What Does the Future Hold for Conferences?

COVID-19 disrupted 2020 conference plans. What will 2021 and beyond look like?

By Hanna Aronovich

FRM NovDec AskTheExperts

For most associations, conferences are a significant driver of non-dues revenue. Annual conferences and other events are a primary way for associations to build engagement with members and meet members’ needs for continuing education. Plus, conferences and events serve as valuable touch points to attract nonmembers.

Although virtual conferences are not a new concept, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated their growth. This year, event planners had to choose between canceling their 2020 events or quickly pivoting to a virtual format.

87% of event organizers said they canceled an event as a result of COVID-19.

According to an April 2020 survey of members of the Professional Convention Management Association, 87% of event organizers said they canceled an event as a result of COVID-19. When asked about future events, 70% said that some or all of an upcoming face-to-face event would be moved to a virtual platform. Although virtual events are on the rise, most of the survey respondents (62%) did not worry that virtual events would cannibalize in-person events.

It is still unknown whether events in 2021 will be able to resume in person as they had in the past. And even if some events can resume, a demand for virtual options will continue for quite some time.

To help guide your association’s event planning strategy for 2021 and beyond, Lisa Burton, CMP, senior vice president at Meeting Expectations, shares her insights.

FORUM: At Meeting Expectations, you work with hundreds of clients for their meeting and event-planning needs. Based on what you’ve seen with clients and within the industry in recent months, what should associations be thinking about for 2021 and even 2022 conference planning?

LB: Associations should be looking at all conference options: face to face, hybrid and all virtual. There are so many options that can engage and retain members. In today’s environment, associations have the ability to provide tremendous value, so don’t be afraid to try something new. We’ve seen tremendous success for some of our association clients by reimagining how to deliver member benefits. Work with your event management team to plan for all scenarios and prepare accordingly.

FORUM: Some surveys have shown that the main reasons people attend in-person conferences are for the education, destination and networking. In your experience, have you found this to be true?

LB: All three are important, but networking and education rise to the top over destination.  Networking, in particular, tops the list because conferences provide rare opportunities for in-person interaction and social engagement with peers or mentors. Online meetings can’t replace that in-person connection. In our view, the desire to network will be the primary driver behind the return of in-person events.

The desire to network will be the primary driver behind the return of in-person events.

FORUM: What do attendees look for in a virtual event compared to an in-person event?

LB: Much of what an attendee seeks is the same: valuable content, networking, educational and engagement opportunities. There is a need for some event design differences, such as shorter days and sessions, and fewer casual networking opportunities with virtual events. However, attendees still seek an engaging experience. For instance, when we are planning a virtual event, we approach selecting the technology like we do sourcing a venue — all of the elements that make the event a valuable experience build on that foundation.

FORUM: What are some of the ways organizations are building socialization or networking opportunities into virtual conferences?

LB: There are so many ways to build in social opportunities — from the simplest online happy hour to more technology-dependent gamification features. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. You can get people excited by incorporating trivia or feature a mixologist making a fun cocktail that attendees received in a kit prior to the event. 

For instance, for a technology user group conference, we took the same small group approach that would have happened in person and translated it to online special interest group happy hours. Another approach that facilitated networking was hosting small group “meet the speaker” events after a session to continue the conversation or creating opportunities to meet board members that most attendees typically wouldn’t interact with.

For career fair or expo hall events, we’re starting to use platforms that feature avatars and/or a virtual space that resembles a tradeshow. Attendees can meet with exhibitors online and feel more like they are in the physical space.

FORUM: Time can be one of the barriers for attending a conference, whether it’s in person or virtual. When structuring a virtual conference, have you found attendees prefer to have the agenda spread out over more days with fewer sessions per day, or do they prefer a full-day agenda?

LB: Overall, we find that people prefer shorter days, as well as shorter sessions and breaks in between, instead of one full day. People are trying to balance working from home by managing distractions and don’t always feel like they can step away like they would at an in-person event. One of our recommendations is to suggest participants put on their out-of-office messages, just as they would if they were attending a live event.

We find that people prefer shorter days, as well as shorter sessions and breaks in between, instead of one full day.

Extending a program by a day or two can also drive more attendance for those unable to participate every day. It’s better than an all-or-nothing approach.

FORUM: What other considerations should associations keep in mind when developing a virtual conference?

LB: If the conference includes international attendees, different time zones can be tricky but need to be considered. Staffing requirements may increase based on the number of parallel sessions.

Don’t get so focused on the technology that you neglect the human factor: Engagement and experience matter.

FORUM: Do you think hybrid conferences offering both in-person and virtual attendance will become more popular in the future?

LB: Time will tell. This tends to be the thought from most in the industry, as a transition to get back to full, in-person meetings. We are currently planning a hybrid event for one of our largest association clients, knowing that we need to be prepared to provide attendees with choices that meet their needs.

One thing to keep in mind is that a hybrid conference is essentially running two conferences in one. They can also be quite complex when projecting the number of face-to-face versus virtual attendees.

FORUM: Do you have any other advice or thoughts to share about what conferences in 2021 and beyond might look like?

LB: The in-person conferences are already changing in some ways, limiting or eliminating buffets, modifying spaces and room layouts, and more.

Conference planners will continue to need to work closely with their contracted property for the short term, as the virus continues to be with us. If you are planning a face-to-face event, recognize that there may be travel budget cuts and restrictions. Above all, be proactive and transparent with your membership as you plan — and be prepared to adjust the plans.

6 Ways Associations Are Reimagining Member Benefits and Experiences

Meeting Expectations Vice President Beth Chitnis, CAE, and Senior Education Manager Ashley MacDermott, MPH, CHES, share how associations are reinventing member benefits.

  1. Virtual — but local — in-person training. One association shifted 60 in-person training sessions for members to virtual classes. However, the association retained the local aspect of the events by coordinating registration with the local chapters. “The training classes had always been offered in person, but we were able to offer virtual sessions so that attendees could still connect with other local members,” Chitnis explains. “It was very successful.”
  2. New online special interest communities. “One of our clients had been beginning to explore creating special interest groups but hadn’t yet done so,” Chitnis says. “This was the perfect time for them to begin offering special interest communities, and they launched them in an online format.”
  3. Online happy hours or office hours. Many associations have introduced weekly or monthly happy hours to foster networking desired by many members. One association took a unique approach and introduced online office hours, so members could connect with association staff and leadership. “We’re finding that these virtual networking sessions are allowing associations and their members to engage even more now than they had in the past,” Chitnis notes.
  4. Open access to member resources. Many associations restrict certain resources to members. However, one association made the decision to make some of its critical infection-control resources available to everyone. “By allowing open access to member-only resources, associations can reach a broader audience and deliver value in a time of need,” says MacDermott.
  5. Virtual educational breakout sessions to foster more participation. By holding virtual educational breakout sessions, associations might find that attendees are more engaged. “During an in-person session, only one attendee can generally speak at a time,” Chitnis says. “But with a virtual session, all participants can submit questions or comments, so the moderators can hear from more people and invite them to share with the group.”
  6. Virtual exhibit halls. Many meetings and conferences have gone virtual in 2020, including virtual exhibit halls. “Some attendees might not feel comfortable walking up to a person at a booth in an exhibit hall,” says MacDermott. “But with a virtual exhibit hall, it takes away the intimidation factor, and attendees can reach out on their own terms to access exhibitors’ videos, brochures and more.”

About the Author

Hanna Aronovich, CAE, is the chief marketing and communications officer for the Dental Assisting National Board.


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