Will Hyperlocal Conferences Become More Popular Post-Pandemic?

If you’re finding that attendees aren’t willing to travel to your large annual event, it could be time to consider a hyperlocal conference strategy. Some thoughts from an association that’s already implemented one.

Even as reopening begins and restrictions on public gatherings are relaxed, the reality is that it could still prove difficult to convince people who would typically have no problem getting on an airplane and staying in a hotel to attend a large conference to do so in the months ahead.

So, besides going ahead with your large in-person annual meeting or going completely virtual, is there another option to consider?

Enter hyperlocal conferences. These are smaller-scale events that take place in different locations nationwide (or even around the globe) throughout the year.

It’s a strategy the Society of Women Engineers has actually used for a few years now. Back in 2017, SWE piloted two WE Local programs around that idea that “attendees could meet locally and learn socially,” said Executive Director and CEO Karen Horting.

According to SWE, the goal of WE Local events is to “bring the excitement and energy of our annual conference—on a smaller scale—to members’ backyards.” While its annual meeting typically attracts 16,000 participants, attendance at WE Local ranges from 250 to 1,000. Each hyperlocal conference includes professional development and a job fair, but there is also a strong focus on networking since participants include both students and professionals.

“Since women currently make up only 13 percent of the engineering workforce and even less when it comes to faculty, for students to be able to connect with professionals in their local area and even find a role model or mentor while onsite is huge,” said Horting.

WE Local also appeals to attendees because they can often drive to the meeting location, and it requires a short time commitment since they are typically two-day events. “That means less time away from their jobs, or school, or family,” said Horting.

While SWE had to cancel the remainder of its 2020 WE Local events due to COVID-19, this week it announced five 2021 dates: Three will take place in the U.S., one in England, and one in India.

Although it’s still too early to tell how attendance numbers will look for the 2021 events, Horting does think it’s possible for the WE Local events to grow in popularity given the current pandemic. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” she said. “More people may want to stay closer to home and limit who they are around, so a meeting like this could be more appealing.”

If that does happen and SWE thinks adding more hyperlocal conferences is the way to go, Horting is confident staff and volunteers can make it happen. “We wouldn’t need to re-create the wheel,” she said. “We’ve intentionally made it somewhat plug and play. We know what works and what our attendees expect at this point, so we’d be able to expand it to other cities as needed.”

For other associations considering a similar strategy, Horting has this advice: “Pilot things first to get some buy-in from local members, volunteers, and partners. Start with only one or two locations so that you can see what works and what doesn’t. Then tweak and roll out on a larger scale.”

How could you see hyperlocal conferences benefiting your association in the current environment? Please share in the comments.

(ADragan/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!