We are witnessing a resurgence of in-person activities in the second half of the year. Despite varying regional regulations surrounding social distancing, sponsors and partners continue to push for the opportunity to meet stakeholders in person. In addition to the return of in-person events, however, hybrid options yield unique benefits.
One recent example of the “new hybrid norm” is the 2022 edition of SCMP’s annual Asia Sustainability Conference (ASC), a regional conference focused on impact investments, originally launched as a one-day virtual event. Following the inaugural ASC in 2020, the event attracted enough interest to be expanded over three days the following year, broadening its focus to cover sustainability, technology, and diversity and inclusion. Subsequently, our audience grew more than twofold, and we saw a significant increase in revenue.
This year, as Hong Kong begins to re-implement certain pre-pandemic norms, we realised our opportunity to mark another milestone for the Asia Sustainability Conference by pivoting to a hybrid format. Having made this decision only two months prior to the event date, what resulted was a crash course in the “new normal” for events. What we learned in the process will inform our event strategy and planning moving forward.
A new world of audience behaviour: in-person vs. virtual vs. hybrid
First, although many audiences are returning to in-person attendance, a significant proportion still opts for the flexibility of virtual or hybrid options. While we had anticipated our Hong Kong audience to engage wholeheartedly with the conference in-person, a considerable number of people requested a virtual participation option. For example, some local speakers preferred to present via videoconference while isolating in hotel rooms.
We also noticed that it has become an increasingly common practice for attendees to tune into specific bookmarked sessions, as opposed to committing to the full programme for each day. A virtual attendance option not only saves attendees considerable travel time, but it also allows them to make more deliberate decisions about how they participate in the event. It is also worth noting that, across the board, concerns about infection at large-scale gatherings remain widespread.
These new trends in participant preferences have increased the complexities of the registration and check-in processes for the event, especially when we have ticketing tiers ranging from free-to-register to paid, as well as invitational attendance. Our team spent considerable time and effort determining how best to consolidate registrations data for a hassle-free check-in experience — virtually and on-site — while designing communications that cater to different audience needs.
Initially, these untried registration processes required much more legwork than anticipated, resulting in a renewed understanding of the importance of digital tools to ensure efficient registration and check-in workflow.
The benefits of configuring events with both virtual and in-person components also extend to the quality of our relationships with sponsors.
Sponsors call for return-on-events in form of increase brand authority and business leads generation … and often both
At the pandemic’s peak, the number of virtual events grew rapidly, with organisers adopting them out of sheer necessity. Our major takeaways from that transformation were three unique benefits of virtual/hybrid formats:
- They have a much wider audience reach.
- Organisers are able to infer rich data from attendee behaviours.
- They provide opportunities for sponsors seeking lead generation.
When ASC pivoted to hybrid, it became critical for us to secure more sponsorship revenue to offset the increased cost of the in-person element held in Hong Kong. As we secured several major new sponsors, we noticed that their objectives — unlike those of purely virtual events — have changed to prioritise thought leadership and networking.
Through private lunch receptions, coffee networking sessions, and strategically placed “technology marketplaces” showcasing homegrown companies offering sustainability technology, we developed new connections and strengthened existing relationships, to the extent that many attendees even requested more face-to-face time.
After the conference, we conducted standardised post-event surveys and informal lunch debriefs with sponsors. Overwhelmingly, we found that ASC’s sponsors — which represent banking and finance, education, government, and technology sectors — placed a premium on the conference’s in-person components.
A rudimentary map for moving SCMP events forward
With this experience in mind, we have developed new insights into how to best achieve our objectives of showcasing SCMP’s journalism and meeting our revenue targets through engaging with the “new normal” in hybrid events.
There are different relative benefits for different stakeholders, depending on the different event formats.
Attendees — in-person:
- Immersion in a productive learning environment at event venue.
- Ongoing networking opportunities through formal (e.g. matchmaking) and informal (e.g. coffee break) sessions.
- Spending time away from the office without distractions made for the most productive event-attending experience.
Attendees — virtual:
- Flexibility to curate sessions of interest using event tech tools offered by organisers.
- Instead of relying on serendipity of in-person experiences, attendees are able to browse a directory of attendees or use AI matchmaking tools to make more connections.
- Most of the time, virtual attendees are able to access a library of post-event videos on demand.
Sponsors — in-person:
- Opportunity to better establish thought leadership by being onstage with fellow industry peers.
- Engage with other VIPs through private events such as lunch/dinner receptions and cocktail/networking evenings.
- Get high quality leads through exhibition booths at the venue, which allows for better interactivity with event attendees.
Sponsors — virtual:
- Access a bigger volume of top-of-funnel leads through a wider reach of audience via virtual channels.
- Better quality and quantity of demographic and behavioural data of leads tracked through event tech stack.
- Enjoy cost savings as virtual sponsorships are typically lower than in-person sponsorships.
Though our team is familiar with the principles behind these value propositions, it was a far more impactful experience to see them in play at a hybrid conference, with more than 400 guests onsite and more than 1,000 virtual attendees, representing more than 30 countries and regions.
While early indications suggest that SCMP events will emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, our outlook remains cautiously optimistic. Our mantra during the early stage of the pandemic — “plan for the best, prepare for the worst” — continues to serve our team well as we chart a course for economic recovery in the Asia-Pacific.