An event planner sought help recently regarding challenges with collecting registration fees. They allow persons to register and pay by check, but many such payments were still outstanding even by the start of the event. This left them chasing payment onsite. Making matters worse was the fact that many of these unpaid registrants became no-shows. Here’s the advice I offered.
When someone registers for your event, they are effectively entering into a contract with you. In exchange for the fee paid, you provide them with a “service” of some sort (e.g., educational content, access to the exhibit floor, meals, shuttle bus transportation, discounted hotels, etc. – whatever the case may be). But there’s a big difference between this transaction and, say, a retail purchase. If you were selling TVs, for example, and you agree to accept payment when the buyer comes to pick up the TV, it’s not a big deal if the buyer “no-shows” because you still have the TV and can sell it to someone else. It’s not the same if someone who has registered but not paid no-shows.
Think about the guarantees you have to make that affect your costs. For example, are any meals included in the registration fee? (I doubt the hotel or convention center is going to waive charges for uneaten meals.) When you start to itemize all the things you pay for on a per-person basis, the financial impact of no-shows can really add up.
In a perfect world, you want all persons to pay in full at the time the registration. But, at a minimum, you want all accounts settled in advance of the first date at which you must make a guarantee or place a binding order for anything that is based on actual registration numbers. Of course, it’s unlikely that you’d want to cut off registration that soon, which is fine. But it’s critical that registrations made after a certain date be paid in full at the time of registration. If you offer on-line registration, you should make sure your system can provide real-time credit card processing. You mentioned that you allow payment by check. Since that’s also an option for online payment, there’s no reason (I was going to say “excuse”) for any unpaid no-shows. The only financial transactions you should be dealing with at your event are onsite registrants.
If you want to save yourself a lot of headaches and limit your financial exposure, a policy of not accepting registrations (or at least not counting them as “real”) without payment is your best bet.