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The annual conference is a constant occurrence in the association world. In addition to networking opportunities and knowledge sharing, annual conferences are the main revenue generators for associations. Due to COVID-19 and social distancing orders, many associations were forced to postpone or outright cancel all in-person events this year. But those are not the only options.

Virtual and hybrid events are growing in popularity and will be a mainstay for the foreseeable future, allowing associations a way to offer members professional development, as well as grow the association’s profits. In this first of a 3-part virtual event series, we provide the tips to help get you started.


Virtual Events

A virtual, or digital, event is exactly as it sounds. The entire event takes place online, either through pre-recording software or a live streaming platform like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Users can register and pay for a virtual “seat” at the conference and then watch the event online, either real-time or on-demand. If you are considering changing your in-person event to a virtual one, there are things you will need to do:

1. Survey your audience.

Before you invest the time and money in a virtual event, you should survey your audience, including exhibitors, sponsors, and stakeholders. A lot of people jump the gun, switching the venue type, renegotiating contracts, and spending additional dollars, all without getting buy-in from important stakeholders. This can result in a low registration rate and a small return on investment. By asking no more than 5 questions, you will learn if a virtual event is realistic; if participants, sponsors, and exhibitors are receptive and, more importantly, if attendees have the technology to support this type of event.

2. Renegotiate contracts.

Contact the hotel or venue to renegotiate terms of the contract and discuss all possible options of rebooking/postponing or canceling. Renegotiations can vary, based on the retainer, the deposit, or the timeframe. Once settled, sign a new agreement and Memo of Understanding (MOU) with the venue.

3. Communicate with attendees.

Send regular communications to your audience with the status of the event and contact information. Letting your attendees know what is happening keeps people engaged and more likely to maintain their registration. You should do this via email, but social media is also a good place to stay up-to-date with news of your event.

4. Secure AV support.

Unless you are technologically savvy, you should book a professional AV production company to digitally run your event. These types of companies manage all aspects of the virtual event, from video, audio, and speaker services to content management, interactive technology, and scenic design.

5. Select preferred event dates.

With an AV company running your event as the hosting platform, you should verify their availability before letting your audience, speakers, exhibitors, and sponsors know the date of your event.

6. Update exhibitor benefits and sponsorship packages.

If your event has exhibitors and sponsors, you must tailor their packages to match a virtual event. Now that the event is no longer in-person, the benefits (e.g. free event tickets, all-access networking, etc.) will change for exhibitors and sponsors. Digital benefits can include logo recognition on the virtual platform or even short videos that promote their product or service.

7. Contact speakers.

Speakers may or may not need to sign a new contract. You will also be required to help get the speakers set up for the virtual event. Some speakers are not comfortable with live-stream technology, so you should offer the option of a prerecorded session that can play during the event. Depending on the agenda, all sessions can be prerecorded, all can be live-streamed, or could be a mix of both.

8. Contact exhibitors.

Because exhibitors no longer have a booth at the event, offering the opportunity to record a brief, informative presentation is a nice way for them to showcase their product or service. Or, if that is not in their budget, you can offer marketing or logo recognition in the digital materials throughout the event.

9. Contact sponsors.

Similar to the exhibitors above, you’ll need to renegotiate sponsorship packages that are better geared towards a virtual venue. Provide options for logo and brand recognition as well as advertising on-screen and/or in the digital materials.

10. Restructure registration fees and refund policies.

Although you have cut venue, food, and marketing costs, you still have AV and software costs, not to mention speaker and other vendor fees. Determine the type of profit you want to make from your virtual event, minus your expenses, to calculate your new registration cost. If attendees decide not to attend because it is no longer in-person, you should offer fair refund policies.

11. Develop a marketing plan.

You will be able to use a lot of the same marketing materials for your event (logos, branding, etc.); however, speakers, exhibitors, and sponsors can all change when moving to a digital event, so your marketing plan will need to reflect that. Additionally, you should update your communication plan (reminder emails, social media, etc.) to fit a virtual event.

Even though transitioning from an in-person to a virtual event happens quickly, you should allow yourself a minimum of 2 months of planning to ensure a successful experience.


Hybrid Events

A hybrid event is a mix of virtual and in-person events. A hybrid is a great way to maintain the personal connection that comes with live events, even if it is on a smaller scale. It also gives access to keynotes and other important sessions for those who are unable, or unwilling, to attend the event. Hybrids are the “best of both worlds”, allowing associations a way to reach a wider audience and improve event ROI.

Before you make the switch to a hybrid event, you should consider the following:

1. Survey audience.

Just as with the virtual event, the first step is to make sure a hybrid event is a viable option for your attendees.

2. Renegotiate hotel/venue contract.

Cancellations, lower food & beverage minimums, and adjusted room blocks all necessitate an adjusted contract with your venue. It is also important to make sure that your A/V equipment includes live streaming.

3. Examine safety measures.

In this age of COVID-19, it is vital to discuss any new safety standards, re-opening procedures, and security measures with the hotel/venue. Actively and regularly communicate those guidelines with attendees and other stakeholders.

4. Communicate with attendees.

Same as the virtual event, regular communication is key. You should have two separate types of communication: one for in-person attendees and one for virtual attendees. Both should include information about the conference, but one will include venue news (safety measures, after-hours networking events, etc.) and the other will be more technical (system requirements, etc.).

5. Contact speakers.

Verify which speakers will be in-person and which will be virtual. For the virtual speakers, you should offer the option for live streaming or prerecorded sessions. Schedule a run-through with all speakers in the weeks leading up to the event to ensure smooth transitions.

6. Update exhibitor benefits and sponsorship packages.

Determine which exhibitors and sponsors will attend in-person. Give virtual exhibitors and sponsors the same options as you would for a virtual event.

7. Restructure registration fees and refund policies.

Since the hybrid event offers attendees the chance to attend in person or virtual, restructuring fees and refund policies is optional and dependent on your event goals.

8. Revise marketing plan.

Your marketing plan for the in-person portion of your event should remain the same, with the additions from the above virtual event plan.

Because there is a lot more involved in a hybrid event, you should allow 4-6 months’ planning time.


Contact Stansfeld, LLC

At Stansfeld, we understand that the annual conference is the most important event for your association. Due to COVID-19 restrictions this year, many associations canceled their events, but there is still time to offer members the same benefits through a virtual experience. Contact us today to learn how to get started planning your virtual or hybrid event.