In 2021, Darren Mendola and his team at the Alzheimer’s Association faced a challenge that many event organizers hoped they had left behind in 2020 — a COVID variant surge forced the organization to radically redesign its annual international conference set to take place in Amsterdam and move it to Denver in just 90 days.
“When [the Netherlands] closed down, we had to hurry up and find a spot” in the U.S., Mendola, CMP, DES, vice president of global conferences and events, told Convene. “Denver was available, luckily, and so we did a site visit and then worked morning, noon, and night to move the event there.”
Sixty percent of the association’s membership is international, and “we could only really hold it live for U.S. people,” Mendola said. He and his team rebalanced their priorities, scaling down the in-person component to accommodate a smaller-than-typical audience — 2,000 versus the average 7,000 — while adding a hybrid component, a first for the annual meeting. “We had to change basically the entire program and the space to give people who were there a good live experience,” he said, “but also give a good virtual experience, because that was going to be the majority of our attendees at that time.”
One silver lining: Mendola’s experience in creating a hybrid experience in 2021 laid the groundwork for success in 2022. At its annual meeting, held in August in San Diego, the Alzheimer’s Association hosted 5,000 individuals in person and 4,000 online — surpassing the organization’s previous numbers.
For Mendola’s work in leading his team to build a successful hybrid event under extraordinary circumstances in 2021, he was awarded Event Designer of the Year at the 2022 PCMA Visionary Awards. He recently spoke with Convene about his takeaways from this experience, and how he sees hybrid evolving in 2023.
What lessons did you learn from your 2021 hybrid event that you’ve carried with you into planning events since?
We carried over that general sessions would be at the end of the day, so that we could allow as many people as possible around the world to view it live. [For attendees from] any lower-middle income country, we offered virtual for free, so that those in the developing world would be able to join. This opens new opportunities, because people study science all over the world and want to be part of this.
We learned that our reach is so much greater with hybrid than it ever was with in-person. It knows no bounds with hybrid — we didn’t know that before. I would say that was our biggest learning from 2021. Also, just how flexible we could be. Before, I don’t want to say everything was rigid, but it had been the same type of meeting, same time slot, same type of people. And then we just turned it upside down to accommodate a new world. Flexibility was a huge learning that we took over to 2022.
Another thing we brought [into planning new events] from 2021 is networking. I don’t think we put as much of a value on networking as we did the science. I think it was a very heavy program, and very focused toward the science, with maybe just one big reception. We’ve added more networking opportunities scattered throughout the conference, and that was received really well in 2022.
How do you see hybrid evolving in 2023 and beyond?
I think hybrid’s here to stay. I do think it will be more targeted toward select audiences, though. For instance, people in lower-middle income countries, students — hybrid is a huge deal for students who can’t afford to come [in-person]. People who are younger and newer in their career, young professionals — I think hybrid will be targeted toward them, rather than a broad audience. I think people who have been in their careers a while, who possibly are used to face-to-face, will always go face-to-face if they have the choice.
Casey Gale is managing editor of Convene.