44% of association CEOs/Executives said they did not/will not offer a hybrid annual conference in 2022.

Before the pandemic hit, conferences were planned as though everything would happen as it always did. The philosophy was: Build it and they will come, which worked out really well. Until it didn’t.

Now, as everyone has learned–the hard way–flexibility needs to be an integral part of planning conferences going forward, whether it’s a solely in-person or hybrid event.

There are many advantages of a hybrid format, such as more opportunities for younger staff members, students, people who are unable to travel, and international members to attend.

And the evolution of virtual offerings has allowed planners to examine takeaways of what worked–and what didn’t–and find out more from attendees about what they really want to get out of the virtual experience.

Despite their advantages, however, hybrid conferences often cost a lot more money and can over-tax staff.

In a recent poll conducted by Avenue M in late October, 56% of association CEOs/Executives say they offered a hybrid annual conference in 2022. 39% plan to offer one next year, while 6% say they might discontinue the options, and 11% said they will not offer one next year.

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One CEO panelist, whose association offered a hybrid conference this year and plans to next year, said that global membership, multiple time zones, visa issues for attendees, and the need to offer CEUs were reasons to keep a hybrid option in the mix.

Another panelist shared that during the pandemic their group held two virtual meetings with full program access that garnered excellent attendance rates and extended their global reach. This year, they returned to an in-person format and drew 55% of their pre-pandemic market, which was “tremendous,” especially since the conference was held in Orlando, Florida, one week after damaging hurricanes. The group offered limited virtual access, which was “very popular and exceeded our financial expectations.”

One executive, whose group did offer hybrid this year but will not next year, shared that not enough people signed up for the virtual component to offset cost. Another, who is on the fence about offering one next year, said, “We are weighing the cost benefit in addition to our strategic objective.”

A panelist whose group did not offer hybrid this year and will not next year said, “Our industry is very tactile–members engage in all five senses with our industry’s products.” Another cited the cost of hybrid and the need to bring members together in person to support one another and enhance networking.

Even though hybrid conferences are often more expensive and harder to plan and execute, there are ways to host hybrid events that stay within budget, don’t burn out staff, and make members happy.

Read our quick summary of the following articles and click the links below.

How to Figure Out What Members Want When It Comes to Hybrid Events
What happens if you offer a hybrid event because members say they want one and then they don’t sign up for the virtual experience? Just asking members if they want a hybrid event is not enough, you have to be strategic.

Kara Dao, senior director of client engagement and operations at JDC Events, advises that it’s important to survey members and ask them key questions, such as whether they want to interact with speakers, ask questions after sessions, and watch content live. Finding out what they’re really expecting from the digital experience and what would make the virtual event better for them all around will help in planning a better hybrid experience.

‘Hybrid Events Are Here to Stay’
While not everyone sees the upside of navigating the unknown terrain of hybrid conferences, Bill Reed, FASAE, chief event strategy officer at the American Society of Hematology (ASH), said, “Hybrid events are here to stay, We’re leaning into them.” Why? Because attendees have become accustomed to the flexibility that hybrid events provide.

For its upcoming conference in December, ASH hopes to bring its in-person audience to 23,000 and grow its digital audience to achieve a total of more than 35,000 attendees. The group is using lessons learned from its 2021 conference, like limiting the virtual hall to 50 exhibitors and making sure poster presenters and speakers are in-person and not remote.

There are many takeaways from the transformed, hybrid events. For example, Reed observed attendees multitasking at the group’s 2021 conference–participating in-person while also plugging into virtual live streams, which allowed them to participate on their own terms and customize their experience. That will “drive satisfaction going forward,” he said.

Use Digital Hacks to Better Engage Hybrid Conference Learners
The Institute of Food Technologists revamped all of its formats–both virtual and in-person–to optimize how they present content. For example, they asked speakers to record one-minute flash summaries of their sessions so attendees could get a quick sample of the presentation and decide if it was worth it to attend.

The Consumer Technology Association wanted to give virtual attendees a better way to connect, but they were apprehensive about allowing live chats during sessions. They talked to several other groups that had used live chats successfully and took the plunge.

CTA had moderators in place and the option to bump anyone for being inappropriate, but it wasn’t necessary. Everyone was considerate and enjoyed connecting before, during, and after the sessions.

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Contributor: Lisa Boylan

(Image: Adobe Stock)