Balancing Optimism with 2020 Lessons Learned: Hybrid Event Planning for the APHON Conference

Balancing Optimism with 2020 Lessons Learned: Hybrid Event Planning for the APHON Conference

By Jennifer Schap, Allison Whitley, and Kari Messenger

In March 2021, the murky waters of COVID-19 and its crippling effect around the world began to clear. With levels of infection rates going down, indoor activities re-opening, and optimistic vaccination announcements, summer looks like it could return to some semblance of normalcy.

In the United States, guidelines have varied by state, with some states lifting minor social distancing standards while others have removed mask mandates altogether. And while many long for the loosening of restrictions, this inconsistency puts the association industry in a difficult position when trying to plan conferences and events. Conference planning teams are now tasked with creating valuable experiences both in person and virtually, while also balancing member and leadership expectations. Many organizations with events occurring in the latter half of 2021 are evaluating where their conference will fall on the in- person, virtual, and hybrid scale.

For 911 association partner, the (APHON), they have decided to move forward with a hybrid event that will balance an in-person experience in Salt Lake City with a simultaneous virtual one for their annual conference in October.

2020 Virtual Conference Recap

The 2020 Annual Conference planning process for APHON began like any other year, but with the added excitement of a New York City location. In early 2020, as the threat of COVID-19 began to spread like wildfire and New York City became a viral hotspot, the decision was made to transition to a 100% virtual conference. In a 2-month period, APHON staff quickly reconfigured the conference schedule to a virtual-friendly format. The planning team determined strategies for educational content delivery, networking, and exhibiting, while also learning several new virtual tools.

It was extremely challenging to plan a virtual event within a small window of time, especially since the planning team had limited experience with virtual events at that time, and many lessons were learned. Based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback on the attendee evaluations and the record number of registrants who participated, APHON’s first virtual conference was a success. An additional silver lining was the incredible reach of APHON’s virtual meeting to include those who otherwise could not, or would not, be able to attend.

2021 Hybrid Strategic Planning: Part 1

APHON’s leadership was optimistic about being back in person for the 2021 conference, but they recognized the enormous amount of continued uncertainty about hosting a large, indoor event. So, the planning team began to investigate options for a hybrid conference.

Conference planning began with a survey in January to potential attendees, which showed that many nurses were still experiencing travel restrictions, could not find funding to attend professional conferences, and were concerned about health and safety. At the same time, more than 50% of respondents indicated a desire to attend a hybrid event if they had been vaccinated, COVID-19 infections are low and at a stable rate, and venues follow heightened sanitation procedures.

Taking all of this into account, the APHON planning team identified the goals of the event as providing education, engagement, and networking for all attendees in a safe environment. As APHON had contractual obligations at the convention center and hotel, the decision was made to keep the conference dates intact.

The team then discussed how the conference would take place. Based on the lessons learned in 2020, one of the goals was to select a business partner that could support both the virtual platform and the AV services for the in-person aspects of the conference.

Balancing Act: Integrating the Needs of In-Person and Virtual Audiences

Hybrid event planning is challenging as it requires planning experiences for two separate audiences that take place simultaneously. It is imperative to map out the attendee journey for both the live and virtual attendee experience.

For APHON’s annual conference, those choosing the in-person option in Salt Lake City will attend various educational sessions, connect with old friends, make new connections, and engage in discussions with speakers and exhibitors. On-site networking and social events will be designed specifically for the live audience with health and safety at the forefront.

For virtual attendees, keynotes, general sessions, and shorter concurrent sessions will be live streamed with various break times incorporated throughout the event, keeping in mind attendees will be engaging from various time zones. We anticipate some attendees will participate in the live portion of the virtual event while others will be engaged in work or home activities and may need to attend the live event intermittently or on-demand only. Additionally, since networking and social engagement are important in a virtual environment, multiple opportunities for small group or individual connection will be included by using video chats, attendee messaging and discussion boards, Zoom breakouts, and possibly networking tools like Remo.

For the overall hybrid conference, it is important to consider ways to blend the experience for both attendee types to bring them together as one audience. Several options the planning team is considering for this include

  • Holding an early morning “Conference in Bed” virtual session or “Coffee Chat” virtual networking event that onsite attendees can view from their hotel room along with the virtual audience.
  • Using polling tools such as Poll Everywhere or Kahoot during live-streamed sessions so that both in-person and virtual attendees can ask the speaker questions.
  • Asking the in-person audience to turn to the cameras and wave at virtual attendees during a live-streamed keynote or general session.
  • Sharing the names of virtual attendees with live-stream presenters and asking the presenters to say hello to them to make them feel included.

While attendees have various reasons for choosing to attend the conference either in person or virtually, APHON is focused on developing an event that will lead to a unique, valuable, and engaging experience for all attendees.

Decorator and Safety Protocols

Onsite safety protocols for a hybrid event are critical both for attendees and exhibitors. The official show decorator is a valuable partner to strategize with during this process, and we engaged with our decorator immediately to brainstorm the placement of structures, graphics, and other necessary tactics to keep attendees safe.

The sales cycle for exhibits and sponsorships begins about 10 months prior to conference, requiring a floor plan for the exhibit hall and networking area well in advance. The APHON floor plan was reviewed with an eye for attendee safety and comfort level while in the hall. The planning team even went on a virtual walk through with our convention and visitor bureau partners via FaceTime to view the space and collaborate on the event. We will continue to monitor the venue protocols and update plans accordingly.  

Renegotiating Contracts

When planning for APHON’s hybrid conference began, the planning team reviewed and renegotiated contract obligations with the host hotel and convention center. The convention center shared diagrams of the contracted space and specified how many attendees could be accommodated within 6-foot social distancing guidelines, giving us a starting point for determining in-person capacities. Based on current restrictions, room blocks and food and beverage minimums were negotiated reflecting capacities. In turn, this helped the team create the budget.

Exact food and beverage costs are still unclear at this point. Conversations are in progress about food preparation and packaging, the number of servers, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure attendees are served safely, which will impact the budget.

Hybrid Strategic Planning: Part 2

“Cue record scratch…”

As we discovered, it’s essential to ensure all stakeholders are involved from the beginning. One of our key learnings was that we should have engaged our Information Technology (IT) team earlier in the process to leverage their expertise around integration requirements. This misstep forced us to pause our platform decision and reflect on our strategy overall.

The team had defined the main purpose of the conference is to hold an educational meeting where attendees could network. From there, the team identified the stakeholders, including the APHON Board, Conference Program Planning Committee, members, partners, sponsors, exhibitors, and staff, and we committed to ensuring everyone was actively engaged in each step of the process.

The next step was to map out the strategy to get back on track. The planning team knew the objectives and considered all factors when making the next set of decisions. This was done by scheduling smaller meeting pods consisting of the planning team to discuss and confirm what requirements were needed in a platform, as well as the due date to have it selected.

As a team, APHON adjusted to these goals, set new timelines, and revamped the criteria for platforms being reviewed and considered by the group.

Keeping a Hybrid Conference Profitable

The pandemic not only required us to reimagine the conference experience for our attendees, it also forced us to reinvent how our industry partners and exhibitors engage with them. A robust strategy around industry support is critical when hosting a conference for a live or virtual conference and it is especially important for a hybrid event.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t assumeDon’t assume you have to offer a virtual exhibit booth for industry supporters. By now they will have had several virtual booth experiences; some may have been successful, and some likely did not meet their expectations. Instead, consider a networking “hall” with sponsored tabletop discussions to invite attendees to instead of the traditional exhibit experience.
  • Be flexible and open to change. Last year, industry supporters were more interested in presenting their educational content and APHON doubled the number of symposia held at the virtual conference compared to past in-person events. This year APHON will continue to expand its symposia programs while investigating new ways for supporters to virtually network with attendees.
  • Listen to your partners. Survey your industry partners to find out if they have travel bans, whether they have a budget for participation in a live or virtual event, and if their business objectives have changed. The key is to keep in contact and build solid relationships with your industry partners. Like your organization, they are navigating this new world and you may become a great resource for them.
  • Be creative. Overall, industry supporters are eager to get back to in-person networking. However, given that most of the audience will be virtual, the packages we offer supporters will incorporate both virtual and in-person opportunities. This means that the schedule must allow supporters and attendees to participate in both programs. But keep in mind this also requires that the sponsorship programs should not be so similar that they cannibalize revenue from supporters one way or the other.
  • Think big. The membership population is much larger than just those who attend the annual conference. APHON needed to shift traditional thinking to package year-round sponsorship opportunities that include assets from annual conference but also equally promote opportunities to reach members who do not attend. Engagement is key and there is a place for connection whether at a scheduled event or outside the parameters of the conference.

Speakers and Recordings

Although 2021 holds hope for returning to normalcy, many of the same issues from 2020 remain for speakers. As a result, flexibility when working with speakers either at the in-person conference or remotely is vital to the success of a hybrid event. Our current strategy for APHON is to

  • Hire an onsite A/V team that is experienced in live streaming, recording, and connecting with remote presenters.
  • Choose a virtual platform that will allow the flexibility for both live and prerecorded sessions that are played back on a schedule with live speaker Q&A.
  • Connect with accepted speakers to determine their ability to present in person or virtually, either prerecorded or live.
  • Develop a plan for collecting speaker recordings and provide helpful resources to ensure a successful presentation for the speaker.
  • Schedule a rehearsal with speakers before they present live to review tools and troubleshoot connection issues.
  • Develop speaker contingency plans for various scenarios, such as last-minute changes from presenting in person to having to present remotely or technical issues.

Always Expect the Unexpected

Even with detailed planning and troubleshooting, we know that surely there will be a wild card situation that takes us by surprise. The planning team is creating a comprehensive contingency plan to help prepare for the unexpected. Technical issues, a speaker delayed at the airport, an attendee revealing symptoms: there are some things we just cannot control. The contingency document will outline how to manage the unpredictable and implement solutions to unplanned situations.

What does the future look like?

If the last year has taught us anything, it is to be flexible and prepare for change. What we know today will change tomorrow. But no matter what changes may come, we know we can adapt and still create a meaningful experience for attendees.

Jennifer Schap is the education manager for APHON, Allison Whitley is a manager on 911’s Professional Relation and Development team, and Kari Messenger is a senior strategic event manager on 911’s Strategic Events Management team.

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