2021 Virtual-Conference Big Ideas

In 2020, attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors were more forgiving of our virtual conferences than they will be in 2021. They, like you, are all experiencing Zoom fatigue and will have much higher expectations for conferences this coming year — especially those they are investing their precious time and money. Don’t waste a good crisis. Use this opportunity to beta test changes that can be carried over to the next in-person conference.

While in the second half of 2020 many virtual conferences grew attendance, attracting global and non-member participants, much of that growth can be attributed to significantly reduced registration pricing.

So the big question to ponder for 2021 and beyond is: Will those — especially global and non-members — who’ve attended virtual events this year return? And more importantly, will they become members and be additive through lifetime loyalty and spend? Anecdotally, I believe that in 2020, most conferences traded improved reach for a lower tier of participants. For this reason, I think it’s critical to design your 2021 virtual conference to attract attendees who will help improve your association’s long-term sustainability.

Take Risks with Experience Design

Senior-level attendees tend to have busier schedules. They will not participate six to eight hours a day for your three-day virtual conference. For 2021, don’t take the same old face-to-face agenda and try to plug it into a virtual experience. Here are four ideas to get you started:

  1. Streamline the schedule. The most progressive conference organizers are narrowing down the number of days, tracks, and hours of programming each day. Like face-to-face conferences, virtual experiences have a significant last-day problem. Day three tends to be very sparse, so cut it out. Too many session choices lead to watered-down experiences that are not well-attended. Consider reducing or making more sessions available on-demand. Very few people will engage online for more than a couple of sessions on a given day.
  2. Production always wins over platform. We’ve seen significant investments made in both platform and production. There is no platform that will magically make your networking, engagement, or expo better. The difference between an engaging and a blah experience can be attributed to event design, graphics, and production — it’s never due to the platform.
  3. Drastically reduce timelines. Instead of opening registration and kicking off your marketing plan six months before the event, you’ll find that three months is more practical for virtual. If you typically do a Call for Proposals with a submission date nine months prior to the event, cut it back to five months. Content submissions will be more timely and relevant if the process involves less lead time. If your early-bird cutoff for increased pricing was 90 days prior, change it to 30. Also, keep in mind: If you don’t bake early-bird into your pricing model, you will have many sleepless nights in the weeks leading up to your event.
  4. Content and commerce that’s episodic. Instead of trying to just move your live event to virtual, consider combining education tracks and aligning them with exhibit product categories. Feature two tracks of sessions, with corresponding sponsors/exhibitors each week for two to three weeks in a row. Develop pricing models for sponsors and attendees so they can choose to participate in the week/episode that best aligns with their needs. Develop options for full access to all episodes.

What big changes are you planning to make in 2021? Is your organization willing to take on more risk?

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2020.

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  1. Luca Fiorini says:

    I could not agree more. 2020 has been a year of learning in virtual conferences and events. Thank you for sharing your insights, virtual is definitely here to stay in the event industry.

  2. Tom Argiro says:

    Agreed. Zoom fatigue is real, and I think it happens when the content isn’t engaging enough to hold attention. I also really like the section about taking risk with experience design. Showing off some creativity to mix it up can help get audiences engaged.

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