How to Get a Better Response to Your RSVP Request

C. Gauvreau

We’ve all been there. Twenty-five birthday party invitations sent into the classroom, clearly marked with a date by which to RSVP, and the day comes and goes with little – or no – reply. Maybe you need to give a head count to the party venue or plan enough food for your party at home. Perhaps you wanted to personalize the favors. No matter the reason, placing an RSVP note on an invitation means you expect a response, and since you were courteous enough to invite someone, they should return that kindness with a simple reply, right?

Well, maybe not exactly. Sure, there are always going to be parents who don’t RSVP just because they can’t be bothered, but there are plenty of other reasons you may not have heard from those parents. Some of them may not have even seen the invite. In my years as a parent of school children, I’ve rescued more than one creased and tattered, already-past-the-date birthday party invitation from the abyss at the bottom of a backpack.

Other parents may not actually understand what RSVP means. I once received a birthday party invitation that had an RSVP date on one line, followed by “regrets only” on the next line. When I called to let the mom know we would be attending, she lamented about how few replies she had received. Sure, there was a time when Emily Post may have inspired everyone to know and dutifully respond to an invitation, but let’s face it, most parents today are too busy to read all of their emails, let alone flip through the pages of a guide to proper etiquette.

Back in the days when everyone was sitting around reading Emily Post, they also knew all of the people they were asking to RSVP to events. If any of the invited guests failed to reply, the party host could simply call them and ask them directly for an answer. For kids’ birthday parties, it’s easy enough to do the same for close friends and family members (although you shouldn't have to), but a common, current school policy that calls for inviting the whole class, combined with another school policy that doesn’t allow the sharing of other parents’ contact information, and you can see how the whole classmate RSVP dilemma has become dilemma in the first place.

So, what’s a party-planning, I-really-need-a-head-count parent to do? The truth is, other than to only invite the kids for whom you have some kind of contact information; there isn’t a surefire way to guarantee an RSVP from every invitee. There are, however, a few methods you can try to help encourage a better response.

  • Include Digital Response Choices

A few years back, I began adding an email address along with a phone number after the RSVP date. I did receive a handful of email replies – all regrets – that I believe I may not have otherwise received via the phone. In a later conversation with other parents, it turns out many folks feel awkward calling someone they don’t know to turn down a party invitation. Quite a few, actually, said they feel that awkwardness because they are making up an excuse other than the real reason they wouldn’t attend. The less personal  (I don’t have to actually talk to a person) email option allowed some a chance to avoid that awkwardness yet still let me know they had indeed received the invitation, but unfortunately had to decline.

When text messaging became popular, I started adding my cell phone number to party invites, along with a note that specified this could be used to either call or text. Since adding a text option, my RSVP percentage has drastically increased.

It seems that the more options you provide for responding electronically, the more likely you are to collect more replies, so go ahead and add an email and text option to your invitations.

  • Reverse the "Regrets Only"

The term “regrets only” on an invitation means simply that you don’t need to RSVP if you plan to come, but please call and let the hostess know if you can’t make it. Unfortunately, most folks seem to do the opposite: reply if they are coming and ignore the invitation if they are not.

Instead of using the term “regrets only,” why not add a note that says something like “RSVP only if you plan to attend. All non-responses will be considered a no.” Since this is what most people do anyway, it’s an efficient way to clarify that someone who doesn’t call should not show up anyway on the day of the party.

Yes, this could come off as rude (there I go, getting stuck on those old rules of etiquette again), but honestly, planning a party for a large group of kids is difficult enough without having the lingering question of whether 16 people who never replied are going to show up at the last minute and create a shortage of birthday cake. Still, if you’re feeling like such a statement might freeze you out at the next PTA meeting, go ahead and blame it on someone else. If your event is being held at a kids’ party venue, for instance, indicate in your note that the venue is “requiring” an accurate head count by a certain date and won't be able to accommodate more than is accounted for. Having it at home? Blame the caterer – even if you're not using one (by the time the party happens, you can always say you changed your mind and decided to go with pizza instead).

  • Give them a Reason to Reply

You may not be able to entice everyone to respond, but you can fish out a few responses by adding notes about why you need a response (other than the obvious head count). For instance, I like to personalize my kids' birthday party favors. This has proven difficult as my kids have moved through the school years, and there have been times I have had to go with less personal, more generic favors. I have since added notes that say, “Please respond with the correct spelling of your child’s name for personalized party favors.”  This would encourage some of those last minute folks to make a commitment sooner and avoid showing up and having their kid be left out of the fun.

You could use this same strategy to indicate that you need an accurate response to make sure you have enough cupcakes or prizes for the party games. Sometimes, parents really don’t realize that the numbers matter when planning a birthday party, so there’s nothing wrong with gently pointing it out to them.

In the end, there really is no way to ensure every guest will respond in a timely manner (or at all), but a few of these strategies should encourage more of a reply than a standard “RSVP by 10/12” is likely to garner.