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by Melanie Dolechek, KCSAE Treasurer

If you’ve reviewed the ASAE Foresight Works Drivers of Change, you are likely familiar with the concept of Virtualized Meetings and their potential to disrupt how associations deliver education and interactive experiences to their members. As people become more comfortable with technology, technology becomes more advanced, training and travel budgets become less robust, and schedules get even more packed, the ideal of virtualized meetings becomes more palatable and in some cases even preferred.  As the Foresight Works brief points out, “the post-Millennial generation may find hybrid and virtual forms of person-to-person interactions more natural.”

While the organization I work for, the Society for Scholarly Publishing, has been running a successful webinar program for more than a decade, a few years ago we decided to explore virtualized meetings on a larger scale and offered a virtual attendance option for our Annual Meeting. Our annual meeting had been growing year/year, but we were still hearing from members that the travel expense made it prohibitive for attendance for early career professionals, those residing outside of the US,  those working at smaller organizations, and even larger organizations that could not send as many staff as they would like to.

More or less, we followed the advice now given in the Virtualized Meeting brief, which is, “be strategic in deciding when to take advantage of virtual meeting capabilities. Live meetings remain popular with members. Experiment to test member interest and gain the skills to offer virtualized meetings. Initially consider taking a hybrid or mixed-channel approach to test member preferences without undermining proven conferences.”

At first, we were somewhat concerned that the virtual attendee option might cannibalize in-person attendance at the meeting. However, we knew from examining attendee feedback from prior years that the two biggest reasons people attended our meeting were education and networking. Well, we need not have been worried as we had our biggest meeting ever that year with 1000 in-person registrations. Turns out, the networking might just trump the education. We ended up with 37 virtual registrants with about 10% of those being group registrations (which we charged more for and highly encouraged organizations to host viewing parties in their offices). I was delighted when the first question chatted in by a virtual attendee during the opening keynote came from Japan! Expanding our global reach was one of our objectives.

Knowing it would potentially take a few years for the virtual concept to gain momentum and take off, we committed to offering the virtual attendance option for at least two years and to also offer it for one of our smaller regional seminars. The regional seminar had 80 in-person attendees and 12 virtual registrations. The following year, Annual Meeting virtual registration dropped to 15 virtual registrations while in-person attendance remained strong at just under 1000. Needless to say, this experiment was not producing the desired results. And we did, in fact, view this as an experiment.

We decided to take a year off from offering a virtual option for the Annual Meeting in 2019, but did continue to offer it for our regional seminar. As registrations started rolling in, we were a bit surprised to see the virtual registrations were outpacing the in-person registrations. Confused and alarmed, actually. We did eventually sell out the in-person event with 100 registrations, but we ended up with 63 virtual registrations, 12 of which were group registrations which meant there were more people watching from their computers in three different countries than were participating at the venue. Success! Finally! Virtual attendees were tweeting pictures of their in-office viewing parties, chatting in their questions, and introducing themselves to each other online! We had several local people that attended the first day in-person and then asked us at the end of the day if they could attend the next day virtually.

So, what have we learned…?

  1. Market the heck out of the virtual option. Promote all the wonderful benefits of cost savings, time savings, reduced carbon footprint, etc. Make sure people know virtual is an option. We plan to use testimonials in the future as well.
  2. Be careful to select session formats that do not exclude the virtual attendees, such as roundtable discussions. We tried to get a virtual roundtable together once and it wasn’t very successful.
  3. Have a chat coordinator monitoring the chat, encouraging virtual attendees to ask questions, and verbally asking questions in the room on behalf of the virtual attendees.
  4. Hire a professional company for the live-streaming. The quality of the video and audio and the ease of use of the platform can make or break the attendee experience.
  5. It might not work for every event. Create an event where virtual attendees don’t feel like they are missing out. Our Annual Meeting has lots of networking sessions, an exhibit hall and other experiential things not to mention six educational tracks to choose from. Due to the expense, we only live-streamed one track and virtual attendees indicated they were disappointed that we didn’t choose a particular session to be live-streamed (though we did disclose which sessions would be streamed before they registered).
  6. As the ASAE brief suggests, “consumers have become conditioned to pay less for digital content than for “real” content.” So far, we found we could only charge about half as much as an in-person registration. However, there are some costs that are avoided for virtual particpants such as food and beverage.
  7. The hybrid approach was a great way to mitigate the risk involved and also to avoid it feeling like just another (very long) webinar. Be sure your venue has top-notch AV and sufficient bandwidth to support the live-streaming. What is “good enough” for a live event might be far too inadequate for a virtual meeting.
  8. We still need to find creative ways to engage the remote attendees during breaks and such. The networking experience is indeed difficult to replicate in the virtual environment. Our attendees are very active on Twitter and we saw a lot of chatter happening there between in-person attendees, virtual attendees and people that where not attending in any capacity but just following the hashtag (#sspND2019).
  9. It takes time to warm up your members to this experience. While it might not be right (yet) for our flagship event, we are certainly seeing the potential for it with our smaller events. Commit to multi-event or multi-year strategy to really see if it will work for your organization.

We’re looking forward to further experimentation in the area of virtualized meetings and continue to monitor this change driver. The success of our latest seminar is encouraging and will help us strategically focus our efforts on events that are most suited to this format. Trying to stay a step-ahead of our membership demonstrates to our members that we are constantly looking for ways to support them in the future.

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