Being There, But Not Really

July 1, 2011       Samuel Fanburg      

Noticing a slump in attendance at its annual conference due to the national recession and an increase in travel costs, Tammy Blosil, vice president of online learning for Washington D.C.-based ASAE – The Center for Association Leadership (ASAE), decided to integrate a “hybrid,” conference model even though some feared it would lead to cannibalization of their physical attendees.

Blosil found the opposite to be true, however. After the hybrid conference, 34 percent of people who attended the virtual meeting indicated they would attend the meeting in person the following year. This illustrates a sector trend, according to Blosil, as 30 percent of those who participate in some kind of virtual conference will likely attend the physical conference the next year.

Hybrid conferences have become the in-vogue option for organizations that want to stay on top of the digital revolution. It’s also an opportunity to engage people who cannot attend a conference for financial or travel reasons. The way a virtual conference can be implemented varies in scope and cost from the size of the conference to how “virtual,” conference organizers want to go in this hybridization.

People need to meet, whether it’s in a hotel lobby or a chat room or at a virtual conference. Virtual conferences are used by a small percentage of conference goers and are not replacing physically going to conferences, although they are gaining some notoriety.

Michael Doyle, executive director, of Pleasanton, Calif., Virtual Edge Institute believes that through a virtual conference, associations can capitalize on the content they are already distributing.

“At its very basis it’s (virtual conferences) having a digital audience in addition to a physical audience,” said Doyle. “The primary reason is that they (event organizers) want to reach a larger audience that isn’t able to attend physical events. People are already capturing that content anyway, so why not stream it for remote individuals?”

At the annual ASAE meeting held last year in Los Angeles, Blosil and her colleagues integrated the virtual and physical space by having 24 of the approximately 100 sessions streamed live via the Internet. Three were general sessions, nine were leadership sessions (highly paid speakers) and 12 learning labs were held online.

The ASAE also picked sessions that they believed would best translate to the online realm. In the end, the ASAE streamed 33 hours of live video content, had inclusive slides from PowerPoint presentations and even had a moderator in the chat room where the session was being broadcast. With virtual attendees posing questions to an online moderator, the ASAE was running four sessions online simultaneously for about 90 minutes. The ASAE had 265 people attend the virtual event.

“For the ASAE,” said Blosil, “we really did this as a live case study and wanted to mine as much data as possible. We also wanted to make sure that our membership had every opportunity to see some of the presentations that were being held at our conference.”

The type of model used by ASAE should not be considered uniform for all conferences and considerations should be made depending on budgets and overall desire to make a conference virtual. Doyle said that a low-cost virtual conference solution could be just simply streaming a keynote speaker on a free online video sharing website like USTREAM or Justin.tv. This would only require the use of an AV person, which many conferences already have, and connecting that stream to the Internet.

Broadcasting multiple sessions and providing a virtual exhibit hall can significantly increase costs. According to Doyle, if the average 3-day event wanted a full-on virtual conference featuring 20 different experiences, 20 booths exhibiting virtually, with the capability of a 2,000 online attendance, costs could reach $200,000.

When installing an online component to the Seattle, Wash.-based Nonprofit Technology Network’s (NTEN) Nonprofit Technology Conference, Executive Director Holly Ross wanted to make sure the virtual conference gave attendees an opportunity to network online, just as they had offline. “We had been using online tools for the past couple of years,” said Ross. “The conference is definitely about the sessions, but what really matters is the connections people make. We wanted to launch something that wasn’t just session based. So we made sure that everyone at the conference online and offline were using the same online platform to converse.” In addition to using an online communication tool to give attendees opportunities to network, NTEN screened its keynote address together with two sessions per time slot. During the sessions, attendees could see who was attending each session and message them.

Online attendees gave the virtual conference a “good to excellent” rating, lower than the in-person attendees. Ross did not find this surprising, however, and did not anticipate attendance of the physical conference would wane.

“I don’t think we are going to lose people attending the physical conference,” said Ross. “But next year we are going to promote the virtual option more. We have seen a lot of interest in this conference, but don’t want it to get any bigger. We want it to feel like a community. And if we have to move to a larger space, the magic is gone.”

The NTEN conference also used “quick reply” (QR) codes on attendees’ badges. Once a fellow attendee scanned the code, they were brought to the person’s profile on the online platform. Ross said it was the first time they had used the codes on badges, and believed that participants needed to warm up to their privacy being somewhat compromised.

For 2012, NTEN needs to do a better job in creating an efficient online space that is accessible by the audience, said Ross. “I think most of our development needs to go into information architecture. We made it messy for people understanding where they need to be,” she said. “We are going to do a lot more work this year in working with engaging people in the platform leading up to, during and after the conference.”

As the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP) in Falls Church, Va., has seen attendance drop from its annual conference, there has only been a slight dip in regional conference attendance. The conference does not offer online streaming sessions, but AHP does record certain sessions and make them available.

AHP has seven regional conferences. President and CEO William C. McGinly said that this regionally-based model has always been the case even though they barely make any money for AHP.

“We are driven by the needs of our members,” said McGinly. “When we do it on a regional basis there is a process. Years ago, when it was volunteer based, it cost a lot of money. Now all the administrative tasks are centralized and done through the main office. They are really an investment for us. They don’t make money for us and don’t cover all the costs.”

Rather than incorporating a virtual conference to try and attract new attendees, AHP uses several traditional mechanisms. AHP offers an early bird special with discounted costs and have extended the time of this offer in recent years. They encouraged people to bring non-members, along with publishing individual appeals from members asking other to attend. Paired with incentives and offers via marketing, AHP hopes to bring more than the usual 20-25 percent of membership attending the conference. AHP’s regional conferences performed much better than the national conference because of the economy and restrictions on travel. Relinquishing the idea of virtual conference due to cost concerns, McGinly has turned instead to where the conference is actually held, organizing events in second-tier cities as to minimize the cost. As for a virtual conference, McGinly does not see AHP establishing anything in the near future.

For an association like AHP that has yet to integrate a virtual conference in their model, Doyle advised event organizers to start a “virtual” chapter of their organization. This way, leadership can see internally who would want to help you with this development, as they are active participants in social media and online marketing. Admitting that conferences’ reliance on a virtual dimension had a lot to with the economy, Doyle believed that virtual conferences are something that need to be explored more thoroughly in order to get tangible benefits.

“There is nothing like fear to get people motivated to doing things differently,” said Doyle. “We have come an awful long way to try and make this a situation where people see the value beyond the fact when people can’t travel for some reason. This needs to be in the toolbox of every nonprofit organization.” NPT

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