Throughout 2020 and into 2021, Association Management Companies, like the rest of the world, faced the challenge of staying connected virtually. As events are a key value add for many associations, giving members a space to share ideas and information, figuring out a way to facilitate virtual events and encourage online engagement became a priority. The results were some wonderfully innovative solutions, that can be used to improve the experiences of association members even in a post-pandemic world, as well some approaches that simply did not translate so well virtually. Using the experiences of two of AMS’ clients that hosted virtual events in the Spring of 2021, the National Association of Dealer Counsel (NADC) and the Association of Dental Support Organizations (ADSO), this article will examine the challenges and trade offs of virtual events and how these lessons can be used as guidance for event planning in a world where in-person events are once again becoming possible.
The NADC hosted a two-day virtual event offering sessions on key aspects of the Dealer Counsel industry and an opportunity to gain CLE credit. Members who had previously been unable to travel in order to attend the in-person conference were able to engage for the first time. Following the live conference day, attendees also had access to an on-demand option where they could view the sessions for a limited time. This enabled attendees to view the material on their own time, giving them more flexibility. For the association as a whole, the virtual event created more revenue than the in-person events due to lower event planning costs. However, the constraints of a virtual event were felt by sponsors and in the networking sessions. The NADC’s virtual event platform had an exhibitor hall and gamification system to encourage interaction between sponsors and participants, which increased participation from past virtual events but still had difficulty mimicking the ease of interactions that take place in an in-person environment. Participants were highly appreciative of the event content but also noted how much they were looking forward to having in-person events again.
ADSO’s first virtual event was organized as a bonus session on top of their regular annual events, intended to provide members with additional support during a difficult pandemic year. Participants were appreciative of the wide variety of educational content and the ability to switch easily between different concurrent sessions to find information relevant to them, which they noted was often more difficult at an in-person event. The event proved cost effective due to active sponsor participation and low production costs. Similarly to the NADC’s conference, a primary challenge was encouraging participants to visit the virtual sponsor hall and use the networking features. Attendees enjoyed the experience but also had many questions about when the industry would be able to resume in-person meetings.
Both the ADSO and the NADC are planning to host in-person events again in the fall, but after a year of solely virtual interactions and a world where the definition of “normal” is continuing to change, the boards of both associations are grappling with how much new events should return to the in-person format of the past and how much they should incorporate new opportunities developed in the virtual environment. The NADC has considered hybrid events to allow for a wider range of participants, especially those who may not yet be comfortable travelling, or recording conference material which could then be accessible for a fee for members to view later at their convenience. However, doing so requires the cost of both a full scale in-person event as well as the technical assistance required to curate the virtual content. One proposed solution is to include smaller virtual opportunities, such as webinars, throughout the year to supplement regular in-person conferences. The ADSO is for now just focusing on the in-person elements of their upcoming conferences, though some sessions may be recorded for on-demand viewing. They are excited to have the option of adding virtual elements in future, allowing for greater engagement with international DSOs, and the opportunity to create new targeted networking sessions for different sections of the membership.
It appears some elements adopted for virtual events may be here to stay, thanks to their low cost and high reward. Online registration, check-ins, and attendance reporting are good examples of how certain processes can be made much more efficient using virtual tools, many of which have been greatly improved over the past year. While each association differs in size, budget, and mission, the option to incorporate aspects of virtual events into future in-person events offers great opportunities to reach a wider range of members as well as provide more value overall.
AMS provides full-service in-person and virtual meeting planning and management services to support our client needs, including venue selection, registration management, meeting content and logistics support and post-event reporting. We manage more than 70 meetings a year ranging in size from small board meetings to large, multi-day conferences. Regardless of the meeting size, AMS is committed to delivering a seamless and holistic experience within scope and budget. Contact us to learn more about how AMS can help you to manage your meetings and events – whether virtual, in-person, or hybrid!