In a recent industry forum conversation thread, I saw some negativity about online meetings. The tone was decidedly negative as a colleague expressed concern and looked for ways to “humanize” online meetings. The message was negative, but I think the tone was inadvertent, and that this gentleman was speaking out of concern for the large number of associations and non-profits professionals who have no experience in planning online events and are now responsible for doing just that. He likely understands some of the complexity, detail, and skill involved: that shifting the meeting industry online is no slight task.
The main advantage to online conferences for associations is a huge reduction in travel costs and out of office time, which has some interesting potential for how staff connections can be made. We’re also seeing different participation. Let me explain.
Associations are leaders in the conferencing and meetings industry and they are right now in the middle of a revolution in how we think, and work online. We are each day pushing the previous rules and boundaries of what can be done, and what is commonly done in this space. Meeting planners are finding new ways to do more things and make those things flow naturally. This takes time and practice that we are swiftly racking up each week as the pandemic goes by.
What are the Advantages of Online Conferences?
The absence of travel is enormous. It means both saved money and time. Take for example a position I used to hold as staff of an association involved an annual flight from Tampa to Las Vegas for a 3-5 day stay. For the average four-day, four-night stay, the cost to the association had to be conservatively a rough $3,500 for flight, hotel, meals, transportation. Because of the length of the trip, the layovers, and the time changes it takes a business day each way to go from Tampa to Vegas. The connections I built at these meetings were also invaluable, and resulted in business activity, deals, and work secured based on connections that far surpassed the cost of sending me to the meeting.
Reduced travel cost translates into more people able to attend virtual events. We are also seeing different people connect at virtual conferences: quiet people are speaking up, new formats like chat and icebreaker activities are encouraging people to contribute ideas in ways that didn’t often happen in person, and people have participated more freely in sharing ideas or experiences with a reduced perception of rank or job title status. We’ve also shared templates and files that weren’t shared as often or broadly online.
The option of virtual meetings could mean sending more employees to conferences, sending one employee in need of development to more events, or building different connections than we may have spoken with in our booth or after a keynote.
What are the Disadvantages of Online Conferences?
Online is just not the same as in person. No one disputes this. This is the bulk of the difference.
There are also some aspects to online meetings that are more difficult to reproduce online, many of which involve breakouts into one on one and small group conversations. Online meetings can have breakouts which do encourage participation and do give different and smaller groups a chance to connect. But they are not the same as hallway conversations or a chat during a happy hour that spontaneously happen, or that we make happen by approaching key individuals in the right atmosphere.
For the organization hosting an online conference, it may look very similar to an in-person experience to an attended, but there are substantial differences for the planning and organization. Planning online conferences is an activity that takes a lot of work to make things look simple and flow smoothly. These skills are being shaped by the industry as a whole right now: the majority of organizations don’t have someone skilled in online conference planning and hosting on-staff.
What Do People Think?
In a recent survey by CensusWide for PromoLeaf they found that 72% of conference participants would prefer an in-person conference. This number was supported by a second survey by Community Brands. However, Community Brands went on to ask if the convenience of a virtual conference made up for the loss of value of in-person and received a strong 64% positive response. In essence, in-person is not the same as virtual. But the benefits of online conferences are substantial and valued. The convenience makes up for the loss.
What is Good About Online Conferencing for Associations
With 15-years of experience in online meetings, I can emphatically say that it is most helpful to start with optimism. Let us learn how to use these communication tools, and not disparage this means of connectivity.
Our association management company has adapted. We have successfully converted conferences since March, keeping the same dates but at a lower operational cost that in-person, with higher attendance, and excellent attendee ratings and reviews. This is tremendous.
Yes, these are changing times and an evolving industry, but our staff continue to learn all they can about how to make online meetings engaging, how to make the software work better, how to adapt to the needs of sponsors, and how to accommodate different activities and formats such as poster presentations, simultaneous voting, and more. We have partnered to help other associations and we have learned together as this new method of communication swiftly evolves.
These are hard times, aren't we lucky we have online meetings, conferences, and conventions to keep us as connected as possible?