By Michael Doyle, Principal, Michael Doyle Partners
By launching hybrid events, the American Public Works Association and the American Society for Healthcare Engineering increased both in-person and online attendee engagement.
When the organizers of the American Public Works Association’s (APWA) International Public Works Congress & Exposition sought a way to break down barriers between their education program and show floor in Anaheim on Aug. 26–29, the approach that general services contractor The Expo Group (TEG) suggested - a hybrid event - took them by surprise.
On the other hand, adding a virtual component to its two annual 2012 meetings - the ASHE Annual Conference & Technical Exhibition, July 15–18 in San Antonio, and the International Summit & Exhibition on Health Facility Planning, Design & Construction (PDC Summit), March 4–7 in Phoenix - seemed a more straightforward solution for the American Society for Healthcare Engineering, which wasn’t seeking to grow in-person traffic as much as to extend its live event education to a remote audience.
Looking strategically at their overall goals, both APWA and ASHE determined that their trade-show floor and attendee-marketing efforts could benefit from digital event-technology solutions, said Dana Freker Doody, TEG’s vice president of corporate communications. Both organizations worked with TEG to broadcast education right from the show floor.
In order to create a buzz and get attendees moving to and around the exhibits all day, APWA held special education programs in a streaming theater that TEG created in the show hall. Live interviews conducted by virtual host Emilie Barta kept both audiences - in-person and online attendees - engaged.
David Dancy, APWA’s director of marketing, said that post-event attendee and exhibitor feedback on this initiative was overwhelmingly positive. “We had over 50 percent of attendees tell us they thought the program was a success, driving more attendees to the expo,” he said. “And people spent more time there as a direct result of the program. Importantly, the exhibitors in our survey recognized this uptick.” Dancy said that APWA will be looking at more digital opportunities in the future, including bringing exhibitors into the program with short demos or interviews that can help expose the online audience to available products while providing more education.
Freker Doody said that strategy - “bringing in key players for short bursts of conversation” - is one she recommends to show organizers, whether those key players are supplier partners or keynoters. “We’ll invite one of the conference speakers to come in, maybe after his session, and sit down with an interviewer for 10 or 15 minutes,” she said. “He’ll hit the highlights of his presentation so the online audience gets a bit of a movie trailer to the conference. And the physical audience gets a more intimate, follow-up Q&A period with a speaker of interest that they had to come to the show floor to see.”
Expanding the Audience
With approximately 3,000 of ASHE’s 11,500 members attending each of its annual meetings, “clearly, there’s a huge number of our membership that isn't able to attend the conferences and get this training for whatever reason,” said Patrick Andrus, ASHE’s director of business development. “So we wanted to try a hybrid and see what kind of feedback we’d get.”
Andrus was pleased with the two hybrid launches’ online participation. Approximately 250 unique remote attendees logged on to ASHE’s PDC Summit and its Annual Conference - and were willing to spend the better part of a day in front of their computers to engage with the programs. Meanwhile, on the show floor, ASHE’s ambitious 40' x 40' booth - intended primarily to stream original content to online participants - became a magnet for in-person attendees. “We held what we called ‘Continuing the Conversation’ sessions,” Andrus said, “where we had plenary-session speakers and keynote speakers present. We specifically used our higher-level speakers, and set specific times for the booth presentations. We promoted them during their key sessions and through signage around the show floor. It was really fantastic, because it was a benefit for the on-site attendees and a draw for the online attendees as well.”
ASHE also used three other areas of its booth space to launch new products, hold focus groups, house an Internet zone, and conduct a “Meet the Candidates” program for board elections. ASHE previously had not had its own booth at its events. Exhibitors noticed that it was a draw for attendees, and are now clamoring to be near or a part of it, opening up sponsorship-package opportunities for next year’s events.
While online participation was complimentary this year, the high scores that remote attendees gave ASHE’s PDC Summit in their evaluations make the idea of offering future online attendance options for a fee seem viable. Ninety-two percent of remote attendees found the virtual experience “beneficial” to their work; 32 percent reported that they’re more likely to attend in person next year as a result; and 97 percent said they would recommend a virtual ASHE experience to others. One more telling statistic provides further evidence that hybrid events do not cannibalize an existing attendee base: Fifty-seven percent of online participants had never attended an ASHE event in person.
ASHE’s own booth at its annual meetings - where it housed a studio to stream live interviews to an online audience - was an unexpected magnet for in-person attendees. That model can work for most associations, said The Expo Group’s Dana Freker Doody. “The more ownership the event organizers take of that space,” she said, “and the more they can create [a] ‘town-hall’ atmosphere on the show floor, the more benefits they’re seeing.”
Sometimes an association might need help branding its organization. “Using a space like this as their booth and their hub of activity is a great way to do that,” Freker Doody said. “One association was thrilled because they usually sign up five to 10 new members at their booth in any given year, but with the addition of the theater and virtual studio, they ended up getting 40 new memberships.”