Conference Innovation While Traveling at Warp Speed

Navigating change during a crisis is not for the faint of heart.

During my career leading association event teams, I regularly recalibrated and redefined team member roles in order to drive innovation and improve our meeting experiences. Not every effort was a rousing success but attempting to inject new conference elements made us more nimble, creative and smarter as a team.

We are in the middle, I hope, of an extraordinary time in the meetings industry. Associations are struggling with uncertainty for how to un-plan and re-plan their signature events in a time where mass gatherings are not possible.

My colleague Sarah Michel and I will be presenting a session at the upcoming ASAE Virtual Annual Meeting “Delivering Meaningful Content and Connections in a Hybrid Experience” on August 10 (free to ASAE members).  As we’ve prepared for that session, I’ve been reflecting on the challenges planners and association leaders are facing.

Its dizzying, but we are seeing planners rise to this opportunity to carve out new roles and expertise.  Associations that encourage their planning teams to seize this time to experiment, pivot and embrace change are placing the right bets. Those that sideline their event pros are missing out on a valuable resource of people who are skilled in adapting, recovering and executing.

Where to Begin

There are very few benchmarks or best practices that planners can rely on to inform their future plans. Some of the issues our clients are tackling in the new normal include:

Business Model

  • What should we expect for hybrid or virtual conference attendance? How much can/should we charge for the live vs. virtual experience?
  • Do virtual expos work? How can we capture revenue and deliver ROI for our anchor exhibitors?
  • Will companies build expo booths on their own platforms and bypass building out their virtual booth on our platform?
  • What will sponsors value and how can we monetize their participation most effectively?
  • Are hybrid meetings a short- or long-term trend and if they are here to stay, how do we need to adjust our contractual obligations for future events?

Meaningful Engagement

  • How much time can we expect an engaged attendee to participate in a multi-day virtual conference?
  • How do we create meaningful connections in our virtual events? Can those connections last beyond the chat room?
  • Does gamification lead to meaningful engagement?

Content Development

  • Should we offer the same breadth of content or scale back? How much of the content should be updated to include social justice or changes due to the pandemic?
  • What should our content plan look like? How much of it should be pre-recorded vs. live?
  • Who will train our speakers?

Answers to these questions vary greatly from one association to another. For most, it requires much more risk-taking. The innovation and flexibility required by associations in the current environment is unprecedented. Those event planners who are up to the challenge know that this is what we do: we adapt, we learn, we collaborate, we thrive.

What is one of the most difficult changes you’ve had to make for a future signature event?


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  1. Amanda gore says:

    Good for you guys doing this. Goodness knows we need it! I am doing what I am calling live virtual events embracing the years I have studied quantum physics! How to connect when you are non local! It seems to be working well but lots of people need training in it. This is an interesting time challenging us to bring our humanity to the forefront.

  2. Vicky says:

    My question is why isn’t anyone addressing the issue of cost? Costs to produce a hybrid are higher than a virtual only, costs to attendees who can’t afford registration and travel costs, additional costs for safety. Combine that with the facts of social distancing that reduces capacity by at least 1/3 so – same cost,1/3 or more fewer registrants and we have a financial fail.?

    1. Lisa Block says:

      There are no great models or benchmarks for budgeting for hybrid events. And I agree it is a slippery slope. Associations are going to have to get comfortable with flexibility in their forecasting and budgeting as data emerges. We’ve done some modeling for a few clients and made a lot of assumptions that now won’t be tested in 2020.

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