Due to the unprecedented global context lasting over several months now, many associations have had to cancel, postpone, or go digital with their events. This exceptional situation has pushed players in the events industry to rethink and develop alternative solutions to maintain social interaction and meetings.
Professional congress organizers (PCOs) have been able to innovate and experiment with putting on hybrid or digital events. Thanks to their congress expertise and tools, PCOs have adapted their services and offers to respond to different formats and desires.
Interview with Elodie Coudre, Director of the Congress Division at MCI Group, who gives us her recommendations for making a success of these new formats.
Can you present MCI Group?
MCI Group was created in 1987 in Geneva and is today present in more than 30 countries, on all continents; MCI France was the first subsidiary outside Switzerland.
MCI Group specializes in advising companies and associations. We help them to draw up and implement an engagement strategy in relation to their targets, the value maximization of their products and services, and their marketing and digital strategy. In short, in the development of their performance levers.
This involves realizing physical, hybrid and virtual events, be it a convention, congress, seminar, roadshow, product launch or team-building event. Because the human and the experiential are central to the DNA of MCI ‘When People come together, magic happens’.
To be more precise, MCI France Congress division helps French-speaking and international associations, learned societies – including a dozen or so key accounts –, in all aspects of the evolution, reflection and execution of their congresses, notably: business model, communications strategy, relations with participants (registration and accommodation), partnership strategy, commercial and logistics management of partners and exhibitors, management of speakers and guests, scientific secretariat from the submission of abstracts to the orchestration of the programme, general coordination of service providers, financial management, including right up to the final report.
What are your responses to the challenges facing associations and learned societies in the context of COVID-19?
Although the health crisis has created much uncertainty, it must be approached as a trigger for accelerating innovation and as a lever of opportunity.
Our position as a consulting partner alongside our clients has therefore been strengthened in recent months beyond congresses themselves, since more than ever, associations and learned societies need to redefine the challenges facing them and reconsider their business model. We help them to do this with tailor-made support.
In doing this, we benefit not only from 30 years of experience working with our clients, but also from proven methodologies developed by our experts in several areas of the MCI Group.
A few weeks ago, Nikki Walker, our Global Vice President Association Management & Consulting, launched our new virtual consulting product F.A.S.T. © by MCI (Future-proof Association Strategic Transformation). It is a 12-week programme, facilitated by our experts and split into steps, to help associations and learned societies to create their transformation road map, with concrete objectives and actions, to ensure their development, their durability and their agility in the digital age.
This proactive approach was triggered by the health crisis, which prompted certain associations and learned societies to think about ‘digitalizing’ their 2020 congress, primarily due to the urgency of the situation. A constraint that, once again, turned out to be an opportunity.
The ‘phygital’ turning point, which we had already initiated some years ago at MCI France, has therefore become more than ever a reality for all our projects.
What is the difference between a hybrid event and a digital event?
A so-called hybrid event is a clever mix of face-to-face and virtual. This model enables the various stakeholders (speakers, participants, and partners, exhibitors) to take part in an event in different ways: on site at the conference venue or virtually from their office or home (via live streaming, matchmaking, a virtual exhibition).
This model, still favoured for most French-speaking congresses in this second half-year, allows for freedom of choice while preserving the ‘sacred nature’ of a physical meeting, even if digital tools today provide excellent solutions for virtual interaction. The economic models, design of the programme, communication, and technical means vary according to the model chosen.
How long does it take to set up a virtual congress?
For the reasons mentioned previously, it is better to plan ahead! A virtual congress should not be thought of as a ‘default’ option or as a palliative, even if the urgency of the context sometimes leads us there, in which case 3 months can be enough when it is a question of transforming a face-to-face congress ... Because the scientific programme has been finalized and the pool of partners identified.
For all other cases, a project intended to be virtual from the start must, like any other type of congress, be anticipated more than a year in advance, because above and beyond the technical aspects, all the components of the project must be adapted to its virtual format.
How do you establish specifications for this type of event?
Firstly, it is important to analyze the challenges facing the association or learned society, the objectives of its congress (training, network, partner/participant interactions, etc.), but also the expectations of stakeholders investing in the event (participants, partners/exhibitors).
The scope of the congress (national, international), the origin of the speakers, the complexity of the scientific programme (number of sessions), the format of the sessions (type of speeches, duration, type of interactivity), the panel of opportunities and functionalities offered to partners and exhibitors, the importance given to networking at the congress, the value maximization of contents and partners above and beyond the event, and the economic model built around the congress, are all elements to be taken into account to design the best format and select the most adapted solutions. This is why our consulting role is essential above and beyond operational excellence.
Because ‘digital’ or ‘phygital’ solutions go far beyond the hybrid and the virtual.
Webcast, streaming, e-congress, webinar, e-learning, etc. are all different and complementary digital solutions that can be offered. Similarly, e-congresses take on very different realities from one project to another, depending on the central objectives, some putting the emphasis on the enhancement of content with sober design, others with sophisticated virtual exhibitions, or an optimized experience via the use of artificial intelligence to develop relevant virtual interactions.
The solutions are infinite!
Is it cheaper to organize a digital event than a face-to-face congress?
Rental as well as catering are some of the main items of a face-to-face congress that a 100% virtual event does not require. However, everything depends on what that the association wishes to offer, as mentioned above. It is important to think in terms of the profitability of the congress for the association.
As a consulting agency, we help our clients to define the business model to achieve the designated financial objectives and at least financial equilibrium. Certainly, value maximization of content through digitalization removes all temporal and geographical dimensions, providing wider access to content, and consequently, significant additional sources of revenue.
What are the next hybrid and virtual congresses that you are accompanying?
Among the ten or so congresses concerned for the next 4 months, in hybrid format are the Congrès de la SFAP, which opened on 1 September in Strasbourg, the Congrès du GERDA in Bordeaux, the Grand Atelier des Avocats at Porte de Versailles and the Journées Dermatologiques de Paris at the Palais des Congrès de Paris. Congresses that have opted for a complete digital format include the Congrès de la SFRO, the E-LPG Week, and the Journées Francophones de Nutrition.
Our only certainty for this end of year: our watchword remains ‘agility’, depending on what the future holds for face-to-face events.
Other PCOs to help you in your event project
The Paris Convention Bureau recommends a total of 7 PCOs, members of our association, who will be able to advise you and help you in your event project.