Now that I’ve got your attention, let me clarify. While 2021 may not be the year of the hybrid conference it should be the year of a year-round hybrid event strategy.
Like so many of you, we’ve been reading dozens upon dozens of articles, blogs, and social media posts from meeting planners, association professionals, and event industry leaders, trying to figure out what conferences are going to look like in 2021. When is it safe to plan for an in-person event? How do I address some of the known shortfalls of the virtual format? How do I pull off a hybrid conference with existing resources?
And then, a lightbulb went off. What if we’re thinking about our conference all wrong?
What if, instead of worrying about how to deliver a single virtual event or a single hybrid event, we started planning a year-round event strategy that features a mix of virtual and in-person events, each with their own purpose, but together, delivering more value for our members and sponsors than we could ever do with a single event? Would we finally stop driving ourselves crazy trying to solve a nearly impossible equation?
Virtual and in-person events: not a 1:1 equivalent
We saw some significant virtual event success stories this year. Earlier in the spring, we considered it a win just to hold the event in any form rather than cancel. Soon, stories emerged of associations who not only continued with their event, but were able to significantly increase attendance, revenue, and ROI.
However, this group, according to Event MB’s Virtual Event Tech Guide, appears to be in the minority. According to the report, 71% of respondents who went virtual brought in 25% or less of their typical annual revenue from the conference. 45% saw a decrease in attendance. And 50% state that their biggest frustration with a virtual event is the inability to match the engagement found at a live event.
Why is this the case? It’s not because of technology. It’s because of the fundamental nature of in-person conferences.
When we attend an in-person conference, we are all seated together in the same room which means that inherently, we share one common experience. When you have hundreds or even thousands of people logging into a meeting from their own unique environment, that feeling of shared experience is automatically diminished.
In-person events also provide spontaneous moments that can’t be anticipated, planned, or scheduled. Think of the delightfully random conversations with colleagues at the coffee bar, or a friendly follow-up debate with a speaker over cocktails. A virtual meeting, by its very nature, is more regimented. One-on-one conversations happen less organically, if at all. Social cues are removed from the equation. And any audio/video delays make interactions feel more awkward and stilted.
There are probably hundreds of event tech providers that support some aspect of a virtual event. Heck, so do we. And while our virtual event platform is designed to make it easier to deliver on-demand and live-streamed session content to a virtual audience, it, like most others out there, can’t replicate the human moments of a conference.
So why do we keep trying to make the virtual event be something it can’t? Instead, should we just embrace what the virtual event can do for us?
Where virtual events perform well
Virtual events certainly have their place, and in some categories, outperform in-person conferences. By removing the need to travel (and the associated expense and time away from home and office), we remove one potential attendance barrier, which can open the conference up to a much wider audience.
In general, virtual events are also less expensive to produce, which creates an opportunity to lower the price point, making it even more accessible to more attendees.
And, by offering sessions on-demand during or after the conference, attendees have access to significantly more content than they do on-site, where they are forced to choose between concurrent live sessions.
Hybrid events: The next stressor
Looking ahead to 2021, the industry is focused on the possibility of delivering more hybrid events, which would deliver session content, networking opportunities, and sponsor and exhibitor exposure to both in-person attendees and a virtual audience simultaneously.
The rationale for a hybrid event is that it gets us meeting face-to-face again, something most of us are eager to do as soon as it’s feasible while complying with capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements. At the same time, you also open your meeting to a potentially wider virtual audience.
There’s just one problem. Most of us don’t yet fully understand how to go hybrid—especially with existing resources.
This Associations Now article acknowledges, “Hybrid meetings will make new demands on staffing, scheduling, pricing, tradeshows, attendee engagement, and more.” To do hybrid well, you are “essentially creating two versions of the same event.”
2021 mind shift: From a single event to a year-round event strategy
With either scenario, it almost feels like we’re trying to deliver ten pounds of conference in a five-ounce box.
That’s because we’re trying to solve for everything—and putting the entire weight of success—on one, single event. But what if we changed the end game?
Instead of trying to deliver a single event experience, why not embrace the strengths of each format and give each its own purpose that together delivers an exceptional educational experience? This more holistic approach can reduce strain on your resources while increasing the value for (and revenue from) attendees, members, and sponsors.
What does this look like in practice? There are so many ways this could play out for your organization, and the opportunities to get creative are endless.
We were inspired by an idea from event industry veteran Adrian Seger, outlining the use of short, regular, and focused online meetings to support “communities of practice.” Using this model, perhaps an in-person annual meeting (or a series of smaller regional meetings in the short-term) is used to introduce topics and concepts and form affinity groups among your attendees. Subsequent virtual meetings could dive deeper into a specific sub-topic, reinforce learning from the in-person event, and facilitate discussion groups for attendees to share how they are putting this learning into practice.
Meanwhile, session content from either your in-person or virtual events can be made available on-demand for a fee or for free, depending upon membership status, and packaged with other topic-related resources — courses, articles, whitepapers, etc. This not only creates greater value, but it also promotes other potential revenue sources to your attendees and members.
This series of inter-related in-person and virtual events also provide more exposure opportunities for your sponsors, including:
- More instances for in-session or in-platform recognition
- Serving as a session or group facilitator
- Developing and delivering some of your live or on-demand content
Giving new meaning to the idea that virtual events are (likely) here to stay
If we agree that “virtual is here to stay” then it becomes more important to understand how virtual delivery of event content can become part of a larger, year-round strategy that is (eventually) integrated with in-person events. By taking this approach, instead of letting it all ride on one single conference, you give yourself more flexibility, more room for creativity, and more ways to deliver valuable education without adding staff or taking on what appears to be a nearly impossible task for many of us.