2021's take on association events has the future looking bright

14 December 2021
meetings & events

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At the start of the year, AH released a series of predictions of what lies ahead for associations and non-profits in 2021. We're revisiting those predictions each month to see what's changed as associations and non-profits continue to adapt.

It was clear shortly into the COVID-19 pandemic that meetings and events that had previously been held in person would have to transform into fully virtual experiences. AH meeting and event managers found from the start that virtual events made networking more difficult and less personal, but that streaming the events also made them more accessible to people who would not normally be able to attend.

And at the outset of 2021, with almost a year of virtual event planning under her belt, Brooke Passy, CMP, DES, Senior Meeting Manager at AH, predicted that the safety and well-being of communities would continue to be a priority throughout the year even as in-person events slowly returned, which has certainly been the case. 

Virtual Events
The team of meetings and events professionals at AH has gone from producing zero fully virtual events in 2019 to producing more than 40 meetings in 2021, with only 11 of these having taken place in person. This shift to digital events has been essential to the survival of associations—according to Passy, meeting registrations account for an average of 25% of an association’s annual revenue, though the amount depends on each association’s structure and activities.

Keeping meetings and events moving forward through an ever-shifting landscape has been possible largely due to careful strategizing. “Strategy is the first step to planning a virtual event. With that, you’re able to create a more targeted and effective event from all elements, from education to marketing, to everything else,” said Passy.

Associations are more comfortable in the virtual world now. In 2020, Passy said, most groups had to quickly implement an entirely new meeting structure. But in 2021, they had more time to create a clear strategy.

An essential element of doing this is surveying your association members to ascertain what will best serve them, from preferences for types of live sessions to exhibitor experiences. A little extra effort in planning an enticing slate of activities goes a long way toward creating a satisfying event.

There are other benefits to virtual events as well. Virtual events make it possible to extend programming far beyond a single event via recorded sessions, expanding opportunities for non-dues revenue generation and appealing to new audiences who may not have attended the live virtual event. And not only do fully digital presentations allow associations to track which segments draw the most interest (along with rich data analysis that can bolster sponsor investments), but they offer the opportunity to introduce new programming there may not otherwise have been room for, and any successful new events can be brought forward to future in-person meetings.

In-Person Events
Even as virtual meetings have continued to play an important role for many associations, the in-person meeting has staged a comeback over the past year. “There has been a level of comfort with returning to travel, especially in the second half of the year,” said Passy. “That’s something that has to be decided by each group’s leadership on a case by case basis.”

The reasons for returning to in-person meetings are varied. For some trade associations, where the networking and the exhibit hall are the key components, it can be very difficult to replicate the meeting benefits virtually. And because meetings and events are so important to revenue, they might be worth the extra effort of providing additional safety protocols, even if it’s for a reduced number of attendees.

The keys to meeting in person as the pandemic continues are communication and safety. As with virtual events, surveys have played a central role in planning strategy. These surveys, designed to gauge members’ concerns and desires for meeting in person, have allowed associations to hold successful in-person events.

For their 2021 conference, NADCA’s members expressed a preference to meet in person, so their leadership established a safety plan that adhered to state and local ordinances. Even when state and local ordinances loosened restrictions, NADCA maintained its original, stricter safety plan, as that plan was what attendees had agreed to and were expecting. And for ASHT’s 2021 conference, the exploratory survey revealed that 95% of members were vaccinated, which made potential attendees feel more confident about attending.

Meeting the expectations members have for safety measures is something that’s important but tricky. There’s a vast range of what people feel comfortable with,” Passy said. “The goal of the planner and the association is making members feel comfortable.”

This year, AH meetings and events planners have begun obtaining Pandemic Compliance Advisor certifications, administered by Health Education Services. In addition to the safety basics of distancing, masking, and hand sanitizer use, planners learned bigger-picture best practices for safety. For Passy, the biggest takeaway from the certification course was the idea of having a dedicated safety advisor attend every event in addition to the event planner. If there is any illness during the event, having someone whose priority is member health and safety present allows the event planner to focus on their already full slate of meeting-running responsibilities.

Hybrid Events
Due to virtual events’ ability to offer brand-new and exciting ways to present content and engage with members, quite a few associations plan to continue to incorporate virtual elements in their future in-person events for a hybrid model. What this will look like depends on the specific association.

One association has been including hybrid elements since long before the pandemic began. AH Client Partner, the Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurses Society™ (WOCN®), has been livestreaming select meeting sessions since 2013. In 2021, the group used Conferences i/o, a virtual polling app that they’ve been using in-person for a few years now, and they even enlisted a magician to present a virtual magic show. As part of their efforts to fine-tune their long-time use of hybrid content in the future, they’ll be adding a Q&A option to Conferences i/o to allow virtual attendees to chime in during sessions. They’ll also be presenting video sessions in-person and producing video recaps of each day of the meeting.

“Rather than impeding in-person attendance, hybrid events expand access to people who wouldn’t have been able to attend the event otherwise,” Passy said. “And a hybrid event can actually act as a commercial for the in-person event. It can create a sense of missing out by showing possible future attendees all the people they could be meeting and events they could be attending.”

Looking Ahead

Ultimately, the shift to fully virtual events in 2020 paved the way for organizations to think more creatively in 2021 and beyond about the best ways to deliver exciting, interactive meetings that offer the greatest professional and personal value to their members.

“I think going virtual has been kind of exciting, though it’s also been terrifying and overwhelming,” Passy said. “It’s pushed everybody to have to face thinking differently and working with technology. It’s pushed us to know more and do more.” In addition to diving into previously unnecessary technological concerns, meetings and event planners have had to negotiate their associations’ ways out of contracts, learn much more about health care and policy, and reimagine their overall approach.

Some virtual aspects of event planning are here to stay. The WOCN Society’s Ostomy Education Day was created in 2020, put on again in 2021, and will continue to be produced virtually in the future, giving attendees five or six hours of material that is otherwise difficult to come by.

Passy also expects smaller events, such as multiple-times-a-year association leadership meetings, to undergo a permanent change. “There will be times when your leadership wants to be in the same room together, but it might not be every meeting—it might be every other meeting,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean in-person events aren’t very much on the horizon. “I think members are also really excited to get back together in person. It’s just a matter of executing those events in a way that people feel safe,” Passy said. “And providing access to people who aren’t ready to come back is really important. Hybrid is scalable; you can make hybrid mean what you need it to mean for your group.”

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