Bill Reed, FASAE, CMP
“I believe now is the time we really have an amazing opportunity to think about our business models differently,” Reed said, saying that ASH has come up with an entirely new line of business, thanks to the pandemic shutdown. That involved a mindset shift from initially finding “an accommodation to the shutdown and the risk associated with a large gathering” and instead exploring starting in 2020 how to work “toward the vision of developing a new sustainable way for participants to attend our meeting differently than what existed prior to the pandemic. And by putting a stake in the ground — that this was more about a new business model than it was a response to the pandemic — it helped us to make different business decisions.”
Reed said that the new model was predicated on “price parity” — the value of the virtual component was equivalent to the value of the in-person version. “We took on the audacious task right from the very beginning in year one to do all sessions, both in-person and virtual … and we wanted to make sure that we could monetize the virtual meeting differently and grow it with its own separate loyal audience,” he said. Since ASH aims to cap its annual physical conference to 30,000 so as not to diminish participant experience, the organization decided to focus on growing the virtual for those who likely would never come to the in-person meeting. That mindset — seeing virtual through the lens of growth rather than accommodation, Reed said, is key to this business model.
Prescott spoke from her experience working as an association planner and now as a corporate planner. The biggest difference she has seen is that her company values event KPIs and ROI very differently than associations. “We do 105 events a year,” Prescott said, which are invitation-only. The goal isn’t to get as many people as possible into the room — it’s about getting the right people in front of sponsors. The way her company tracks success is having high-level people making connections with sponsors in a highly targeted way.
Megan Finnell, CMP
Finnell said that when the pandemic hit, MGMA had an internal event design session around the question of “what experience did we want our digital attendees to have? We looked at each other and said, ‘What’s worse than seeing a boring online session? A boring online session videoed in a badly lit ballroom from 50 feet away,’” she said. “We agreed that we were not going to do hybrid moving forward. We planned a face-to-face with a digital component following three weeks later.” MGMA has kept that model for the past three years. Any concerns about cannibalizing the in-person event were erased when they compared the digital event registration list to their typical registration list and found only a 4-percent crossover. “That trend has continued year over year. We found a completely new audience that was unable or unwilling to travel to our face-to-face events,” Finnell said. They are two distinct audiences.
“We also created new ticketing models for our events, especially digital, that are more approachable,” she said. MGMA has individual and organizational membership options and organizational membership has grown while individual has decreased. So MGMA started offering flat passes for digital shows to organizations so they could pay a set amount and invite people whom they wouldn’t usually support for continuing ed, while getting “more eyeballs for sponsors” and strengthening their engagement with MGMA. MGMA’s digital events grew so much in three different areas of the company that they restructured and rolled into one department, she added.
MGMA also has changed its pricing strategy. Instead of charging a nominal fee (around $50) to attend a digital event — a challenge, she said, because people expect to get online content free — they worked on getting sponsors for digital events and made them complimentary. The number of registrants went up dramatically. MGMA employs a pay-per-lead model, Finnell shared. Everyone who pays for a webinar or a seminar is now a lead, and whether or not they show up, that is now the lead list that is given to the sponsor. Attendees opt in to be contacted by sponsors during the registration process.
“We are discovering that there is no one secret formula that can be applied to every single meeting and event,” Reed said. “Historically, our profession has relied upon someone creating a new idea and everyone takes that new idea and implements it the same exact way for a completely different audience and then if it doesn’t work, they throw it away. Right now, I think the time is right for all of us to make sure in leading our organizations as the experts with events, is that you can take that kernel and figure out how you might apply it to your specific audience. But there’s never been a more forgiving time period for our audience,” he said, and it’s okay not to get it exactly right when you are experimenting.
One new opportunity Prescott’s company has identified is working with sponsors to help them plan their events at Markets Group events and charging them for that service — an additional revenue source they had never considered before.
Finnell said she is “thrilled” that COVID broke their meeting model so completely that it forced her organization to really look at its citywide with fresh eyes. The event was a moneymaker, but Finnell had some hard questions for her leadership: “What is the most important aspect of our meeting? Is it a product for profit? Is it a meeting of our membership? Is it a trade show where we bring as many vendors together as possible? Is it vehicle to sell our other products and services?” she said. “And we went around the room with all my executives and they all had a different priority and then added two more. So, I created some models to get us on the same page and it really helped us home in on what the problems were. This meeting needs to be clarified as a purpose-driven meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to further the mission of this organization and to sell other products and services and to bring the whole ecosystem of MGMA together.”
Each department was tasked with identifying what success looks like for them and how they would measure that (i.e., in terms X number of demos or leads generated). Up until that point they were measuring success by attendance, Finnell said — if profit is not the driver, the internal team had to determine the KPIs.
Finnell said COVID also forced them to challenge all the assumptions they had before and after COVID. So they went out to their audience with a behavioral survey and found many of their assumptions were flawed. As a medical association, their understanding had been that their audience needed 18 hours of credit at their physical event. Yet only 2 percent said they were looking to earn those credits solely at the face-to-face event — most said they wanted a combination of in-person and digital credit opportunities. Realizing that enabled Finnell and her team to get “more creative,” with their in-person event design, and focus more on the experience rather than packing the program with nonstop education sessions.
“I think a large number of us are biased to want to return to the in-person only because that’s what we’re comfortable with,” Reed said. “We have to stretch beyond our comfort zone if we want to be leaders. And the digital scares some people, they don’t enjoy it, but I think they’ve closed their mind to the opportunity there for them. It’s like anything new — it gets better with time and frequency. We have many stakeholders who are convincing organizations to abandon a digital strategy because that may suit their personal agenda. I believe we have a lot of that going on. That could be a mistake. They could not be driving their business prudently.”
Meagan E. Prescott, CMP, DES
Prescott added that “virtual is important, but there are a lot of ways to do it. It doesn’t need to be a multi-day, huge virtual conference. We still do virtual, but it’s on very basic platforms and the focus is on getting the right, small number of attendees — but we can get those attendees who we can’t force into a room” interact with sponsors.
“One of the things that I think we did not get right early on,” Reed said, “is I think we set out on a course trying to simulate the in-person experience through a digital platform and we built lots of ways to ‘hug’ someone through virtual that you can only do in person. … We were trying to make both the same. And while there are common elements, there should be two different products so that the participant can have a choice between two different options and if we focus our effort on trying to make them both the same, we’re likely to fail, we’re likely to confuse them, and then you will indeed cannibalize your audience.
“As a profession, we have a great opportunity in terms of monetization and assessing monetary value,” he added. “From my vantage point, it seems like we are undervaluing and underpricing so many things that we offer our constituents and you can’t be profitable with digital events by cutting expenses. You have to focus first on how do you drive the topline revenue and we can get better at being bold and understanding our value.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
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