Is the Future of Events Virtual or in Person? in a Word: Yes

An expert in events gives advice for how to succeed in an ever-changing business climate.

The year 2020 saw the word “unprecedented” thrown around a lot, and rightly so. In the transition to virtual programming, associations had to be extra clever and resourceful when it came to meetings and events—the aspects of membership that had traditionally been contingent on the face-to-face. While it’s still unclear when it’ll be safe to return to in-person gatherings, there are ways to approach event planning now that ensure social engagement and avoid Zoom fatigue.

Jerome Bruce, the director of meetings and exhibits for the Association of Government Accountants, shared how his organization continues to adapt to ever-changing norms. “The tone that we want to project to our members is, ‘We’re still here,’” Bruce said. “That we represent government financial management, that we are continuing education. The AGA still offers educational courses and virtual conferences, they’re just in a digital format now.”

Personify conducted a survey of nearly 1,000 association members and staff in December 2020 and found that even when in-person events are safe again, only 15% of members want to return to mostly or entirely in-person events in the second half of 2021. Half of respondents said they would prefer mostly or entirely virtual events, and 33% wanted a hybrid option.

Following are Bruce’s tips for how to strategically plan for events while things are still virtual, with an in-person reality on the not-too-distant horizon.

Analyze Your Recent Data

Last year was all about quickly learning how to transform in-person gatherings into virtual meet-ups. Now, associations have nearly a year of data to inform their decision-making for events in 2021.

Bruce said that in the coming year associations have an opportunity to do analysis as well as strategic planning and marketing based on 2020’s learned experience, focusing on data metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). Bruce, who characterized himself as a “data guy,” said he crunched the numbers on how many people attended last year’s events, what sessions were the most popular, and what types of attendees participated in those sessions.

Increase Engagement Through Outreach and Gamification

Associations can apply collected data to come up with creative ways to keep members engaged. For example, Bruce said his organization continues to leverage session recordings throughout the year, sending members and attendees portions of educational videos from its conference and other sessions in pieces.

Data can also help planners get ahead of potential roadblocks. For instance, analysis might suggest that people are hesitant to take part in virtual events for fear of sitting at their screens for hours on end. “We were challenged to come up with ideas to engage people,” Bruce said.

One thing the AGA did to combat screen weariness was gamifying its virtual events, including creating a visually-appealing attendee player screen. “Our survey showed people were engaged, people liked the idea of a virtual setting.”

AGA also gave attendees a chance to earn points for joining a session, exhibiting a virtual booth, chatting with another attendee, tweeting, or engaging on social media. A leaderboard displayed the points, enhancing virtual engagement.

Select the Right Tech Platforms

When it came to pivoting to an all-virtual setting, Bruce emphasized the importance of choosing an online platform that serves your association best. He suggests finding a tech platform that can execute a virtual conference with all the bells and whistles your association needs, and exploring platforms that provide post-event data.

“Having that tech platform that can help you manage your event efficiently and effectively and will give you data at the end, that’s key. All that costs some money, but you have to invest.”

The AGA is also a long-term partner of Personify, using its A2Z Events solution for conference modules, the exhibit floor plan, speaker management,and event app, among other tools. “When the pandemic happened, we just sat down with them and presented all the different options we had for us,” Bruce said. “Turns out that Personify has a virtual solution to all.”

Keep an Eye on the Post-Pandemic Future

Even with vaccines being rolled out, there is still uncertainty about when everyone will have access to them. That’s why AGA events from January through Spring 2021 will be held virtually, including regularly scheduled in-person programming and board meetings. The organization will continue to plan for digital events, with an emphasis on more efficiency and effectiveness for attendees.

The AGA is concerned with sustainability, according to Bruce. It wants to host efficient, engaging events online without writing off a future when members look forward to in-person gatherings.

“We know now the virtual is a band-aid, a temporary thing right now,” Bruce said. “We need to keep the value of face-to-face current and sustainable, so we have a balancing act. We don’t want people to get too engrossed with virtual that they won’t be excited about face-to-face events. [2021 represents] an opportunity and challenge for us for sure to make sure that face-to-face doesn’t die.”


This series by Personify is intended to serve as a guidepost for associations that are reacting to fundamental market shifts and proactively building a better future for their organizations. Sign up for Personify’s webinar on Jan 27 that will walk through this research in detail.

(Maksym Kaharlytskyi)