The unprecedented travel shutdown that began in early March to stop the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations to adapt the way they educate and communicate with employees, customers, and members; this includes widespread use of digital-meeting platforms. As a result, there’s likely to be a permanent change in how businesses and associations use virtual events, and how they strategize to incorporate them into their overall meeting portfolios.
Some proof: On April 14, a survey of 7,075 planners during a virtual Global Meetings Industry Day event found that 62 percent think most live events from now on will be hybrid, meaning that a portion of the audience attends virtually as a complement to the in-person audience. Furthermore, in a mid-March promotion touting its “fast track” program for planners to earn a Digital Event Strategist certificate, the Professional Convention Management Association said it has “seen tremendous demand for the DES course [also available to nonmembers] and other digital-event resources…We expect to see continued strong interest for such education, resources, and certification into 2021 as digital will be part of the new reality of business events, and more common than they ever have been before.”
Three Elements for Building a Blended Meetings Portfolio
Objectives. “For me, the planning process always starts with what the objectives are for an event,” says Annette Gregg, CMM, senior vice president of experience for Meeting Professionals International. “Some meetings are for straight education, and we know that can be delivered just fine online, as colleges are showing us right now. So, if you have a meeting that’s heavy on content delivery and simply needs Q&A segments, you save time and money by doing it virtually. But when your objectives are something like brand activation, where you want the human senses involved, then in-person is what you have to do.”
“I’d advise planners to think of virtual as simply another tool for bringing people together—but become familiar with the tech applications that best match your objectives,” says Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, a 30-year meetings technology consultant. “The trend over the past five or so years is for planners to be event strategists and event designers, and the situation we find ourselves in these days fits right into that. Think in the broad view of how you can bring people together in the manner that’s most efficient and most effective for what you must accomplish.”
Even in instances where an event is heavy on content delivery, the ability to create small-group video chat forums between formal sessions allows planners to provide attendees some of the benefits of the in-person experience. Until recently, though, “what we have seen in the digital medium is basically livestreaming with text or audio Q&A rather than components that make for a true virtual meeting,” says Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of PCMA. “Those participants aren’t getting the full experience that could be created in the virtual medium.” Besides helping planners guide their executive stakeholders on when it’s necessary to meet in person and when it’s smart to use technology, PCMA’s Digital Event Strategist program also aims to help planners understand the capacity of virtual meetings to deliver interpersonal benefits.
“It is incumbent on planners to learn as much as possible about the solutions out there that can deliver on objectives attached to specific meetings,” says Lisa Block, executive vice president of conference strategy & design at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. This would include getting demos or case studies from tech suppliers and testimonials from planners who had similar objectives for their virtual meetings. From there, “a planner must create the right expectations for all stakeholders and then follow through,” Block says. “If you conduct a meeting that touts the bells and whistles but then you don’t use them adequately, it’s not only a waste of time and money but you’re also going to disappoint people. Then it’s harder to get buy-in from both executives and attendees on using the virtual medium in the future.”
Budgeting. As organizations make strategic decisions on when to meet in person and when to meet virtually, planners should remember that this is not a zero-sum exercise. In fact, by eliminating one in-person meeting, an organization might free up enough money to hold three or four virtual meetings that could offer opportunities for attendees to meet in small groups or even individually via video, thus gaining some of the collaborative, networking, and bonding benefits that in-person meetings are known for. Planned strategically, the meetings portfolio can actually expand at no additional cost, while the planner plays a role in deciding which events happen in person, which happen virtually, and which happen in a hybrid format.
Of course, it remains to be seen what post-pandemic meeting budgets will look like. That is literally a billion-dollar question, and it makes the use of virtual meetings that much more compelling.
Staff responsibilities. Delivering more meetings in a virtual environment will require event staff to learn new skills and, perhaps, to become more specialized.
“At PCMA, we are thinking it is going to require evolution to a different thinking process for attendee engagement online,” Karamat says. “Organizations will need people with different skill sets to deliver what they want from the various mediums. Think of it as one manager owning the meetings strategy and who has people to help deliver in the virtual environment and other people to help deliver in the face-to-face environment.”
While Lisa Block believes “planners will have to partner across their organizations with people who know something about e-learning,” she adds that “if you plan in-person events, you are very capable of learning quickly to adapt to a different platform. It is a question of knowing what the experience is you want to deliver and then learning how to do it. It’s not rocket science; planners can pivot.”
MPI’s Gregg says, “I’ll split the difference between those two perspectives. For our industry, the rise of the ‘event technologist’ shows that there has to be a level of comfort and acumen around event technology, and there is a building block every event professional must possess: the ability to navigate the basic virtual-event platforms. If for some reason your people can’t adapt, then you need an event technologist on your team. But there should always be an overarching experience designer to develop consistent messaging through a narrative arc that goes across all events, regardless of platform.”