering one of the following ‘perks’ to those late registrants alongside their refunds:

  • A discount on future events. If you’re running an annual or repeating event, a good way to stem some of the ill-will could be allowing them to register for the next iteration at a lower cost.
  • Some free stuff. People like free stuff — and a swag bag as an apology for someone who can’t attend an event isn’t a bad idea.
  • A personalized apology letter. Wherever possible, reach out personally to anyone whose badge you had to cancel. Explain to them what happened, and be as candid as you can.  Acknowledge that you made a mistake and let them know you feel terrible about it and are going to do everything in your power to not to do the same thing again.

Basically, you want to find a way to mitigate their dissatisfaction — all while looking into how you can never err in this way again. The next time you’re selecting a venue, do some research into both its maximum capacity and the general level of interest displayed by event guests. Don’t register a single person more than your venue can support, but also make sure you have a way of keeping track of how many people wanted to attend your event but couldn’t.

Part of your job as an event planner is to ensure you’ve chosen the right venue, and that whatever venue you’ve chosen doesn’t end up overbooked. If you don’t do that, you’ve got a safety risk at best, and a ton of angry attendees at worst. That’s something you want to avoid — and now you have an idea of how you can.

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