If 2010 was the year hybrid became part of the day-to-day meetings industry lexicon, 2011 may be the year meeting pros finally get comfortable with the concept.
Hybrid meetings—events with both physical and virtual components—are complicated undertakings, challenging event organizers’ technological, logistical, and marketing expertise. At the Virtual Edge Summit in January—held in Las Vegas and online—three association executives, each of whom served as the force behind her organization’s inaugural 2010 hybrid event, spoke about their reasons for going hybrid and the lessons learned from their first efforts.
APA’s First Hybrid Steps
On the panel was Shannon Dewey, solutions manager at the 20,000-member American Payroll Association, San Antonio, and the project manager for APA’s virtual conference. The APA added a hybrid element to the APA Congress, Dewey said, because it “wanted to reach a larger audience—including an international audience and people who wanted to know more about us. Also, we wanted to offer a taste of the physical event to the virtual audience.”
The live Congress in May 2010 drew 1,900 attendees and more than 100 exhibitors, and offered 170 workshops. The virtual event, powered by Unisfair, Menlo Park, Calif., included four workshops (attendees could earn recertification credit hours), one general session, a 12-booth expo hall, and a networking lounge. All sessions were prerecorded, first broadcast during the live meeting, then made available on demand for three months after the show. Two of the sessions featured real-time Q&A sessions after the prerecorded event.
The hybrid event was free and attracted 3,479 registrants and 2,656 attendees—a 76 percent show rate—with a 7 percent overlap between live and virtual attendees.
SLA Takes a 3-D Approach
While all revenues from APA’s virtual event came from online exhibitors, the Special Libraries Association, Alexandria, Va., took a different tack, charging attendees a registration fee.
“When I started this process, I didn’t have upper management buy-in or board support. They thought it was going to take away from our on-site revenue,” said panelist Kristen Foldvik, SLA’s director, events. “But as an association, you’ve got to realize that if you start this model right, it’s eventually going to become a big revenue stream for you. So we took a step. Our goal for the first year was to break even, and we were able to do that just with registration.”
Knowing that members were tech-savvy, heavily into webinars, and involved in 3-D worlds such as Second Life, Foldvik selected Digitell, Jamestown, N.Y., as its virtual meeting platform after a five-month RFP process. With the Digitell Virtual Convention Center, users can watch PowerPoint slides and a video of the presenters at the same time, and the platform allows attendees to move around the 3-D environment as avatars (attendees’ names float in the air over their heads) and to communicate with one another.
SLA produced a live broadcast of eight educational sessions and two keynotes and charged $200. The event drew 100 registrants who had access to the archive for 60 days after the meeting. For 2011, Foldvik plans to make the content from the hybrid meeting available year-round and eventually would like to host sessions in the virtual hall throughout the year.
ASAE: A Push From the Vendors
At the American Society of Association Executives, Washington, D.C., the impetus for creating a hybrid component to its annual meeting didn’t originate from association members. “We had vendors coming to us, telling us that this is something that ASAE must do, that we must be early adopters,” said Tammy Blosil, senior director of online learning at the Washington, D.C.–based association. Blosil positioned the hybrid components to reach a broad audience, but especially to attract members who had been active in the past but who hadn’t engaged with the association recently.
ASAE contracted with InXpo, Chicago, as its platform provider, as well as with Viva Creative, Rockville, Md., for help with designing a user experience that was branded and marketed in sync with the live event. “We were just going to go with a platform provider, but I’m so glad we didn’t,” says Blosil. “It takes so much time to pull off a virtual event. If you do it right, you’re going to excel. If you don’t, it’s hard to get those customers to come back.”
ASAE live-streamed a total of 24 sessions over three days, three general sessions, nine thought-leader sessions, and 12 education learning labs.
The registration fee for the virtual event was $595 ($200 less than early-bird pricing for the live meeting) and included access to the archives for 90 days. It drew 245 registrants who spent, on average, two hours in the online event during six visits. The association didn’t organize an online exhibit hall or sell sponsorships for the hybrid event in 2010 because of time constraints, but it will this year, says Blosil.
Time Is of the Essence. All three panelists commented that the amount of work that goes into a hybrid meeting was a shocker. “Our biggest surprise was how much time it took. There is an incredible amount of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s in the logistics to pull this off,” said ASAE’s Blosil. APA’s Dewey agreed. “Make sure your staff and your production team have enough time to plan the virtual event, especially if they’re working on a physical event at the same time. They really need to be able to do things concurrently, but it’s like planning a whole other conference.” One tactic that worked well for the APA was to have its meeting planners work on the physical event and the education team focus on the virtual event. “While we did work with the meeting planners quite a bit on the advertising and kept them up to speed with what we were doing, the subject matter experts from our education team were mainly responsible for putting together the virtual event,” Dewey says.
Streaming Is Pricey. The high cost of broadband was another big surprise for ASAE’s Blosil. “Convention centers’ bread and butter now is Internet,” she cautioned. “And when you’re streaming live, one of your highest costs is going to be the hardwire feeds necessary to pull it off. We spent $33,000 to feed four concurrent sessions. We weren’t expecting that high a rate.” There are ways around those fees—for example, APA prerecorded all of its sessions—but Blosil says that ASAE members want to be connected in real time and that she plans to continue to stream sessions live in 2011.
The Special Libraries Association also streamed its event in real time because members “really wanted to feel like they were part of the live event,” says Foldvik. She notes that SLA saved money by holding every live-streaming session in the same room so that the cameras, lighting, and other equipment was already in place.
Speaker Management Is Key. Be aware that speakers at your live event may not want their presentations uploaded to a virtual audience because too much exposure reduces their value. It’s important to let your speaker know your plans in advance, and as SLA’s Foldvik notes, if the virtual meeting is restricted to paying attendees, rather than open to anyone, the speaker is more likely to allow it.
Speaker management is also critical, says ASAE’s Blosil, in terms of adapting their styles to a virtual audience. For example, because of the camera for the online audience, speakers can’t roam freely on the dais and they have to remember to repeat questions for off-site listeners. Blosil says she will now be asking speakers to sign an agreement that they’ll adhere to guidelines that make the sessions work for a virtual audience.
Exhibitors Are a Hard Sell. Most of the APA’s 100-plus exhibitors booked for the physical event “had no experience exhibiting virtually, and it took a lot of personal phone calls and e-mails” to get the virtual exhibits off the ground. The virtual space had only 12 booths—11 paid exhibitors and one for the APA—but in the end, exhibitor feedback was positive. The online exhibit hall drew 700 unique booth visitors, and exhibitors received a list of all 3,479 registrants for the virtual event.
Neither the SLA nor ASAE had virtual exhibit halls, but both plan to in 2011. “Exhibitors didn’t buy into it” in 2010, said SLA’s Foldvik, but this year the organization will package the virtual booth with their on-site booth sales. “The exhibit hall would have been too much for us in the window of time that we had, and the exhibitors weren’t ready,” said ASAE’s Blosil.
Exhibitors Need Training. Through its platform provider Unisfair, APA trained online exhibitors to build their virtual booths, insert content, and approach attendees online, but there were other unexpected challenges. Some vendors, says Dewey, had a hard time staffing their virtual booth at the same time that they were staffing a live booth. “Sometimes vendors had to send someone who was at the live show up to their hotel room to be in front of a computer,” she said.