Hybrid Meetings

November 2013

Hybrid meetings mean money

by Ruth A. Hill

Hybrid meetings will kill attendance at your live event. Hybrid meetings will grow your attendance at face meetings and add impressive revenues to  your organization’s coffers.

Which side are you on?

The idea of hybrid meetings (live gatherings with a virtual component) still scares some event organizers. They fear offering content online will decrease live, real-time attendance. And they may also worry about the costs of adding a digital feature. Others are doing it and say going hybrid or totally virtual can extend a brand’s audience reach and add significant revenues to the coffers.

Those who are going hybrid may broadcast a conference in full or in part online, capture conference content and rebroadcast it later--or make it available on-demand. They may offer all or some of these parts for free, and others for a fee. Some content might live behind an online pay wall; other pieces may be free to anyone with internet connect.

The ways organizers are engaging both on-site and remote audiences and monetizing their content seems to be almost endless (see sidebar), and it’s evolving almost as fast as the technologies that make it possible.

Hybrid Successes
Consider this year’s national conference of the Gospel Coalition, a fellowship of reformed evangelical churches. It drew 5,000-plus attendees from 41 countries to its live annual conference in Florida. The virtual conference reached 35,000 in 130 countries, and fulfilled the group’s objective to reach a larger audience. Because digital content was offered free in six languages, much of it got posted on blogs and on various websites, and was therefore consumed by thousands of people around the world.

Another success story comes from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Steve Williams, director of e-media innovations and business development SHRM, says his association digitally captured and packaged content for sale from 200 sessions offered at its 2013 annual conference.

“One person can’t attend more than about 10 sessions at a conference, so we offered an upgraded attendance fee so attendees had access to content on their own time. And we offered the exact same content to non-attendees as well,” Williams says. “Many live conference attendees did upgrade to this.”

Williams says this conference model does not mimic the live conference, because people who are on-site get the networking experience while those who don’t attend miss that but can get session content. Also, because some presenters do not authorize recording their content, what people access live differs from what they can access on-demand.

Controlling Costs
But how do content sponsors offset production costs? Williams says some organizations don’t charge attendees for content.

“They use a sponsorship model and may offer products free to attendees,” he says. “This can offset production and other costs such as presenter and vendor fees to create the virtual conference.”

Jim Parker, CEO of Digitell, a multimedia company that works with SHRM and other organizations to capture and leverage their content, says medical organizations that provide educational content professionals need for certification  are among organizations that are the most successful in raising revenues and audience from their hybrid conferences.

“The Radiological Society of North America offered its members access to virtual events for nothing this year,” Parker says. “They had over 7,000 physicians in 62 countries--an increase of 2,000 over last year--and they issued 92,000 CMEs online.”

Parker says the American Roentgen Ray Society (ARRS), a medical imaging society, sold more online “seats” than the number sold at its 2013 live event.

Organizers in other professions and industries who are not offering a hybrid version of their live meetings are leaving significant money on the table, Parker says. They are often concerned about cannibalization, yet all the data that comes back when people offer their event online shows that event organizers reach a wider audience with live streaming.

“The research done by Professional Convention Management Association [PCMA] shows that 31 percent of attendees who attend online will attend the live conference within the following two years,” Parker says.

Big annual conferences will eventually go away, he predicts, because digital is changing the way people receive information, but that doesn’t mean the death of the associations that have relied on them for decades, or other meetings they sponsor. 

“Hotels and CVBs may look at me as the devil for saying this, but digital is changing things and those who embrace it and figure out how to use it to their advantage will do well in the future,” he says. “Those who don’t will see attendance decline and eventually go away.”

PCMA Advocacy
PCMA is one meetings industry organization that is actively advocating hybrid meetings. Mary Reynolds Kane, PCMA’s director of online marketing, says the group has been monetizing meetings via sponsorships since early 2011.

Since then, PCMA has tried several models for registration and has watched attendance at various events grow and change as new virtual audiences have gotten a taste of what the organization offers.

“If you are just trying to grow your brand, you may wish to offer free or low-cost registration fees because this encourages people to attend a face-to-face event later,” says Reynolds Kane.

As for monetization, she advises going small and slow.

“Some organizations bite off more than they should in this realm,” she maintains. “My best advice is to start small and do something like broadcast just a few sessions rather than a larger event. Or, capture content and sell it later. There are many ways to grow this.”

Even larger meetings like the upcoming Radiological Society of North America’s (RSNA) annual conference in Chicago are advancing in this virtual realm gradually, Reynolds Kane adds.

“RSNA has one of the largest annual scientific meetings in North America, with about 65,000 attendees,” she says. “Until this year, they have not charged for virtual attendance; it’s been included in membership fees. Conference content has been online only through the live conference, period.”

Changes are afoot, however.

“This year, they are charging members $100 and non-members $300 for the hybrid component. And, they are extending sessions content availability for a week after the meeting ends on December 6,” she says. “What I find very interesting is what their meetings director told me; a good number of live attendees are also purchasing the hybrid content package because they can’t possibly attend all sessions live.”

The bottom-line message about hybrid events, Reynolds Kane added, is that the ROI in them is member retention and revenue.

“PCMA doesn’t believe hybrid meetings cannibalize live events,” she stresses. “What they do is allow organizations to reach new audiences globally with their content and engage them. PCMA believes face meetings will never go away. People may decide to meet more regionally in smaller rather than larger events in the future, but the networking and other benefits of live attendance are here to stay.”

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