By Talley Management Group
The pandemic has thrown events and conferences for a loop in the last two years, especially with shifting health guidelines and new variants creating planning difficulties.
Events are the lifeblood of associations, serving as a way to provide value to their members and connect people within and outside of the organization. In order to deliver the most value to members and keep one of the most vital revenue streams active, the most successful associations will need to anticipate the future of events and adapt to the post-COVID events landscape.
With ever-changing guidelines and circumstances, people will continue to be hesitant to travel to large in-person gatherings, especially when there are virtual options available. Additionally, after two years of having drastically reduced travel budgets, conference budgets may never return. Employers may not be as willing as they once were to fund travel to professional events, but they will continue to support virtual attendance. Hybrid events allow employers to save on travel budgets, lodging expenses, and expensive in-person event tickets, removing the need to set aside the large sums for in-person professional development.
While many may hope to return to completely in-person events and conferences, the reality is that virtual and hybrid events are here to stay. The flexibility of the virtual option is a big draw for many people who otherwise might not attend due to personal, health, or employment concerns, plus it offers consumable content that fits attendees’ schedules. When events are hosted virtually, there’s also less of a time commitment. The virtual option opens your event audience to people all over the world, in many different situations, broadening your audience through increased accessibility.
On the other hand, virtual events completely miss the opportunity for in-person touchpoints, which are often the most valuable aspect of conferences and events. The last two years have shown that event organizers need to be selective about those in-person touchpoints and make careful decisions about the best opportunities to host in-person events. The decision-making process for whether to take that next trip or not has changed, but the need to be together in-person has not.
Hybrid events sit between these two options and provide the best experience and flexibility for attendees. As situations change, hybrid events can adapt more easily to guidelines and constraints of the virus. Transitioning to hybrid events helps to reduce the unpredictability of the ongoing pandemic from the equation.
Tips for planning engaging hybrid events
One of the biggest mistakes we see with hybrid (and even with some completely virtual) events is that attendees aren’t getting the same experience they would if they were in-person. The best way to avoid this is to approach the in-person and online experiences as two separate events.
Distinctly catering events to those attending in-person and also those attending virtually allows for both groups to get a full experience out of an event. It may sound easy, but it requires almost separate planning processes to ensure equal experiences.
Creating equal opportunities to engage with the content of your event, participate in events, and network with all attendees is crucial to hosting a successful hybrid event. At the end of the day, attendees need to feel like they are getting value out of your event, whether they attend in-person or online. Approaching event planning as a dual experience makes it more likely for you to achieve that goal.
As everyone figures out how to operate in a hybrid world, now is the time to find what version of hybrid works for you. Different associations will require different approaches, but there are several core opportunities to seize right now.
Strive for equal experiences, no matter the platform
With hybrid events, the trickiest part is delivering the same value, no matter how people engage with or consume the content. The technology and platforms that you use are a key aspect of getting this right, so choose carefully.
Start by using a platform that allows people using the mobile app (for in-person attendants) and the virtual platform to talk, and plan on live streaming as much as possible. This way both audiences are seeing the same thing at the same time and can hold conversations through your platform similar to how people would in real life. In best case scenarios, virtual attendees are able to join conferences and participate just as they would if they were there in-person. Finding a platform that allows at-home viewers to join in real-time and contribute to the in-person discussion is a different planning requirement from just hosting the event with a live audience.
You also need to create opportunities for communication throughout the presentations. The attendees might not be able to whisper, “Hey that’s a really good idea, we should try that,” to each other when divided by the internet, but you can provide platforms that foster real-time communication. These types of interactions in particular keep the virtual audience engaged.
Create a 365-content strategy
Events take a lot of effort, and if you’re not thinking about how to capitalize on the speaker panels and events, you’re missing out on a wealth of resources. Reusing and repurposing the content from professional and networking events can help you provide value to your members who don’t attend an event. You might also find some great content to repurpose in a blog or part of a newsletter blast.
Part of a successful hybrid event is taking all the footage and content you have to use in the future. Events aren’t just a one- or two-day thing, they can become the gift that keeps giving if you think through a 365-day content strategy around them.
Broaden your audience
Offering events both in-person and virtually creates opportunities for new people to join your event, but only if you work to find them. We have seen our clients’ audiences grow and diversify since we started helping them pivot to virtual a few years ago. With a digital experience (either fully virtual or as part of a hybrid event), the barriers to entry for some have been reduced or completely done away with, meaning you could have a much wider reach than previously with the right event marketing.
Relying on old attendee lists and current members can only go so far when the pool of potential attendees now could include someone who might not have had the time to spare or the budget to attend an event in-person.
Take advantage of partnerships
Now is the time for testing out unique approaches to hosting professional events. COVID is impacting every company and industry, and there might be unlikely partnerships you hadn’t considered before to add to your offerings and open your audience.
We’ve seen that associations across industries and in adjacent industries have seen that they needed to be creative to address the impacts of COVID. Those that have been nimble enough to identify the opportunities and partners are the ones that will exit this turbulent period at a sprint.