Hybrid Meetings Doomed to Failure? Not So Fast

I’ll admit that in 2011, when the Virtual Edge Institute (now called the Digital Experience Institute) first co-located its conference with the Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders, the experience fell flat for me. At the time, a mere six years ago, the fledgling for-profit entity that wagered its future on the potential of virtual meetings staged sessions that were too heavily weighted toward the online audience in the verbal communication and moderation by the speakers. Attending in person, I thought the Institute—now owned by PCMA—was doomed to failure.

The Switch On

Fast-forward to January 2017. I’m watching PCMA’s Convening Leaders LIVE, the online real-time streaming of key sessions from my computer in the comfort of my office, far from the Austin Convention Center. I’m anticipating that I’ll be multi-tasking, primarily in listening mode while hoping for some juicy nuggets from PCMA’s education platform.

It didn’t take long to become mesmerized by the adroit handling by the online Digital Experience Strategist (the certification the DEI now offers) who moderated each session. Before the session got underway, she welcomed us to the chat room, asked people to introduce themselves (many from outside the U.S.) and encouraged and vetted questions to ask of the speaker at the appropriate times.

The speaker, Sourabh Kothari, also a DES, presenting on how content should drive conference design, welcomed the virtual audience, but didn’t dwell on us. He took questions effortlessly from both live and online participants. He obviously had presented to online audiences before, but there were other sessions I watched with speakers who clearly had been trained on how to properly engage two audiences simultaneously.

Hybrid at its Best

I’m accustomed to participating in webinars in which presenters like our own Jeff Hurt totally engage the audience during the presentation. What fascinated me about the hybrid Convening Leaders sessions was how the online audience carried on their own discussions, offering tips and insights sparked by what the speaker said as a sideline conversation, which others could choose to partake in or not. Bottom line: the online community was totally engaged, if not always with the speaker, with each other! It was the epitome of online sharing around content and problem solving—and therefore learning—that we strive for at in-person conferences. In my opinion, the perfect hybrid meeting.

The experience gave me a new appreciation for hybrid events and made me a true believer in what we recommend to sustain the health of annual meetings: engage your participants—members and even non-members­—by making it easy for them to share either in person or online. By extending your content, and hopefully sharing, beyond the four walls of your conference, you are amplifying the experience. There are high-tech (high-cost) and low-tech (low-cost) ways to amplify your content. Live streaming is appealing to sponsors since it enriches the member and attendee experience.

There are many, many benefits to members and to the association, as PCMA discovered when it dug into the ROI of its hybrid journey to come up with five years’ worth of impact, monetarily and otherwise. Primarily, it was able to track how many new prospects and incremental dollars their hybrid and rebroadcasts generated, including motivating in-person attendance at Convening Leaders as well as membership renewals. Clearly, PCMA is in it for the long game. We look forward to its White Paper, full of the data back-up, coming out later this month.


What obstacles are preventing you from live streaming your conference education? What benefits can you derive from broadening your reach?

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  1. Betsy

    As a provider of this technology I want to thank you for your comments. Most of all I am thrilled that you have had a change in your online experience and perspective regarding Hybrid Events. I can tell you first hand, the success that some of our clients are having in providing a Hybrid component to their meeting is in the ROI magnitude of 30-40 times their investment. So much so, many of them are re-thinking their entire organizations conference model and leaning on the online portion as a large contributor to their financial success.

    This is no different than the NFL owners, who in the 60’s refused to broadcast their football games in fear that they would reduce ticket sales, and now 40 years later, wouldn’t think about giving up their broadcast revenues for ticket sales.

    Hybrid Meetings are not only here to stay, they are providing every association the ability to bring their organizations message to all 4 corners of the world, while making money doing it. These are exciting times for association.

    Thanks again

  2. Betsy Bair says:

    Thanks, James. I really like your analogy to the NFL. Good to hear some associations are becoming as progressive as their counterparts in the corporate events arena and that they’re beginning to understand (and measure) the revenue potential.

    1. What we have learned is that the association must offer the online user an online package that is similar in value as the “Physical Attendee”. Therefore, instead of trying to sell them access to 10 sessions Live “Only”, the more successful model is to provide them access to one “Track” Live, for the duration of the conference and all of the other sessions as an on-demand “Complete Conference” product. This allows the association to offer the online user the “Online Conference” at the same price as the physical attendee conference price. For conferences with greater than a $500 registration fee, they only need around 35 online attendees to break even. The higher the registration fees, the more successful this model has been. Totally opposite of what you would think.
      On top of that success, we have found that up to 20% of the online users will convert to becoming physical attendees within the next 24 months. This is all good news for associations struggling to gain growth in other areas. I believe that the groups who build the largest online audience will also see the most “Physical Attendee” growth.

  3. Mary de la Fe says:

    PCMA adding their hybrid feature was what kept me a member. Before being able to participate in the annual conference virtually (and the addition of their other online education), I really only found value in the chapter events – mostly since that was all I could afford. I did not work for an organization that financially supported professional development. Since I could not regularly attend any of the annual events, I was seriously questioning the expense of membership.

    I have since been able to afford going to a couple of in person PCMA annual conferences, but I actually participated in some event virtually, even though I was attending in person. I actually found the content more engaging through the online version. Plus being around so many people for so long, when I’m not working the event was exhausting.

    I am definitely a strong anecdote for what DEI’s studies have shown – I am someone who would be more likely to not attend at all if the virtual number was not available, therefore extending their reach. I definitely would not be able to attend both the annual and the education conference. It’s also a better method of learning for me. I tend to zone out when sitting in a room listening to a presenter – even if they are a good, engaging speaker. For whatever reason, I just engage and retain more when I participate virtually.

    1. Betsy Bair says:

      Mary, you are a strong advocate for DEI. The skilled moderation that keeps the virtual audience engaged is key. We advocate for more skilled facilitation at both face-to-face and online sessions. It’s how we learn, by chunking out content and having the audience discuss it in pairs or threes.

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