Associations Turn to 2021 Event Decisions, Leaning Heavily on Digital

Associations are beginning to announce event plans for next year, holding steady with virtual meetings at least for now, with hybrid conferences likely to follow. Confidence is high, but realistic. Here are some perspectives—and tips—for the transition to 2021.

As the end of a pandemic year approaches, with vaccines apparently on the way and hopes rising for better days ahead, associations are still balancing uncertainty with optimism as they plan for their 2021 meetings.

There’s no evidence yet that planners are shifting away from virtual meetings. SAE International, a global association of engineers and related tech experts, recently announced it will transform the majority of its 2021 engineering events to a primarily digital platform, supplemented by a few hybrid and in-person engagements.

In a press release, SAE International said that the move aims to better meet the changing needs and demands of the global engineering industry and that the meetings’ digital platforms will expand access to skills and knowledge and provide greater interactivity.

“Our strategic vision is to give all SAE event participants access to diverse groups of global speakers and leading-edge technical content across multiple disciplines to help them solve challenges and nurture the creation of tomorrow’s innovations,” said CEO Raman Venkatesh.

Hybrid events are likely to proliferate throughout 2021, though they may arrive slowly because of continued uncertainty caused by the pandemic, at least through the first part of the year. Despite ambiguity about when it will be safe to return to in-person conferences, Thom Singer, a consultant and keynote speaker who has worked with several clients on their virtual meetings this year, advised, “Don’t cancel your event. People are hungry for new experiences.”

SAE touted the benefits of its digital move as a way for participants to have more personalized experiences.

“Technology enables us to connect with audiences across the globe, many of whom may not otherwise be able to attend certain in-person events, and our approach focuses on delivering the right content to the right audience in the right formats,” Venkatesh said.

Singer cautioned against making a literal transformation of the in-person event into a virtual one, with presenters going over PowerPoint presentations for several hours. He recommends shortening keynote addresses to 20 to 30 minutes instead of an hour or more.

As they’ve experimented with the shift to virtual this year, associations are finding that different formats are key for breaking up content into more digestible sections, such as panel discussions and short-format online talk shows hosted by staff members with speakers as guests, Singer said. And if it’s a three-day event, avoid eight-hour days. “Nobody wants to sit at their computer for three days by themselves,” he added.

Despite worries about an unpredictable future, SAE International is confident the months of event planning for 2021 will benefit attendees.

“Regardless of the delivery platform, our 2021 portfolio of events will deliver unparalleled value and customized technical content to help mobility professionals solve the unique challenges they face,” said Frank Bokulich, manager of engineering events at SAE International.


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Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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