Cancel, Postpone, Go Virtual? How to Make Critical Decisions About Your Meetings

A look at how three associations came to decisions related to their group’s largest event and often biggest revenue maker: the annual conference.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced associations to make difficult but critical decisions that often come with significant financial implications. One piece of association business that’s been greatly affected is conferences and tradeshows.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to either speak with or listen to a number of association executives describing the critical decisions they’ve had to make around their events. While each situation is unique, the reasons why they made the decisions they did are sure to resonate as you consider your own meetings. Here are some of their stories.

Be Flexible

The International Trademark Association was planning for its 142nd Annual Meeting to take place in Singapore at the end of April. More than 10,000 attendees and 160-plus exhibitors were expected, but as the pandemic spread through Asia and Singapore was becoming a focal point of the outbreak, INTA decided on February 15 it would move the meeting to a location in the United States in May or June.

“It was a very difficult decision—one that required a lot of negotiation with our partners and our vendors,” said CEO Etienne Sanz de Acedo. “But, ultimately, health and safety were our top priority.”

However, as INTA was working to secure a U.S. location for its rescheduled meeting, it decided to hold off again due to “fast-moving developments and escalating uncertainty of the public health crisis.”

In early April, INTA announced a that now-combined 2020 annual and leadership meeting would take place in Houston in November. While INTA plans to open registration sometime in early June, Sanz de Acedo admits the situation is evolving and that a lot can happen between now and then. “While this is unprecedented, what I’ve learned is that this is really the time to encourage flexibility in terms of how you think, how your staff thinks, how you work with your partners, and what you offer to your members. It will make a real difference down the line.”

Keep Members in Mind

The Institute of Food Technologists’ 25,000-attendee Annual Event and Food Expo was scheduled to take place in Chicago in July.

Since the meeting represents 70 percent of its annual revenue, and 20 percent of attendees come from outside the U.S., IFT began discussing the impact the virus would have on their meeting back in January. Staff also started conversations with their event cancellation insurance broker, as well as an adjuster, about a what type of claim they might have.

By March, “as things continued to unfold, it became clear that many of our stakeholders were becoming increasingly focused on keeping the food supply in this country and around the globe moving,” said CEO Christie Tarantino-Dean, FASAE, CAE.

Knowing that in-person attendance would be dramatically reduced in even the best scenarios it laid out, IFT made the decision to transition to virtual. “Really that decision largely came down to knowing our members and our vision, which is about a safe, nutritious, sustainable food supply for all,” she said.

Admit What You Don’t Know

With one 200-person international event planned with a partner and two summer events on the horizon, the 11-person staff at the Online News Association (ONA) didn’t have its 3,000-person annual conference, scheduled for late September, top of mind leading into March.

“March was just putting out fires, and we weren’t able to take a step back,” said CEO Irving Washington, FASAE, CAE. “But for those of us who have later meetings, I know we can’t get too comfortable.”

That realization sank in after he heard from several colleagues who had to make quick decisions about their meetings. They told him, “Whatever decision I thought was cautious hasn’t been cautious enough.”

Unlike INTA and IFT, Washington’s organization has some time to consider options for its annual meeting, which accounts for 60 percent of its revenue. ONA has used that time to design a framework around scenarios and try to envision what the world may look like in the months ahead.

“Where we are is, we’ve talked to all key parties and laid out 11 decision-making criteria that we’re looking at specifically for the annual meeting,” Washington said.

While ONA can’t predict what will happen these next few months, the staff understands there’s a good possibility the conference will transition to a virtual event.

“Our mindset is to just open it up and tell people what we’re dealing with and why we need the support of either registration or donations, and just be as transparent as we can and authentic about the annual meeting for this year,” said Washington. “We all have to be OK with the sentence, ‘We don’t know.’”

What have you relied on most when making decisions about your organization’s conference given the COVID-19 pandemic? Please share in the comments.

(imacon/DigitalVision Vectors)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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