Hybrid Conferences and Technology: One Size Doesn't Fit All

By: Kathleen M. Edwards, CAE

Two associations offer their take on the technological challenges of their virtual conferences, plus a detailed list of technology considerations and pricing options.

Technological hurdles for virtual conferences have been dramatically reduced in recent years. Participants need just an internet connection, any major web browser, and either Flash or Silverlight. Associations can offer everything from audio recordings on CD-ROMs to live audio and video streaming of multiple sessions and a true virtual tradeshow over several days.

Solutions can and should be fully scalable, getting more cost effective as scope and size increase. However, requirements will vary depending on the association's goals and the onsite venue's network and telecom capabilities. What works for one association can't necessarily be replicated by another.

A key budget and capabilities decision to make after goals and strategy are determined is whether to work with a systems integrator or with individual vendors. "Regardless which it is," says Anthony Allen, ASTD director, digital media, "there has to be someone within the association whose knowledge base is wide enough to get this off the ground. If the capacity isn't on staff, you may have to hire a consultant because the space moves incredibly fast; the people involved have to know what they're doing." Allen doesn't use an integrator; he coordinates the effort while spending a significant amount of time looking at what members need, finding knowledgeable service providers, and building working relationships with them. "Implementation always changes," he says, "and we're constantly looking at available technology to see if and how we can work it into our programs."

More on Hybrid Conferences
See "Hybrid Meetings That Offer the Best of Both Worlds," by Kathleen M. Edwards, CAE, in the April 2009 issue of Associations Now.

Kevin Novak, AIA's vice president, integrated web strategy and technology, is responsible for the technology aspects of AIA's event. Despite his extensive experience in this arena, he still opted to go with systems integrator Blue Sky Broadcast: "The integrator takes care of getting the needed partners. It's a little more pricey; however, the headaches aren't borne by the association and the integrator ensures everything is pulled together." Novak "absolutely would" contract with an integrator again; AIA's technology staff is small, and during the convention has responsibilities well beyond the virtual event. In 2010, AIA is again working with Blue Sky Broadcast.

Phil Forte, Blue Sky Broadcast's president, says "going virtual" can be a lot more economical than people might realize. "It might be as low as a few thousand dollars to produce and deliver a day of content, and go up from there," he said. "You could audio stream a presentation synchronized with slides for as little as the low four figures; video streaming would of course be more. The numbers can get big as you scale up, however there are efficiencies available. The good news," Forte continues, "at least in Blue Sky's experience, is there is incredible adoption from members; the hurdles are no longer there. Most people have speakers on their computers and are accustomed to viewing video online."

Despite that increased technological adoption among attendees, there will always be challenges. "Technology is great, and it's not perfect," says Novak. "Delivery is always a challenge—broadband isn't as widespread in the U.S. as it is in some other countries. Connectivity at convention centers varies. Participants will have technical issues that need to be addressed quickly. There's a lot to think about and a lot of planning that needs to occur."

 "It can be a daunting process. Start small, and grow fast," says Allen. "Even if all you do is work with speakers to make audio recordings, then make those recordings available to a LinkedIn group and foster discussions around them, you've made a good step forward in doing a virtual conference. Don't let the goals and strategy get in the way—take a look at the options and dive in."

What to Consider

Blue Sky Broadcast's Forte suggests a list of topics to consider as you plan a virtual conference effort, whether simple or complex:

The Basics:

  • A standard T1 line (dedicated, to guarantee service level) out of the building
  • For video: camera with videographer (provided by a vendor or one already shooting the session for a jumbotron)
  • Audio feed from house sound
  • Slide feed from presenter's computer, simply intercepting the projector feed and splitting the signal
  • Some form of easily accessible tech support for participants

Other Considerations:

  • If members are behind firewalls that don't allow applet downloads, consider an online platform that doesn't require downloads
  • Consider presenters' comfort levels. If your presenters are volunteer subject-matter experts but not experienced speakers, an important component for success may be that they don't have to do anything different

Pricing Model Options:

  • Free to members, and perhaps to nonmembers; association absorbs costs
  • Free to members/others and funded by sponsors, who might receive an on-screen banner or a sponsor representative introducing speakers
  • Pay-per-view (note that this model hasn't proved successful for most associations other than for very special events)
  • Subscriptions: a set fee provides access to a number of live events and for a while on-demand
  • Free content, CEUs available at a cost (participants pay a fee to get access to an online assessment they can pass to earn credit)

Kathleen M. Edwards, CAE, is president and chief navigator of CompassPoints, Havre de Grace, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

Kathleen M. Edwards, CAE