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Reimagining the Future of International Events

Face-to-face events are essential for so many organizations globally, from meeting planners organizing events, to services providers and the entire hospitality industry. With the pandemic literally putting a stop to in-person gatherings, everyone needed to rethink what the future of events will look like. 

The International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) traditionally used its annual conference to feature the latest innovations for events, experimenting and showcasing to its members what works and what doesn’t. 

So when the pandemic hit, normal operations and initiatives had to be reconsidered and redeveloped, but the aim remained the same. We wanted to continue to demonstrate how associations could experiment with the latest innovations and event technologies, and show meeting planners and service providers around the world what a new future for events could potentially look like. 

After months of testing online event tech and virtual platforms, connecting with members, and getting advice from peer organizations, it became apparent that online events were presenting new challenges for the meetings industry. While digital formats can expand audiences, they make it more difficult to engage members, create quality connections, and brainstorm new ideas. Our members found that their delegates were less likely to apply their learnings following an online event, for example, by adopting new business practices.

This inspired ICCA to attempt one of the biggest experiments in the association’s history. We decided not only to organize a hybrid event with a physical location and a digital audience, but test a hub-and-spoke model that features the original conference host destination, plus eight different hubs and across a variety of time zones and continents. 

The premise was for members to be able to meet in-person, wherever safely possible, but at the same time be agile and flexible in case local regulations changed overnight.

Overcoming challenges

One of the keys to success for making such a huge project work was having the right partners to provide clear instructions to each of the hubs. Furthermore, we utilized local technology suppliers to provide quality broadcasts from the hubs. Then we tested our format again and again.  

One of the biggest challenges involved the various time zones and competing with other content. When you have a purely face-to-face event, your delegates all come to one place for a certain number of days and you have their full attention. However, if you have your audience online and in different locations across the globe, you encounter completely different issues. 

For our 2020 conference, we identified four hours each day that would allow the largest number of attendees to attend live and built the regional content around it. Applying some of our learnings from 2020, we are experimenting with a new model in 2021. This year, our program will run nearly 48 hours, but across different time zones. Regional speakers will address the main topic for audiences in their specific time zone. 

While a hub-and-spoke model will always be more complex in nature and require further development, it does, without a doubt, offer an alternative for the much-needed human connection and knowledge transfer in destinations. Ultimately, this format could be a more sustainable and environmentally friendly model for the future. 

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