Conference Design

Learn Online to Get Physical

12th July 2021

ESAE member Sharon Ashton, Events Director, EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe, shares the tips she learned from online events that associations can apply to in-person events.

To say that associations and the events industry at large have experienced devastating consequences and steep learning curves as a result of the pandemic over the past 16 months is an understatement. As an event management professional working for an international non-profit patient association since 2010, I’ve experienced a multitude of emotions over this past year ranging from fear, sadness, overwhelm, anxiety, stress and exhaustion to excitement, thrill, compassion and awe.

A few of the superpowers of event professionals are their ability to be agile, proactive, and remain calm in the face of adversity. An important element of our work is to awaken possibility in others, whether that be our own teams and associations, partners, sponsors, donors, exhibitors, committees, speakers or participants. We also act as change agents. Starting with the end in mind is vital to producing a successful and impactful event. 

The broad scope and benefits of association events can be seen here:

  1. Creating value for the association and relevant sector: information, knowledge exchange and generation, tools, resources, support, capacity-building, thought leadership and reputation 
  2. Generating revenues: registration fees, sponsorship and exhibition fees, donations
  3. Building community: creating and gathering your tribe, stimulating a movement, driving momentum, providing networking opportunities, developing relations, solidifying trust and maintaining credibility

During the height of the pandemic, these fundamental needs did not diminish, on the contrary, they were amplified. As we slowly start to emerge from this global crisis, we begin to reflect on lessons we can take from running online events and apply them to in-person events. Here are our key learnings:

  1. Develop long-term partnerships: whether this be with venues or suppliers including audio-visual companies, online platforms/apps and professional facilitators, surround yourself with experts. This has proved crucial for our association to navigate these troubled waters. We will continue to develop relations as we move forward, enabling us to provide a mixture of e-learning, training, infographics, podcasts, webinars, in-person, hybrid and online events in the future.
  2. Scenario planning: we have become adept at planning and budgeting for several scenarios during the pandemic, this will continue and will be a valuable skill in our toolbox.
  3. Up-skilling our staff: the importance of segmented and personalised marketing coupled with social media, storytelling skills, video production and editing, technological know-how and agility have emerged as desirable skills that will stand us in good stead after the pandemic and will continue to be valuable for years to come.
  4. The new era of Requests for Proposals (RFPs): Associations need to define clear objectives and specifications for their events as early as possible to be able to provide clear RFPs to venues and technology providers. We need to replace certainty of outcome with certainty of process: set dates for reviewing risk and uncertainty so that it is a continual dialogue to mitigate risks. We need to demonstrate flexibility and empathy on all sides. We also need to develop templates for RFPs for digital platforms and hybrid models! 

We see more studio hire in our future along with smaller venues and better networking spaces adapted to our evolving needs. I am excited by initiatives such as the Hybrid City Alliance allowing one RFP to be sent to multiple cities for multi-hub events. Contracting with the same chain of venues/hotels will also help to disperse risk across different countries/regions. Finally, venues need to provide clear guidelines and costs to associations relating to the COVID safety measures in place at their venues as well as door-to-door e.g. from the airport to the hotel, conference venue and in local restaurants. This is where convention bureaus will be able to play a significant role. 

Sharon Ashton, Events Director, EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe, is a creative, accomplished and exacting event management professional whose passion is to design and deliver interactive events that motivate and connect participants and provide platforms for genuine exchange and learning. While delivering events that advocate for better lives for persons living with a rare disease, Sharon also strengthens this community by solidifying trust and maintaining credibility. Moreover, Sharon fosters long-term and mutually beneficial relations with key strategic volunteers and wider stakeholder groups to further their respective goals.

The arc of Sharon’s 20+ year career spans conferences, capacity-building workshops, symposia, weddings, award ceremonies and fundraising gala dinners of all sizes in Europe, North America and beyond.

  • Monetization of events: true value lies in the content. Associations should not offer online content for free if it was previously a source of revenue. Let’s get creative in thinking about how we monetize our events in future! New revenue sources could be opened with hybrid event models as well as by growing our outreach and influence.
  • Mix up the formats: our attention spans will remain short even at in-person events. Proposing a mixture of formats such as pre-recorded video segments, remote speakers, interviews, panels, walking meetings, fishbowls and others will help keep our audiences engaged. Shorter sessions and shorter presentations using techniques such as Pecha Kucha or splitting presentations should be considered. Similarly, integrating more interactive audience participation tools such as Slido and Mentimeter into events will encourage both in-person and remote participation. We will also better anticipate energy dips during the day by using more transitions between segments with a quick video (on a completely different/fun topic!), stretches/movement or a mindful moment such as inviting participants to look outside and focus for a second on one object, colour or shape. Integrating regular pauses to give people time for personal reflection or pair share at the end of each session will also remain important.
  • Provide choice for engagement: not everyone is comfortable asking questions in front of big groups. Providing alternatives using interactive audience participation tools such as those mentioned above allow everyone to ask questions, up-vote questions, co-create word clouds, conduct opinion lines, and even co-create documents. This can be combined with proposing frequent small group discussions to cater to all learning and personality types. Giving cues on how to behave in meetings is also something we will carry through to in-person events. We will be more explicit about the ‘rules of engagement’ relating to interaction, asking questions, and mixing two experiences: in-person and online. We also need to become more adept at matchmaking and facilitating networking opportunities.
  • Minute-by-minute session scripts: this is not something we did systematically for all events/sessions prior to moving online but it has become a best practice for us not only to prepare the moderators and speakers themselves but also the AV team and all other players. 
  • Speaker training: this is a biggy! If truth be told, we didn’t feel comfortable pre-pandemic providing training for our speakers, fearing they would feel offended or rebuffed at the suggestion of them needing to improve their presentation skills! This has all changed! We’ll continue to offer training to both moderators and speakers as we re-enter the in-person meetings era. We’ll focus efforts on engagement and outcomes. Our next challenge will be to train speakers on how to address two audiences simultaneously: in-person and online! Camera angles will become our next challenge! In the case of hybrid events with both in-person and remote audiences, we will dip into our precious address book of professional moderators developed over the past years and hire a dedicated facilitator for each ‘audience’ in order that neither feel neglected or second rate.
  • Waiting room ready: Zoom waiting rooms have allowed us to only let participants into the ‘room’ once everyone is ready, participants must only see the finished product! We will monitor this more closely when we revert to in-person events, better controlling what participants see, hear and feel. This will run through to cables, paper and water being out-of-sight on the podium to our choice of back-drops. It also incorporates protecting sight lines for participants. Henceforth, we will bring speakers in from the back of the room or from hidden side-lines to avoid distraction. We will also cover awkward silences as people enter a room or during transitions with music, a great lesson from Zoom meetings!
  • Data, data, data! Online events have shown us what a wealth of data is available to us that can be exploited to determine our participant’s preferences and behaviour to better design future events. The huge investments we have witnessed over the past few years in event technology is likely to continue. The impact will be felt moving forward with the emergence of more advanced AI technology to improve matchmaking, event newsletter personalization, voice translation and interpretation, facial recognition for event registration, event chatbots and sentiment analysis tools, to name but a few. Exciting times ahead!
  • Moral of the story: as reflected above in the section about up-skilling staff, we will think more closely about the ‘moral’ of each of our events and communicate the value, objectives and outcomes more purposefully both during the pre-event phase, during the live event and post-event. It is vital that content remains king and that the value of the event shines through. After all, moving forward, we will be competing with a mixture of in-person, online, hybrid events and the latest Netflix series! Storytelling and the idea of taking our audience on a journey, mapping interactivity waves, empathy maps and emotions will become integral to running a successful event in future.

The moral of this story is never waste a crisis! There are always valuable lessons to take away from any transition. Together we are forging the way ahead for a better future for our associations!

Hit enter to search or ESC to close