How much should you charge people to attend a conference online? Do you settle on a fixed percentage of the in-person fee? Or is there some other formula based on costs and ROI? Perhaps you take the view that ‘content is king’ and those watching on their laptops and smartphones should pay as much those mingling with their peers in the convention centre?
It's been 18 months since associations began meeting in-person again, after two years of lockdown, and executive directors and meeting planners are still struggling to answer the hybrid question; struggling to put a definitive price on the online experience; and struggling to work out what it all means for their core business model.
What is online worth?
When a team from the British Society of Soil Science began bidding to host the 22nd World Congress of Soil Science (WCSS 22) ten years ago, they were determined to make some of the programme available online. Not because they had a crystal ball and could see the impact a pandemic would have on delegate numbers in 2022 - they just wanted to make the event as inclusive as possible.
“Generally speaking, our congresses were held in the Northern Hemisphere, and we felt the need to engage the Global South and allow them an opportunity to attend, knowing that visas can be an issue, and that cost can be an issue in some countries, too,” explains executive officer Sarah Garry.
Because it was the first time the quadrennial congress had been delivered in a hybrid format, the organising team was feeling its way in the dark when it came to pricing the different components of the meeting.
“We focused on working out what we thought was the right cost based on in-person attendance offering the most value, whilst still wanting to demonstrate that the online component was worth some money,” says Garry.
The committee also looked at how much content they could deliver online – and worked out that it would be about 30 per cent of the whole programme.
“But that 30 per cent included all the main content,” says Garry. “All the plenary sessions and two or three streams a day. There were smaller breakout discussions we didn’t include, and that was reflected in the pricing.”
In the end, the committee settled on £250 (or £150 concessions) for online attendees and an average fee of £700 for in-person attendees (prices varied according to concessions/Early-Bird rates/on-the-day registration etc).
The pricing reflected the fact that online moderators were being employed to enhance the online experience and that the programme had been tailored so online delegates scattered around the world would be able to watch at least one keynote presentation at a civilised hour.
The event, which would normally attract 3,000-5,000 in-person delegates, took place at SEC, in Glasgow, Scotland, last summer, when there were still travel restrictions in China and travel bans had only just been lifted in Australia and New Zealand. It was expected that those unable to travel would take the online option and hundreds more might attend from the Global South.
Sadly, this is not what happened.
“We had 1,400 in-person, which is what we were expecting, but only 300 people online, which really surprised us,” says Garry. “We had expected many hundreds, if not thousands, of people would attend the conference virtually. And to be honest we’re still not entirely sure why that didn’t happen!”
But she reckons it probably boils down to money.
“I think people just assume that if something is online it should be free. But we were conscious that we didn’t want to devalue what was happening in person.
“We wanted people to attend in person to benefit from the networking and all those things you can only experience when you meet people face to face.”
Where is the focus?
Jennifer Jenkins, director at professional congress organiser Worldspan, says one of the reasons associations are struggling to price hybrid meetings is because most of them are not fully committed to offering a hybrid meeting.
In her experience associations were ‘typically going in at about a third of the in-person ticket price’ because they were ‘not that confident in the product.’
“They know they are not producing something different,” she says. “They are not producing original online content, they are just streaming live content, and that’s not the same. This is because they are not digital content producers. And, frankly, neither are people in their supply chain. PCOs are outsourcing the technical stuff too. So, what we are seeing is a real skills gap in the industry.”
Jenkins doesn’t think most associations are ‘under-pricing’ online. Most, she said, were using hybrid as a back-up in case they don’t get enough Early-Bird registrations, but, basically, they see online as a challenge to their in-person event.
“They’re not going large on hybrid and if there’s no added value to the online content you can’t go much higher than about a third. If you have added value - a TV studio, interviews with people off stage, a 24-hour host, you can reflect that in the price, but that is a huge piece of production, out of most budgets.”
Ioannis Pallas, association manager at the European Society of Association Executives, said pricing hybrid was a ‘headache’ for many of the organisation’s members. In his experience there was, ‘consensus among CEOs that ‘the price should be the same for both in person and online participation’, or close to.
“If you price it lower for the online audience, you are underselling it, which can, in the long run, contribute to undermining it. Plus, the online attendees join because of the content you created for your in-person attendees, not the other way around. You can balance this by having the content available on demand for a specific time. This way you are generating more sponsorship opportunities that can help with the total costs of the meeting.”
What is the business model?
Taking sponsors online is not easy. Sponsors of WCSS 22 were given the chance to sponsor the online programme as part of a package deal, but none took it. Yet all sponsors of the face-to-face event were offered an online booth and were able to post links to their marketing material online.
For Jenkins this gets to the nub of the problem.
“You need sponsorship to have a sustainable business model – and sponsors hate hybrid. They come to in-person meetings because it’s a sales mission for them and you just can’t have the same level of personal interaction online.”
She adds: “The only associations I see who are doing hybrid properly are the well-resourced medical associations who are taking conference content and giving it to the education team, who extract the content, turn it into accredited coursework, or training material, and price it differently.
"They are not just turning it into on-demand content that, honest to God, nobody watches, they are changing the pricing model."
One step forward, two steps backwards?
Jenkins says there is an argument for associations abandoning the idea of hybrid and either going in-person or virtual. But that, she feels, would be a step backwards for the meetings industry as a whole.
“What people are missing is that when this was first done, pre-pandemic, it was an amazing thing for associations to capture content and be able to offer in-person delegates the opportunity to go home and catch all the stuff they had missed. But that’s not actually what’s being offered anymore. It's either/or. As a delegate you should be able to register for the in-person event and the online event and be able to watch anything on-demand afterwards.”
Garry is still mulling how things could have been done differently but thinks the experience of WCSS 22 is a challenge to the idea that content is always king when explaining why people attend conferences.
She says: “I wouldn’t necessarily do two events at the same time. It was a real challenge, and our numbers demonstrate that it’s not what the majority want.
“We’d anticipated those 2,000 people who didn’t come in person who normally would have done to instantly book a hybrid access online package, but they didn’t, which suggests to me that those people come to the conference more for the networking and not the core content.
“If I were to do it again, I’d maybe just record it and offer the content online after the event, which is a lot cheaper than streaming and the interactive nature that we offered.”
Jennifer Jenkins says:
“We spoke to a doctor who said they were putting the live feed of a conference up in the staffroom, (illegally!), and they were all watching it together. And the rationale for that is that you learn better together. So we’ve been selling 'team tickets' to help associations get around that scenario. So, there has been some innovation in the pricing model and that's exactly what we need.”