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
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.