How to start planning ahead for your next event—despite all the uncertainty.

By Gretchen Kast

Early on in the pandemic, when it became clear that we were going to need to transform in-person conferences to virtual events, it seemed reasonable to assume that this was going to be short-term thing with long-term possibilities.. We just needed to accept that 2020 was going to be a strange year, and then we could go back to something reflective of the way things were in few months. Now, four months later, with the search for a vaccine still ongoing and many states’ re-opening plans being put on hold, that outlook seems less plausible. With so much uncertainty still looming, future planning needs to account for the fact that it may be a while before normal in-person conferences and events can come back in full swing. That doesn’t mean they are gone for good, of course. Conferences offer great value to a number of industries—and we have no doubt that, once it is safe to do so, there will still be demand for them. But until then, the association world will need to find new, engaging ways to reimagine these events to meet the needs and fears of today.

As the risks, rules and information surrounding the virus continue to change at a rapid clip, it is necessary to plan for all possibilities. Maybe we will be doing all-virtual events for years to come. Or maybe, with the right safety precautions in place, people will be willing to attend smaller in-person events. The most efficient way of planning for the future is to account for both possibilities in the form of hybrid events. So the question becomes: How can you create an in-person experience that’s as safe as possible? And  how can you offer a virtual counterpart that is of real value to your audience? By juggling these two questions at once, you have a chance to connect with as many people as possible regardless of their comfort level, maximize your engagement—and maybe even create something better than the way things were before.

Don’t Count On Full In-Person Events Coming Back Soon

According to the ASAE Research Foundation’s latest Association Impact Snapshot, 44% of association execs reported that they don’t expect to resume in-person events until January 2021 at the earliest. That outlook was echoed by a new survey from MarTech Today’s Event Participation Index, which reported that on average marketers said they there is only a 30% chance that they would attend an in-person event in the fourth quarter of this year (a decline in likelihood from the 40% chance marketers reported in its April survey).

In fact, early 2021 may be a conservative estimate for many people. The MarTech Survey found that 69% of marketers “would only attend virtual/online events this year unless a COVID-19 vaccine is available.”

This puts a lot of associations in a real bind, as many rely on their annual conference for a significant portion of their non-dues revenue. While virtual events have, historically, been seen as less successful than in-person ones, that doesn’t have to be the case. With the right platform and sales approach, these events can be just as meaningful to attendees and exhibitors. And thankfully, there have been plenty of virtual events this year that we can look to as test subjects for the future. By thinking critically about what worked and what didn’t, you can continue to optimize your opportunities.

The Downsides Of Virtual Events – What’s Missing?

Let’s start with the bad news. According to a recent survey from CensusWide on behalf of the promotional products distributor PromoLead, 72% of respondents to a recent survey said they “prefer in-person conferences to virtual ones”—with many citing the feeling that “better networking happens face to face” as part of their rationale.

Across all industries, the question of networking has been one of the biggest challenges when it comes to virtual events. The chances of spontaneously meeting and connecting with a new potential customer or partner has always been a valuable reason to go to conferences. And, unfortunately, it is not easy to replicate that experience virtually.

One of the biggest frustrations for folks is that as they attend virtual meetings, even if they get the education theyre looking for, theyre not getting what they perceive to be extremely valuable: contacts and connections that are creating relationships that will continue,” explained KiKi L’Italien, CEO of Association Chat, to Meetings Today.

But the lack of networking opportunities is not the only issue people have with virtual conferences. The respondents in the CensusWide survey also noted that “body language and subtle communication cues don’t translate as well via video chatting; and that vendors and service providers can’t deliver the same level of examples and demonstrations virtually as they can in person.”

As associations plan ahead for the future, finding solutions for these pitfalls needs to be a priority.

The Benefits Of Virtual Events

Despite the challenges, we’ve also discovered plenty of upsides to virtual events over the past few months. While they were not anyone’s ideal scenario, they do offer unique value in a number of ways.

Expand Your Audience

First, virtual conferences can help you open up your event to a much broader audience. Since anyone can join in from anywhere, that helps lower a number of the barriers that often prevent people from attending traditional conferences. That includes geographic or financial reasons—sometimes the cost to fly and stay at the hotel can be prohibitive. They also make it easier for people with disabilities, who may find it difficult to spend several days walking around a convention center. As such, virtual conferences may help you diversify your audience pool by enticing people who have never previously attended your event.

Create New Content Opportunities

Virtual events also provide new expanded opportunities for content and education. Since all of your sessions and presentations are happening over video, you can simply save and repurpose that content in a myriad of ways. Access to archived content can be included in the virtual admission fee—or it can be repackaged and sold to people who were unable to fully attend. As a whole, on demand access to conference content can be an added perk for attendees, and a new revenue opportunity for associations.

More Productive Sessions

While video sessions are often seen as less valuable than their in-person versions, they can actually be more educational for some people. The virtual platform can make it easier for the speaker to stay on track and on topic, as opposed to trying to wrangle a room full of people. Pre-recorded sessions can also be edited to ensure that the content is being presented as cleanly and clearly as possible.

More Robust Data Collection

When you’re on-site at a conference, there are plenty of factors to monitor in order to get a sense if the event is going well. How many people checked in to this event? Do people seem interested and engaged? When your conference is all online, though, you have even more precise tools for collecting key data. You can track engagement with the content more objectively: focusing on things like the number of downloads, messages shared, average drop-off point when watching a video, for example. Many platforms will also give you insights on the demographics of your audience, including who they are and how they are interacting with the conference offerings. Whether virtual events become a part of the new normal after the pandemic or not, using them as listening tools can help your organization strengthen programming now and for future events.

“Virtual platforms let you know exactly who your audience is and what they do,” explained Samantha Whitehorne in this article for AssociationsNow. “You can gather demographic data, attendance numbers, number of views, types of engagement, and more to get an idea who is tuning in, to what, and for how long. You can also track this type of data for your exhibitors to see how people are spending their time in the virtual tradeshow environment.”

How To Plan For Future Hybrid Events

Though many people (and associations!) may be chomping at the bit right now, ready to get back to the way things were—it’s important to remember that safety has to come first, above all else. Even when we get to a place where large gatherings are allowed, there will still be a sizable portion of the population that will be wary of attending. The same goes for many companies as they plan their budgets: the cost of sending an employee to an in-person conference may just not be enough to rationalize the potential liability of them getting sick.

So no matter what, we’re going to have to reimagine our usual playbook in order to meet everyone’s needs and comfort levels.

Reconfigure Your In-Person Plan

meeting during the coronavirus

If you’re able to host an in-person portion of your event, it will likely look very different than what we’ve come to know. In addition to simply offering personal protective equipment or upping your cleaning efforts, you will need to fully rethink how your event operates.

Plan Your Location Around Your Demographics

Conferences used to be an occasion when people from all over the country and the world could come together in one place. Now, with the risk of plane travel still high, you may have to accept that your in-person attendance may be limited to those in the immediate vicinity of the convention center. This may affect your decision making when it comes to picking your location. Take a closer look at your industry demographics. Are there are lot of relevant companies concentrated in certain states or metropolitan areas? Choosing your host city based on this sort of data will give you a chance to maximize your in-person audience.

Once you have your location set, you will need to rethink the logistics of your event. The first thing to consider is: where do people usually congregate and crowds gather? Are there new protocols you can introduce to make sure everyone can easily stay spread out? The more specific you can be in the planning stages, the smoother things will go during the event.

Registration Lines

Rather than one main registration area, consider placing self-service kiosks, at a safe distance apart, throughout the venue. If there are enough kiosks available, you will eliminate the likelihood of a line forming. Additionally, requiring advance registration can help simplify and speed up this process as well. Maybe you mail badges in advance? Or maybe each attendee downloads an app and scans a barcode at a kiosk to print their badge. By ensuring that registration goes as quickly and smoothly as possible, attendees and exhibitors will be able to focus more on the content of the event.

Session Rooms

Previously, break-out sessions could easily be accommodated in small meeting rooms in the venue. Now, to ensure proper social distancing, you will likely have to move all sessions to bigger spaces—and be stringent about capping the capacity. Additionally, your schedule will need to account for proper sanitization in between meetings.

Exhibit Hall

The days of a bustling exhibit hall are probably also behind us—at least for now. While high foot traffic had previously been the ultimate goal of a tradeshow, we now have to rethink what it is attendees and exhibitors were really looking for from the experience—and come up with new ways to provide it to them.

Attendees are looking to learn more about products and services that are available to them. At the same time, exhibitors are looking to meet and interact with as many prospective customers as they can. They are hoping to generate leads so that they can follow-up with these prospective customers after the show is over. In order to meet these goals safely, the tradeshow floor will need to be designed to allow for social distancing. That includes bigger booth spaces that are further spread out to keep everyone six feet apart. Crowd size will also need to be managed, whether through designated time slots for wandering or pre-arranged one-on-one meetings.


Buffet-style and continental meals are one of the riskiest set-ups. Will you be able to provide individually packaged meals instead? What does your seating area look like? Do you have enough space to set up tables and chairs six feet apart?

Marketing Materials

It’s not just social distancing you have to take into account. While less dangerous, touch transmission is still something to be cautious about. And that puts into question smaller details like shared marketing materials and attendee bags. A robust mobile app can help replace some of the informative marketing materials by housing digital versions of hand-outs. As for the branded “goodies” like water bottles, pens, etc—maybe it’s time to do away with those entirely? It’s the more environmentally-friendly option, anyway. Doing so may give you the opportunity to reinvent your sponsorship opportunities as well. We already offer sponsored hand sanitizer stations—what about phone sanitizing stations as well? Branded face masks? This is the moment to think outside the box.

Health Security

The task of keeping all of your staff, attendees and exhibitors safe is a big one—and you may need extra help to do so. Consider hiring a team of health experts who not only take attendee temperatures each morning, but have rapid-tests available for those with measured fevers. This is another step you can take to not only make sure your attendees feel secure, but to actually up the level of safety at your even. Listen to Jonathan Spero, CEO of InHouse Physicians on this podcast from Successful Meetings to learn more about Health Security. Additionally, it’s important to envision the worst case scenario—what happens if someone at your meeting is sick? Do you have team members in place to stay at the event destination if that person needs to quarantine? Think through all that would need to happen to address different potential scenarios and then prepare accordingly.

Offer A Robust Digital Component

Woman in front of a device screen in video conference for work

Even with the most stringent health safety protocols in place, there are still some people who will not feel comfortable attending an in-person event any time soon. The beauty of a hybrid event is that, rather than simply count those people out, you can create new ways to connect with them. And just as attendees can join either in person or online—the same goes for speakers and hosts. Live-streamed video calls can be projected in front of a live audience and shared with online attendees.

But in order to host a truly hybrid event, you need to place equal weight on both the in-person and digital aspects.

Here are a few things to consider when planning the virtual portion of your event:

Recognize That You’re Appealing To Two Different Audiences

The tricky part of hybrid conferences is that you have to appeal to two different audiences at once. By designing your content around one group or the other (the in-person versus the online), you’re likely losing engagement with the other. Remember that a hybrid event is truly a third option—and you have to plan it as such.

The level of engagement and interaction will be different for in-person attendees than virtual ones. If your speaker is answering questions from the audience, consider how they can hear from both groups. Will you allow in-person attendees to simply raise their hand? Or will you ask everyone to submit their questions via a social media hashtag or a feature soon your virtual platform? Think about what you as a user like and dislike about in-person events versus virtual and vice versa then think of ways to replicate the best of both for each format.

Keep sessions shorter than usual. Sometimes staring at a computer screen can be more draining than being there in person — and it can be easier and less embarrassing to just drop off a webinar than it is to go through the steps of getting up and leaving the room. By keeping the sessions short, you’re more likely to maintain your traffic and engagement numbers all the way through.

Make Sure Technology Is On Your Side

Don’t undermine the quality of your content with shoddy or lacking technology. If a speaker is video-calling in remotely, make sure they have the proper recording equipment. The picture will need to work on both an at-home computer screen AND on display in the venue—if they are not recording in HD, there’s a chance they’re going to come across pixelated and hard to see when blown up on a big screen. Do test runs before any live sessions to ensure that the speaker is lit properly for all formats, and the audio recording is working.

If you’re live-streaming an in-person talk, you will have to make sure that your internet connection in the venue is up to the task—otherwise your virtual attendees are going to be served glitchy video.

And finally, as you introduce all of these new tech features—now is a perfect time to make sure all of your content is ADA accessible. Adding closed captioning to all of your videos can be a lifeline for both in-person and at-home attendees.

Rethink Networking Capabilities

As I previously mentioned, networking has always been a big draw for in-person conferences. While it may be hard to recreate the exact experience of striking up a conversation with someone at the hotel bar—there are still plenty of ways to facilitate communication online. Live chat features can help your audience connect to speakers and exhibitors in real-time, while dedicated attention to social media can help generate more conversation amongst attendees throughout the event.

Add Some Fun

Though many attendees appreciate the efficiency of online sessions, that doesn’t mean the virtual portion of your conference should be all work and no fun! Liven up your presentations with music and eye-catching visuals. Think of ways to mimic social gatherings online. Some people may be skeptical of these sort of events at first—that’s to be expected for anything new and different. Try incentivizing them: what about hosting a 15-minute trivia round between sessions and offering the winners a prize?

Cross Your Fingers For New Virtual Reality Technologies?

Tech companies like Apple and Google are already hard at work developing new Augmented Reality technologies—and the pandemic has likely accelerated these efforts, as the demand for such product grows as more people stay at home. While it wouldn’t be smart to pin all of your hope on the ability to recreate your entire conference in VR, it is something to keep an eye on as the technology improves and eventually becomes more affordable.


It’s hard not to feel frustrated about all of the new rules and regulations we have to live with these days. And it’s made all the more difficult when there doesn’t appear to be a clear timeline for when things may start to feel normal again. But that doesn’t mean we have to just sit around and wait for things to get better. Rather than hoping we can go back to business as usual soon, now is a perfect moment to imagine new possibilities. How can we redesign our events to meet more people’s needs? How can we make them safer, more engaging, more accessible than ever before? While these questions may have been forced upon us, their answers may open up new opportunities that will continue to benefit your association long after the pandemic is over.

Want to learn more? Get in touch today.