STORY BY RAY SHAW
RAY.SHAW@MCI-GROUP.COM

Ray Shaw predicts the association-based conference landscape is sunny with a chance of long term success if caution is taken in the adoption of new technology.

The association-based meetings and events industry is frequently and enthusiastically barraged with claims that technology is the panacea for all afflictions – you have to be “in” social media or be “out”; use the internet for member fulfilment; and move to hybrid meetings and content dissemination or you will lose your Gen Y audience.
It is imperative that in terms of technology you take it easy, avoid early and costly adoption (outsource instead), learn from others (collaborate), look past social media hysteria and remember that in the end a real beer with colleagues beats a virtual one every time.
Here are some of my predictions for meetings and technology:

Myth: face to face (F2F) conferences will be replaced by hybrid conferences
Reality: conferences will endure and thrive, at least for another decade or more.
F2F conferences remain the best and most cost-effective way (per person) to achieve an association’s broader goals. They are the result of a combination of inputs from volunteer committees, speakers, sponsors and delegates paying to attend a well-organised event that creates far more measurable value than all the alternatives combined – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts!
Conferences will remain the pivot point for satisfying many association goals and member needs – education, technology exchange, professional development and accreditation, exposure, networking, camaraderie, reward, career mapping, industry/vocation unity, membership services and collaboration.
The future of conferences is not so much about the event or even who attends it (and that is important) but the platform the conference can create for wider participation and influence.
Conferences of the future will need to:

  • Become savvier marketers using technology like Linkedin and other closed community networks (ideally run/moderated by associations) to expand the event’s reach.
  • Embrace social networks as an increasingly powerful means of interacting with their internal and external delegates.
  • Pay for SEO and utilise Ad Servers (like Google’s Adwords) to get higher search engine rankings to get in front of new audiences. If you are not gaining at least a 20 per cent new audience each event (and retaining most of the existing audience), you are not marketing effectively.
  • Start using tools like CRM (customer relationship management) and all that entails to drive conference attendance and sponsorship via sustained, planned and tracked communications campaigns – not just sending out a registration brochure a few months prior. You need to be planning and marketing now to attract new delegates or sponsors three years in the future.
    Associations must get out of the mindset that they can continue to organise an annual conference as if it was a “one off” event. They have to start planning for where the event needs to be in three to five years, map out how it is going to get there and the technology tools needed. They need to look more closely at the content and its relevance and supplement the haphazard call for abstracts and start to embrace user developed content (more on that later).
    They have to address the longer term needs of events and identify changes in response to the simple question “What would you change if there were no impediments?”

Myth: hybrid meetings extend the revenue stream and appeal to broader markets (like Gen Y).
Reality: the internet is a place where free or low cost information is the norm – Gen Y don’t want to go to a conference and don’t want to pay for content.
Hybrid meetings are touted as the panacea – they will attract Gen Y (they don’t – you need other strategies), create new money streams, and save the conference from extinction.
Fact: hybrid meetings are traditional conferences with some form of internet-based content dissemination or interaction added to them. They therefore cost more and take more work to organise.
Can you recoup those costs? Anecdotal evidence suggests that few are making money from them but the reasons for failure are obvious – poorly captured content broadcast over slow internet to a 4” window on a PC/Mac is not a compelling experience.
Good content capture is expensive and needs more than a single camera glued on a boring speaker. Good content may be pre-recorded under studio conditions (not in a lecture hall) and professionally edited to include support graphics, remove presentation issues (take 1, take 2, etc), incorporate expert panel discussions, critiques a sponsor messages for added value there.
Good content needs to be “slick” to be saleable. Some events now sell professionally produced individual “sessions” for almost the same price as a day registration – there is a growing international demand (a) because the content is unique, it has language sub-titles and is so well presented – it is just like watching a good TV show and (b) they market very well to Asia where their influence as a regional association of choice is spreading.
Conferences are a great source of low cost, new, reliable (peer reviewed) and unique content that can be packaged, sold or syndicated worldwide to recoup costs. This model can be viable and world leading, global, content capture and dissemination company BlueSky www.blueskybroadcast.com is showing lots of promise and sharing risks to help associations get it right.
Simply put, association-based conferences need to become publishers as well. Information is the gold mine of the future.

Myth: delegates won’t pay for user created/defined content.
Reality: you just have to look at events like Tedx to realise there is a lot of talent out there.
MCI says when people come together magic happens. The magic is in delegates sharing their experiences and harnessing group thought and like mindedness that really only can occur at conferences.
At Meeting and Events Australia’s 2012 conference a “Beer, Bubbles and Bull” session attracted more than 200 delegates determined to solve about 20 hot and topical issues that had been submitted via Twitter, IML responder system and during sessions. Delegates selected a topic and headed to a numbered table and over a beer or bubbles shared their experiences. Not only did it expose some local heroes (who can be used for future conferences and content), the experience created the foundations for later collaboration.
Some very successful science and industry conferences now allocate as much as 30 per cent of their program to user-developed content that comes from using social media and polling delegates (survey monkey style) on simple issues like what annoys you at work or what problems can’t you solve. The conference program committee uses this feedback to identify trends and issues and select facilitators. It’s a lot of work for organisers but delegate feedback is that they love it and get a real feel of being part of the event, contributing in both inspiration and perspiration.
So the future of events looks bright. Technology is not the panacea – it is simply a tool to make it easier to do things that we should have been doing for years.

Ray Shaw is managing director of MCI Australia – www.mci-group/australia. He can be contacted via email on Ray.Shaw@mci-group.com.