Hybrid & Virtual Events in 2021 (a checklist) for Associations

Hybrid & Virtual Events in 2021 (a checklist) for Associations

Your members count on you to plan events that are educational, engaging, worthwhile, and safe. In 2021, that might feel like an overwhelming responsibility, but don’t worry. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about planning virtual and hybrid events for associations, starting with what kind of event to host.

In-Person, Hybrid, or Virtual? Choosing Your Delivery Method

How to host your event is an even more difficult decision now than it was in 2020. For most event planners, the choices for almost a year have been to either shift to virtual or cancel. But now, as vaccines and expanded testing bring hope, the possibility of in-person content has slowly begun to emerge, especially for events scheduled for later in the year.

According to a poll by the North Star Meetings Group:

  • 10% of planners intend to have any in-person meetings in the first quarter of 2021
  • 56% hope to meet in person by the second half of the year
  • 52% are considering hybrid options
  • 21% are actively planning hybrid events

The best choice for your members will depend on when the event will take place and what people’s needs are regarding health and safety.

The Checklist

  • Set a date for your event. If you’d like to have some in-person events and you have flexibility as to when your event will take place, later is probably better. Be aware that other associations and professional groups may also be trying to postpone. Check your 2021 conflict calendar carefully.
  • Check your state and local regulations. States have different rules and restrictions about in-person events and the number of people allowed to attend. Keep in mind that those may change.
  • Poll your membership. Your members will be the ones deciding whether or not to attend a virtual or hybrid event, so ask them what their preferences and comfort levels are. Would enough people attend the in-person components for a hybrid event?
  • Develop your safety strategy. Consider the preferences of your attendees as well as local regulations. Does the state where you’ll be hosting the event require masks in public places? If not, will you decide to require them? Will you require testing and, if feasible, vaccines? 
  • Create a backup plan. Know what you’ll do if something happens and the in-person component has to be scaled down or eliminated completely. How will you shift people to virtual?

Preparing Conference Materials

For hybrid and especially virtual events, materials drive success. Early on in your planning, determine what you will show or send to attendees like virtual programming, resource handouts, and programming guides. Pay particular attention to interactive materials and videos, since you’ll most likely depend heavily on them for the virtual component of your event.

Kickoff Videos

If you can’t have an in-person kickoff session to launch your event, or you can but not everyone is able to attend, a brief but snappy kickoff video can fill in the gap. The goal is to get people excited and looking forward to the program you’ve put together. 

Remember that your virtual attendees may have other things they could be doing during the event, however, you want them to choose your programming. Encourage them to mark their schedules by:

  • Showing previews of past or pre-recorded speakers
  • Introducing special workshops and sessions
  • Highlighting networking possibilities 

You can use a kickoff video for a virtual or hybrid event. If you run a hybrid event, you can choose to use the same video or create a special live version for the in-person component. That might be as simple as changing the ending for live attendees.

Pre-Recorded Sessions and Keynotes

Another choice facing virtual and hybrid events for associations is whether to broadcast events live or pre-record them. Hybrid events may be more inclined to “go live,” but there’s still the option to pre-record programming elements when hosts and/or speakers are offsite. 


Pre-recording reduces the risk of tech-related interruptions and gives you more control over video and audio quality. The primary downside is that this has a decreased feeling of immediacy and intimacy. But, you can put some of that back in place by adding live elements like Q&As or breakout discussions.


Forbes magazine recommends pre-recording at least for keynotes, which tend to draw a large percentage of your event attendees. According to Markletic’s response data, 68% of event marketers prefer this kind of semi-live setup for virtual events.

Recording Live Programming

If you host a hybrid event, you may choose to stream content live as much as possible. If that’s the case, consider recording it so that you can offer access to members and attendees after the conference. Also, make a plan for the Q&A component so that live and virtual attendees can both participate.

The Checklist

  • Choose some video content to pre-produce. Speak with a partner like Association Studios to talk about scheduling and budget. Discover if you have any existing footage you can use.
  • Decide what programming you want to pre-record or live stream. Consider pre-recording your keynote if possible.
  • Select the live content you want to record for later access. Talk to your legal team about what permissions you’ll need. Determine how you’ll offer it, whether you’ll charge attendees and/or non-attendees for access, and how you’ll publicize recording availability during the main event.

Hosting Your Event

Hosting logistics go hand-in-hand with content. Different platforms have different content delivery capabilities, and you’ll want to be able to structure your event as you plan it. Plus, if you plan to host a hybrid event, you’ll need to know what the on-site tech setup will be and how it will integrate with your virtual event platform. 

Platforms to Use

Whether your event is fully virtual or hybrid with a virtual element, your choice of platform will determine what kind of experience you can offer. One of the most popular such features is the virtual sponsorship booth, which 87% of organizers look for. 


Networking capabilities are also important. The opportunity to meet colleagues one-on-one is one of the biggest reasons why people attend professional conferences. You’ll want your virtual platform to mimic these kinds of connection opportunities as close as possible.


Finally, look for how each platform lets you integrate marketing and promotions. Some are specifically set up to connect with your event webpage, email support, and/or social media. You’ll learn how to use these below, but for now, knowing that you want the possibility to connect with these features can help you to choose the right platform.


The best way to choose a platform is to explore different options and find out which have successfully hosted virtual events for associations and nonprofits. Here are a few of 2021’s top contenders:



  • 4.9 out of five stars on Capterra
  • End-to-end functionality, from registration to post-event follow-up
  • User-friendly interface for attendees
  • An advanced networking platform with an instant one-on-one connection option
  • Multiple engagement features including polling, gamification, and more



  • Designed for virtual and hybrid events
  • 4.7 out of five stars on Capterra
  • Customizable registration 
  • Community “town hall” space to boost engagement
  • Interactive sessions with Q&A, polling, and more
  • Networking tools throughout the event experience
  • Intuitively integrated streaming for speakers



  • 4.4 out of five stars on Capterra
  • A virtual exhibition hall with vendor booths
  • Live group breakout rooms with virtual roundtables
  • A connection discovery tool to match people for networking opportunities
  • Branding functions so you can use your association’s color scheme and graphics

Don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to these options. There are multiple lists of leading virtual event software options, most of which include user reviews and links to the platforms’ websites. Take some time to look at what’s available and choose the option that will offer the best experience for your members and other attendees.

Preparing Your Tech

Almost three-quarters of event organizers say that it takes more than a month to configure their virtual platform, so start preparing yours as soon as you have it. The more thoroughly you’ve explored the platform’s capabilities and rehearsed what it’s like to host your various program elements, the more smoothly everything will run and the less likely you’ll lose people to tech errors.


According to a 2020 survey by Markletic, all four of the biggest frustrations people have with virtual events are tech-related. The most common problem is a bad connection, with bad audio coming in a close second.

To avoid these issues, make sure you know how to set up and run all of your program elements in-platform. Test them out using the connection you’ll use on the day of the event, using the same hardware. 

Make sure your in-house cameras and microphones provide good audio and sound quality. A few USB mics and external webcams can be good investments if you have the budget, especially if you plan to host more virtual events in the future.

Finally, use a wired ethernet connection whenever possible. If you have to use WiFi, make sure it’s reliable and be close to the router.

Hybrid Event Venues

Hybrid event venues need all of the same features as a standard in-person event — enough capacity, event rooms, and so on — as well as the tech to support quality streaming. Eventzilla suggests checking for the following:

  • Sufficient internet bandwidth and connection
  • Space for video recording equipment and lighting
  • Enough power supply for your tech
  • In-house tech support
  • The ability to do a tech dry run in the venue

The Checklist

  • Choose a virtual event platform. Think about the programming you want to offer and what you want the platform to do. If you’ve attended virtual events with interfaces that you’ve enjoyed, find out what platforms they used.
  • Explore all of the functions of your platform. Know how you’ll stream live or pre-recorded content. Know all of the features that attendees can use and decide if there are any you want to actively promote.
  • If you’re hosting a hybrid event, select a venue. Book soon, since venues may fill up as conditions improve. 
  • Test the quality of your connection and hardware. Make sure your streaming will look and sound professional. Look into getting or borrowing external equipment if necessary.

Marketing Integration

Any successful event needs a strong publicity component, preferably integrated with the registration and hosting of the event. Fortunately for virtual and hybrid event organizers, many platforms offer marketing automation integrations with commonly used publicity tools. 


According to Markletic, more than 70% of event organizers look for these integrations when choosing a virtual event platform. Each platform integration works differently and supports different social media functions — Facebook surveys, video sharing, countdowns, etc.


If you don’t find the integration you want, you can connect your virtual or hybrid event with your marketing presence manually, sharing links and pointing marketing content toward the event page on your website. 

Social Media

Approximately 60% of organizers use social media to market their virtual events. It’s one of the most effective marketing channels for this purpose because you can integrate it before, during, and after the event.


Start with an announcement giving the dates and times of the event as well as anything that might be particularly attractive, such as the name of the keynote speaker and any overarching themes. Be sure to include a link to your registration page.


In the weeks leading up to the event, plan a series of posts to get people excited about the event. You can:

  • Highlight different sessions
  • Introduce speakers and share their websites
  • Spotlight any research that will be presented or discussed
  • Start conversations about key discussion topics

Remember to use the social element of social media. Posts rank better on sites like Facebook and Instagram when they generate a lot of discussions, so encourage audiences to comment. Ask them what they’re looking forward to, what they’d like to learn, and who they’re looking forward to seeing.

Finally, consider using paid advertising as well as organic posting. Social media algorithms tend to show your organic posts to people who already follow you, so paid posting is the best way to attract new audiences.

Email Support 

More than three-quarters of Markletic’s surveyed event organizers have found email to be the best way of driving registration. It’s an ideal channel for reaching your members in a way that feels personal and immediate, and you can go into detail about what you’ve planned. Plus, by keeping in touch with registrants via email, you can keep the event on their radar and even encourage them to invite others. Consider sending:

  • Registration confirmation with details on how to connect
  • A “how to prepare” email the week before the event, including instructions for logging on
  • A daily agenda email, sent each morning of the event, with a list of session and breakout or networking opportunities

If your platform supports it, you can include links to sessions so they’re easy for participants to find.

The Checklist

  • Learn what marketing integrations are available on your event platform. Come up with a few ideas for using those integrations to connect with audiences before, during, and after the event.
  • Develop a social media marketing calendar to build anticipation leading up to the event. Create your content in advance so it’s easy to launch when you’re ready.
  • Set up an email sequence for registrants. Make sure you highlight different opportunities and takeaways and link to event pages whenever possible.

Attendee Engagement During Events

According to Markletic, audience engagement and interaction is the event organizer’s biggest challenge. Attendees can leave a virtual event much more easily than they could an in-person event, and there are more temptations when someone is attending from home or their office(s). 


As you plan your event, identify opportunities for attendees to actively participate and interact with each other. 

Taking questions

The ability to ask questions is a major part of keeping a virtual conference interactive. Since the explosion of virtual events in 2020, organizers have developed and tested multiple ways of fielding attendee questions. Popular options include:

  • Pre-selected questions. As part of your pre-event marketing, ask attendees and potential attendees for questions they’d like to ask speakers. Have your moderator present selected questions during the event.
  • Live Q&A. This is the most common strategy for webinar-style events. Attendees type questions into a chat box and the moderator selects which to ask. Audiences stay engaged and questions tend to be more immediate and related to the active topic.
  • Polling. Almost 82% of virtual event organizers use polling to increase engagement. Live polling keeps people engaged during a presentation and can provide valuable information about the topic of discussion. 


Breakout sessions

Breakout sessions can work just as well for hybrid and virtual events as they do for in-person events, but they require more careful planning. Here are some pro tips from event planning resource BizBash:

  • Keep your virtual breakout groups small. It’s easier in a smaller group for everyone to have a chance to talk. 
  • Have a designated topic of discussion. Participants will get more out of the breakout if it’s focused. 
  • Assign moderators to each breakout. The moderator’s job is to help participants introduce themselves, open the topic of discussion, and encourage participation.

You can assign participants to breakout rooms or allow them to choose from a list of options. There’s also the option of having a larger follow-up session with attendees from multiple breakouts, so people can share their takeaways and keep the discussions going.

The Checklist

  • Choose your Q&A method. If you’re planning a hybrid event, make time for in-person questions and questions from the virtual audience. If you plan to collect questions in advance, start working that into your conference marketing.
  • Plan your breakout sessions. Decide what the topics will be and how you will assign attendees. Reach out to potential moderators and schedule them for their sessions. 

Preparing Speakers and Sponsors

If you’ve done your marketing job well, your attendees will log onto the event, or arrive for the in-person portion ready to go. However, your sponsors and speakers will need a bit more guidance.

For Speakers and Presenters

Each speaker needs to know exactly what’s expected of them. By early 2021, many speakers will have appeared at virtual events, but events and platforms differ dramatically. Make sure every speaker knows exactly when and how to log in, how long they’re expected to speak, and how they’ll field questions.

For Sponsors

There are many sponsorship models for virtual and hybrid events. In addition to general event sponsorship, in exchange for inclusion on your events’ sponsor page, you can offer higher-level sponsor opportunities to generate more revenue. For example:

  • Sponsored individual sessions and networking events. According to Markletic, 91% of virtual event organizers allow session sponsorship to generate revenue
  • Featured sponsor content in event newsletters and announcements
  • Sponsored promotional video content for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter
  • Virtual sponsor booths if your platform supports them
  • Sponsored conference recordings to be distributed after the event

Give your sponsors options when you can. Different setups will work for different organizations.

The Checklist

  • Create an info sheet for all of your speakers and sponsors. Each one should cover the person’s schedule at the event, how and when they’ll be presenting, and how to connect.  
  • Schedule tech rehearsals for all speakers and presenters. That includes those who are doing live Q&A following pre-recorded presentations. Test their sound and video as well as any screen sharing or media streaming.
  • Reach out to potential sponsors, including those who sponsored your live or virtual events in the past. Find out what sponsorship model would work best for them and arrange the details.

The Takeaway

Planning virtual and hybrid events for associations is a significant task, but careful planning makes it approachable. Hold on to this guide as an overview of what needs to happen and make notes when other questions or action items crop up. The more proactive you are about your organization and preparation, the better an experience you’ll be able to provide for your members 

Your members count on you to plan events that are educational, engaging, worthwhile, and safe. In 2021, that might feel like an overwhelming responsibility, but don’t worry. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about planning virtual and hybrid events for associations, starting with what kind of event to host.


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