What Virtual Attendees Are Looking for in 2021

A look at three ways attendee expectations have evolved since the pandemic began, and what that means for associations as they plan for their 2021 virtual conference offerings.

As we close out 2020, there’s lots of talk about how the pandemic caused skeptics to embrace everything from remote work to telemedicine. And this new comfort with not going to the office and relying more on technology, as well as the other benefits that come with them, means that consumer, employee, and traveler expectations are changing as we move into 2021.

The same is true for your attendees: With almost a year of attending virtual meetings under their belts, they know what they like and don’t like—and will expect your association to take both into account as you host virtual conferences in 2021. Here are three ways I think attendee expectations have evolved and what that could mean in terms of execution:

Attendees want to make connections. Networking and hallway conversations are staples of in-person events. And although attendees were willing to watch speakers give presentations from their screens with little to no interaction at the beginning of the pandemic, when associations were quickly pivoting to virtual, that’s no longer the case. Attendees expect the ability to connect and share with colleagues, exhibitors, and speakers. And these interactions will need to go beyond Q&A sessions, live chat, and polling. As you plan for 2021, think how you can create intimate settings for small groups of attendees to talk among themselves, they way they might chat waiting in line for food and drinks.

Among groups investing in making these connections happen is the Consumer Technology Association. During a recent virtual press event discussing next month’s CES, CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro discussed their approach.

“It is costly for us, there’s no secret about that,” Shapiro said, according to AdAge. “We’re feeling the effects of the pandemic like others, and we’ve had to cut back on things, but one thing we invested in was this venue, this platform that allowed exhibitors, customers, attendees, business people, startups, retailers, the investment community, and of course media, to connect.”

Attendees don’t want to stick to the traditional schedule. In-person meetings typically pack a lot into several long days. While it’s pretty common for attendees to leave their hotel room at 7 a.m. and return 12 hours later, your virtual participants really don’t want to be sitting in front of screen that long.

Keep this in mind as your plan your 2021 virtual conference schedules. How can you break up or reconfigure your event so that attendees can get the most of out of it, especially when they are juggling family and work responsibilities in the same space where they are participating in your meeting from?

Next April, for example, the American Counseling Association is transforming what has been a multiday annual conference into “a monthlong celebratory, community-building, and engaging virtual experience.” The New Jersey Dental Association and American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery are also taking a similar approach.

Attendees want more of a voice. Association members are often involved in choosing content and sessions for conferences. And while they should still be doing that for your virtual conferences, consider how you else you can engage them in a way that will help you produce better virtual events. Sure, a post-event evaluation will provide some insight, but consider going further. What if you looked at social media activity during your previous virtual events and picked out three to five attendees who expressed the most frustration or criticism and scheduled a phone call with them? You could ask them more about their experience and what you could be doing better.

By getting attendees more involved in the process or having them help you design your virtual conference in 2021 and beyond, your association is sure to benefit from happier and more engaged attendees.

What expectations do you think attendees will have for your 2021 conferences and events? How are you planning to meet them? Please share in the comments.

(AntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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