Hybrid meetings aim to integrate live and virtual events into one successful conference. The American Institute of Architects and the American Society for Training and Development held their first true hybrid meetings in 2009, but approached them in entirely different ways. Here, those involved share what went right, what they'd change, and what you can learn from their experiences.
In January 2009, staff members at the American Institute of Architects were concerned. Registrations for the annual convention in April were down an unprecedented 30 percent. AIA estimates indicated 10 percent of U.S. architects were unemployed and the rest were having a tough time as budgets were slashed. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, architects were number two on the list of professions hit hardest by the recession. Clearly, economic conditions were going to affect AIA's flagship event. Something had to be done.
Meanwhile, at the American Society for Training and Development, the next step in an ongoing strategic process was being put in place. Going into his third year on the job, ASTD's digital media director was about to launch the association's first true virtual conference while beginning to make plans for a similar virtual event connected to the annual international conference in late May.
Two professional associations. Two very different approaches to implementing large-scale virtual conferences connected to major annual events.
Such virtual conferences connected to in-person events—also called hybrid conferences—take association learning and networking to the next level. While there are a variety of events called "virtual conferences," the term is increasingly being defined more closely with the elements of an in-person conference or convention. As explored here, a definition used by ASTD is applied: A virtual conference is any part of a live conference that is made available via the web for attendees around the world to view live or on demand. A true virtual conference, as ASTD sees it, has six components: webcasts, audio, video, networking, exhibitor access, and archives. A component important to both AIA and ASTD is two-way interaction between participants and the event.
AIA: Response to Member Need
"We'd been talking about doing a virtual conference for a couple of years," says Barb Sido, CAE, formerly AIA's vice president, knowledge and professional practice, and now executive director of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. "It was part of a larger assessment of the convention overall as we took a very strategic approach to maintaining a successful event."
Just because speakers are great at leading a face-to-face session, it doesn't mean they will be great leading one virtually. Here are some things to consider about speaker preparation when adding a virtual component to your event.
Learn what speakers plan to do. Once a session is identified for the virtual event, talk with the speakers about it and find out what type of session it will be. AIA recommends caution for sessions with more than two speakers. "One of our 2009 sessions had a five-person panel," says Kevin Novak, AIA vice president, integrated web strategy and technology. "Especially because they were running late on time for the last couple of speakers, they went through their slides very quickly; the refresh rate on the streaming video wasn't able to keep up."
Encourage dual-audience engagement. Consider advance coaching for all speakers whose sessions are being delivered simultaneously onsite and virtually. Both audiences should be included in their comments; that may mean making some minor adjustments to audience engagement, especially if virtual participants will be asking questions via a service like Twitter. Novak strongly recommends finding a way to allow virtual participants to engage in sessions in real time, regardless of how it's done. In 2010, AIA will be assigning a staff monitor to streamed sessions to direct virtual questions and comments.
Prepare speakers in advance for the possibility of a small live audience and a larger virtual one. Barb Sido, AIA's former vice president, knowledge and professional practice, recalls, "In one economic downturn session, there were just three people in the room onsite, and the speaker was a little down until we told him 1,000 were watching online!" Onsite participants should be told about the virtual participants at the start of the session so they, too, are prepared.
Show speakers their tools. If virtual sessions are offered using a webinar-style platform, speakers will likely need some coaching in engaging virtual audiences if they've never led a program of this type. Provide a speaker orientation using the virtual conference platform to allow speakers to see how its audience engagement tools are used as well as what the participant experience will be like.
Ensure speaker agreements spell out intent. The agreement speakers sign must specifically state how their session and its content will be used. Without such modifications, the association has no rights to use speaker content anywhere but the live conference stipulated in the agreement.
AIA's 2009 sessions had been scheduled several months before the virtual conference idea was born, and speaker agreements didn't cover other uses of their content. The speakers in sessions targeted for live broadcast/on-demand availability were asked to sign a new agreement giving AIA the rights to distribute the content via the web. All readily did so. (Find a sample version of AIA's speaker agreement on the "Agreements and Contracts: Speaker Agreements" list in ASAE & The Center's Models & Samples Collection.)
"From now on," says AIA's Novak, "we'll generally include this more comprehensive agreement up front, when session proposals are submitted, so speakers know what they might be getting into."
At the beginning of 2009, AIA had gone only as far as some initial conversation with a virtual tradeshow vendor. However, those January registration statistics—highly unusual for AIA—combined with the economic downturn to create a wake-up call.
Architects are required to earn 18 continuing education credits per year to maintain their AIA membership. Continuing education is also required for licensure in 38 U.S. states. AIA's annual convention is one source of that education and the primary reason many architects attend. A new requirement for sustainable-design education made taking courses in 2009 more critical, yet the economy was making it difficult. Almost overnight, offering a virtual conference concurrent with the live event became a priority. In just six weeks, AIA staff worked with two vendors to plan and implement it.
A key early decision was to offer the virtual conference to both members and nonmembers at no cost, essentially telling architects, "We're here for you during this difficult time." AIA's leaders decided the value created for members was worth far more than potential revenue.
AIA staff began marketing the virtual event to architects just two weeks before the convention started. The result? Participation beyond the staff's wildest expectations (see sidebar at bottom of article). "Across the board, we received some of the most positive feedback we'd ever received," says Christine McEntee, AIA's executive vice president and CEO. "Architects told us it was one of the best things we'd ever done."
ASTD: Long-Term Strategy
ASTD has taken a more measured approach to going virtual with its conferences. Beginning with the 2007 hiring of Discovery Channel veteran Anthony Allen as director, digital media, ASTD has gradually built its in-house capabilities in offering the elements of virtual conferences.
For the first two years, ASTD's virtual content was limited to on-demand viewing of videotaped keynote presentations; almost all were video synchronized with slides. ASTD's TechKnowledge Conference & Exposition in January 2009 was the association's first foray into offering a virtual conference with all six elements mentioned previously. It was followed in May by ASTD's 2009 International Conference & Exposition (ASTD-ICE), which included five of the six; ASTD excluded the virtual tradeshow based on polling of participants, although an online exhibitor search was available to both virtual and onsite attendees.
Participation levels were very different for ASTD than for AIA, with 140 individuals paying a registration fee of 50 percent that of the onsite event. "Our pricing decisions were based on lots of research," Allen says. "We looked at both the perceived value of the virtual event and how many sessions were in the package compared to what was being offered onsite. Our goal was to offer value to participants and meet their needs."
The results indicate that goal was met, if not exceeded. The size of the virtual attendee group and the tools available allowed a significant level of participant interaction throughout the event. After the conference Allen received numerous emails from participants citing the value of direct interaction with speakers and other participants.
Would ASTD and AIA do it again? Unequivocally yes, they say—and both associations are again pairing virtual conferences with their onsite annual meetings in 2010. What would they say to other associations interested in going down this path?
Consider first the member value proposition. Despite their different approaches, both AIA and ASTD focused on one primary goal: member benefit. AIA's biggest "a-ha" was the member value that went far beyond the education offered or the money spent. "Think first about the member experience," says AIA's McEntee. "It's easy to get caught up in the technology; however, the driver has to be what the members will receive and what the value to them will be."
Allen at ASTD agrees. When it comes to learning events, he says, "Members care primarily about whether their learning objectives were achieved. What can you do to ensure that happens, regardless of how it's done?"
Really know your audience. Who are they? What is their view of technology, and how savvy are they about it? Know why people come to the traditional conference, and begin to understand why they would participate in a virtual event—the reasons may be different. Avoid making assumptions; know as much as you can about their needs.
Prioritize content over technology. "Content is king," says Allen. Coupled with the member value proposition, consider which sessions will be of most value to virtual participants.
Because of its reasons for going virtual in the first place, AIA focused on sessions that were related to the economic downturn. Sessions about finding a job, managing the stress of closing an office and laying off staff, writing a new business plan, and so forth were late additions to both onsite and virtual events. With new continuing-education requirements in sustainability, sessions on those topics were also chosen for the virtual event.
|More on Hybrid Conference Technology|
|For AIA and ASTD's take on the technological challenges their virtual conferences faced, plus a detailed list of technology considerations and pricing options, see "Hybrid Conferences and Technology: One Size Doesn't Fit All," by Kathleen M. Edwards, CAE.|
ASTD opened the virtual opportunity to any interested ASTD-ICE speaker who could schedule the time. "Our assumption is that if speakers make it through our selection process, they have excellent content worthy of our audience," Allen explains. "Some content may not translate well virtually; however, for the most part we can't make assumptions about people's abilities to glean knowledge from any particular session."
Know the association's goals before seeking technology solutions. "The biggest mistake I see other associations make," says Allen, "is choosing a vendor before knowing what their goals are." Do you want engagement opportunities, content distribution, a library of content usable throughout the year, an international reach, or something else? Each requires different solutions.
Once goals are established, seek out someone you can trust and with whom you can establish a long-term relationship. "Things evolve rapidly in this arena; the knowledge cycle is less than the typical one-year association planning cycle," Allen says. "You have to assume that things will need to change as close as a couple of months before the event."
Philip Forte, president of Blue Sky Broadcast, a technology systems integrator working with AIA, calls it the "north star"—the strategy that will get the association where it wants to be. "Some associations get excited about the technology without an underlying plan to support using it," he says, "and they're not successful. The associations whose events work well start with a strategy."
Think well in advance, too, about what strategies you want to employ concerning future use of the virtual sessions. Your decisions affect how you proceed in everything from speaker agreements to the technology you choose.
|Hybrid Meeting Know-How|
|For more information and resources on hybrid meetings, visit the "Hybrid Meetings" entry in Associapedia.|
Ensure the virtual event complements the onsite event. With every technology breakthrough comes the worry that it will cannibalize face-to-face offerings. The facts, according to ASTD's Allen, usually don't bear that out. "People who are going to live events will continue to do so," he says. "People who value synchronized learning and networking, such as digital natives, value virtual conferences and will target associations providing them."
AIA's McEntee says you have to think about the possibility of cannibalization; however, she says that risk isn't as big as we think it is. "In our case," she said, "we have a very large, very profitable meeting and the data show only a small percentage of our total membership attends the convention. We have a huge group of members and nonmembers who can't take advantage of the onsite event and want to provide them more learning opportunities." In 2009, there was no cannibalizing: AIA's early 30 percent registration deficit was made up, and the association hit its target registration numbers for the onsite event.
Diversify your efforts. "Try a little of each of the six components … and see what sticks," recommends Allen. "Keep pouring money into what works, and toss what doesn't. Analyze the variables to ensure your hindsight is 20-20; you can't make good decisions unless you thoroughly understand what went wrong and what went well."
ASTD's strategy has been to integrate virtual conferencing into its core business model by building capacity for each of the six components. After several years, the association is in a position to offer virtual conferencing at several levels based on the association's goals and member needs. (And after answering many questions asked by other associations, Allen developed and ASTD has launched a one-hour, self-directed online class, "Producing Virtual Conferences," available at www.astd.org/virtualconferences for anyone interested in learning more about developing a virtual conference.)
Most importantly, think more about "integrated media." After their success at the 2009 convention, AIA's staff realized a paradigm shift had begun. "We're starting to think less about the event and the distribution channel," says McEntee. "Instead, we're thinking more about content and the multiple ways we can distribute that content and connect individuals, who can then gain insight, share, and add their own knowledge and perspective to that content. In addition to the wonderful time of an event, it becomes an ongoing knowledge development effort."
And this is perhaps the most exciting aspect of virtual conferencing—not the technology, but what the technology makes possible. Regardless where your association stands on the virtual conference continuum, the face of association learning has forever changed for the better.
Kathleen M. Edwards, CAE, is president and chief navigator of CompassPoints, Havre de Grace, Maryland. Email: [email protected]
|Profile: Two Virtual Conferences, Two Different Approaches|
AIA 2009 National Convention
Plans for 2010:
2009 ASTD International Conference & Exposition
Plans for 2010: