Are You Ready to Lead in a Hybrid 2021?

COVID-19 disrupted meetings this year. Next year offers a chance to think about how you’ll lead in an environment that's transformed more than events.

Of all the changes that COVID-19 has delivered to an association’s bottom line, the disruptions in meetings is likely the most unsettling. Even if your association’s 2020 conference was insured against a forced closure, the virtual replacement likely wasn’t the same kind of revenue driver. (And in a tough economic time, many associations opted to make the event available for free or at a deep discount.) For leaders, the disruption can be more existential: How do you lead your members when you can’t meet them in person?

In the latest issue of Associations Now, I wrote about how these shifts have prompted associations to start thinking about hybrid meetings. When I started working on the story in July, I was still hearing about associations that had tentative plans to combine in-person with virtual meetings. But for the most part they eventually went virtual only. Now that there’s more clarity about the impact of the pandemic—and optimism about a vaccine—hybrid events are positioned to be back on the agenda in 2021.

Everybody was jumping on the virtual bandwagon and just kind of throwing it up.

It’s a trend that’s overdue, says Sarah Michel, vice president of professional connexity at Velvet Chainsaw, an association meetings consulting firm, who told me that more hybrids are coming. “We’ve been preaching to our clients, which is 99.9 percent associations, that they needed to have a virtual strategy for their annual meeting in particular,” she says. “And most associations were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll get to that.’ Everybody kept putting it off… But there’s no way that [COVID-19] is not going to impact the meetings we’re working on.”

That shift has sparked conversations about how best to hybridize meetings. There are too many advantages to virtual events to ignore them: There’s the new crop of attendees, especially internationally, that they attract, and the flexibility they offer to members. But going all-virtual removes the intangible but meaningful value of in-person connection and reduces the very tangible value of a tradeshow. (Velvet Chainsaw’s Dave Lutz summarized the latter issue bluntly in a blog post titled “Expos Don’t Work Well in a Virtual Environment.”)

Resolving this is a meetings challenge, but it’s also a challenge for leadership. Hybrid events force association leaders to think carefully about who their members and customers are and how best to serve them. Karen Vogel, managing partner at the Event Advisory Group, told me that the new meetings environment opens up a host of complications: whether to synchronize the in-person and virtual event, how long to keep conference sessions available and at what price point, what kind of staffing you’ll provide to each part of the hybrid event so that neither group feels like they’re second-class citizens.

Plus, you’ll have to nail it in 2021, because attendees won’t be nearly as forgiving as they were with what you rushed to put together during a pandemic. “Everybody was jumping on the virtual bandwagon and just kind of throwing it up,” she says. “And the feedback ranged from ‘It was a decent event but I wasn’t pleased with this, this, and this’ to ‘It was horrible.’”

In addition to improving the virtual experience, you’ll also want to be more strategic about the locations for your in-person meetings, drawing from a base of people who are within driving distance from the venue instead of appealing to people to make long flights. Assume, for now, that there’s a sizable chunk of attendees that isn’t ready for in-person yet.

“Have something for the attendees who still can’t travel, or are not willing to travel,” Vogel says. “Or, let’s face it, don’t have the budget, because that’s going to be a big issue next year. You have to have a way for them to still participate.”

The next year won’t resolve every meetings issue you’re facing, but it’s a good opportunity to think about who’s under your association’s umbrella, the economic and public-health headwinds they’re facing, and what kind of meeting works best for them.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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