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School Auction 101, Issue #4

We’re going to take a break from bid sheets, and turn our attention to a key component of guest satisfaction at your event - cutting down the time your guests wait in line. Today, we’ll talk tactics for optimizing check-in; we’ll talk about check-out and item pickup in subsequent installments. Please feel free to contribute your opinions in the comments section below. And if this discussion is useful to you, you can sign up to be notified every time I put up a new installment in this series by signing up with the form on the left.

I’m going to start by defining what happens during a standard, on-site check-in process at most of the school fundraising auctions I’ve worked or attended. (You may do more or less at yours; if so, please let us know in the comments section, along with questions or suggestions on how to modify the answers below for other schools who do things the way you do.) Then I’m going to present an option that can make an enormous difference - an option you may not have experienced before.

The Standard, On-Site Check-In

An on-site check-in consists of greeting the guests, checking to see if they have a valid ticket for the event (and selling them a ticket if they haven’t), asking the guests if they would let us swipe a credit-card to speed payment later on, assigning a bidder number and giving them a paddle with that number, and possibly handing them a program or a packet with name labels, catalog, bid paddle, pledge card and the like.

That’s a lot. If the check-in area is not well-organized, and adequately staffed with trained volunteers, you can find yourself with long line of guests waiting to get their number, rather than using it to bid on your auction items. How can you keep that wait to the bare minimum, and speed your guests on their way to the silent auction tables? Let’s start by asking a key question:

How long does the check-in process take for each guest?

For customers using standard, on-site check-in process with (or a comparable product) with well-trained volunteers, the list above generally takes 35-50 seconds per couple (30-45 for a single guest). If you have opened the doors at 5, you’ll have a crunch time from 5:15 to 5:40 or so when half your guests arrive; the time on either side will see fewer guests coming through the doors.

For auctions that are run without software to help with guest management, the list above can be handled almost as quickly; I have run a manual check-in where we averaged 55-65 seconds per couple; the bottleneck in a manual process is usually in selling tickets to guests who arrive without them, especially if they want to write you a check for the ticket.

So how many check-in stations should I have?

Obviously, the answer is partly determined by how many guests you have, but also by your system. We recommend 4 stations to our customers who are running events with up to 250 guests; and one additional station for each 50 guests thereafter. If you are running the process manually, you want to think about how many cash-boxes you are willing to put at the check-in area for your volunteers, and how to manage their access to those. With a manual system it is almost imperative to ask your guests to segregate themselves alphabetically by last name and divide themselves into appropriate check-in lines; this pretty much limits you to 5 or 6 stations maximum, covering 4-6 letters each.

If you are using a software package other than, be sure you check to see how many stations you can setup without incurring additional “seat fees”.

The Alternative - Advance Check-In

If you’ve flown on a commercial airline in the past few years, you’ve probably taken advantage of the ability to check yourself in from home the night before your flight, and print your boarding pass from your home computer. We love this particular innovation, and have adapted it for fundraising auctions. If you are using our software, you can offer your guests the opportunity to skip the check-in line entirely. They can key in their own credit-card number, and even print a bid number to bring with them to the event.

We have a video about Advance Check-In (and its counterpart for the other end of the evening - Self Check-Out) on our YouTube site.

Hardware For Event Night

I am using (or a different software product to help me with check-in)! Can I use my own computers, or should I rent them?

I’ve been known to recommend both options here, based on the customer’s situation. Here’s the pros and cons to renting computers for your event:

Pros: Rented hardware usually works without any tinkering; borrowed computers and printers almost never talk to each other without someone spending 20-30 minutes installing drivers and testing connections and the like. Rented hardware also usually comes with an IT expert, who will set the computers up before the event starts, pack them up after the event ends, and stay at the check-in area to troubleshoot any issues quickly. These guys also usually bring backup supplies (paper, toner cartridges, etc.) and stay sober all night. Many of them also know how to use and other auction software packages, and can pitch in and help during crunch time.

Cons: Cost. It can cost you $500-$800 to rent equipment for the night; and there’s often someone on your committee who can’t see the point of spending that money when there’s some perfectly nice dad you should be able to wrangle into taking care of that for you. Point out that having him babysit the computers means that he can’t be out on the auction floor drinking and bidding on classroom projects.

Should we assign bid numbers ahead of time?

You can, and there are some advantages. It lets you distribute bidder packets ahead of time, and that can save some time for the guests who remember to bring them on auction night. It also lets you make fancy bid paddles printed with the guest’s names in addition to their bid number.

But if you aren’t going to distribute these ahead of time, the process of finding a customized bid packet or a pre-assigned bid number can increase the wait for your guests. For the auctions I run, I have my check-in volunteers assign a bid number as I check the guest in, based on the bid number or bidder packet that is on top of the stack next to them. You can have ballpoint pens or Sharpies there to have the volunteer write the guest’s last name on the back of the bid number or the outside of the bidder packet; this is still faster than rooting around in a file box for the pre-assigned number.

How hard should we push to get guests to swipe their credit cards?

This affects check-out more than check-in, but I’ll discuss it here anyway. I have my volunteers ask every guest, but never push back if a guest doesn’t feel comfortable handing over their card number at check-in. If you get card numbers in your system for 60-70% of your guests, you’ll have done enough to help speed up your check-out process, and pushing to drive that number higher, at the expense of making even one guest nervous or resentful, just isn’t worth it.