Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 27 2014

How One Organization Made the Shift to Virtually All Virtual

By Amanda Marijanovic



What do you get if you ask any meeting planner or producer from the corporate or association world if they’ve experienced a marked change in the programs they execute because of the economic climate over the past several years? Endless stories of decreased budgets, increased scrutiny on ROI and more stringent approval processes. Share your tale of woe in a room full of government planners and it’s no contest. Clearly nothing could incite more anxiety than the mandate that our most important meetings must be green-lighted by the same government agency responsible for healthcare.gov!

Sounds like your worst nightmare? Well, that’s the reality for Adam Arthur of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When knee-jerk legislation was put in place following the GSA scandal, he found himself in an environment that shut down all of his meetings over $150,000.

“With budget approvals so hard to get, we had to convert our face-to-face meetings to 100 percent virtual experiences,” Arthur said during a session on dispelling myths and sharing secrets of digital events held Monday, January 13 at PCMA’s Convening Leaders 2014 in Boston.

Arthur’s work as the CDC Virtual Platform Initiative Lead is impressive to say the least. The design of CDC’s VPI “looks and feels” very close to its former face-to-face self (with sessions filmed in the same ballroom so there’s familiarity for the audience) and fosters meaningful interactions and educational experiences to create a sense of community. The solution has also significantly reduced costs and offers a green alternative by eliminating carbon emissions associated with travel – all while still meeting the strict government security, compliance and accessibility requirements.

The CDC is the only government agency that’s embraced the technology in this way and hopes to use their work as a case study for other organizations to go virtual. Arthur says the adoption of hybrid and virtual presents a “huge opportunity for meeting planners to make an impact” as their organizations venture into the space.

Applying Virtual Lessons to Your Next Meeting

If you’ve been uncertain about embracing virtual, now is the time to lay those worries to rest and jump in with both feet. The 2013 Meetings Market Survey revealed 53 percent of meeting professionals are adding or have added a virtual hybrid component to their meeting programs, and the future holds more of the same. According to the 2013-2018 Virtual Conference & Trade Show Market Forecast, a compound annual growth rate of 56% is predicted through 2018.

There are great lessons to be learned from early champions of virtual events that have seen tremendous success, like the famed Cisco Live! and IBM’s Virtual Event Center (VEC) with a track record of 600+ virtual events with 300,000+ unique attendees and a 95% satisfaction rate.

“Technology companies have identified it’s the Age of the Customer,” Kurt Miller of George P. Johnson, the Vice President, Strategy + Planning on the IBM Worldwide account, said.

Appealing to a New Generation of Attendees

Miller believes the future of digital events, especially for Millennials who don’t necessarily need to be face-to-face, is in being the information resource that serves them wherever they are.

“Connect them to the expertise they need and let them share knowledge with each other,” Miller said. “There’s value and a competitive difference for whoever does that.”

According to the 2013 Millennial Branding and Internships.com survey, 50% don’t need a physical classroom, and 39% believe the future of education will be more virtual.

Delivering Serious ROI

Miller was a co-presenter at the session along with Mary Reynolds Kane, Senior Director, Experience Marketing, PCMA. PCMA’s Convening Leaders’ hybrid experience has become a remarkable industry case study in itself, serving as a powerful extension of the live conference while converting hybrid attendees into happy face-to-face conference-goers at a rate of seven percent from 2012-2014. In a world driven by the three letters of ROI, the hybrid is clearly paying off. Sixty-three percent of 2013 hybrid attendees said they were more likely to attend a future face-to-face event as a result.

“If the thought of cannibalizing your face-to-face audience is a pain point in your organization, you need to reach beyond as it’s just holding you back from reaching new markets,” Reynolds Kane said. “Every year since our first hybrid experience, PCMA has seen an increase in our face-to-face audience while our hybrid audience continues to grow as well.”

Think you’re ready to “go virtual” with one of your meetings? Arthur, Miller, and Reynolds Kane all agree scalability is a key factor in getting started. For some of his meetings where budgets are tight and content is king, Arthur ships each speaker a kit complete with a high-resolution webcam and lavaliere microphone so the presenter can go live from the comforts of his or her desk. Of course, you compromise production quality for content, and you need to be prepared for curveballs, “like when speakers you’ve coached and tested on one computer suddenly use another day of show,” Arthur said. Still, those curveballs come pretty cheap. Each kit costs less than $400.

How could you embrace new technologies or solutions-based thinking to creatively work around constraints that impact your meeting and events? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Amanda recently earned the designation of Digital Event Strategist through the Virtual Edge Institute’s (VEI) certification program. In her role as VP, Strategic & Creative Development for Source Line Inc., a corporate communications company specializing in communication design, strategic meeting assessment, and tactical execution, she helps companies better engage, empower and activate their internal audiences. Amanda has conceived and produced thousands of dynamic live experiences in nearly every industry and now works diligently to help organizations define strategies and successes for digital events too.

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