Everyone’s looking forward to the day, hopefully in 2021, when in-person conferences can return. But, although some members can’t wait to get back together in person, others won’t be willing (or able) to attend an in-person event. That’s why virtual conferences are here to stay and “hybrid” is the word on everyone’s mind.
“Hybrid” is not a word, however, that anyone is saying with enthusiasm. The idea of planning and producing a conference for both a virtual and in-person audience simultaneously is stressing everyone out—especially if your association doesn’t have a huge staff or budget to rely upon.
Take a deep breath, we’re here to tell you that a true hybrid conference isn’t your only option. We have a much more doable idea in mind. It’s a hybrid conference alternative: host your in-person conference first and your virtual conference afterwards. Goodbye hybrid.
Is an in-person conference a viable option?
No one can predict how long this pandemic will last, but decisions have to be made. The timing of those decisions depends on your venue contracts. Eventually, you need to survey your target audience to find out if they prefer in-person, virtual, or both, and to learn about their decision criteria.
Once you have a sense of attendance numbers, talk with your exhibitors and sponsors about their ability and/or desire to attend in person, their interest in virtual participation, and their interest in doing both at separate times. Discuss new ideas for their in-person and virtual exhibitor and sponsor experience that will help them accomplish their marketing goals.
Tough questions must be addressed:
• Have enough people expressed interest in meeting in person—with masks on—to make it a viable event for you and for them?
• Can you design an enjoyable socially-distanced conference?
If social distancing restrictions are still in place, the venue’s capacity will dictate attendance for an in-person event. Lower attendance may work as long as your registration, sponsorship, and exhibit revenue covers expenses and provide the profit you seek.
If the demand for an in-person conference isn’t sufficient to warrant the expenses or risk, and if your hotel/venue contract allows, you may want to focus on a virtual conference only.
Benefits of hosting a virtual conference
Even if you project enough attendees for an in-person conference, you definitely want to offer a virtual conference too. Why? Because, as many associations have learned, you will attract a much larger audience—the people who won’t or can’t attend an in-person event.
Attendance rates for virtual conferences are often double or triple the attendance at in-person events. Virtual conferences are the only option for people:
• Who don’t have the time or money to travel to an in-person event.
• Whose employer won’t let them travel—a huge consideration in 2021.
• Whose caretaking or parental duties keep them at home.
• Whose disabilities or social anxiety prevent them from attending.
A virtual conference keeps these people in your fold.
Why a hybrid conference alternative is the best option
A hybrid conference is one event with two separate audiences—one on site and one on the screen. It occurs simultaneously, but, in reality, it provides two very separate educational and networking experiences.
You might be able to pull off a good hybrid experience if your association has a large staff with the time and expertise to plan and produce two events at once—or the budget to hire others to help you.
If not, a better option is to host a conference for a smaller audience on site, and host a virtual conference later for a larger audience.
Focus on one experience at a time. Provide as much value as possible to the people—attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors—who made an effort to show up in person. Worry about your virtual audience later. You won’t stretch your staff thin and you won’t have to worry about technology issues. You can focus on what is literally in front of you.
Your sponsor and exhibitor staff won’t be stretched thin either. They can focus on one event experience and one group of leads at a time.
Best of all, your on-site audience feels special. They are special. They made the effort to travel to your event. You won’t have a virtual audience who feels like second-class citizens peering into that exclusive event. The virtual audience becomes your focus later when you host a separate virtual conference.
Considerations for planning this hybrid conference alternative
Schedule and pricing
Because your virtual conference isn’t bound by venue restrictions, you can break it up over a series of days or afternoons. Choose the schedule your audience prefers. They can always watch session recordings later on demand.
Each event provides a different attendee value and incurs different costs so pricing will be different. You can offer registration for on-site attendance only, virtual attendance only, and a package that combines both. Provide limited or unlimited access to virtual session recordings as a registration upgrade or include it in the virtual conference registration fee.
With a smaller attendance on site, you probably won’t offer as many sessions as usual. Take this opportunity to improve session design.
Attendees don’t want to sit there and passively watch a PowerPoint presentation; they can do that at home. You need to offer sessions that are worth attending in person. Make them compelling. Model them on TV shows like Good Morning America.
Table discussions and interactive exercises help attendees digest and retain new information. They’re one of the biggest benefits of attending sessions in person. But how will you manage them if social distancing is required?
Virtual attendees have Zoom fatigue. Virtual keynotes and sessions must be engaging. Once again, think like a TV producer. Use a mix of formats: solo speaker, interviews, panels, videos, and audience participation. Build interactive activities and breakrooms into session design.
Most of your speakers will be virtual only, but book your on-site speakers for a virtual engagement as well. Because you won’t have to pay travel expenses for virtual speakers and they won’t have to block days out of their calendar for your event, you can afford more expensive and in-demand speakers—or, at least, save money on the ones you hire.
During your in-person conference, record additional interviews with speakers that you can share with your virtual audience later. Plan for post-conference learning programs. Make arrangements with selected speakers to record or present additional programs, participate in virtual discussions, or provide supplemental materials.
Attendees on site made the effort and took the risk to travel to your event because they value face-to-face conversations. How will you safely manage networking receptions, hallway conversations, and lunch tables with social distancing and mask requirements?
Conversations are the biggest thing missing from most virtual conferences. You can charge more if your virtual event provides the real conversations that people seek—and, no, the chat box doesn’t count.
Give virtual attendees opportunities to meet up before, during, and after your conference in both structured and serendipitous formats for topical or random discussions.
Sponsors and exhibitors
Sponsors and exhibitors will appreciate not having to divide their attention between two audiences, especially if they don’t have the staff or bandwidth to handle two events at once.
Virtual increases the audience for them, but they need to learn how to take advantage of that larger audience. How will you help them do that? Logos, links, and listings aren’t going to cut it. Instead, give them opportunities to share their expertise in sessions, expo “floor” mini-sessions, product demos, discussion groups, and digital content. Provide coaching or training on maximizing their ROI.
Encourage sponsors and exhibitors on site to participate completely in the conference even if it’s not what they usually do or what you usually allow. That means attending sessions and social events so they can get maximum face time. Are they part of your professional community or what? Don’t treat them like second-class citizens.
Push hybrid aside. You don’t have to stress out trying to run two conferences simultaneously. Instead, host separate in-person and virtual conferences so your attendees and revenue partners have a more enjoyable and memorable experience.