It’s true. If you’re a professional membership association, your best bet in the pleasure dispensing department is to try to please most of the people at least some of the time. Kevin Novak is working hard to do better than that by using hybrid events to hit the educational and member benefit sweet spot that most association executives dream about. At the Virtual Edge Summit next week in Las Vegas, Novak, vice president integrated web strategy and technology of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), will talk about how a false sense of security led to a “shellacking” in his virtual attendance numbers and how his team regrouped after the dip.
Two years ago when the economy took a turn for the worse, AIA took a very hard look at how to bolster its live national convention in anticipation of the coming storm. The event typically generated 24,000 attendees (including exhibitors) and generated $8.5 million in revenue for the association. An analysis of the attendee demographics indicated that most visitors came from within a 300-mile radius of the host city. Further, the meeting was being held in San Francisco—one of the more expensive host cities—and the financial burden on members who were either struggling to keep their jobs or keep their projects moving was expected to be too much for a good portion of the attendee base.
Enter Novak, his AIA team, Blue Sky Broadcast, INXPO, and Freeman. In six weeks, a virtual conference and trade show was born to complement the live event and extend some of the highly valuable education (some of it a requirement for AIA’s certification programs). The results were impressive. AIA’s online event featured 75 exhibitors, 12 conference sessions, and 17,000 virtual attendees. After the fact, 40,000 people viewed the on demand content. “There were times when we had 50-1,000 people [physically] in a room and 2,000 online in the companion virtual session,” Novak says.
In 2010, the annual convention was held in Miami. “Because of the size of our convention, few cities are large enough,” Novak explains. On the heels of the prior year’s hybrid success and the assumption that live attendance would again be anemic, AIA tripled the online offerings. Hoping to cover the cost of the virtual platform, they trimmed down the size of the online trade show and charged a $165 fee for virtual access to the conference programming. The outcome was less than stellar compared to the year before.
Virtual attendance at the 2010 hybrid conference dropped to 1,000 paid individuals. Post-event feedback indicated that although the content was high quality, the price point was too high especially in light of the $500 to $1,000 membership dues to join the association and the ongoing turmoil on the job front. “We tried to get feedback on the fee structure and looked into some other models. We realized that we should have been in the $125 range,” Novak admits.
Going forward, Novak anticipates changes in the hybrid event they have developed over the past two years. Realizing that the educational benefits to members who are unable to attend the live event are critical to their professional development, the archived material from 2009 and 2010 is online and accessible as a member benefit. The convention budget and the virtual event budget have been separated. “We started with idea that [the virtual event] was convention-related, but now looking back, we see that there is more to it and it is better to mature the hybrid event as a separate objective,” he says. AIA is also planning to extend its 2010 experiment of simultaneously streaming content to multiple cities where chapter members are gathered offline.
Pleasing all of the people all of the time is a noble objective for an association. Next week, Kevin Novak will tell his organization’s story to online and offline listeners in a panel discussion titled, “Virtual Event Models That Work: Delivering Revenue, Reach and Repeat Participation.” For him, the logistics of launching a hybrid conference and trade show is the easy part. It’s helping his members find their happy place—value, education, and networking—that keeps him up at night.