Anthony Allen doesn't think virtual conferences will replace live meetings, but he does believe they are changing the very definition of a conference.
“If you talk to a conference planner, it's all about those four days — that's where the magic happens,” says Allen, director of digital media at the American Society for Training and Development, Alexandria, Va. “But you really have to change your perception of what a conference is.” He says conferences should be live meetings with a virtual component.
By running virtual meetings in conjunction with live events, Allen says associations can extend the meeting outside the walls of the convention center. Few associations have embraced the concept of adding a virtual component to live conferences, but Allen believes this will change soon; the fusing of the two will be an essential growth strategy.
ASTD has been at the forefront of incorporating virtual events into its live meetings, and Allen has been the architect. ASTD's first official virtual conference was held in January in conjunction with its TechKnowledge Conference and Exposition. The association added a virtual component to its annual meeting, the International Conference and Exposition, held May 31 to June 3 in Washington, D.C.
There are six components to a virtual conference, Allen says: video, audio recordings, live Web casts, social networking, access to vendors, and archives or reuse of content. For ICE, the association's annual conference, all six were used.
The hub of activity at ICE was a virtual conference room at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where speakers reprised their sessions for the virtual audience, doing shorter, more interactive presentations.
Ninety of the conference's 300 sessions were recreated for the virtual audience and posted on the conference Web site. Video and audio recordings of other sessions were posted after the conference.
“We repackaged a lot of the sessions so somebody who was not able to attend the live conference, either in person or virtually, was able to access the content. We were able to reach an entirely new audience,” Allen says.
ASTD set up a LinkedIn page and a Twitter hashtag for the virtual participants so they could interact during the conference. The LinkedIn page was set up weeks in advance so people could discuss session topics, connect with other attendees, and chat.
The final component of a virtual conference, exhibitor access, emanated from the convention center, too. Twelve exhibitors came into the virtual conference room and did interactive product demonstrations.
“It's another way for us to drive value to exhibitors and engage our members,” Allen says. “There were some really thoughtful, engaging conversations that went on between virtual conference attendees and exhibitors.”
They also had access to the virtual attendees through the LinkedIn page, but Allen advises: “Vendors really have to humanize and customize their message when they reach out to people virtually, and resist spamming.”
Some planners fear the virtual event will reduce attendance at the live meeting, but Allen says the opposite is true.
“You'll find that this is a different audience that is complementary to your current audience. The people who want to go to a conference are going to go to the conference,” he says.
The other concern planners have is cost. The initial investment of time, resources, and money to develop virtual conferences can be expensive, but it pays off, Allen says. In fact, the virtual conferences already are profitable for ASTD.
He counsels associations to start slowly, ramping up one or two areas each year. Planners have to be realistic about which areas they can — and should — implement. Not all events require all six components. “You have to decide what's the most important for your organization,” Allen says.
Finally, virtual-conference initiatives need to be aligned with the association's goals and the goals of the live conference. The effort should not be based on technology. “Technology is not a strategy,” Allen says.
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