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Best of Both Worlds

Find Your Sweet Spot With Virtual and In-Person Meetings

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As associations seek to strike a balance between two worlds, experimentation has led to some basic truths about what people want when they convene. Fun and connections should be integral parts of every format.

Association meeting planners are known for their attention to detail and their penchant for leaving nothing to chance. Making plans in a constantly shifting landscape has not been anyone’s ideal way to work. Throw in more than a year of nonstop curveballs and it’s time to take stock of what works best in two worlds that no one saw coming: virtual meetings where it’s often harder to connect with others, and in-person events where attendees need to be kept safe from COVID-19.

Associations continue to hold meetings despite the challenges—some all virtual, some in person, and many others a hybrid. Along the way, they’re learning how to find the sweet spot where they can deliver a great experience, no matter how their members attend.

Bring in the Fun

The Heart Rhythm Society kicked off its annual meeting, Heart Rhythm 2021, virtually on June 30 with on-demand content and in person on July 28 in Boston. HRS wanted to get people to the virtual platform early and keep them later, so it was open 30 days before and 60 days after the in-person meeting. Allowing them early access gives them a chance to try out the platform, review the content, and interact with exhibitors. Last year’s meeting was all virtual, but this year, about 2,000 attendees were virtual and 4,000 were in person.

“What was surprising is how enthusiastically people wanted to return to in person,” said Ken Demith, HRS’s chief experience officer. Getting away from routines, being around peers who are experiencing similar challenges, and reconnecting with their professional community were all paramount for attendees. HRS members often say they like coming to the annual meeting because it’s dedicated time away. “When you come in person, people are leaving you alone for a few days. They know you’re out of the office,” Demith said.

Associations are learning how to find the sweet spot where they can deliver a great experience, no matter how their members attend.

And don’t underestimate the power of fun: The event’s most popular sessions were in bars and restaurants. “The social pieces were off the hook,” he said.

“Fun is super important, because you want people to engage with each other in a very lighthearted way,” said Kara Dao, CEM, senior director of client engagement and opportunity at JDC Events. That’s just as true for virtual attendees as for those who go to the in-person event. Dao advises planners to make sure their virtual event has a health and wellness component, a DJ party, karaoke, trivia, a mentalist, or a bartending presentation, and anything that gives people a chance to take a physical break from the day and do stretches online or meditate.

“You definitely have to have something that is not serious that is bringing the fun and allowing people to engage with each other on the screen and in the chat,” Dao said.

Bridging the Divide

There’s no getting around that virtual and in-person meetings are two different entities. Bridging that divide means making sure the right people are in the right jobs. Demith has two teams—one that focuses on digital delivery and one that focuses on the in-person event. They work together under his supervision, but they have different mindsets, he says.

But that doesn’t mean the two audiences should be kept in separate silos. There are all kinds of ways to connect them, Demith says, such as through Twitter conversations or a mobile app. “It doesn’t really matter how you do it; it’s that you do it and make sure your in-person audience knows there are people all over the world engaging in what you’re doing,” he said.

Dao likes the Chatroulette app, which rotates attendees through a video chat where they meet up with other like-minded attendees, both virtual and in-person. An algorithm connects people based on a series of questions that facilitate matchmaking. “It’s like managed serendipity,” she said.

Every association is navigating a new path and trying to figure out what works best in the two worlds of digital and in-person events. Adding fun, interactive components and building in tools and time to help participants connect are keys to success for all of today’s meeting formats.

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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