All-Virtual or Hybrid? How One Conference Planned for Both Scenarios

Author: Casey Gale       

hotel data conference

Host Hotels & Resorts’ Sourav Ghosh (clockwise from top left), STR’s Amanda Hite, and Hotel News Now’s Stephanie Ricca participate in the online Hotel Data Conference. (Screenshot by Rachel Daub)

The Hotel Data Conference has been held annually for around 700 attendees in Nashville for the past 12 years. But when COVID-19 began spreading in the United States, organizers knew the virus could derail their plans to hold the event at the JW Marriott Nashville in mid-August.

“It really became an exercise in scenario planning,” said Patrick Mayock, who serves as vice president of research and development for worldwide hotel market data company STR, which hosts the annual conference near STR’s corporate headquarters in Hendersonville, Tennessee. One scenario planners were hoping they could pull off was a hybrid event. Mayock said the initial “pivot” was to complement a livestream of the event for a virtual audience with 150 people physically present at the JW Marriott, which was “as many people as we could fit in the ballroom seated within a minimum of six feet and allowing for one-way traffic patterns, just to ensure we could take the on-site safety precautions that we wanted to take,” he said.

hotel data conference

Patrick Mayock

“We were doing that, but in the background, we had always thought, well, what if something happens and we’re not able to actually host anyone on-site?” Mayock said. “We needed to structure the program in a way where if it needed to be entirely virtual, we could do that and we wouldn’t need to make any changes to the program itself at the 11th hour.”

When consolidating Hotel Data Conference’s agenda in the event the conference needed to go entirely virtual, organizers needed to narrow multiple tracks of content down to one simplified track, as well as transform a one-and-a-half-day event into a single day of sessions. “But in doing so,” Mayock said, “that meant a lot of stuff was on the cutting-room floor — stuff that was still pertinent and relevant.”

And so they made a crucial decision that would be beneficial to attendees whether the event was hybrid or fully virtual — they created a seven-part webinar series in which sessions that did not make the final cut for the Aug. 13 event were released once a week, starting on June 25, leading up to the conference.

“We went in and we pulled out some of the sessions that have been annually our high scorers [with attendees],” Mayock said, adding that it was a way to add value to the main event for attendees, in addition to making it easily digestible when spread out over seven weeks. Webinar topics included “Top 25 Market Performance Overview” and “U.S. Pipeline Overview.”

Mayock also noted that launching a new webinar for seven weeks prior to the event contributed to a boost in registration. “We saw that as a win all around, and our attendees were really pleased that we offered it this way, because they were able to get data insights on a weekly basis; whereas in the past, you go to the event and you get a lot in a day and a half, but it’s like a fire hose of information,” he said. “This was more like a nice, cold, refreshing glass of water they were able to sip over time.”

The flexibility of their scenario planning paid off. Two weeks before the hybrid event was set to launch, STR decided to move the event fully virtual. Content was live, just as it would’ve been had the hybrid event taken place, except now presenters spoke from their homes or offices. And Mayock was pleased with the results — he said registration was on par with the in-person annual event at around 700 participants, most of whom stuck with the entire day of virtual programming.

“This year, unlike any other, was certainly challenging,” Mayock said. “But it really just required us to think differently about everything from the top down, as all event organizers are going through right now.”

Casey Gale is associate editor at Convene.

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