Do or do not. There is no try.


Are you often a no-show?

Or one of those people who says “Maybe” on a Facebook event?

I’m a veteran events organiser.  Throughout my career, planning and running events has been an integral part of the work I do.

Now, as a lecturer in a researcher development unit, convening programs is a big part of my job. It is my everyday. The joy of room bookings, mailing lists, registrations, and constant event promotion campaigns – they are all mine!

But before you feel that my life is just a big ball of enviable funstering (which, it must be said, it can be because I work with funsters), I think I should tell you about what makes me sad: When people don’t show up.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I have some very well-ridden hobby-horses (e.g. open plan offices). I’d like to introduce you to another one: people who RSVP for things, then don’t bother attending, cancelling, or sending an apology. This makes me particularly headasplodey when it’s a fully booked event and there’s a waiting list of eager folk.

We talk about this event ‘attrition’ regularly in my field. It’s a common problem across all institutions and disciplines. We keep stats on it. We brainstorm constantly about ways to address it. There are many ways that others have tried to increase their attendance ratios, including increased tracking of registrations, ramped up reminders, consequences for no-shows, etc. All of these options require significant time and resources to manage.

It’s a lot of work to put into supporting people to come along to something they have already said they’d come along to.

My fab colleague Rachel Loney-Howes wrote about the power of showing up and I was cheering along when I read it. So, in this post, I wanted to talk about why showing up matters – for the researchers, and for me. And I’m talking here of my experiences in my everyday work as well as the events I’ve convened over the years with the research network and other institutions, and for the Research Whisperer.

Why it should matter for people who register

It can help and it won’t hurt. When events and sessions are put on for researchers, it’s usually because they are meant to be supportive and useful. So, it’s a no-brainer why showing up and participating and/or learning can be a good thing. The bonus is that showing up consistently builds your network, and this is something where everyone can benefit.

Follow through helps build a good reputation. To me, it’s a question of personal integrity. Sure, it’s only a workshop, but why bother registering if you aren’t going to show up or cancel? Registrants have flagged an intention and if there was no follow through…it leaves a bad taste. I always have a spate of cancellations when I ask for confirmations and that’s kind of OK. At least I know. But if I’ve sent reminders, and specifically asked for confirmation or cancellation, and there’s neither, then hmmm! As I said earlier, this is especially the case if it’s a really popular session and people are hanging out for a slot.

Communication is a valued skill. Doing well on the micro-scale of RSVP’ing and notifying if you can’t / couldn’t attend is like communication cardio. To me, it’s indicative of someone’s care for the people with whom they work and share institutional space.

Why it matters to me

Sinking resources, losing resources. For many events, there’s catering. For anyone who has done any events organisation, catering is the aspect that can generate the biggest headaches and the largest invoices. So, if 50 people have RSVP’d and I said we’d provide lunch, and only half the people turn up, that’s a lot of wasted food and money. Many people argue that having catering is a big waste of resources and people should attend things just for the love of it, which is admirable…but it can be a big ask for a 3+ hour workshop to have no snacks or drinks at all. It’s not like people  come for the catering, but the catering can make a longer event run more smoothly and comfortably for participants.

Besides catering, there’s also the special events where I have invited in a fabulous shiny guest facilitator or speaker, who may charge a fee. If the turn-out for the event is disappointing, it’s less likely that I’d plan that again because units can’t afford to invest lots of funding in things for which only a few may have benefited. It is much harder to justify. There’s a big difference between whether the registrations are disappointing (that is, not many people signed up) or whether the turn-out is disappointing (e.g. fully booked but few attended – that is, a high level of no-shows).

I am a colleague. People wouldn’t usually organise a meeting with me and not turn up. It has happened once or twice in my whole career. So, when researchers sign up for things and don’t bother turning up, cancelling their slot, or letting me know, I found it initially frustrating and felt it as somewhat disrespectful. I realise now that most people think it doesn’t matter because who cares if they don’t turn up? I’m here to tell you that I care, and that I appreciate it when I’m treated as a colleague. In fact, I know that life would be much easier if I didn’t care as much and just barreled along. But that’s not me, for better or for worse.

I recognise that life happens and this post is not about taking pot-shots at people who have crises/clashes/conditions in their week or day and, therefore, they couldn’t attend something. It’s an appeal to the serial no-shows: be deliberate about what you are signing up to and thoughtful in action when you can’t go. It does matter, and I do care.