The Hybrid Balance

HIMSS found an inexpensive hybrid model that competes with the fast rise of free online events, striking a balance between virtual and in-person — and serving a key member group who couldn't make this year's annual meeting.

Just last year, the cost to virtually attend the HIMSS (Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society) Annual Conference & Exhibition — held live in Las Vegas from Feb. 20-24 — ranged from $295 to $549, depending on the registrant. This year, for HIMSS13 Online, delegates from all areas, members and non-members alike, could experience the conference remotely for a flat rate of $39.

“Hybrid events are, no doubt about it, evolving,” said JoAnn Klinedinst, HIMSS’s vice president of professional development. “We reflected on the fact that many virtual events are no cost. We knew that there was a middle ground — from charging hundreds of dollars to giving content away, the strategy was somewhere in between.”

That strategy involved a calculated shift from HIMSS’s previous multiday hybrid-event format for which attendees paid hundreds of dollars to a modestly priced one-day hybrid program within this year’s four-day conference, which was held in New Orleans on March 3-7. “We want to attract a wide audience,” Klinedinst said, “but at what point will they not want to pay?”

This year’s new format initially was to include just one livestreamed keynote speech — by President Bill Clinton — and an interactive livestream of the event’s trade-show floor, where attendees could access educational information on-demand. “It was more of a news-feature approach,” Klinedinst said. “Because virtual is going to less content, less is more, people want to hear the highlights.” In an interview before HIMSS13, she anticipated that the new lowered admission price would result in a huge spike in online attendance — from 852 last year to about 3,500 virtual delegates this year.

That was the plan, anyway. “We had a situation with our attendees who work for the military — because of budget cuts, they were not able to attend,” Klinedinst said. The hybrid event would help them, so instead of cutting back, HIMSS “ramped it up. We made every session available, over 26 hours of programming,” she said. “We’re right back to [last year’s] model, but we’ve added more, because we have a postconference event on March 14 where the knowledge-sharing will continue.”

HIMSS13 streamed keynotes and educational sessions live each day of the conference, as in years past, and also livestreamed the exhibition floor and offered on-demand educational offerings. “We have 10 additional sessions that we’re casting live,” Klinedinst said. “Topics in health care are so dense, for you to take just a snippet and do a half-hour event, you can do it, but it’s not as effective.”

Since this year’s jam-packed multiday hybrid meeting was being offered at a fraction of the original fee, HIMSS will have to absorb some of the costs. Still, Klinedinst thinks that “now we have the best components. We’ve experienced two different events. We’ve seen one model and we’ve tweaked that for another perspective. Between the two experiences, we have enough to help us do it this third time around,” she said. “As they say, the third time’s the charm!”

Virtually Pays for Itself

It’s clear that hybrid events extend a meeting’s reach and enhance an attendee’s experience — but what about the bottom line? “We have one major hybrid event — our Annual Conference that has over 200 sessions,” said Steve Williams, director of e-media innovation and business development for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Every year SHRM offers attendees at its Annual Conference & Exhibition the option of participating in a hybrid meeting — $395 for in-person delegates, $595 for virtual. “This is a product that yields us a profit margin [of around] 80 percent,” Williams said, “far more than a physical conference alone.” He attributes this margin to the hybrid event’s minimal expenses. “We leverage existing content from our physical conferences,” he said. “We capture audio and PowerPoint for all of the concurrent sessions.”

Sarah Beauchamp

Sarah Beauchamp was formerly assistant editor of Convene.