Current Affairs

Experience The Future Conference

4th March 2021

The pandemic has threatened the very core of the meetings industry. Fact. Associations and destinations alike have responded to the best of their ability, learning new lessons with every new obstacle. Fact. Hidden opportunities lie within this worldwide ordeal. Fact. But is the world, and our industry in particular, looking in the right direction for these promising changes that everyone is talking about? Have conference destinations decrypted what delegates will be craving for once we are let out of our cages, what it takes to make travelling around the globe worthwhile again?

Words Vicky Koffa, with Remi Deve

A common question after a meeting is “What was your conference experience like?”. Until recently, what the questioner wanted to know was whether the fellow attendee found the sessions they followed informative and varied, whether knowledge was shared adequately, and workshops produced innovative ideas. And of course if the experience brought new collaborations, new friendships… and if the serendipity factor was there for everybody to enjoy. This is why academics, scientists and experts travelled endlessly. 

This knowledge economy was forced to reinvent itself because of the pandemic. Taking travelling out of the equation has admittedly opened vast digital possibilities for learning, but on the downside, it has made – for some – all this knowledge a bit sterile, lacking the excitement of sharing an experience in person while exchanging ideas. This is where the experience economy gains the upper hand and what the post-pandemic era of business events should focus on. In this regard, Christian Woronka, director of the Vienna Convention Bureau, confirms that: “An experience can elevate a convention or event, providing further dimensions and igniting greater creativity.”

The Exciting New World of Online Meetings

2020, and probably for its most part 2021, have taught even the most ‘traditional’ delegate that online meetings work. After some initial bumps, associations realized that with some creativity, open-mindedness and the right technology they can still offer their members advanced education and training. In fact, it is more advantageous compared to physical meetings as knowledge can be more customized, more accessible, cheaper and definitely reaching a larger audience.

“Post-event surveys and interviews confirmed that we had all done a great job: attendance figures were what we had hoped for (or even higher depending on our business model),  association brands and values reached new audiences untethered by the expense and inconvenience of travel, commercial partners also got their visibility and most importantly of all, the content we had all been diligently curating and collating for months on end was effectively delivered in a multitude of innovative digital formats,” says Ben Hainsworth, Managing Director of the European Association for the Study of the Liver.

However, the argument that the value of networking cannot be found online is a real one as Bettina Reventlow-Mourier, Deputy Convention Director of Wonderful Copenhagen, explains: “Meaningful and rewarding connections can be started in the online realm – particularly by the young generations whose behaviors are born in a digital culture. Whereas virtual community interaction can provide valuable reach, inclusion and data for the association, it is undeniably more difficult for the delegates, sponsors and exhibitors to build up new relationships and trust virtually.” And Aileen Crawford, Head of Glasgow Convention Bureau, supports this thought with facts: “81% of associations, responding to a recent ICCA survey believe that there are limitations to networking discussions at virtual events, compared to face-to-face meetings.”

Is this entirely true? Can an association overcome this meaningful ‘networking issue’ and, if yes, to what extent? Malgosia Bartosik, Deputy CEO of WindEurope, argues: “What people seem to like about the online networking/ B2B Platforms is the fact that you can do it in a very targeted way. If you manage to get the right information on participants to build clear profiles and understand their needs, the matchmaking can be really effective. We can shape the groups of people that want to be connected to each other.” And this is just the beginning; the future of online events looks promising.

The In-Between Solution

And yet we can argue that organizers cannot cover all needs digitally. Delegates are already tired from watching one-sided presentations and the need to combine knowledge with a memorable moment, an out-of-work experience, has to be created. A more dynamic way of attending a conference seems to be the hybrid format. So far, many convention bureaus have stepped in to integrate fun videos and personalized interactive experiences linked to the destination or partner destinations with shorter educational sessions. 

“Hybrid events will play a larger role than prior to the pandemic, as it provides organizers greater access and reach to engage with broader audiences than ever before. The ‘experience’ element might be more restricted, but meeting designs will continue to adapt, becoming more dynamic and creative, with a shift from long, one-dimensional presentations, to more inspirational, TED TALK style presentations,” notices Woronka. 

As best results come from partnership and collaboration, Bartosik goes further saying: “The collaboration between different cities could be of big value for hybrid events. If we could connect different studios around the world, we could have delegates connecting from various destinations; that could be a nice addition to the onsite event, making it different and more appealing than just direct streaming.”

Nothing Like Human Contact

All parties interviewed for this piece agree on this. The digital world has stepped up in a time of need, “it made us discover all the potential of online events in order to disseminate content and we will keep using this potential, but real human interactions allow us to challenge this content, our ideas and create fruitful connections and partnerships for the future,” says Elisabeth Van Ingelgem, Director Association & Convention Bureau.

Association members are now looking to get something more out of the conference they attend. Human interaction, networking, is called to provide excitement and sharing memorable moments with other like-minded attendees all while acquiring new knowledge. “Delegates will want to personalize their own conference experience around these networking opportunities,” says Crawford. Physical conferences are the ideal platform for this rising need, for the experience economy, which comes to reinforce the knowledge economy.

Experiencing creates value on an individual level during a physical event; this is why association members will leave the comfort of their home and travel the globe again. In fact, as Hainsworth says, “getting away from work, temporarily immersing yourself in a new environment and concentrating on learning and sharing things that you are passionate about remains a uniquely rewarding experience.” 

CVBs to The Rescue

Clearly, the future conference has to be different. The pandemic has taught us the importance of community and environment. Conferences will need to offer more value on all fronts – knowledge, experience, society, environment. What better way to do this than aligning the organization of an event with the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? And who better to help with this than the city convention bureaus?

“The new business model must be able to give the best service and strategic support to associations, organizers and delegates and be adapted to the new normal. The local stakeholders and suppliers are playing an essential role for the destination and its clients. Safety, security, creating confidence and the best economic outcome will be key in the future for associations/organizers selecting destinations for their events,” says Christoph Tessmar, Director of Barcelona Convention Bureau.

Associations ask for “proper, targeted, purpose-made meetings that combine both business and local experience with the highest ROI,” according to Bartosik. “Could we move part of the event’s meetings to the city? An offer of different type of meetings, of different sizes and formats, and the support of someone to help us make it happen, that could definitely add an extra value to the event,” she says. 

And Reventlow-Mourier answers: “Between associations, CVBs and PCOs it could be interesting bringing together the creative and technological industries, experience designers and producers to engineer and curate solutions as to how best we can design and implement pre-meeting setups, flexible and innovative meeting spaces, interactive conference programmes – both on- and off-site – that provide the optimal environment for nudging people together, facilitate networking, encourage relation building and allow for great serendipitous encounters.”

CVBs will take their place in the spotlight, “not as a blank canvas, but more fully mobilized as the temporary home and guardian of the visiting community,” says Hainsworth. The idea finds CVBs ready for action. Crawford says: “Convention Bureasx have long been experts within the knowledge economy, advocating the benefits of knowledge exchange and internationalization; now the city convention bureau can take its place within the experience economy; putting the ‘work’ back into ‘networking’.”

There is a catch though; in order to fully satisfy the future delegate all this exciting new type of event needs to respect – and give back – to the community, socially and environmentally. Finding ways to reduce their carbon footprint, or at the very least, including it in a greater cause, will have to be at the forefront of every event. “Future delegates will expect navigating barriers to entry, reducing risk for delegates visiting at their own expense, even looking at the circular economy and developing more genuine experiences,” says Hainsworth. Creating legacy and positive impact will have to start from early stages of conference bidding and planning and include environmentally friendly solutions across the board.

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