I go to a lot of cons, big and small, and I have seen the best and the worst registration processes used at them. I also have a little experience from running registration at LAFFBowl and New Year's Eve Con. This post is my attempt to summarize a lot of the lessons that some cons have learned, and other cons haven't learned, in the hope of starting discussion among registration directors everywhere on simple, small things that can make it run more smoothly when you get there.
They are roughly in order of importance, with the most important being...
NUMBER ONE: TEST YOUR FINAL CHECK-IN PROCESS IN ADVANCE. I doubt this is the most frequently made mistake, but this mistake has the greatest potential for disaster. Years ago, I was on reg staff for a small con that uses an off-the-shelf furry con reg system. I hate this particular reg system with a passion, but the failures at this con can only be partly blamed on it. The main issue was that the reg system needs to be able to print, and the model of printer, as well as the operating system of the host, had changed from the previous year. Had this change been tested? NOPE! First of all, the new printer did not work with the old printer's driver, that's obvious. Second of all, the new printer had no driver available for a current operating system. Eventually the problems were fixed, I'm not sure how, but not until several hours after the convention had started and the main rush of check-ins had come in. The failure was mitigated with the #2 solution mentioned next, but the reg lead waited way too long to make that decision leaving everything at a standstill.
What's the ideal test? Go to the hotel/convention center, ideally, or at least go out somewhere - don't test in the reg tech lead's house where everything works wonderfully and the main server is right there. Set up the equipment the same way it will be set up on-site, and process check-ins just as you would, including the at the doors and any computers those folks will use for data entry. Print real badges, ideally with the real artwork/badge paper, and make sure that you test your process from end to end. The one piece of the process you leave out of the test, because you're sure it will be fine or it worked last year, will be the piece that fails when you're doing it for real.
#2: Any system, machine, PC, printer, electrical outlet, internet connection can fail - HAVE A MANUAL BACKUP PLAN. Of course it's good to have a backup machine, too, but always be ready and expect the worst case scenario, which might mean checking off registrations from a pre-printed ledger and handwriting name badges with a marker.
#3: Pre-print name badges in advance. Registration entry computers (and their operators), badge printers, and check-in counter space where those things can be set-up are a precious resource. At least during the peak times, move the pre-reg check-in to another location without any fancy equipment - just the check-in ledger and pile of pre-printed badges. Pre-printing badges also greatly, greatly reduces the impact any technical failure will have, since no technology is used at all in distributing the pre-reg badges (which, if you're doing things right, is most of your attendees).
#4: Divide by letter. Last names A-F, this line. G-R, that line. S-Z, that line. It's not a good idea to give one person the sign-in ledger for your entire convention (unless it's a pretty tiny one) for a couple of reasons: If there is only one copy of the ledger, only one person can be using it at a time. And if there are 20 pages of registrations in the full ledger, splitting it by 3 means there will be 7 pages at each station and each reg lookup will be, at best, 60% faster. The marginal returns of adding extra people can be huge during peak hours, and you can always combine stations A-F and G-R if they are collectively quiet, but you can't split them up further than you already planned for.
#5: Go ahead and make at the door registration awful. You should focus on giving everyone a great experience, but if someone has to suffer, let it be the person who planned poorly, and didn't allow you to plan for his arrival in advance. If you have a line of pre-registered attendees and another line of at-the-door attendees, I would expect to see a well-run registration process have the pre-reg line moving three times faster and be one-third the length during peak times. If at the door reg is ever quicker than pre-reg pickup, your guests will start to ask why they chose to pre-reg when your event apparently favors at the door reg. (If that situation ever arises, you should be equipped for the folks in at the door reg twiddling their thumbs to relocate to pre-reg check-in.)
#6: At the door registration data entry should be done 100% by the guest. Provide computers for the guest to do the typing on. If those are a limited resource (they almost always are), you should consider keeping your online website active to data entry, or create a local WiFi intranet site, so people can use their own PCs/tablets to check in. And yes, this includes date of birth - the reg staff should only be confirming the ID matches the entered data, not entering it from scratch, as even that takes precious time. If you can't trust staff to check the DOB on an ID without having to type it in, fire your staff.
Also, you shouldn't be using paper reg forms (except as a #2 backup plan), unless your intent is to not enter them into a computer at the con.
#7: Single-day passes suck. I don't know why conventions give these out. Often it will be a difference of, say, $25 versus $45 or so to get a single-day pass. Lots of expenses of running a convention (function space, equipment, venue staff, payment processing) have a somewhat linear relationship to number of people that show up to the biggest event, so the guy incurs about the same cost whether he stays for one day or three. Even if you do it because a few people like to buy them and it spreads goodwill, my big issue is none of the furry cons I go to allow single-day pre-reg. Why would you EVER turn away an opportunity to get information (and maybe payment) in advance?
#8: Dumb idea: Distributing convention materials far away from the registration site. A few cons send you into the den of dealers to pick these materials up, but of course people are going to get lost finding it, and your precious reg staff are now having to give people directions. The only directions they should be giving out are pointing to the table the guest is standing right next to and saying "TAKE ONE." (Another problem is when the materials aren't easy to find people just don't bother and you end up with a lot of extra, wasted copies.)
#9: If you give out souvenir badges be clear if they are valid. Some cons give out artwork or fursuit badges. A general rule of thumb is, if they are given out before the end of the con, and have the con year/number and the guest's registration number printed on them, they are going to be assumed by guests to be a valid badge. If that's not the case, you'll want to sticker the back or somehow indicate they're "NOT VALID FOR ADMISSION." If they are valid, make sure everyone on staff knows what the souvenir badges look like.
Add your comments. I can re-order or add to the list as new lessons present themselves.
- Registration system suggestions