How to plan the best possible conference experience in 2021.

By Chris Schriever

With the new year upon us, we are looking forward to exploring what new opportunities and challenges the year will bring. Our outlook for 2021 remains positive, though the year ahead will (like last year) likely be different than any of us had anticipated. I know I had high hopes that we would able to resume in-person events sooner rather than later, especially with vaccine distribution rolling out throughout the country. But for the time being, we know it’s in our best interest—and yours as well—to stick with planning all-virtual events.

At the early stages of the pandemic, it would have seemed unfathomable that we might still be such an active crisis nearly a full year later. But unfortunately, that is very much the case, with the US consistently breaking records in infection and mortality rates. The development of the new vaccines has surely provided us all with a light at the end of the tunnel. But a “return to normal” is still contingent upon a successful and efficient roll-out of those immunizations—and, as of right now, it has been less than smooth. In some of the best case scenarios, experts are still predicting that the general population will have to wait until the summer to get vaccinated. And even then, we will likely have to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing at least at first.

With all of this in mind, planning for an all in-person event, even one towards the end of the year, would be short-sighted. There are simply too many uncertainties, security deposits, sponsor activations, registration hesitancies, speaker uncertainties, and cancellation clauses to contend with to move forward planning for an in-person event. And by putting all of your eggs into the in-person basket, you run the risk of needing to, once again, switch gears at the last minute to accommodate for a virtual-only event.

But that’s where the opportunities reside. While many associations had to scramble to figure out how to host their 2020 events online, this year we have had the luxury of planning ahead. Not only that, we also have access to all of the insights and data we gathered from the virtual events we attended, planned and sold for last year. What worked well? Where were the biggest mishaps or obstacles? What were people really hoping to get out of their participation? Reflecting on last year’s virtual conferences will allow you to optimize your strategies for this year, giving you the chance to zero in on what worked and rethink what didn’t.

And, this time around, it’s not just conference organizers who are familiar with online events—attendees are too. And many of them like them! So now, with more event-tech-savvy attendees, sponsors, exhibitors and staff, this time around it should go more smoothly, right? In some ways, yes! At the same time, video conferencing and digital platforms have become a daily routine for most people, and many are sick of it. Rather than thinking about this as a deterrent, consider it an opportunity to get creative. How can you plan your schedule to minimize the dreaded “Zoom fatigue” and keep your participants engaged? What can you do to foster sponsor involvement, run an active Q&A or sell more registrations?

We’ve asked these questions repeatedly over the last several months and turned to participant evaluations and feedback, sponsor requests and a host of industry and post-event resources. In doing so, we’ve been able to work with our clients to introduce new digital opportunities that provide exhibitors with real benefits—and attendees with the kind of information they actually want to engage with.

While we too would love to go back to in-person events, we know that this is not something you can rush. So instead of thinking about virtual events as sub-par substitutions, we’re investing the time and effort into creating digital conferences that deliver real value.

Still planning your 2021 conference? We’ve got plenty of insights to help:



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