Fall Conference Season – Time to Start Thinking Virtually

This spring and summer saw some major changes to the way we gather for trade shows, conferences, and other industry events and these changes seem likely to stay as we head into planning for the fall conference season.

While the virtual conference has always been on the horizon for associations, the pandemic is creating an opportunity to field test this model. At Rockbridge, we are starting to get firsthand data through the CX research we conduct for large-scale events like conferences and training events on behalf of our association clients, providing indications of what drives attendance and keeps attendees coming back.

Virtual programs may actually increase attendance since attendees no longer have to travel for these events. This is especially likely if the topics are timely, like how to respond to the pandemic, how to operate in a post-pandemic world, etc. Many organizations are still looking for guidance on how to continue operating during the pandemic, and professional and trade associations are well-positioned to provide that guidance and facilitate the exchange of ideas and experiences through their events.

However, attendees expect the cost to be lower compared to an in-person conference or even free. Though Rockbridge’s research shows at least half of association members use online methods for learning, certification, and networking already, they may also believe certain in-person experiences are not replicable in a virtual environment, leading to a compressed schedule, fewer session options, or fewer training/certification opportunities at virtual conferences. Therefore, conference and event planners should plan to communicate the schedule of events early and often to build excitement, but may want to consider other ways of funding the events than registration fees, such as sponsorships, if the virtual environment necessitates a reduced agenda.

The perception exists that a virtual event is not as engaging as in-person programs due to the remote nature, so ensure that there is still time for attendees to connect one on one or in small groups. If your industry has been severely impacted with furloughs and layoffs, remember that networking may be more important than ever for your attendees. Many virtual meeting platforms can accommodate shifts from a large group format for keynote speeches or training sessions to smaller breakout groups for networking. Also consider leaving time in the schedule for virtual social events in the conference program to allow attendees to unwind and socialize.

Virtual conferences can be more prone to technical difficulties in part because the technicians who would normally work on-site at in-person conferences are not there with the speaker in-person to help them with any issues. In addition, individual computer or internet/WiFi issues for speakers or attendees could be disruptive, so it may be helpful to have an extra person on deck to help troubleshoot for each virtual session. Do not assume that attendees are equally tech-savvy, as barriers to adopting new technologies, like virtual meeting platforms, differ from person to person.

Scheduling may matter more for virtual events compared to in-person events. In-person conferences that packed each day with speakers, training sessions, networking coffee breaks, and social events occurring simultaneously forced attendees to choose the sessions most valuable to them (or coordinate with coworkers to cover everything of interest), but the conference itself captivated their time and energy. Virtual events may also be competing with normally scheduled meetings, email correspondence, and distractions at home. To accommodate schedules and ensure attendees are able to get the most from your event, consider having fewer overlapping sessions or spread out the sessions over more days.

Collecting feedback is as important as ever and may be easier than ever. Obtaining feedback from attendees after your event will allow you to uncover any paint points, areas for improvement, successes, and learnings for future virtual events. You will be able to understand which aspects of the virtual event drive satisfaction and future attendance to make more informed decisions about how to hold your next conference or event. And your request for feedback may be less likely to get lost in the shuffle of attendees traveling home, catching up on missed work, and full inboxes that come with being out of office for an in-person event.

Above all, keep the attendee experience in mind as you plan this fall’s virtual conferences, meetings, and training events. While virtual meeting platforms enhance our ability to connect, it’s not a one for one replacement for the in-person industry events we’re used to and will result in a different experience this year. If you are interested in learning more about Rockbridge’s event experience measurement to understand what drives satisfaction and loyalty, or if you want to chat about our learnings, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Learn more about Rockbridge’s association practice.

Written by: Hilary Ross-Rojas, Research Director