One easy way to make conference ticket prices more equitable, and bring in more money

Consider ticket tiers rather than a single price

After several years of tinkering with the ticket price for our conference SRCCON, in 2019 we decided to try out pricing tiers rather than a single ticket price. And, wow, did it work: By setting up tiers we kept our ticket prices accessible and brought in 40% more ticket income.

How we set up our ticket tiers with our budget

Our annual event is a professional conference, and fees for similar events vary widely. We looked at ticketing approaches from values-aligned organizations like Aspiration Tech and the Allied Media Conference, which both already used tiered ticket prices for their events. We decided to go with tiers rather than “name your price” because we wanted to be able to give people clear guidance. Plus, most of our attendees are coming as part of work and (we hope!) their company will be paying, so giving a clear price is important for budgeting purposes.

We set our ticket prices based on our event budget, which always has built-in line items for scholarships, need-based free tickets, and other accessibility support like transcription and childcare, when relevant. Part of our organizing philosophy is to make a space inclusive and welcoming, so our budget is built around what it takes to make that happen. We also operate from the assumption that we don’t need to do things the way they’ve always been done, and instead seek out ways to make how we work as inclusive and accessible as the events we host. In addition to tickets, grants and sponsorships help us cover the entire cost of the event, with tickets bringing in about ⅓ of the overall budget.

For our 2019 conference we switched our one ticket price to three tiers. We made the base tier the same as the single ticket price from the year before ($225). For the top tier, we first guessed at a price, based on the going rate for similar conferences, and then did the math on the per-attendee cost of the event (our total budget divided by the number of attendees). Our guess was almost exactly that per attendee cost! So we stuck with that amount ($695), and were left with a clearer understanding of why other conferences price their tickets the way they do. Given the difference between those two tiers, we thought an in-between option ($375) would be useful for organizations who could afford a bit more, but the full price would be out of reach.

When SRCCON went virtual in 2020, we adjusted ticket prices to reflect the lower event costs online, still keying our top tier to our per-attendee cost. We always expect most attendees to purchase the base tier ticket, and build our estimated budget off of that. We have been surprised, though, how many people have bought tickets at the top tier price (at least 20% of attendees), even through the pandemic.

How attendees interact with ticket tiers

With our event, we want to make it easy for people to attend and remove money as a barrier as much as possible. As we communicate with participants, we do our best to make that goal clear, including details like:

Here’s the most important thing to know about these ticket prices: We want you to choose the one that makes sure you can be at SRCCON 2021. We don’t review who pays what, and we won’t follow up with any questions. If you work for an organization where budgets have already been set or there’s not support available to you, choose a lower price and join us. By the same token, if you budgeted for travel costs you no longer have to spend and are able to purchase a ticket at a higher tier, please do. If you’re interested in contributing to a scholarship ticket, please pick the highest ticket tier you can afford. Paying for free tickets and stipends is something we deliberately build into our ticket tier structure.

When participants go to purchase their ticket, they see these instructions to select the tier that best reflects their situation:

  • $125: This is the base price for people who are paying their own way, from small news organizations with fewer than 50 people, or nonprofits with budgets $750,000 or less.
  • $275: This tier is for people from medium-sized news organizations of 51-250 employees, nonprofits with budgets $750,000-$2 million, and other similar-sized organizations.
  • $450: This ticket tier reflects very nearly the actual cost for each attendee of SRCCON 2021 and is for people from large news organizations with more than 250 employees, nonprofits with budgets over $2 million, and other organizations that provide full professional-development budgets for employees.

Our instructions emphasize organization size because most people are not attending or paying as individuals, but we’ve seen similar sliding-scale instructions for individuals at events like AORTA’s workshops.

Take what you need, give what you can

It can be really, really hard to trust that there will be “enough” money coming in from an event, especially when you’ve got your eye on the budget and see those invoices piling up. It’s a stressful place to be, and that can make it feel risky to experiment. But that is exactly why this shift has been so completely revelatory. It was an experiment at first, but we’ve now done it for three years and have ample evidence that it not only works, but consistently exceeds our budget expectations.

This ticketing process has been a real lesson in trust. It’s also a way we can articulate our value that trust is a privilege: We listened to community members when they asked for ways to contribute more to our event, and tried out this idea in response. We’ve iterated slowly, finding ways to keep following through on our commitments and values. As organizers and as a community of participants, we trust each other to pick the ticket option (including a free scholarship) that works for each person in that moment. We’ve heard consistently how important these flexible options are to being able to attend. And sometimes people even return later and donate to help other people receive a scholarship like they did, years before!

As adrienne maree brown says, “trust the people and they become trustworthy.” We’ve seen the truth of that beyond what we could have dreamed, and it’s inspired us to experiment in additional ways too, like making scholarship tickets openly available instead of through an application. It’s the little steps like this that help us start living in the equitable world we want and need.




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