Mar 30, 2019 by Alex Carter

Event Check-In: The Definitive Guide for Special Events

A flawless check-in experience lays the foundation for your guests having an amazing experience, and this guide’s purpose is to help you perfect the process at your invitation-only events.

In almost a decade of partnering with top event teams around the world, we’ve seen that certain attributes and processes tend to set apart great check-in experiences from satisfactory ones. And other habits and missteps can spell disaster.

One point is very clear: if your event has check-in, the experience can make or break the rest of your event for guests. Long lines, flubbed names, and a disorganized mess at the door have ripple effects that can sour an entire event.

Doing check-in very, very well is one of the keys to pulling off world-class experiences.

David Becker, CEO of zkipster, sums up what he’s seen from attending and working with an array of the best events in the world: “Every guest, from a first-timer to a VIP, starts judging your event from the very first moment. Doing check-in very, very well is one of the keys to pulling off world-class experiences.”

So what does it take to get check-in right?

At a high-level, there are a few common attributes we see over and over again: speed, accuracy, and empathy. But there’s a lot that goes into effectively translating those attributes into an airtight event plan.

This guide is a collection of our insights from over the years, supported by industry experts weighing in, all tailored to breaking down the nuances of check-in for invitation-only events. Enjoy!

Preparing Your Team

Laying the groundwork for successful check-in experiences can start before the event itself is even fully planned. The staff you pick and the guest data you keep can both be parallel processed with planning other parts of your event. Having a clear strategy for handling both will help optimize check-in experiences.

Trust in each other, trust in the tools.

Dag Kühle-Gotovac, Head of Administration at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, agrees: “One of the most important attributes to an events team being able to collaborate and work together successfully is trust: trust in each other, trust in the tools.”

Picking and training staff

Good event staff are the backbone of a well-executed event, and check-in is no exception.

Skills to prioritize: Experts we interviewed recommend evaluating potential staff for their professionalism and ability to communicate clearly and efficiently. Steve Feder, founder of Check-In Tech, shared his criteria in a nutshell: “Our ideal staff are detail-oriented, ask a lot of questions, speak slowly, and are calm and courteous.”

Your check-in staff plays a critical role on two fronts: ensuring a smooth and orderly flow of legitimate guests, and also shaping the first impressions of your event for every guest. Both are critical roles, and demand different (but complementary) skill sets. Making sure your selection process accounts for both guards against avoidable but costly relationship and efficiency issues that can hamstring events the moment doors open.

Good training: Make sure everyone knows how to check guests in quickly, add guests, edit guests, reorganize columns by name or company, and all the ins and outs that they may need to deal with situations on the fly. Establish clear procedures and a chain of command so your team can support each other when things look like they’re going to get messy.

Stick to a working formula: Once you’ve found good staff and trained them well, invest in them so they stick around. “Respect them as we do by paying them above the average. Respect them by making them a part of the team. Respect them by rolling up your sleeves and chipping in to help even if it’s not your job to do so.” says Steve Feder.

Read more tips on sourcing staff, qualities to look for, and mistakes to avoid, in this conversation with two event staffing experts.

Maintaining good guest data

For events that revolve around the guest list, accurate and well-maintained data is your building block upon which everything else is constructed. It’s possible to hack it and get by with a decaying database – in fact, that’s relatively common. However, creating kludges builds up a technical debt that eventually has to be paid, and will be paid at the cost of a well-functioning event. So establish good habits throughout the year and between events:

  1. Keep guest data updated: Errors in names, titles, and so on can easily lead to embarrassing and easily avoidable mistakes. Database maintenance may not be the sexiest activity, but it’s the foundation of successful digital guest list management. Introduce a regular review and update rhythm at least once a quarter, or depending on the frequency of your events.
  2. Keep guest data organized: Keeping data navigable and easily accessible dramatically increases the likelihood it will be used effectively. Avoid ad hoc and inconsistent naming schemes, and be strategic in adding more layers of complexity to guest lists you maintain.
  3. Keep guest data synchronized: All this effort is wasted if there are multiple versions of your guest data floating around between tools, file versions, etc. Automate this with event tools and make sure all staff are equipped with guest data relying on a single source of truth.

Investing in good data habits not only avoids pain points, it also opens new avenues to creating more personalized, dynamic events. Michael Moore, Director of Events and Tours at Christie’s, explained the level of precision they can leverage through their meticulously-kept guest records: “We can filter it based on the category of art we’re promoting at the event, their zip code, and their interest level,” and then supplement that with planning every detail, down to making sure returning clients aren’t seated next to the same people at two dinners in a row.

Picking Your Check-In Tool

With a growing and diverse market for different needs, it’s important to pick a tool that fits your needs and can grow with you. Here’s a quick primer on making an informed choice in the market.

Evaluate your relevant needs

  • How many guests: Is this a stable number from event to event, or do you have dramatically different needs per event? Do you run large events and need tools that are built to handle numbers at large scale?
  • How often do you run events: This, along with number of guests, can be a typical pricing factor, so will help give you a quick sense of how expensive a solution will be for your needs.
  • What functions do you need to connect together: Consider the whole chain of tools related to guest management that use, for example RSVPs, seating, and what would benefit from being synced directly to your guest list for check-in.
  • What are your organizational requirements: These can range from specifics of your team, such as a certain number of user seats or need for training & onboarding, to organization-wide requirements, like data handling policies such as GDPR. Consider other potential ‘soft’ requirements, like check-in app reliability or uptime guarantees, or developer support for issue resolution.

Staffed apps vs kiosks: the trade-offs for special events

As a technology provider in the events world, we believe in the power and potential of staffed apps. That said, just as with any other aspect of the process there are pros and cons to each solution.

Ultimately, you may notice throughout this guide many of the event planners give advice that is geared toward using staffed apps, and it’s a clear trend among many of the top echelon of invitation-only events that staffed check-in apps win out. But to help evaluate which makes more sense for your event, consider which benefits and drawbacks are more applicable to your needs.

Staffed apps:

  • Help create a personalized and curated experience
  • Highly efficient with trained staff
  • Makes guests feel special and keeps a human touch to the event
  • Requires more staff and training resources

Kiosks:

  • Reduces need for trained staff
  • Can be better for more hands-off introductions, such as at conferences or seminars where guests are meant to be self-directed
  • Relies on guest speed more than staff speed, which can be a pro or a con
  • Significantly diminishes the humanity in the first impression at an event
  • Can cause pile-ups if guests run into issues without staff nearby to assist

Important features for your check-in tool

Regardless of the tool you use, keep an eye out for these characteristics that tend to be hallmarks of good, scaleable, and trustworthy technology.

  • A user-friendly and intuitive workflow: Ease of use is no longer optional. Professional tools at any level face the same criteria as consumer-grade tools: they need to be easy, fast, and optimized for your needs. Don’t compromise on usability for something you’ll need to use for every event.
  • A dedicated support and customer success team: The best tools go beyond being just a piece of software, and are built to be technology partners supporting you. Strong support and success teams are a sign the provider is investing in your success as a user.
  • Transparent pricing and feature bundles: Another typical compromise with professional or enterprise tools is that it can take an entire discovery process to even understand how much you will be paying, and what you’ll be getting for that cost. As a rule of thumb, if a technology vendor is unwilling or purposefully unclear in pricing plans, steer clear – that mentality will permeate the rest of the experience.
  • Performance and reliability metrics: Do your research or ask the team about stats like app uptime, frequency of updates and bug fixes, average time to check in a guest, and other metrics that can help gauge how much a technology vendor stands behind the performance of their tool. As the stakes for your events are higher and higher, seek tools that are proven to perform well in demanding environments.
  • Trusted by eminent organisations and brands: Finally, don’t underestimate the social credit of who’s using what. Major organizations and global teams have discerning needs, and the more you can look to prestigious events and say “Oh, I recognize that they are using X” the more you have a strong case for a product that is being relied on in high-stakes real world settings.

Beyond research, always demo and test new tools in low-stakes settings. Try test events with your team, start with small events where possible, and learn the ins and outs of a tool before you go all in on using it. Once you find the right fit, don’t be afraid to invest in it! Professional check-in tools you can rely on without compromise will pay for themselves many times over in short order at your events.

Check-In Flow and Guest Experience

It all comes down to one place: doors at the venue. Good team management and tool selection is half the battle, but the other very real half is prepping on-site.

Equipping your team

Prepare your devices: We recommend one tablet device per 150 expected guests to keep wait times low. Make sure devices are tested, check-in apps updated, charged, and you have backups available. For cloud-based check-in, it’s also worth stress-testing the wifi available to you at the venue to make sure it’s reliable enough to handle check-in (and if you use an app with offline mode like zkipster, brush up on how it works beforehand to save stress in case the wifi goes down at a crucial moment).

Designate an event captain: Choose one person to be event captain, who will oversee the check-in crew, spot bottlenecks, reallocate resources, and jump in to alleviate confusion. If you have a large event, consider designating an event captain for each guest group, so each captain focuses on general admission, VIPs, media, and so on.

Lay down rules for the rest of the team: Make sure no clients, inhouse C-level event sponsors, or other stakeholders can interfere with the check-in process. There’s no quicker way to throw off a well-oiled machine than to introduce an unexpected new decision-maker. Instead, make sure they are all aware of the event captain, who they can address issues with and let the check-in staff focus on the guests.

Give security a clearly defined role: If you need to include security for your event, make sure they are clearly passive and embedded in the background of the check-in area unless needed. Give clear instructions on how, and when, they contribute, to both make it easier for them and the rest of your team, but also to smooth out the experience for any guests who can get nervous around over-eager security details. As with the rest of your team selection, work with professionals like off-duty police officers, and do thorough background research to avoid shady security contractors. The worst time to find out your background check wasn’t good enough is through an upset guest.

Designing the right environment

Celebrity event planner Colin Cowie put it simply: “You have a couple seconds to make an impression, and it’s produced by all five senses in harmony.”

Walk through the space from beginning to the end as though you were a guest arriving. Visualize where they will go, what they will do. Ask questions: where will guests arrive? How is the flow of the room? Are there any arresting sounds or smells that influence other senses? And most importantly, where will there be bottlenecks and how can you keep them to a minimum?

Evaluate the placement of hotspots like coat check, a help desk, the check-in attendant closest to the entrance, and so on. Pile-ups in any of these areas, even if the rest of check-in is moving slowly, can cause people to block the entrance and force movement to a crawl.

You have a couple seconds to make an impression, and it’s produced by all five senses in harmony.

Many zkipster clients swear by having their check-in staff standing on eye level with arriving guests. Table-seated staff subtly downplays the human element of greeting and being greeted, and steals an opportunity from the host to be excellent. Larry Abel, of Abel + McAllister + Abel, shares a useful rule of thumb here: “Anything lower than five feet may look good and neat for a picture, but is irrelevant to an event.”

Creating first impressions through proper welcoming

Rachel Gross, former event leader at Univision, is one of the first to sing the praises of a good welcome. “If someone greets me with my name, a good handshake and a nice look in the eyes – it gives me the feeling of being at the right place.” and she adds “It’s a simple principle that I think is so important.”

Across the board, top event producers and planners we’ve worked with and talked to emphasize the power of first impressions. We even created an entire interview series just on that topic, which is filled with more insights from some of the best in the business.

If someone greets me with my name, a good handshake and a nice look in the eyes – it gives me the feeling of being at the right place. It’s a simple principle that I think is so important.

Even the welcome itself can be planned well in advance of check-in starting. The Nobel Peace Prize event team shared an inside look at the exhaustive detail that goes into planning the proper welcome for their celebration:

Different guests are greeted at the airport before the event even begins, and taken to their hotels. Every member of the team knows how each plus-one is related to their primary guest. At the event itself, each guest who checks in receives a personalized name badge, and is then seamlessly guided by hosts to their places. Even the police bomb squad is greeted with biscuits and coffee to make their experience that much more pleasant.

Though the specifics of your event and its unique DNA will dictate many of the ‘correct’ approaches, don’t be afraid to take cues from events in very different industries that have demonstrated a successful approach.

In conclusion

Although every event is different, we’ve seen the approaches and tips in this guide work for top event teams doing everything from galas to launches and brand activations to campaigns to afterparties. And they’re doing it for luxury brands, governments and protocol dinners, non-profits, corporate teams, and every other variation you can imagine. At its core, good check-in is universal, and we hope that this guide can contribute toward better guest experiences everywhere.