We have all heard the news: if you are not doing a digital event, you are behind the times. But with live events coming back across many parts of the world (we’re looking at our friends south of the border), the question remains if the future will be digital, hybrid or live. This leaves you wondering what the future holds for your association’s events.
There is no doubt that the future of events is still in a state of limbo. That would lead you to take your association down a similar middle of the road path towards a hybrid event. One quick Google Search of the term “Hybrid Events” will provide you lists upon lists of companies who want to sell you their platform promising your online conference will be the best of both the live and digital world. Can it really be that simple? In one word: no.
The truth is that both live and digital events have a place in an association’s plan, and here are some considerations before making the leap:
Events can be expensive. There is no getting around that. When looking at whether to plan an in-person event vs a digital one, you really have to look at the hard costs. Some costs of being in-person will disappear when you decide to pull the trigger and go digital. These include: travel, lodging, staging, printing, shipping, and of course the biggest of all, food and beverage. But some costs remain and likely will increase in making this move: A/V, technology investments, promotion and labour are all items that require extra attention and funds to make a digital event successful.
But (and this is a big but), your income will be reduced at a much larger ratio than the decrease in expenses. Associations lean heavily on sponsorship and exhibitor participation to ensure that the member cost for an event or conference remains at an attractive level. And after 18 months of online events, I think it is fair to say that most of your association’s partners will not have seen a matched ROI in the digital world. Therefore, while you can count on support from them in some way, it will likely be in a highly reduced capacity.
This suggests that a middle ground of a hybrid event might be attractive. In doing this you need to budget for BOTH the costs of a live and digital event. That simply is out of reach for most not-for-profits. So that leaves us back at square one: choosing one or the other. Therefore, I highly recommend doing some events in each format. Before making that decision though, you need to consider…
The Purpose/Goals of the Event
Is this primarily an education event or is it for networking? Is it meant to be attractive to just a segment of your membership or open to all members and guests alike? Will it be a member benefit or a revenue-generator for your association? Doing an assessment on the goals of the event can tell you which platform is best for that particular event.
The benefits of digital are the almost barrier-free nature of the virtual world. Almost anyone can attend as long as they have an internet connection (although that should be considered as well for those with high rural or remote memberships). After living through over a year of Zoom, Teams, Google Meets, and other video meeting options, most attendees are now familiar with the technology. So, those that can’t or don’t want to travel can attend en masse. This could drive your attendance up. Great…more participation! Goal reached.
However, if the purpose is to drive member interaction, there is no substitute for in-person. There are some amazing options out there, like Remo and Hubilo, amongst others, that offer good virtual options for small-group meetings and work. But they just don’t replace the networking achieved when sitting down in a hallway or at a table (AKA…at the bar) to really get to know your colleagues and turn them into customers and friends. I will maintain that this remains the cornerstone of association life: the human connection.
I firmly believe that both types of events play an important role in an association’s member offerings. But they may not need to be combined to be most effective and achieve your goals. So, determine which event should executed in which manner. This will also allow you to ensure that you have…
The Work Force
Associations often don’t have an endless pool of event staff. Producing a hybrid event will require people to manage the in-person AND the online portions. That’s at least twice the amount of work at once. There is just no way that is feasible or affordable in the non-profit orbit. Tack on to that the extra time needed to troubleshoot your attendees on the digital platform and to liaise with your A/V suppliers to ensure high quality production. You will soon see that your budget will be eaten up by labour, even if you had those staff at your disposal.
So make sure that you aren’t over-promising an event by overworking your staff. They all will appreciate you setting expectations and respecting their abilities to deliver at a level that your members, attendees and sponsors deserve.
In summary, I believe that both kinds of events have a place for an association. After our initial mad rush to hug our friends again and eat some exhibit floor sandwiches, we will settle in and find the right balance of live and digital events. The solution will be one that falls within our budgets, respects our member’s time, values our partner’s contributions, and most importantly meets the individual goals and purpose of the event. Then, we can start not just replacing one event style with another but expand the association’s offerings by creating a strong membership proposition that considers inclusion and value.
But I will leave that to the next blog…