September 15, 2020

Not Going Virtual Isn't an Option for Association Conferences

Not Going Virtual Isn't an Option for Association Conferences

You can’t go a day in the association community without seeing a blog post, online discussion, tweet, or webinar about virtual conferences—it’s no different on our blog. It seems like every association is hosting a virtual conference but that’s not actually true. Some associations are sitting this one out—and we think that’s a bad idea.

We believe not going virtual is not an option, not if you want to stay relevant to your members and market, and stay in business. If you’re tempted to not host a virtual conference in the coming year, consider these questions before making a final decision.

Are You Waiting for In-Person Events to Return?

Maybe you plan to wait out the pandemic, hoping for a vaccine and anticipating the day when we can all get back together again in-person. But, even when it arrives, you can’t assume people will be willing or able to attend your in-person conference.

Many members won’t feel safe enough even with all the precautions you and your venue take. To minimize risk, employers may not permit or pay for employees to attend conferences. Sponsors and exhibitors could end up in the same situation.

Given the economic conditions, many people won’t be able to afford registration and travel expenses, including employers and their staff, self-employed professionals, students, and people who have lost or are worried about losing their jobs.

With kids attending school from home, many parents can’t take time off to spend a few days elsewhere.

The in-person conference you’ve been waiting for may not meet your attendance and revenue expectations.

What Percentage of Members Attended Your Conferences in the Past?

Here’s something lots of people forget about in-person conferences: only a small percentage of members attended. Earlier this year in the pre-pandemic days, an ASAE member asked the Collaborate community about member company participation in annual conferences. At his association, only 21% of member companies attended.

One person said 16% to 19% of their member companies attend. Industry researcher Kevin Whorton said one of his clients had 27% attendance. In a 2018 survey he conducted with members of twelve state association executive societies (SAEs), 42% of member companies attended. But Kevin cautioned that 80% of those associations were state or local associations so they naturally see higher participation due to in-state conference locations.

For many associations, most members stay home due to:

  • Budget restraints
  • Scheduling conflicts or inability to take time off from work
  • Parenting or caretaking responsibilities
  • Social anxiety
  • Disability
  • Visa issues for international attendees

Do You Want to Engage a Larger Percentage of Your Membership and Market?

Virtual conferences are accessible to a much larger percentage of your membership and market. Associations hosting virtual conferences are seeing increased attendance, sometimes double or triple the in-person numbers, even when the conference is priced appropriately, i.e., it’s not free or deeply discounted.

Members are big fans of virtual conferences that provide valuable, timely content along with CE credits. Virtual events give them access to a wider range of talented speakers and experts since travel expenses and scheduling issues are no longer a factor. Plus, if members miss a session, they can watch it later on-demand—more content bang for the buck.

Virtual conferences provide associations with warm leads for future member engagement and marketing campaigns. You can encourage additional engagement by promoting related content, such as webinars, virtual events, publications, online courses, and certificate programs.

Non-members make up the majority of the market in many industries. Once they’ve enjoyed one of your virtual conferences, you can reach out with membership marketing campaigns. In some industries, employers don’t pay for membership, but they will pay for professional development so market related educational content to non-members too.

Are Your Members Craving Community?

Besides education, the number one reason people join associations is for networking. Virtual events make networking accessible to every member, not just those who can afford to travel to conferences.

Networking is especially important in an uncertain economy. Members may have been furloughed or laid off, lost revenue, or lost their business. Even if their employment status hasn’t changed, they are likely a bit anxious about the future.

Members need to nurture and expand their network. They are looking for ways to spend time with peers—to seek and give advice, ask questions, share stories, and talk shop. Virtual conferences give your community a place to gather, a place where they can meet up with peers, mentors, mentees, leads, and clients.

Do You Want to Provide Value to Sponsors and Exhibitors?

The increased attendance at virtual conferences means more brand awareness, leads, and conversations for sponsors and exhibitors—as long as you do it right.

Your corporate revenue partners much rather teach than sell—and attendees much rather listen to expertise than to sales spiels. Sponsors and exhibitors value opportunities to contribute their expertise more than the usual logo and banner options. At virtual conferences, they can share digital content and host expo floor sessions, virtual booths, and networking lounges.

Look at ways to offer your revenue partners value year-round, not just the few days of the conference. A year-round relationship means more leads for them and more revenue for your association.

Do You Need to Generate Revenue?

Because of the increase in attendance, virtual conference registration revenue can still come out ahead, even at a lower price point than in-person registration. Plus, you can generate the same amount of (if not more) sponsor and exhibitor revenue, especially if you create year-round packages. You can also bring in future revenue from the sale of on-demand conference sessions or tracks.

When attendees have a memorable networking and learning experience at your virtual conference, they will return for the next one. They’ll also be more receptive to marketing campaigns about other virtual experiences you provide.

If you want to give attendees a virtual conference experience they won’t stop talking about, request a private or self-guided tour of The Echo, our virtual venue solution.