Hybrid conferences, mixing in-person and virtual elements, may be the new normal for 2021 and beyond. They present plenty of logistical challenges, but also new opportunities for creativity and engagement.

Association meeting planners have spent much of 2020 on shifting sands. In early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic was still more threat than reality in the United States, some associations were able to keep their in-person meetings intact. But by summer, most had shifted their conferences to virtual platforms.

Now, the prevailing question is what meetings will look like in 2021. Many associations are considering hybrid events—an in-person conference that accommodates virtual attendees who are skittish about travel or who may simply prefer that mode of learning and networking.

“There’s no question it’s the wave of the future,” says Sarah Michel, vice president of professional connexity at Velvet Chainsaw, an association meetings consulting firm. “We are changed forever.”

The tricky part is determining what that change looks like and how to adapt. Hybrid meetings make new demands on staffing, scheduling, pricing, tradeshows, attendee engagement, and more. Many are learning on the fly, but some have long experience with the format or are bringing innovative ideas to creating a compelling meeting—just one that might not look like last year’s meeting for some time.

PAST PRACTICE

In 2010, the American Payroll Association decided to experiment with its first hybrid annual meeting, adding a virtual element to its in-person conference. One motive for the shift was travel restrictions for government employees that reduced the pool of likely in-person attendees. But APA Executive Director Dan Maddux also saw an opportunity for the association to prospect for new members and attendees.

“We considered it an introduction to some of the layers and textures of the annual congress,” he says. “We were priming people to want to come to the live experience.”

In the years that followed, APA honed the particulars of the hybrid experience, essentially creating two versions of the same event. It staggered the dates for in-person and virtual participation, in part to keep tradeshow vendors from having to manage two audiences simultaneously. It tweaked session lengths. And in 2019 it made what’s turned out to be a forward-thinking decision, putting a price tag on the virtual version for member attendees.

APA has already moved many of its educational efforts to virtual formats, Maddux said, which allayed skepticism. “The value proposition was there,” he says. “People understood the value of it, so people didn’t have a problem paying for it.”

This year’s APA conference was all-virtual, but its past experience has left it well-positioned for next year, Maddux says. In 2021, APA plans to host an in-person annual conference in the spring and a virtual version in the fall. “We created a whole new brand in the midst of a worldwide pandemic,” he says.

One insight APA has gained is that speaking and presenting for two formats requires two very different styles and skill sets. “We train our speakers bureau of members to instruct in person and virtually,” says Maddux, who recommends that all speaker contracts should contain language detailing how speakers will present and engage with a virtual audience, whether a virtual version is planned or not.

Finding speakers who have that flexibility—or training them to develop it—will be increasingly essential for hybrid events, says Michel.

“You need to understand that you’re serving two audiences,” she says. “There are points where you want those two audiences to converge and feel like one community, like in all main-room experiences. But even then that doesn’t mean you just stream what’s happening.”

That means new kinds of attendee engagement, on two fronts.

NEW RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

A particular challenge of a hybrid meeting is that it necessitates new job roles. Meetings staffers might be skilled at session prep for in-person meetings or facilitating online conversations—but perhaps not both.

“It’s like adding a new event to the schedule with just as many steps to have a virtual program running at the same time or after the live event, without adding more staff to produce it,” says Karen Vogel, managing partner at the Event Advisory Group.

One way an association can handle that, says Michel, is to deputize and train highly engaged members or well-known volunteer leaders, including board members, to serve as conversation facilitators on the virtual side of hybrid events.

“Imagine being a virtual attendee, and a well-known, high-influence association member is now moderating the chat and what’s happening online,” she says. “The event’s networking value goes up. There’s a big opportunity to use your volunteer leaders that way.”

It may be worth taking the time to study up on what works best rather than hustle to create a subpar virtual event that alienates attendees. Earlier this year, the Airport Minority Advisory Council, a trade association representing minority-owned businesses in aviation, decided to outright cancel its 2020 annual meeting and present a hybrid event in 2021. Rather than try to stage a virtual event this year for an industry that’s been especially hard-hit, AMAC decided to train its members on virtual events to build up their comfort level and experiment with session length.

You need to understand that you’re serving two audiences. There are points where you want those two audiences to converge and feel like one community, like in all main-room experiences. But even then that doesn’t mean you just stream what’s happening.

“We want to know our audience and know what works for them,” says AMAC Chief Operating Officer Anthony W. Barnes. “We’ve been doing a lot of trial runs and getting our members more used to virtual events.”

The virtual events also give AMAC time to sort out the particulars of the hybrid conference’s tradeshow, session length, and attendee interaction. It’s exploring ways to have in-person and virtual attendees in particular business categories, like construction or concessions, communicate simultaneously. But Barnes notes that any hybrid plan will have to acknowledge that the environment is still changing.

“There’s a lot we don’t have clarity on,” he says. “If we’re optimistic and plan for three or four hundred people [in person] next year, are there still going to be social-distancing rules that will limit our numbers? Are we going to be able to serve food at a reception?”

Vogel recommends that associations take a cue from AMAC and take time to think—not just about the virtual elements of a hybrid event, but also about which communities are likely to attend in person. In the near future, in-person attendees are less likely to come from a particular member class and more from a particular region—those within driving distance of the venue.

“I think that if an association were smart, they’d really focus on where the event is next year and really try to draw in as many attendees as they can locally and regionally,” she says. “Then for everyone else, make sure to have an offering to include them. But you had better make sure that you’ve got enough [attendees] within your local and regional area to have a successful live event.”

The virtual program “is also an opportunity to draw an expanded audience of first-time, national, and global attendees that normally do not attend your event,” Vogel adds. “The key is knowing what your members and the industry want and are willing to support.”

MAKING LEMONADE

Planning a hybrid event can provide an opportunity to rethink what kinds of in-person connections are meaningful for members. In June, the American Society of Golf Course Architects decided to cancel its annual conference this year in Cleveland. The hallmark of the conference, says ASGCA Director of Programs Aileen Smith, CAE, was a group trip to an architecturally significant golf course in the host city. Moving to virtual removed that option for Cleveland. But it opened it up for the rest of the country.

“Getting together is really important to our members,” she says. “There are so few people who do what they do.”

So ASGCA leadership talked with members about creating regional golf gatherings where members within driving distance of a particular course can get together. ASGCA has given members leeway to arrange events on their own but asks them to communicate with the association so it can connect sponsors to the events. This year, it scheduled 13 such events across the United States.

“We’re seeing this as a lemonade-making situation,” Smith says. “It’s an opportunity for us to flex muscles that we haven’t used much before.”

Golf has the benefit of being an activity that lends itself well to social distancing. The American Trail Running Association is similarly taking advantage of its discipline to stage a hybrid conference in 2020.

Terry Chiplin, a private event planner who stages the conference in partnership with ATRA, says that because the conference is typically small—about 200 participants—he decided to call registrants for its in-person 2020 conference individually to sense their comfort level with the meeting. Most were willing to attend in person but some were not, so he saw an opportunity to bring in more attendees and potentially new ATRA members by hosting a virtual conference that livestreamed sessions and included networking events in parallel with the in-person ones.

Discounts for virtual attendees are deep, which Chiplin says reflects the lower cost of hosting a virtual meeting and makes access easier for those new to the organization. So while not everybody attending the U.S. Trail Running Conference in October will be jogging through Fayetteville, Arkansas, Chiplin is confident he’s laying the groundwork for future in-person meeting attendees. And for a group of people who love the outdoors, the virtual event has an upside.

“It’s a really elegant way of decreasing the carbon footprint of the conference but at the same time allowing outreach to grow,” he says. “We are hopeful that the total number of people who attend will be larger than our past events. That’s the vision.”

MARK ATHITAKIS

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE »