Groups Continue to Explore New Hybrid Conference Formats

With the coronavirus still a factor, associations are experimenting with different meeting formats. Two associations discuss why they opted for a meeting that had virtual and in-person components of the same event held a week apart, and how those events turned out.

Like many associations, the American Society of Travel Advisors held their annual meeting virtually last year. This year, they wanted to have an in-person meeting, but also not forego their new virtual audience. Rather than try to do a hybrid event that included livestreaming to virtual attendees, ASTA decided to split the event. The group held the live ASTA Global Convention  in Chicago Aug. 23-25, and the virtual version of the show a week later, Aug. 30-31.

“We knew that some people wouldn’t be able to travel, especially our international exhibitors,” said Kelly Bigel, vice president of business development for ASTA. “So, we just felt like it was the right thing to do to offer a virtual component so that everyone could participate if they wanted.”

Attendees who attended the in-person component automatically received access to the virtual show. For the virtual event, attendees received recordings of some of the live event’s general sessions and prerecorded versions of selected panels.

“We prerecorded them before the in-person event, so we had the recordings ready to go,” Bigel said. “It wasn’t the exact session that people saw in person, but it would be the same panelists, the same conversations. It was just two separate takes.”

While some organizations offer the virtual and live components at the same time, for ASTA, waiting a week made logistical sense. “The driving force was internal—just bandwidth,” Bigel said. “Being able to be back in the office and available for helpdesk and to make sure everything ran smoothly. Also, we had a number of exhibitors who were both in-person and virtual, so same thing bandwidth-wise for them. It would be challenging to have them at the same time.”

One Event, Two Ways

The Wisconsin EMS Association also opted for a split event for its Ops21, a small leadership conference the group hosted August 13 and 21. They used a different split than ASTA’s, in that attendees were expected to go to both the virtual component on August 13 and then the in-person piece on August 21. Alan DeYoung, executive director of the group, said they decided to try this approach because it was a new event, so there were no preset expectations. Also, the EMS field, like many, has experienced staffing shortages, and DeYoung thought the format would make it easier to get attendees.

“Offering an event that takes people away for a couple of days within the same week can be tough,” DeYoung said. “In EMS, somebody has got to answer the calls. By doing it on two separate days and doing it virtual one day, it allowed people the chance to get that time off and attend.”

The meeting was designed so the virtual component focused heavily on education, while the in-person was geared toward networking opportunities amidst the education.

“The in-person event led to more discussions,” DeYoung said. “Having a smaller event led to more interactive education, more conversations with speakers one-on-one, and smaller groups gave them a chance to address things on a more personal level.”

Advice for Others

For other associations considering hosting their virtual and in-person meetings at separate times, Bigel had a little advice. “Be really thoughtful and intentional about the purpose,” she said.

She added that this year’s virtual offerings were less complex than last year’s fully virtual conference. Bigel noted that ASTA expects to offer the event in this format next year, but it may add a more to the virtual component. “I just think there’s a fine balance to figuring out what the goal is and how much you can take on,” she said. “It’s a heavy lift planning both events back to back.”

However, she noted both events had good attendance, despite concerns that virtual events might negatively impact in-person attendance. “There was fear that people would choose to stay home and not attend in person,” she said. “We did not see the virtual event cannibalize the in-person [event].”


(lapandr/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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