Lakisha Ann Woods
President & CEO, National Institute of
Secretary-Treasurer, ASAE Board of Directors
Even after almost a year of practice, many virtual events continue to have technical challenges and user issues. While virtual events let attendees benefit by accessing all educational offerings over an extended period of time versus choosing between sessions when in person, much work still needs to be done to improve the quality of the virtual experience—how we keep attendees engaged and avoid speaker or technological errors when showcasing content in real time.
The demand is there. When we moved our meeting to the virtual format in 2020, we saw a 400-percent increase in attendance. So, we know that we must offer a virtual component even if we go on with the in-person meeting scheduled for Washington, D.C., in September. But hybrid is a more expensive option, so we are still looking at technology vendors as well as searching for hotels that will host a smaller number of attendees.
I believe we will still be wearing masks in public until the end of 2021. My team would like us to focus on virtual-only while my leadership wants to meet in person, so everyone has to assess their own situation and decide. In the meantime, we are hosting a series of virtual events with the goal of keeping members engaged, educated, and excited about the work we’re doing.
Regarding virtual exhibits, they are also a work in progress. On the plus side, when attendees click on a booth, the exhibitor automatically receives their information and can follow up. You don’t always have that opportunity in person. I also know of an event where one exhibitor was answering questions via real-time video from his living room; attendees said they felt a more personal connection to the exhibitor, and they developed trust and were more likely to buy from him.
If an association has a smaller exhibit floor, then the transition to virtual could be a more beneficial trade-off. But for those organization with exhibits that sold millions of dollars’ worth of space, the virtual-exhibit concept will need to advance beyond its present format.
Going forward, my best advice is keep looking for creative ways to engage attendees and volunteer leaders in the virtual world. Capture all the data that you can about your attendees so that you can customize and personalize their experience and, if possible, mail out items in advance of your event. If associations are banking on 300 million people getting a vaccine by next summer, they clearly haven’t seen the long lines just to get a Covid test. It’s best that we focus on the things that we can control: selecting a quality virtual platform, developing an engaging online experience, and finding meeting locations with social-distancing options so that both your teams and your attendees feel comfortable. People are so eager to get back to in-person events again; prepare now so that when you do finally bring them together, it is an experience they will not forget.