For over 20 years, the Florida Festivals & Events Association (FFEA) has promoted large community events in Florida, including festivals, food & wine events, and state and local fairs. FFEA supports more than 700 event industry professional members who collectively represent 5,500 events.
Each year the association hosts an annual conference for members featuring three full days of in-person networking and education. But as the pandemic escalated and members struggled with cancellations and postponements of their events due to COVID-19, FFEA faced a similarly tough decision.
Suzanne Neve, CEO of FFEA, put the promotions she began in January 2020 on pause and set out to determine a new plan. And Suzanne knew her decision would have a more considerable impact. “As representatives of the event industry, we recognized the importance of showing how we could move our event to virtual – and proceed safely with an in-person event too.”
Developing the Event Plan
Before Suzanne made a rash decision, she started with data. FFEA conducted an in-depth member survey and created a task force to evaluate the data trends.
Survey results showed members wanted to move forward with an in-person event – due in large part to 95 percent of FFEA’s members residing in Florida who could drive to the in-state in-person event. However, research also showed that 40 percent of members working for cities and municipalities couldn’t attend in-person due to travel restrictions.
Another critical piece of the decision-making puzzle was the agreement with the host hotel. The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs had hosted FFEA’s conference for the past several years, and Suzanne also had future space contracted with them. “The team was incredibly flexible – they were open to renegotiating the entire contract and working with us even if attendance was drastically reduced.”
The decision was made to host a very different event, starting with an in-person summit during the original event dates, but reduced to a one-and-a-half-days with about a quarter of the average in-person attendance. FFEA also added a full virtual conference following the in-person event — mostly with fresh virtual content to create value for members participating in both.
“Knowing all members could drive to the in-person event was a critical decision-point for us,” explained Suzanne. “And our hotel partner’s flexibility to welcome whoever did come reduced our financial obligation, which of course, was extremely beneficial too.”
In the past, the FFEA in-person conference was a paid event, with registration fees for attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors.
For the 2020 event, Suzanne adjusted the pricing model. “For the live event, we cut the cost to attend in about half, but we added a registration fee for the virtual event too.”
FFEA implemented a new pricing model for the virtual event. “We charged one rate for individuals to attend, but added a second, separate rate for an entire organization registration,” said Suzanne. She explained that this approach was beneficial. “We had over 90 percent of virtual attendees register at the organization rate – which, as an association, increases our exposure to potential new members.”
With FFEA members drawn to the in-person event for networking, one of Suzanne’s top priorities was to create opportunities during the virtual event for members to connect with each other. “We had been hosting once-a-week Zoom meetings for all members, which were valuable, but you could tell screen fatigue was setting in,” said Suzanne. “We knew personal connections would be important in the face-to-face portion, so we kept asking how can we create virtual networking opportunities too?”
The answer was two-fold as it related to platform selection. First, FFEA selected Whova for the education and content delivery platform “because of the high engagement capabilities,” explained Suzanne.
Second, Event Hub was already on board for in-person registration. As the company had recently expanded virtual capabilities, FFEA tapped them to host the interactive virtual trade show environment to connect exhibitors with attendees.
Agenda & Scheduling
Each virtual event day featured three-and-a-half hours of content, beginning first with an opening general session, followed by breakouts — organized as five simultaneous tracks to mimic the typical in-person experience.
Session times were also shortened from the typical 75 minutes in-person to 30 minutes to keep attendees’ attention.
Approximately 65 percent of the sessions ran as simu-live – with many speakers pre-recording content and answering questions in real-time during the session using the chat room. “We told attendees these sessions were pre-recorded, but the speaker was available live to answer questions,” Suzanne said. “Because a 30-minute session doesn’t allow for much time for Q&A, this approach was an advantage for attendees to have more of their questions answered.”
“Going back to our members’ desire to connect, we knew it was also important to include a dedicated networking activity each day,” said Suzanne. “For two of the three virtual event days, we hosted small roundtable breakout sessions through Zoom. But we also had a fun happy hour, with 30 minutes spent playing trivia and then 30-minutes in a Zoom breakout discussion session.”
Planning an entire first-time virtual event is a Herculean task on its own. Now combine it with planning a modified in-person event to adhere to a whole new set of parameters for the same time frame, plus flying solo as a staff of one, it’s easy to understand why Suzanne was concerned about running multiple live sessions.
According to Suzanne, “while we let each speaker decide how they wanted to present, we strongly requested all to pre-record their presentations.” Most obliged, and for those pre-recording, Suzanne provided written guidelines and conducted rehearsals. “We also required speakers to provide their content to us two weeks before the live event,” said Suzanne.
And for those who didn’t pre-record, Suzanne explained we “recorded it during the live presentation so it would be available for use elsewhere.”
Using the Event Hub platform, FFEA created a virtual trade show environment to allow attendees to connect with exhibitors directly. In addition to viewing products and services, attendees could have live video visits with exhibitors in their virtual booths during designated times.
A virtual scavenger hunt also encouraged attendees to visit individual booths and answer a question via message to be entered into a prize drawing from each exhibitor.
“Attendees could pop into any of the virtual exhibit booths, turn on their camera, and have a video discussion with exhibit staff,” explained Suzanne. “Our exhibitors were thrilled with the response – each sponsor averaged 19,400 impressions!”
Aside from the chat panel, Suzanne created discussion groups and meet-ups to foster virtual engagement. “For example, at our in-person events, we might have a dedicated networking group for cities, so we created similar virtual discussion groups.”
But attendees took the networking even further. “Attendees started creating their own chats and boards to create virtual meet-ups,” said Suzanne. “It happened so organically and was one of the biggest surprises. Our engagement numbers kept going up and up – we even had meet-ups that kept going after the virtual conference ended into the following week!”
Results + ROI
In the end, FFEA had nearly 400 virtual attendees – nearly matching their average in-person event registration numbers.
Suzanne explained that one of the biggest – and most pleasant surprises – was an 87 percent participation rate. “Our members were extremely active: 4,000+ messages were sent through the discussion boards, and 153 private meet-ups were created.”
And all of the positive attendee feedback was confirmed by survey results. On a scale of 1 to 10, attendees rated their overall satisfaction as 9.12 – higher than the past in-person average!
“While it would have been much easier to throw up our hands and not do a virtual or modified in-person event, we had to do this to show our members it’s possible,” shared Suzanne. “And though we don’t know exactly what it will look like, we know we will continue to have a virtual component in the future to extend access to those who can’t attend in person.”
ELI members: learn more about how Suzanne prepared for the modified in-person Summit – including exclusive access to floorplans, photos, and more. (Sign in to view).
Not a member? Learn the benefits of becoming a member and get access to more of Suzanne’s program insights, including unlimited access to ELI’s on-demand video class library and exclusive members-only discounts on multi-week professional development courses.
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