Michael Palmer, MBA, CAE
President and Senior Partner
Director of Association Services
With a hybrid conference, you put on a face-to-face (F2F) event and then provide a virtual component. The first thing you need to do to create a virtual conference or the virtual component of a conference is to determine what kind of participant experience you want. The key to success is to find ways to get virtual participants engaged. In general, the more virtual engagement you provide, the more the conference costs.
There are a lot of engagement options for virtual and hybrid conferences:
- Recorded sessions available after the F2F conference
- Live F2F sessions and separate virtual sessions
- Sessions where the virtual participants view the same live sessions at the same time as the F2F audience
To further complicate planning, you can have some combination of these three options, with minimal or robust interaction options.
Recorded sessions available after the F2F conference
This is the easiest to do and the least costly. Many F2F conferences already do this. The sessions are recorded during the F2F event. The conference attendees can view the sessions for free. Those who do not attend the conference may be allowed to purchase access to these sessions at a fee. There is very little engagement for the virtual audience. This can work with a limited budget and in situations where networking is not important.
Live F2F sessions and separate virtual sessions
This is essentially planning two conferences and can be nearly twice the cost of a virtual or a F2F conference on its own. You need one set of staff and AV support for the F2F sessions and a second set of staff and technology to create and run the virtual conference. This works when you have two distinct audience groups:
- One group that:
- Cannot or will not travel, or
- Is comfortable with online technology and feels comfortable using it, or
- Feels comfortable networking online, or
- Does not see a need for F2F networking or
- Is concerned about costs.
- A second group that:
- Can and will travel, or
- Does not feel comfortable using technology or does not want to use it, or
- Does not feel comfortable networking online or
- Highly values F2F networking.
You can have different topics and different speakers for each group. An example might be when you have a young professional group that cannot or will not travel and feels comfortable with technology versus a veteran professional group that can and will travel and highly values F2F networking.
Sessions where the virtual participants view the same live sessions at the same time as the F2F audience
Holding a conference where F2F and virtual participants see the same presenters at the same time is what many people mean when they talk about hybrid conferences. In its simplest and least expensive form, you live stream sessions with or without virtual participant interaction. If the virtual audience can only view the presentations, keeping virtual participants’ attention becomes much more difficult. To avoid video conference burn-out you need highly skilled presenters and shorter-length sessions. The session ratings are usually lower than when there is interaction, and you need to contract with an AV company experienced in this type of conference.
Virtual interaction can be done using a video conference solution and allows participants (including F2F participants) to make comments and ask questions in real-time chats or by raising their virtual hand. The sessions often have moderators to pass the comments and questions along. If the virtual audience is small enough, you can project their faces on screens. Using some technology solutions, you can provide feedback using preset questions. In other solutions, you can use tweets to interact. Both the robustness of the technology solution and the extent to which you incorporate networking options have major impacts.
Robust ways to conduct sessions where the virtual participants view the same live sessions at the same time as the F2F audience are becoming the norm. These are typically based on virtual platforms and are the most expensive hybrid option. They allow participants to easily navigate into and out of sessions and they provide for in-session interactions. The use of these virtual platforms also allows for “add-ons” to encourage networking outside of educational sessions.
Engaging audiences outside of educational sessions in a virtual world
“Add-ons” are often the difference between a good conference and a great conference. You leverage the technology platform to create virtual vendor showrooms, rooms for specific groups, or rooms for specific interest areas. You can give sponsors special access points and carry out sponsored Ted talks. You can set up tech support rooms and welcome rooms.
You can mingle in virtual networking rooms or engage in social activities. If you want to engage virtual participants, you do not just have a happy hour; rather, you mail out drink kits, present Grub Hub coupons for box lunches, or send out gift certificates for a coffee hour. You can hold team building online activities (trivia contests, bingo, interactive games, and more). Throughout the day, you can have tweet contests. For example, on one day you might ask people to tweet a picture of themselves on vacation and hold a prize drawing. What you can make happen is limited only by your creativity.
Staff and Technology Components
Depending on what you want to do, you may incur the costs of some or all the following:
- The technology platform
- Software/platform setup
- Pre-conference training (for participants and speakers)
- Real-time tech support during the conference
- Event staff
- Room hosts (can be volunteers or paid tech support people) to make sure the room is running smoothly and to monitor chats (questions and comments)
- If you are running virtual and F2F components simultaneously, you may also need another tech support person to keep the simultaneous experience happening.
Costs of a Virtual Conference
As a rule of thumb if you use a simple video conference line, with only one or two tracks, and do not use a platform, the technology cost is minimal. The hidden costs however are the staffing both in the preparation, the training, and the hosting time.
The staff and technology cost of a robust virtual conference using a software platform often costs as much as a F2F conference. The difference is the onsite costs. With a virtual conference you do not have food, room and transportation costs of course. You can earn as much from a virtual conference even with a 35% to a 50% registration fee discount as you can from a F2F conference. You can set pricing by analyzing the onsite fixed and variable costs. You will have to add back in the cost of setting up and running the platform. The services the platform provider provides will reduce the costs but there is still sizeable staffing time involved. The staffing cost can be 5 to 10 times the cost of the platform. On virtual conferences that Treeline has set up the staffing time has ranged from 150 to 300 hours.
Costs of a Hybrid Costs
The costs of a hybrid conference are always more than a virtual or F2F conference by itself. Considerably more. You can count on it being 1 ½ to 2 times the cost of the F2F conference by itself. The more “bells and whistles” that you provide to encourage participant engagement the more staff time it takes to set up the conference and the more it will cost to run the conference.
Virtual and Hybrid conferences costs vary depending on the simplicity of the technology to be used and the robustness of the participant experience. The staffing costs to prepare and run a virtual or hybrid conference is often the biggest cost that you will have other than food and beverage with the F2F conference. When pricing a virtual or hybrid conference you must account for the set-up costs, the participant and speaker training, the tech support, the hosting costs, and the coordination costs.
Michael Palmer, MBA, CAE, is the President and founder of Treeline Associates. Treeline Associates is an international association management company based in Michigan, with operations in both the US and Canada. They provide full association management services as well as selective services such as conference planning, nonprofit accounting, membership marketing, and others. They are a technology-savvy company and have operated virtually for over 10 years. They were formed in 1998 and are entering into their 23rd year. For more details see their website at https://treelineassociates.com