Picking the right platform to host your virtual or hybrid conference is a critical decision. Conference organizers are looking not just for a platform, but for a trusted partner who understands their priorities.
In spring 2020, organizations had to act quickly to launch virtual meetings to replace their canceled counterparts. Now, there is more time to reflect on desired features and functionality, assess long-term needs, and engage in competitive evaluations. Are the meetings primarily meant for scientific presentations? Scholarly exchange? Networking? Generating revenue from sponsors and exhibitors? A good RFP gets to the heart of what’s most important to preserve in the virtual-conference environment.
To ensure an RFP will deliver the best possible platform partner for your organization, here are some tips, trends, and questions to consider:
One Meeting or Many?
While some organizations send out an RFP for a single annual meeting, it is increasingly common to search for a partner for an entire portfolio, including smaller regional meetings, symposia, and more. A long-term approach means staff only has to learn one system and the organization can reap the benefits of aggregating content on a single platform. It also can lead to economies of scale.
Integration and Hybrid Potential
Some groups are looking for an end-to-end solution, but others may have aspects of the conference workflow (abstract management, registration, member database) firmly in hand. That’s fine—your platform doesn’t need to do everything; it just needs to play well with others. Your RFP should make clear both what you do and don’t need from a partner, and it should also find out if a seamless integration with existing systems (such as single sign-on and API potential) is available. The same is true for hybrid meeting systems—a good virtual platform will knit seamlessly with an in-person approach, enhancing the experience instead of creating two disjointed meetings.
Features and Fixes
For each event in your portfolio, provide the estimated number of attendees, presenters, poster authors, and exhibitors. It is also helpful to break down your vision for the program (or to provide an example from the previous year), including details such as the number of live-streamed sessions, pre-recorded or on-demand sessions, networking and breakout rooms, etc.
List specific technological requirements in an Excel worksheet under “must-have,” “nice to have,” and “optional” headings, with a column for partner responses. This format allows for easy comparison across platforms and helps when weighing relative costs for premium elements. Requirements can include specific features and functionality, as well as security, bandwidth, and privacy issues. They can also include more opaque concerns; sometimes it’s better to describe a precise problem to be solved or opportunity to be seized instead of prematurely requesting a specific feature.
Know Your Audience
A meeting designed for scientific researchers and a virtual music festival in Poland (yes, we’ve received such an RFP) require completely different user experiences. If you are serving an academic association or institution, then scientific rigor should be at the forefront of your considerations. Whatever your focus, a simple, elegant user interface creates a superior experience, more attendee engagement, and less organizer headaches.
Service and Support
Understanding the availability and limitations of your internal team is key when developing an RFP. What will you manage and what do you expect a partner to manage? Is support provided at all stages or just during setup? “Dress rehearsals” or early access to the platform can be an important requirement. Similarly, having a partner that provides support not just to conference organizers but to speakers, authors, and attendees might be essential to success as it puts less pressure on a small internal team.
It’s easier to compare platform proposals when you require pricing in a certain format, say, per attendee, per poster, or per session. It is also helpful to provide your prospective partners with insights on how you will fund the expense of the platform. For instance, if a meeting is primarily funded via sponsorships and exhibitions, this can be weighed more heavily in pricing. It’s also helpful to request as much granularity in pricing as possible. Sometimes premium elements that were “must-haves” become less attractive once it has a price tag.
References, References, References
As with many big decisions, due diligence is key. Ask for references from organizations of a similar size and scope, if possible. Individuals who have already worked with a partner can be your best source of guidance, especially in finalist rounds. And don’t be afraid to go off-book. If you know someone who works with your prospective partner, talk to them. These direct testimonials can provide insights on the technology as well as advice on how to shape a positive working relationship with the provider
Lauren Kane is chief strategy officer at Morressier, which provides virtual-conference solutions for professional and academic organizations.