Virtual Successes: PRSA Travel & Tourism Conference Pulls Off a Valuable Learning Experience

August 6, 2021

With many events forced to go virtual within the past 18 months due to the global health crisis, there’s a good chance that this tumultuous time in the industry’s history will not only be remembered as a challenging one, but also a valuable learning experience.

Case in point: the 2021 PRSA Travel & Tourism Conference, which took place digitally June 15-16. Produced by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and designed for public relations professionals from CVBs, resorts and hotels, airlines and other transportation services, cruises, attractions, travel-related media companies, agency reps and independent practitioners, the event’s mission is to provide valuable, timely and engaging professional development sessions, media panels and networking opportunities that leave attendees inspired and equipped for actionable change in their daily workflow.

But with COVID still a worldwide problem, the annual face-to-face event faced an extremely tight window to convert its entire conference into a virtual format or run the risk of leaving its audience without a 2021 conference experience.  

According to show officials, the event’s digital transformation was a full-out sprint, with the PRSA event planning team rolling out its virtual format details in February, holding a virtual planning retreat the first week of March and completing all conference planning by mid-June. But thanks to a strong all-hands-on-deck effort, the event went forward with very few hiccups and ended up being a successful and highly rated experience that will help shape the association’s in-person events going forward.

According to 2021 PRSA Travel & Tourism Chair Dodie Stephens, who is also director of communications for Explore Asheville, taking the conference virtual in 2021 definitely offered its fair share of surprises and valuable learnings, and the biggest “ah-ha moment” was the instant connectivity, vibrancy and convenience of a built-in online community across their virtual platform before and after the event.

“PRSA Travel has long amplified our meetings on social, however, having a dedicated forum with a multitude of connective layers, as well as the ability to track, save, initiate, incentivize and prioritize connections [was a] networking upgrade,” she said. “In fact, our attendees wanted more space between sessions to spend time in the pop-up community hub. Speakers and sponsors were active as well. It was phenomenal.” 

Stephens said that as they head into 2022, they will definitely consider whether they can layer some of the virtual successes from 2021 into an in-person event.

PRSA’s event planning committee chose Whova, a Zoom-based, all-in-one event management software for its digital platform, as it allowed for shorter learning curves for its planning committee and helped simplify practice sessions for its moderators and 65 speakers. 

“Did we have our share of ‘on-mute’ moments?” Stephens said. “Absolutely. But, by and large, humans have been doing a lot of business on Zoom, so there is a level of grace and understanding for the inevitable technical glitches. For our event, the benefit of a familiar interface with added engagement features just made sense.”

During the event, the platform’s built-in gamification helped motivate attendees to engage with each other and move throughout the platform, connecting with sponsors and breaking the ice with new contacts. PRSA offered prizes for the winners and sponsors joined in by offering additional incentives to visit their virtual booths. Meanwhile, attendees could watch the leaderboard to see if their networking and conference participation was moving them toward a prize.

With programming designed to support its audience in crafting a comeback for the travel industry, the event presented trend forecasts, practical insights and opportunities to engage with the nation’s top travel journalists and industry thought-leaders.

Keynote conversations included eight-time Olympian, author and broadcaster Apolo Ohno, travel and media forecasting from the nation’s leading editors, and media and industry icons working to amplify the movement of travel’s relationship to the BIPOC community. 

Twenty-two sessions covered the creative response to crisis; regenerative travel; the changing media landscape; trend-based insights from working journalists; the science of human engagement for communicators, and the importance of aligning more authentically with the people and places the industry represents.

According to Stephens, one of the most popular features for the event’s almost 300 attendees was the online forums, in which the planning team set up a slate of relevant starter topics and allowed the attendees to run with them via lively discussions.  

“This is where you could see the event community happening in real-time, as individuals created all manner of topics from light and inspirational to strategic and supportive,” Stephens noted.  

Key event insights garnered from the Whova platform included:

  • 92% app attendee download rate (compared to 71% for other Whova events)
  • 47,680 sponsor impressions
  • 1,761 attendee profile views
  • 62% announcement open rate
  • 72 discussion topics posted; 1,169 total messages
  • 12 virtual meet-ups organized with 66 participants
  • 20 job openings posted
  • 2,567 agenda in-app views
  • 109 leads generated by sponsors/exhibitors
  • 253 participants in-app gamification
  • 1,413 in-app private messages

Another major takeaway from the digital experience was the positive attendee response to the event’s easily accessible on-demand repository of program videos and downloadable resources, Stephens added. 

“As an attendee, it is pretty incredible to scan the event networking landscape of a virtual platform and have the power to initiate engagements and prioritize those that hold the most value for you,” she said. “It was great to watch the collective power of an online forum to build shared knowledge or rally an instant network of group support. 

Planners and attendees agreed that this was valuable, and we hope to pull the online community forward in some way, giving attendees more downtime to engage both in-person and online.” 

Another aspect of the virtual experience that PRSA is considering retaining for future events is its virtual sponsor booths, which allowed sponsors to post research and promo materials, and host demos and meetings, all while tracking leads and making direct connections with attendees through the digital platform.

“Our 2021 sponsors really valued their virtual booths [and] this was a welcomed layer to the traditional conference expo experience,” Stephens said. “When moving back to in-person, we will take a good look at a digital booth component in addition to the in-person and thought-leadership opportunities that we offer our sponsors.”

She added, “There are definitely hurdles to activating anything virtual alongside an in-person event, but the spirit of this desire for flexibility was definitely heard.” 

The PRSA 2022 Travel & Tourism Conference will return in person May 22-25, 2022 at the Davenport Grand Hotel and Spoke Convention Center in Spokane, Wash.


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Partner Voices

As event professionals and destinations adjust, adapt and evolve in these uncharted waters, it is imperative that substantial resources be put in place for all of the people responsible for planning and executing trade shows, expositions and conventions. An example is Mohegan Sun, which built an industry-leading, COVID-19 Resource Center with a combination of pictures from recently held successful events (the property reopened on May 1, 2020) along with several widely available and informative documents, such as an evolving operational framework: