For Christopher Gribbs, managing director, convention, at the American Institute of Architects, the “aha!” moment for the potential of virtual meetings came at the 2009 AIA Annual Conference in San Francisco.

A colleague called Gribbs over to a breakout room where a session was under way with about 20 participants. He looked around the room that could have held 200 attendees and thought about how empty it felt. Then his colleague pointed to a computer screen. The room had been equipped to broadcast the session live to a virtual audience, and the screen showed that more than 350 people were logged in. “That was a ‘wow’ for us,” says Gribbs. It was a fantastic response to AIA’s first try at a virtual program. But if the 2009 virtual conference displayed the promise, AIA’s 2010 program showed some of the potential pitfalls.

First, the Good News

In 2009, 5,500 people registered to attend the virtual meeting and 3,500 logged on and participated. There were also 50 exhibitors, who were given complimentary (virtual) booth space. AIA hooked up two rooms for live broadcast and streamed a total of 14 live sessions to the virtual audience—a limited number, due to time and budget restraints. “We were looking for efficiencies,” says Gribbs. “The keynote sessions have all the technology in there already, so the cost was relatively low to do that,” he says. One other classroom was set up for broadcast., with AIA’s education group selecting the sessions that would be held there.

“The attendee experience online was extremely positive,” says Gribbs. “Some said this is the best thing AIA has done.” The speakers were also pleased with the virtual component. “They actually liked the idea of speaking to the camera, because they knew people were watching.” The presenter with 20 people in her room but 350 watching online “was thrilled,” Gribbs says. “She’s got this audience that she’s never had access to before.”

AIA had about 22,400 people registered to attend the live meeting in San Francisco in 2009, down about 7 percent from the previous year in Boston. But when the 5,500 virtual registrants are included, AIA wound up with a record number of registrants—nearly 28,000.

Gribbs doesn’t believe the virtual offering siphoned off any of the live attendance. After all, most associations saw attendance decline in 2009—and on average those declines were greater than the 7 percent AIA experienced.

Also, he points out, there is no comparison between the two experiences. “At the physical event, we offered 150 education classes. Online there were 14. At the physical event we offered 70 tours of cool architecture around town. Online it’s zero. At the trade show there were nearly 900 exhibiting companies with products and services of interest to that audience. Online there were 50. Then there are the social events—the awards ceremonies, the parties, and all these activities where groups get together,” he says. Online there’s a little bit of that—some chat rooms, some blogging, but no face-to-face interaction.

People are going to come to that physical event for the depth and breadth of the content that’s available to them if they can afford it, he says. If they can’t, there is the virtual option.

The Internet Is Free, Right?

With such a great response to the inaugural virtual conference, AIA decided to expand it in 2010.

The physical conference was booked for June 10–12 at the Miami Convention Center. AIA had expanded the virtual content to 36 sessions streamed from three meeting rooms plus the general session hall. All sessions were recorded for later viewing by anyone who had registered. Virtual attendees also had access to the virtual trade show and the social-networking platforms, where attendees could communicate with one another, as well as chat with presenters and exhibitors.

To recoup the higher costs of this year’s setup, AIA charged attendees a discounted flat rate for participation and charged exhibitors for virtual booths. But with only 520 registrants, the association didn’t break even.

“Last year we supported [the virtual conference] because it was the right thing to do at a particularly difficult time,” says Gribbs. “Times are still difficult, but we also can’t continue to support it.” He believes that the economy played a role in the decreased virtual attendance, but he also blames it in part on the notion that “people want things on the Internet for free.”

Virtual booth sales lagged as well. Even with some given for free to key partners, AIA still ended up presenting only 40 booths at the virtual show. “They weren’t buying,” says Gribbs. “The [virtual] exhibitor revenue never materialized.”

They certainly turned out for the live event, though. AIA broke a record in Miami, with 950 exhibitors on the trade show floor. But that contrasts with registered attendance of about 17,000—way down from 2009. Even considering the unstable economy and continued depression in the housing and construction industries, Gribbs is left to puzzle out all the discrepancies, and is waiting for post-show survey results.

“Now we go into analysis mode,” he says. Was it the price point? Was it because they gave it away last year? Should the marketing have been more targeted? Should they change the pricing model from a flat fee to something different? Should they look for a combination of advertising and sponsorships that might cover the cost of the virtual conference? Was there enough virtual content? Was it the right content?

So Why Go Virtual?

“We really do consider both of the events—2009 and 2010—as pilots because we are trying new things,” Gribbs says. The first year, things came together very quickly. A few months out from the 2009 annual conference, AIA’s board of directors decided to offer a virtual component to the live annual meeting—something AIA had been considering for years as a way to reach more members and extend the life of the conference content. “About 10 percent of our membership comes to the physical event, but what about the other 90 percent of our members?” asks Gribbs. “You put all this energy into building something that happens for just three days and [it] reaches only a portion of our membership.”

Since AIA’s members readily embrace new technologies and ideas, trying a virtual conference seemed a logical step. And in 2009, with registration lagging behind the 2008 pace, the timing was right. “We are one of the hardest hit professions,” Gribbs says. “Many architects are losing their jobs and getting laid off. Firms are closing doors. It’s affecting their ability to do things like attend their association’s annual conference.”

Even in good times, post-conference surveys reveal that cost is the biggest barrier to attendance, he points out. “In this economy, it’s an even larger burden.” So AIA wanted to do something for its members who were hurting, while at the same time boost attendance. “We said, ‘We know you are having a tough experience out there in this economy. Here are some things AIA is doing to try to help you.’” Among the offerings was the virtual conference—a chance for members to attend AIA education sessions for free without leaving their desks.

The First Time

Exhibitors, too, had the chance to try out a virtual trade show with AIA in 2009 for free. AIA created its virtual convention space with San Francisco–based InXpo, a leader in virtual meetings, in 2009 and 2010. Like a physical venue, InXpo’s virtual convention space has meeting rooms, exhibit hall booths, lobbies, and networking areas, explains Mike Westcott, vice president of marketing at InXpo.

AIA offered some of its 800 exhibitors the opportunity to create free virtual booths, but not every exhibitor elected to participate. Since they’d need sales staff both at the live event and monitoring the virtual booth, it was not feasible for some on such short notice. Ultimately, 50 companies exhibited virtually, including AIA itself.

“It was pretty simple to upload documents to the InXpo platform,” says Gribbs. The exhibitor has a lot of flexibility in the look of the virtual booth, what’s on it, and how it is branded, he adds. They can upload brochures, photos, and videos to the virtual booth, and create profiles with photos and contact information of the staff members who are participating in the virtual expo.

AIA, which modeled its booth after the one used in the physical exhibition hall, had staff at its Washington, D.C., headquarters office chatting with virtual customers through the text messages or on the phone. Gribbs notes that conversations were more limited online than at the face-to-face exhibition, where discussions between sales staff and customers were more substantive and in-depth.

The Virtual Event 3.0

How to make virtual booth space more attractive to exhibitors and how best to fund a virtual conference are just two of the questions AIA is seeking answers to as Gribbs and his team start thinking about next year’s effort in New Orleans.

There’s already one big change: They’ve got experienced help. In May, AIA signed a five-year agreement with Hanley Wood, a business media company, to handle the logistics, sales, and marketing of the virtual conference, while Gribbs and his staff focus on content.

“They bring audience, they bring resources, they bring multimedia vehicles, so we’re thrilled with the prospects the partnership might bring,” he says. “We have our second year under our belts and we want to look at all of the (virtual meeting) models very closely and see what’s sustainable.”

Heading into year three, Gribbs and his team remain totally committed to the live/virtual concept, aware of the potential pitfalls but excited about the prospects—and the promise.

Sidebar 1: 5 Steps to Virtual Conference Success How do you produce a virtual conference? Anthony Allen, director, digital media, at the American Society for Training and Development in Alexandria, Va., offers some keys to getting started.

1. Start Small, Grow Fast. A virtual conference should contain six components: webcasts, networking, video, exhibits, audio, and archives. Planners don’t have to incorporate them all right away, but should expand it over time. “It doesn’t have to be this huge risk,” he says. Start with streaming a few sessions live, or recording a few for the archives—or use social media to facilitate networking. From there, find out what your members and vendors want and move forward accordingly. When ASTD first launched its virtual conference, it went strong on the exhibition side. But over time, ASTD has scaled back on the virtual exhibits because the vendors and attendees didn’t get much out of it. “I don’t hear my attendees or vendors asking for it,” he says. So now they provide only gold and silver sponsors with access to the virtual attendees as an added value.

2. Don’t Stream Everything. Don’t plan to broadcast every session, especially the first time. “You set an expectation with each virtual conference, so if your first virtual conference has 60 hours of content, then there’s an expectation that the next conference is going to be 60 hours or more—not less,” says Allen. Also, some speakers might not want their sessions recorded: Check with your presenters first.

3. Define Your Virtual Conference. Decide which aspect of the virtual experience is most important. Is it the networking or the content? Do all the sessions have to be streamed live or can you make some available only as archives? How many sessions do you want to record for virtual viewing? How are you going to facilitate networking? How are you going to reuse the content? How many exhibitors will there be?

4. Name Your Price. Once the virtual conference parameters are set, you need to determine how much to charge for registration. The price depends on “what skills you have in-house and what skills you have to go and get,” Allen says. Do you need a community manager to facilitate networking? Do you need a video content management system to stream content? Do you hire a vendor to provide the virtual meeting and exhibition platform? After you identify the vendors, technology, and resources you need, you calculate your expenses and set your fees. Virtual conferences “have to feed themselves, so figure out what you are going to have to charge to break even.” The cost to stream content is relatively minimal.

5. Don’t Let Anyone Register Without a Computer Test. Require attendees to test their computers to make sure they have the necessary hardware and software to access the conference before they pay their registration fee. If they don’t and it doesn’t work, they don’t get a refund.

For a comprehensive workshop on how to produce virtual conferences, check out Allen’s one-hour video workshop, which walks planners through all the steps needed to plan virtual or hybrid events. Go to www.astd.org/virtualconferences and use coupon code MTGNET to receive a discount.

Sidebar #2: 5 Benefits of Virtual Meetings; 3 Ways to Use Them

Association meeting planners have been hesitant to embrace virtual meetings, but the trend is starting to catch on. “Within three to five years, I would say, most associations will be moving to a three-dimensional immersive virtual platform to provide greater value to their membership,” says Mike Westcott, vice president of marketing at InXpo. “It still doesn’t give you the face-to-face engagement that is so valuable to people, and it’s never going to displace live meetings, but it is a wonderful complement to existing events.”

Westcott outlined five potential benefits of virtual meetings.

1. A broader audience, most of whom probably wouldn’t attend the physical event

2. Additional revenue from online attendees and sponsors

3. Cost savings for virtual attendees

4. The ability to capture and reuse content by archiving sessions that members can access online throughout the year

5. An online community, where attendees can network, connect, and discuss issues and trends before and after the live meeting

Here are three ways Westcott see associations using virtual meetings:

1. For stand-alone educational webinars or virtual meetings where the association can generate revenue from registration fees and sponsors

2. To enhance and expand a face-to-face meeting by streaming content live to a virtual audience

3. To create a permanent online meeting space, which for associations can become a virtual community as well as a year-round meeting space for chapter meetings, board meetings, webinars, workshops, or for streaming sessions from a live event. Association members could access resources, information, and videos as well as chat with other members. “The future of all of this,” Westcott says, “is enabling associations and organizations to connect with each other on an ongoing basis by using these three-dimensional immersive environments to communicate and collaborate in completely new ways.”