When the Contingency Plan Becomes the Main Event

How associations can adapt to the times with research and the right technology.

Chris Lyons’s association faced a daunting task: Planning two annual meetings at once.

Maybe this sounds familiar: Lyons, who is the associate executive director at the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), was contractually obligated to a host city for an on-site meeting. But as the pandemic descended across the US, he realized he needed to simultaneously plan for a virtual event.

Like many associations dealing with a volatile 2020, “the uncertainty of planning two potential meeting formats divided our focus,” he said.

Eventually, the AALAS’s commitment to its on-site meeting was lifted, and Lyons and his team were able to focus all their efforts on planning a virtual event—with just a few months to spare.

The whiplash of 2020 is a common story for organizations navigating major event commitments. Executives and their staff grappled with how to rapidly transform their annual meetings—touchstones for communities of professionals who rely on them for education, networking and support—by successfully leveraging digital platforms and trying to replicate the benefits of an in-person experience.

It was a reactive, stressful year, by most accounts. But going forward, Lyons and other executives are learning from the chaos of 2020, and they’re planning to use their experience to fuel growth and efficiencies in 2021. Here are some of the lessons they’ve learned that can help guide your own decision-making moving forward:

What Doesn’t Thrill You Makes You Stronger

While 2020 may have been trial by fire for many organizations, one silver lining is that many of those same organizations discovered inner strengths – like resilience and the ability to pivot their planning in a more agile way than they had perhaps thought, especially through digital technology. This turned last year’s challenges into a springboard to inform event planning for 2021 and beyond. In this spirit, Lyons said the AALAS will continue to identify different ways to keep attendees engaged during virtual meetings—the venue of choice for at least a while longer.

For example, Lyons tapped into Personify’s technology suite to reduce reporting bottlenecks by making data more accessible to his entire team instead of relying on traditional methods of pulling data. This improved processes and allowed for more efficient and effective decision-making.

May I Have Your Attention, Please? It Depends

Audience engagement starts with tuning in, but without true interactivity, it’s far too easy to tune out in favor of another browser tab, incoming IMs, or other real-life distractions now that so many are working from home.

While many companies may be inclined to simply take their standard event format and convert it to an online version, that may not always work, according to a recent article in Fast Company. It’s important for organizers to consider what new opportunities they can provide attendees.

In exploring ways to keep participants’ attention, Lyons mentioned live polling, video chat breakout rooms, push notifications, live question-and-answer sessions, quizzes, virtual activity-a-thons, and virtual photo booths as examples of some of the strategies companies are considering for future events.

The key is to find ways to engage attendees in the online environment instead of just moving from one speaker to the next. Scheduling breaks and finding creative ways to use the digital medium to gamify attendees’ experiences can be a successful strategy, the article said.

Make Sure Your Tools Adapt With the Times

Personify conducted a study in January 2021 on the future of associations, nonprofits and events. According to its research, nearly half of association professionals said they saw a boost in tech spending in 2020. Community software, virtual event software and member self-service tools were all top-purchased items.

In order to embed their educational videos into their online engagement platform, Lyons’ association, chose Vimeo—not only for its array of features, but also for its strong privacy policies. “Though there was a nominal fee, this hosting platform provided more security controls and options than YouTube did,” he said.

AALAS also uses Microsoft 365 and Zoom, and is in the process of working with their database vendor to integrate their online exhibitor registration—A2Z Events—with Personify360—their association management system. “This integration will improve efficiency by keeping data and exhibitor transactions under one roof,” Lyons said.

Embracing new technology often comes from identifying what’s not working and making changes accordingly. One challenge Lyons’ association faced before adopting Personify360 many years ago was that their original database didn’t have capabilities for ecommerce integration. That’s what catalyzed their search for a new system in the first place. But as part of the upgrade to a more comprehensive management system, Personify360 has also given their association the ability to centralize their data, such as online exhibitor registrations, with other databases for memberships and subscriptions.

First and foremost, however, it’s important for associations to identify what their needs are when it comes to their virtual presence and strategies and then match those needs to the right tools. In Lyons’ case, it was discovering that it was possible to streamline a multitude of services under one roof. In this digital-first age, you want your plans to be in perfect harmony with your digital tools. And ultimately, those digital tools should help reinforce the reason people attend conferences in the first place: for the meaningful connections, networking opportunities, and professional development they look forward to all year. In other words, help them remember why they’re a member in the first place.

This series by Personify is intended to serve as a guidepost for associations that are reacting to fundamental market shifts and proactively building a better future for their organizations.