The Conference Producer Perspective: A Survey on the State of Conferences

It has been a while since traditional conferences came to an abrupt halt due to COVID-19. Since then, the conference world has changed dramatically, making a wholesale transition to virtual conferences.

We have seen so much innovation from conference producers in the second half of 2020. Coming off the heels of one of the busiest fall conference seasons ever, we decided it was a good time to reach out to major conference producers to hear first-hand their thoughts on how they made the transition to virtual conferences. As one of them so eloquently said,

“We love in-person meetings and it is hard to replicate that experience virtually. However, you can still deliver a lot of value virtually AND reach a broader audience who wouldn’t have been able to travel anyway.”

While the switch to virtual hasn’t been easy, organizers are seeing tangible benefits related to the reach of their virtual events and their ability to access speakers more easily. According to a recent survey by Bizzabo, 80% of conference organizers say they have been able to reach a wider audience and 39% say it is easier to land great speakers.

We reached out to over 30 major conference producers with a brief questionnaire asking about their transitions over the past year. Following are some of the insights we found most interesting from their responses:

What are the biggest hurdles you had to overcome?

We first asked conference organizers what their biggest hurdle was in shifting to a virtual event. Not surprisingly, all of them felt that their biggest hurdle was determining which platform to use to deliver their new virtual conferences. Many found themselves having to become technical experts overnight to deliver a robust, interactive platform that mimicked (as best as possible) a live conference experience. Their goal was to go beyond a traditional “Zoom” meeting with a full-blown interactive platform.

The other big hurdle was logistics – the considerable time and effort spent ensuring that everyone, from the internal team to speakers, partners, and attendees, could connect properly and on time. While there are countless details associated with in-person events, the conference producer is able to control the environment and all of the elements that go into such a massive undertaking. But, in a virtual world they can no longer control the environment.

“…a complete shift in our business model, as well as unfamiliarity with the virtual world, which needed a mindset shift.”

“The biggest challenge was finding a platform that met everyone’s needs. Yes, Zoom and Webex and Teams are great, but that doesn’t really make sponsors happy and doesn’t really differentiate an event from a typical meeting. There was a lot of trial and error.”

“I have to hand it to our production teams who became tech and platform experts nearly overnight.”

“Figuring out a way for on-line people to network with sponsors, exhibitors, and each other.”

“The biggest hurdle was for the entire meeting planning staff to learn to master the online conference platform. They became experts very quickly. It was a very impressive pivot.”

“The biggest hurdle was making sure that everyone, including staff members could connect on time.”

Virtual Continues to Improve

While it can be extremely difficult to communicate passion through a screen, virtual presenting has come a long way in a short amount of time as conference producers and speakers become savvier. In fact, research from Quantified Communications found that on average audience perception scores were 19% higher when speakers were presenting virtually versus in-person. Notably, the audience found the speakers’ virtual messages were 28 percent easier to follow, 25 percent more compelling, and 19 percent more memorable.

How will Virtual Events Change Moving Forward?

We then asked conference producers what changes they planned to make to their virtual events moving forward. They all expressed an intense desire to create an even more interactive experience for attendees. Watching a speech from your dining room table versus experiencing it live in a room full of people can be a very solitary experience. Conference producers are finding ways to make the experience more dynamic in order to keep their audience engaged, especially after an already long day filled with video calls.

They are also exploring how they can create more opportunity for attendees to interact with one another as they would at an in-person event. Some are creating virtual break out rooms for small group discussions or providing opportunity to interact one-on-one with the presenter. Conference organizers are also playing with the format of their virtual conferences. They are creating shorter speaking segments and shifting towards leveraging multiple speakers in a panel format, instead of just a single talking voice, to keep the conversation interactive and lively.

Tough Year, but Innovation Prevailed

Overall, 2020 has been a very difficult year for most conference organizers, both large and small. Circumstances have forced them to change their approaches, styles and in many cases, their business models. That said, these changes forced many producers to take a hard look at the value that conferences provide and transform how the content is being delivered. In fact, because of the value created most believe a virtual component of conferences will remain with us even when physical conferences return.

In our next post, we’ll share part 2 of the survey results including some of the key agenda items and how conferences will continue to evolve in 2021