In this episode, we talk to Vicki Thein, Ewald Consulting’s Director of Events, Vicki Thein. In the episode, she tells us all about how to pull of an engaging an exciting virtual event.
Find the platform that works best for you. Vicki explains that when you are looking for a platform to support your virtual guests, think about what you need from your platform. Do you want breakout rooms? The ability to answer virtual guests’ questions? Look out for what you and your organization want in a platform.
Have different offerings for your different audiences. While it is important to make the virtual guests feel part of the event, Vicki explains that you should have an incentive for guests to be in person. That way, it will be worth it for the in-person attendees to take the time to be there. You can do this through special lunches, site tours and more.
Hybrid events offer tremendous opportunity. Even after the pandemic, hybrid events offer the ability to attend events from anywhere in the world. The newfound flexibility that comes with the events may be here to stay.
Among other things, 2020 definitely changed the way we present content. For many of us, virtual events are not going away. In place of our typical annual in-person conference are a multitude of exciting options for us to choose to engage our members.
Many of us are used to planning for one annual conference packed full of presenters and break-out sessions. Now, we are often seeing these large-scale events turn into several bite-sized events spread throughout the year.
Here are ways you can change up your content for your new virtual audience:
Feature your biggest stars: Take your keynote speaker and give them their own dedicated webinar and/or Q&A session. Rather than having a days-long virtual conference, make them the event. Forbes suggests even reaching out to some guest stars you thought might have been too high a grasp for your in-person events. You are likely saving money by not having an in-person event so you may be able to splurge on a high-profile speaker. The worst they can do is say no!
Present smaller sessions year-round: Try shifting your focus from one central annual event to having several smaller-scale events throughout the year. Because your members will be able to take in the content from anywhere rather than needing to be in one place to consume content, take your sessions and spread them out. This not only keeps the attention of your audience, but it keeps them engaged with the organization all year.
Network: While members may not be able to connect in person, you can help them by connecting them to each other. Cvent suggests creating networking events where you group members with similar interests. Send out an interest survey and get some networking sessions going for your members!
Get interactive: In the new age of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, you have to do everything you can to pull in your audience and make it as personal as possible. Forbes suggests things like quick polls and surveys throughout your sessions to engage your audience. You could also consider having small sessions or roundtables to connect with small groups of members. Remember, you are now competing with devices, at-home chores, pets, kids and more. Be with your audience as much as possible.
Listen to your audience: Send out some surveys. What do your members want and need right now? Take the guesswork out of event planning and learn what your members would like to see from their organization.
Conferences may never be the same, but you can use this opportunity to meet your members where they are.
2020 saw an unprecedented number of cancelled events. While we may be starting the new year with some hope of in-person events later in the year, many associations will want to approach their conferences cautiously.
Conferences are a large source of income as well as a space to build community, so it is understandable that many associations are eager to get their members back together. Still, navigating logistics with venues, vendors, attendees and more when things are uncertain may be tricky.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
The French phrase for “superior force” is a claim that associations can make in trying to get out of contracts when factors beyond their control, such as COVID-19 or natural disasters, affect their ability to hold the event. According to Bloomberg Law, the wording around force majeure varies widely, with some contracts spelling out specific events that qualify and others using more catch-all language. As the article points out, even if your contract does not include provisions for a pandemic, you may be able to claim other events such as unforeseen government action, for example, because of stay-at-home orders.
When proceeding with in-person event planning, make sure you look closely at force majeure protections. Some venues have recently made it more difficult to invoke this claim. An article from the American Society of Association Executives offers additional strategies and options.
As conferences are an important source of revenue for associations, handling refunds for entry fees can be a hard line to walk. In a blog post for The Professional Convention Management Association, association leaders explained how they handled refunds last year. The Texas Travel Industry Association kept their funds by alerting attendees that the conference would be postponed, The Association for Asian Studies asked attendees to consider donating their attendance fees, and the Virginia Military Institute offered sponsors, attendees and exhibitors the opportunity to roll over their registration to the next conference or get refunded.
Associations must also consider costs taken on by attendees. While associations may be able to get out of contracts, attendees may not be able to get refunds for flights, hotels or other expenses. Being transparent with your members will help—no matter how you choose to approach refunds.
Consider your budget. Going back to your traditional annual conference may not make as much sense financially now, even if it has been your main source of income in the past. Virtual events are much more budget-friendly and may be safer, particularly after a year where many associations were hit hard.
As much as we all hoped 2021 would see a return to complete normalcy, that is doubtful. Associations need to remain flexible and creative, yet cautious, as we continue throughout the year.
In our first episode of 2021, Jill Tichy, Amanda Maw, and Sarah Ewald from our events department come on the podcast to give us a look at what events might look like this year as vaccines emerge for the continuing pandemic.
Events may still be virtual. Even though vaccines are being distributed worldwide, associations found that virtual/hybrid conferences allow for greater accessibility than exclusively in-person conferences.
Associations will need to be flexible. We are going into the year only knowing that we will not know what to expect. But after a year of constant change, we are much better positioned to take on this year.
Consider spreading your content out throughout the year via webinars and summer sessions rather than having it all in one conference. The widespread use of virtual platforms now allows for easier distribution of content, so do not be afraid to take advantage.
As a result of COVID-19, we are seeing retail stores and restaurants close, artists postpone concerts, and large events such as festivals cancelling. What should you do about a conference you may have scheduled for next month, or even three months from now? Vicki Thein, Director of Events at Ewald Consulting, has a few thoughts on what to consider before cancelling your conference:
1. What does the venue contract say? Carefully review the terms of your contract with the venue. Check to see if force majeure applies and what it covers. If it does not apply, determine the costs of cancelling and if those funds could be applied toward a future event. Additionally, closely monitor the conditions of the venue location and try to get a sense of how many attendees may cancel in order to help you state your case to the venue if needed.
2. What do your vendor contracts say? Like venue contracts, review contracts with your vendors. See if force majeure applies, the costs if it does not and if they could give you credit in the event of a cancellation. The flexibility on cancellations with vendors will vary, so be sure to look at each contract closely.
3. Is there cancellation insurance? If you have cancellation insurance, get in contact with your insurance agent as soon as you can as they are very likely becoming overloaded with similar requests.
4. Are you able to distribute the content virtually? Are there opportunities for your conference material to be put into a virtual conference, podcasts, or other forms of content? Brainstorm what this might look like and if you think it could be successful.
5. Financial considerations Can your organization afford to go without a conference this year? This will be a major factor in your decision. Considering alternative conference options like the ones mentioned above could provide potential sources of revenue.
What was once a deluxe conference amenity has become a necessary tool of engagement for successful events. Make your conference mobile and watch as speakers, exhibitors and attendees connect and communicate online. Excite your potential audiences before the event starts, engage with the attendees onsite and evolve throughout the process in response to change. All it takes is an app.
Excite your audience
In the weeks leading up to your event, a mobile app campaign drives excitement for a future experience. Downloading a conference mobile app provides a tangible teaser for a still far-off event. It gets the conference on the minds and in the hands (literally) of your audience before a meeting convenes.
Through yet another channel, your brand, your content and your vision can reach your anticipatory audience.
Pro tip: offer an incentive to download the app. Nothing spurs attendees into action faster than the possibility of free stuff.
Engage your attendees
At any event, you’ve just gathered many of the best minds in your field in one space for a few hours or a few days. Now that they’re here, you need them to engage: with speakers, with exhibitors and with each other!
Engage with Speakers: Speakers come prepared as subject-matter experts. Polling and survey features offered through a mobile app can turn a presentation from a one-sided lecture into an interactive event. A mobile app’s ability to collect real-time data from the audience allows speakers to connect with attendees, answer questions and shape their presentations to suit the crowd.
Engage with Exhibitors: Companies joining you from far and wide come with expectations to make connections. As their unique swag often demonstrate, sponsors and exhibitors want to get their name in your hands. With a mobile app, it already is. Exhibitor websites and contact information, and digital handouts become instantly available to all attendees. It’s a simple perk for the companies that might just keep them coming back for more.
Engage with each other: The universal advantage of in-person events is the networking opportunities inherent. However, as attendees meet new faces in the field, especially at large events, it can be difficult to keep track of these new contacts. Mobile apps provide a fully filled-in contact book and messaging system without the hassle of keeping track of business cards or asking for phone numbers. Encouraging attendees to include their picture with their profile? Even better for those of us not blessed with the gift of face/name memory!
You’ll want an app a mobile app to drive your speakers and attendees to not only to listen but to engage. Empower your audiences to connect through a technology we all know well.
Evolve with change
Despite your meeting planner’s best efforts, plans change. As rooms fill up faster than anticipated and speakers call in sick—your mobile app can alleviate the headache of last-minute change.
Rather than disparaging your beautifully branded signage and collateral with handwritten speaker updates and blacked-out sessions, leverage the power of digital technology to make quick updates looks seamless.
Mobile app push notifications provide a sort of virtual intercom. Communication is immediate and allows your event to evolve as quickly as the outside world.
Conferences are a great opportunity for your organization to showcase the caliber of members and body of knowledge. Mobile applications will only help you improve your conference attendee’s experience and increase the ROI of your event.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials are now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. As of 2017, there were 56 million Millennials (ages 22-37) working or looking for work — over one-third of the workforce.
With a growing need for our workforce to be trained and upskilled, conferences can play an important role in employee development.
To get Millennials to attend conferences and join our organizations, we must create more engaging and technologically focused offerings to meet this market segment who are interested in experiences, involvement and engagement.
7 Conference Best Practices
Define and communicate the purpose and mission of the event to prove ROI. Create downloadable “Convince Your Boss” letters.
Personalizing strategies – who are the sessions designed for? Are they interactive to engage attendees? Is there time for connection and conversation? How can attendees connect with other attendee segments and interests onsite?
Purposeful experience – well-being activities, social impact days to give back to the community.
Performances and offsite events at museums or local attractions.
Enhanced conference technology including chatbots, 5G internet, wearable technology, real-time data, creative room design with technology access and charging stations, mobile apps.
As our attendees and stakeholders continue to shift, associations must change up our conferences to not only maintain registration numbers but to take them to a whole new level: driving community, engagement and membership. Over one-third of the workforce and those who need education, community and engagement the most are counting on us to drive innovation and offer engaging and memorable experiences using trends and technology.
It takes a team effort to make conference experiences memorable for attendees, presenters and exhibitors/sponsors. All parties play an important role in the success and value of attending in person events.
Our Event Management and Marketing & Communications departments formed a Conference Success Team to help our clients improve the conference experience for speakers, sponsors/exhibitors and attendees by creating a resource landing page with all the resources to ensure a positive conference experience before, during and after an event.
The number-one priority is creating relevant content for each audience. So, it’s important to research trends in the profession, conduct a professional development assessment, review membership surveys and past conference surveys to use feedback to improve and enhance the conference experience. Doing it “the way we’ve always done it” won’t cut it.
When you understand what your audience wants, you can then create the framework and tracks that will be the basis for your call for presenters. In addition to contact information, make sure you collect the following session information:
Presentation/Session Title (15-word limit)
Presentation/Session Description or Presentation (150-word limit)
Learning Objectives (require at least three)
Select Audience (for example: experience level, society type, organization size)
What keywords relate to your presentation topic? This is for search engine optimization as we promote the conference.
Provide a two-sentence promotion of your presentation for social media postings.
Getting this information at the beginning will provide the structure for the conference marketing plan. Exhibitors and sponsors help keep the cost of conferences down for attendees and they also offer a way to make connections on business resources available to attendees. Creating value and ROI for exhibitors and sponsors creates value for the attendees.
The Hotel Electronic Distribution Network Association (HEDNA) offers unique sponsorship opportunities that enhance the value for both the sponsor and the attendee. They also utilize cool technology at their conference such as a full LED wall with movable graphics, a Gobo light with logo sponsors and video. They also have a dedicated HEDNA TV Channel on YouTube that features conference sessions and helps promote future conferences, giving attendees access to the quality content that is delivered at the event.
HEDNA doesn’t have exhibitors but rather offers different types sponsorship opportunities to show unique value to the sponsors while enhancing the conference attendee experience. They have Nooks/Event pods branded with sponsor logos, offering the attendees a soundproof space with white boards, television monitors, videos and allowing for attendee conversations.
Gobo lights make it possible to project sponsor logos on the walls. It’s a simple and effective way to enhance the conference experience at a reasonable price. In addition, they set up a HEDNA café with existing furniture in the hotel and a barista, featuring specialty coffees with the sponsor logo on top of the coffee froth.
At the conferences, we encourage attendees to use hashtags and provide social media tip sheets to get conversations going and keep them going year-round after the conference experience is over. A strong conference and in-person connections foster loyalty and year-round connections.
For attendees, we offer ways to connect with other attendees at the conference in meet-ups, connecting in the mobile app and offering interactive sessions. It’s also important to create time between sessions to allow for conversations, sharing and networking so that learning sticks and new connections are created.
Half of the population are introverts — so it’s important to offer a variety of ways to connect in the manner attendees want. We will share tips on how to get the most out of conferences in a future post.
Mindfulness and wellness activities — both in the workplace and at conferences — are also becoming more popular. Organized walks and runs, yoga or other exercises, healthy snacks and meditation tips are a great way to add new value for attendees that they can take home.
Create memorable conference experiences for your members before, during and after each event!