Paper to Computers: Event Planning Changes with Heather Sampson

Evolution of Planning

Planning events first started with pad, paper and snail mail, and as technology advanced, some adaptations were made. Enter 2020. Event planning has undergone a vast technological change. Heather Sampson has seen the evolution firsthand.

“I began my career in the events industry as a registration coordinator for a trade show organizer. The bulk of registrations came in by snail mail and fax; everything was just so slow,” said Heather Sampson, CMP, DES, PCA. She challenged her organization to embrace new technology and was instrumental in moving to a new online registration platform. “Previously, the entire registration process took weeks, but once we moved it online, it was instantaneous. It took a long time to get folks to move technologically but it made my organization much more efficient, allowing us to be more responsive to the needs of our exhibitors and attendees, and focus our time on initiatives to grow our shows.”

It took some time for the event industry to accept some technology to help plan events, so that now, as the planning of full-scale virtual and hybrid events takes the spotlight, a lot of associations and event planners are facing new territory.

“Before you jump into choosing the technology, you have to first go back to the basics. You need to know what your audience wants and needs, and you need to know what the tech capabilities of your audience are,” said Sampson. “You still have to identify the goals and objectives that you’re trying to achieve and determine what level of engagement you need to create.

“How do you connect participants in a meaningful way when they are looking at each other through a computer screen?”

As for hybrid events, Sampson believes the dust has not yet settled. Although a successful hybrid event can be challenging to put together, it is also exciting territory because it forces people to start fresh; what worked in person doesn’t necessarily work virtually.      

What I’ve noticed in the past few months is that the word [hybrid] is thrown around quite liberally but few have an understanding of what it means or how to begin planning one. Or, there’s an assumption that there is one definition of hybrid, which is to livestream your entire in-person event from start to finish. Not all organizations have the staff or financial resources to do that, and in many instances, that may not even be necessary.

“The exciting thing about where we are today is the fact that there is no single definition of what hybrid is; every organization needs to determine what that means for them based on what their audience needs and what resources they do have.”

The transition to digital for any event planner comes with many new challenges and often requires people to get out of their comfort zone. Technology is not always simple to understand, and applying that to a digital event can be hard. Luckily, for Sampson, PCMA’s Digital Event Strategy certification made the transition a whole lot easier.

“I have always loved event technology and had been capturing and repurposing conference sessions for a number of years already, so when I heard about it back in 2016, I knew this was the direction the industry was moving next. To me, the DES certification seemed like the next professional milestone to achieve in my career, and ensure that I had mastered the skills needed to stay relevant,” she said.

DES certification teaches students how to plan, produce and measure digital and hybrid events from start to finish, monetize digital events through fresh pricing and sponsorship strategies, and evaluate and choose the most sophisticated tech solutions. Learn more about the program here.

“I loved the course. It was very comprehensive; the instructors broke down all the aspects of digital event production beautifully. When most people think about digital events, they immediately focus on what technology or platform they need. I saw so much chatter about platforms and technology last year when the pandemic hit and planners began to frantically shift to virtual. [The DES course] gets you out of that mindset; there still needs to be an overall goal, marketing strategy, engagement strategy, etc. There are so many more layers to it than just what camera do I need, how much internet bandwidth do I need, and what platform do I use?”    

As for now, it seems hybrid is just getting started. The industry is learning together from a fresh new perspective of digital opportunity.      

“I do believe hybrid is here to stay but I think it may look very different than what we initially think it will. And as the pandemic lingers on, we don’t yet know how consumer behavior for conferences and events has changed. I’d hate to see organizations simply revert back to planning the same in-person event that they did pre-pandemic, “go hybrid” by livestreaming it or recording it, and wonder why it’s not as well-received. I don’t think that's it. Like every other aspect of event planning, the experience has to be purposeful and intentional,” said Sampson.

“Hybrid can really be anything at this point and I think that's the part everyone needs to think about. There's no script, there's no instruction manual, and there are no rules -- you can take everything you’ve ever done, throw that playbook out the window, and start fresh to create a new model that works for your organization. My hope is that many will take this opportunity to create a new, meaningful and intentional experience for each of their audiences, both in-person and virtually.”  

About Heather Sampson

Heather Sampson is a Strategic Meetings/Events Professional with decades of experience within the meetings and event planning industry. She is currently the Director of Conference Planning for NPACE and she is the Founder and CEO of Aspire Meeting and Events, LLC.

About this series

JUNO believes in the future of strategic events, delivered in hybrid, digital, and in-person formats. As supporters of PCMA Foundation, we value reskilling for industry professionals and want to highlight Professionals Who Go Beyond.