Strategic direction provided to associations prior to 2020 may not be the direction we would advise today, especially when it is regarding the event execution of their annual conference.
The past two-years we have been educated on how to improve digital presence at a faster pace than ever before. The way we executed an event pre-pandemic is now history. The skills we learned, the new habits we developed, and our refined digital presence over the past couple of years is what we build on now. There is an expectancy in today’s world that content will be available online. It also stands to reason that the expectations of an event experience will be held to a higher standard.
The lessons over the past two years simply expedited where were going in many ways. We have no intention of returning to how things were like before. So, the question organizations are now asking is ‘what is the new normal?’ Do we host our industry conference event in-person, virtual, hybrid, or something totally different? Well, there will never be a firm set of rules, but there are things to consider.
How does your event look online? Is your registration automated with a secure checkout, is your event website current, is your brand beautiful, are you active on social media, is all your information consistent across the web? If you piecemeal your online presence, it will be visible! You must be deliberate about your event’s digital presence; your efforts will not go unnoticed.
Who is the audience? If you held your conference virtually the past two years, were you attracting folks who normally would not attend your in-person conference or were the delegates the same either way? If you found you had a wider audience, how are you going to continue to engage these individuals when you go back to in-person? Don’t lose the connections you made with people the past two years simply because the circumstance of how you can deliver your conference has changed. We’ve made progress, developed new pathways, created new benefits, heightened expectations, enhanced overall experiences, and seen growth throughout these months of virtual event engagement. Now is not the time to resume old habits.
We’ve been hearing a lot about hybrid being the next big wave and the key to tying in virtual and in-person audiences. While this is true, it’s not realistic for many organizations. Hybrid is expensive. If an organization cannot afford the deluxe hybrid execution, this does not mean they should resort to the original event format and lose connections with the new members or affiliates they gained over the past couple of years.
So, if it’s back to the drawing board, don’t assume you know the answers until you put the work in to finding the right solution for your organization and your members. Questions to consider for your next event format are:
▪ Should you continue with an annual virtual event to continue reaching a wider geographic audience? Maybe this was working better for your organization.
▪ Is there an expectation for some people to access the conference content without attending the meetings? If so, how can this be accommodated?
▪ Is there a group who will lose out if the conference is only held in-person?
▪ Is there value to creating an event app to connect in-person and virtual audiences?
▪ Is the traditional two- or three-day industry conference still the right format to appeal to the larger group of your membership? Don’t get stuck in status quo!
▪ If you resort to the way conferences were hosted before 2020, what are the pitfalls you now see and who loses out in this scenario?
▪ If you were hosting virtual conferences the past two years, what did you miss about the old format and what was the audience feedback?
▪ If you look at both scenarios and make a list of pros for each, how can we redesign the experience to include as many of those ‘pros’ as possible?
The answers to the above questions will make the final decision about how to host your event easier. The goal is to get the ‘best of both worlds’. Breaking status quo can be scary and may seem unrealistic but the organizations who leaned into the digital options during COVID are the ones who found more success and who continued doing business during the pandemic.
Regardless of how you are hosting your meeting, folks should be able to see details online, register online, pay online, and rely on content being always current. This represents a fair amount of work on the organizer and the less integrated all your online channels are, the more room for error as there are too many things to keep up to date. To manage social media, use one updating tool for all platforms to ensure you are saying the same thing everywhere. If you have online registration, tie it in with the event website so the information is consistent. There are so many tips and tools to make things easier than you may realize.
The reason organizations use professional event management services is because of all these intricacies. Without the right software and process in place to manage each project and meeting, we would struggle to keep all the details straight.
So where to go from here? Just not backwards! Engage with partners who can help you make the right decisions when it comes to your digital presence and how to incorporate the right amount of digitization into your events. This is an investment in your organization. Don’t slow down now. Event engagement will always be evolving, and the last 30 months is just the boost we needed to change it up.
Sara Robinson is president and CEO of HOST Management. Based in New Brunswick, Sara and her staff plan and manage corporate events, meetings and conferences worldwide, and have recently developed their expertise in virtual events. She has 25 years’ experience in the hospitality and events industry.