Hybrid conferences certainly weren’t born out of the pandemic. Organizations have been holding virtual and hybrid events for a few years. As with all things technology driven, the ease of producing virtual/hybrid events has improved while the costs associated with hosting them has become more affordable.
There is little doubt that COVID-19 provided more than a subtle nudge organizations needed to seriously consider virtual conferences for their education events. For Dr. Robert Schwartz, PsyD, DCEP, the Executive Director for the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP), the adoption of virtual events made sense for his association well before anyone had heard of COVID-19.
“I was advised a year before (the pandemic) that we really had to do a live stream of our event, Dr. Schwartz said. “At that time the big concern was the potential cannibalization of our live event. The fear was people would go away and would not attend virtually. So far it has not happened. I have been told by people who do virtual events regularly that those that want to come to a live event will come, and those people that attend virtual events will continue to do so. They really are separate audiences and in fact you will not cannibalize your live event by making it hybrid. Although COVID has change some things, so far the data has held up that hybrid events work.”
“Two years ago we decided to hold our international conference as a hybrid event, and it was our largest attended conference to-date,” Dr. Schwartz added. “We had more people attend the live conference and we had people attending the live stream as well. There was higher participation and it added more to the bottom line for the event. But 2020 was a different story. Our conference was in May and when COVID hit in March, I was scared. I didn’t know if the hotel would let us out of our contract and we had all our advertising expenses we had budgeted – so we were looking at a nightmare scenario.”
“So when it became obvious that we couldn’t meet live we had around 200 people already registered,” he remarked. “We made the move to make the entire event 100 percent virtual and we were able to convert 50 percent of the people planning on attending live. We made money and people loved it. The feedback was better than the year before because we upped our game. We will be holding our 2021 conference again as a virtual event. I am hoping that in 2022 we will go back to a hybrid event, at least that’s the plan. I kind feel like that’s going to be the future anyway because even after pandemic is done there will be people who will still want to attend virtually.”
Those sentiments fall in line with what association CEO coach and facilitator Mary Byers, CAE, CSP, is hearing from association executives. Byers is the author of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations and Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations. She believes that while “hybrid” should be added to the list of most overused pandemic-era words, it IS the word of the moment for associations.
“Many association professionals have told me that their virtual meetings have increased their reach and enabled them to include new audiences,” Byers said. “This is good news! The pull to go back to ‘the way we’ve always done it’ will be strong. We shouldn’t let the challenges of this past year be wasted. The pandemic is an invitation to refresh tired meetings, to retire ones that were no longer profitable or were on the decline, and to rethink the concept of hybrid meetings. They aren’t the same as ‘virtual’ and the way you approach them should reflect this understanding.”
“Human behavior will ultimately drive the direction organizations will need to take,” she added. “The reality is that in many cases we are reaching a larger audience than ever before but there is a subset of the membership who always will prefer in-person. This, of course, creates complexity for associations. Financial resources will also drive decisions as will the differing needs of the virtual and in-person audiences.”
Byers calls the environment we are moving towards the Next Normal in lieu of “new normal.” “The new normal is what happens to us,” she remarked. “The Next Normal is what we proactively create as a result!”