Why Virtual Events Won't Cannibalize Live Meetings

Why Virtual Events Won't Cannibalize Live Meetings

For years, meeting professionals have found themselves wondering whether video conferencing and immersive technologies would negatively impact face-to-face meetings.

The fear isn't totally unfounded. Consider, for example, the results of a 2009 survey [PDF] -- during the Great Recession -- by Forbes Insights, the strategic research and thought leadership practice of Forbes Media. In June 2009, 58 percent of business executives said they were traveling for business less than they were 18 months ago, and more than a third (34 percent) said they were traveling "much less frequently." Meanwhile, 59 percent of executives said their use of virtual meetings had increased. By 2010, Carlson Wagonlit Travel was reporting that virtual meetings had grown at 80 percent of companies around the world.

Among those concerned by the trend was the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA).

"During the recession, digital technology started to increase and people were seeing a decrease in face-to-face events because of what was happening in the world," recalls Jennifer Kingen Kush, vice president and executive director of PCMA's Digital Experience Institute (DEI), a global organization that promotes engagement around digital events, meetings, and learning while also supporting PCMA's internal digital strategy. "A lot of people thought virtual meetings were going to destroy our industry. We felt very confident that they wouldn't, but we felt we needed to experiment with digital technology in order to understand it. That's when we started doing digital events."

In partnership with online video provider Sonic Foundry, PCMA began live streaming its "Convening Leaders" annual meeting in 2010, followed by its summer Education Conference. Eight years later, the video content from its hybrid meeting has generated $1 million in revenue for the organization, which says attendance at its live events has continued to grow year over year along with its membership. In fact, 1,800 new members have joined PCMA thanks to its online conferences.

"We've seen an increase in our face-to-face attendance every single year, and digital events have created a pipeline of engagement that has resulted in future face-to-face registrations, online purchases, and memberships," Kingen Kush says. "We've proven that [cannibalization of live events by digital events] does not happen and that the opposite is actually true: Virtual meetings can be a very strategic tool for growing face-to-face programs."

From Beta Test to Blockbuster Success

Of course, it's not enough to merely host a haphazard virtual event. Organizations seeking a positive return on their investment must take a strategic approach that will create real value for virtual and live attendees alike.

To ensure success, PCMA has learned, it's best to start small and grow incrementally. When it commenced its digital programming in 2010, for instance, it began with a "beta" test during which it live-streamed just six sessions from its annual convention. In 2011, it hosted its first official "Convening Leaders LIVE" digital event, which featured eight live-streamed sessions, up from the initial six. In 2012, it live-streamed 11 sessions. In 2013, it live-streamed more than 22 sessions. In 2014, it introduced its first virtual happy hour, during which digital attendees can electronically mingle and network, and in 2015, it began doing live TV-style interviews with speakers. This year, "Convening Leaders LIVE" included 20 live-streamed sessions: 63 live video interviews with speakers, three virtual happy hours, and one virtual coffee break.

"Initially, we kept it really focused because we didn't want to crash and fail," Kingen Kush says. "At that point, we were really just trying to figure out the logistics -- how do make this work, how do we get this out there, how do promote this? But we've continued to evolve each year since."

The reason "Convening Leaders LIVE" has been so fruitful, Kingen Kush says, is that it doesn't just broadcast to virtual attendees. Rather, it actively engages them. Each session, for example, incorporates text chat with a virtual event host, speakers, and/or online moderators, who ingratiate themselves with virtual attendees by actively involving them in sessions -- via shout-outs, for example, Q&As, or interactive exercises.

"With each session that we do there is planned engagement," Kingen Kush says. "It's not just turning on the camera and hitting 'stream.' It's having a deliberate plan for how presenters will acknowledge the online audience and interact with them."

In other words, what makes a meeting successful online is the same as what makes one successful offline: It's not just about creating content for attendees to consume; it's about engineering an experience for them to enjoy and remember.

How Online Education Drives Offline Results

Although engagement and interaction will drive online attendance, getting virtual events to then catalyze offline attendance requires different, additional ingredients.

The first is relevance. "When planning the program, we spend a lot of time thinking about who comes to the event and what they're looking for," Kingen Kush says. "It's really important to make sure their time is well spent, and that you're providing them valuable information that's helping them solve real problems they're facing in their place of employment."

The second ingredient is anticipation. "We can't stream everything, so what you get online is just a taste of what we provide," Kingen Kush continues.

Together, relevance and anticipation send a powerful message: If you found the education at our virtual event helpful, just imagine how valuable the information is at our live event.

Lessons Learned

Although PCMA makes it look easy, it's had its fair share of challenges, too. Early on, for instance, it learned the hard way that lunch tastes good -- but doesn't look good on a computer screen.

"One of the things we tried at the beginning was live-streaming our lunch programming," Kingen Kush recalls. "It was like being invited to dinner and not being able to eat. The timing was awkward. You could hear silverware. It just didn't work. So we took a step back and realized that we needed to design the experienced based on what we wanted the online audience to feel and walk away with. So, now we don't share our lunchtime programming; and if we do, we record it, then broadcast it afterwards."

Quality has been another lesson, as inferior A/V makes for a poor online experience -- just as an inferior venue makes for a poor offline experience. "There are more technical things involved in a high-quality production than we initially realized," continues Kingen Kush, who says her team learned early on the importance of lighting and sound quality. "So, working with a really strong team who can help you deliver a good experience is really critical."

A good experience won't just yield financial returns.

"From an ROI standpoint, our digital events have funneled over $1 million back to the organization. But it's not just ROI, which a lot of our leadership is focused on. It's also ROE -- return on engagement," Kingen Kush says. "We looked at people who had not attended our events for five-plus years, but who attended our digital events online. For all these individuals, we saw an increase in website sessions, an increase in opened emails, an increase in clickthroughs, and increased engagement with all our articles online. We're very happy with the results."

Those results won't occur overnight. But with clear goals, a cogent strategy, and a firm commitment, they will occur, Kingen Kush says. "From what we've seen in our own organization and across the industry," she concludes, "the long-term benefits are incredibly powerful when you invest time and effort in planning."