Planning for an Uncertain Future Requires Open Ears, Communication, and Empathy

How associations can plan for efficient shutdowns and safe reopenings.

In the year ahead, the fate of safely gathering in person remains uncertain. But with the vaccine rollout, there’s now an added dose of cautious optimism. Of course, people want IRL events to start back up ASAP, and it can be demoralizing as they continue to get canceled and pushed back. But Molly Hamill, the manager of exhibit sales at the Global Association for the Attractions Industry (IAAPA), believes it’s all about moving forward together.

“People are more forgiving and I hope that continues into 2021, [with everyone] understanding that we are all going through this,” Hamill said. “I have such high hopes for the rest of the year and I want to maintain that happiness and not dwell on 2020.”

According to research conducted by Personify in December of 2020, nearly 90 percent of association members surveyed said that looking ahead, they will focus more on virtual engagement than they had in past years. But “not every event is equal,” Hamill pointed out, noting that some things that might easily work for one association might not work for another, and vice versa.

“You really have to look at each event individually and not think that everything is going to fit into a box.”

Getting into the technical weeds of managing safe and effective events (whether they’re virtual, in-person, or a hybrid) in the not-yet-post-COVID world is an individualized task. So associations should figure out what their essential checklists look like and adapt their plans accordingly, Hamill said. But she noted that there are some event-planning strategies that remain universal—empathy and understanding should fit into everyone’s box, for example. We’ve shared more of Hamill’s thoughts here:

Share the deets

What is the “sweet spot” when it comes to dropping into your members’ inboxes? Your intuition might not always match up with the type of attention your members are looking for, Hamill points out. Best to consult the stats: According to Personify’s research, while associations were inclined to overestimate how much members wanted digital content from them, about one in three did want to receive something weekly or more.

The study found that the ideal amount of communication was about weekly to monthly—81 percent of members wanted something either weekly, twice per month, or monthly.

And once you’ve struck that perfect harmony when it comes to how much information you drop in leading up to the event, you need to figure out where to drop in, suggests Hamill. Again, let’s turn to the stats: Personify looked into the social channels where associations are reaching members, and found that Facebook is the most effective, with Instagram a close second. Twitter might be overused—half of associations reported using it, with only a third of their members interested in following them on Twitter. The underutilized gem? Private online member communities.

Hamill also pointed out that it’s essential to have dedicated COVID-19 resources available not just for members, but for big companies, legal teams, independently-owned facilities, local government agencies, and constituencies—all the parties that need insights into things like bills being passed and relief options. “In this instance, it is, the more information the better,” she said. This way, everyone has all the info they need to ensure they’re actively and safely opening their facilities and that the public feels safe coming to them.

At the end of the day, it’s all about fostering a comfortable event environment. IAAPA drives home that it is working with all its partners—local agencies, convention centers, decorators, partners—to ensure attendees and suppliers feel safe.

“Again, it’s putting as much information online or accessible to the attendees upfront so that they feel safe enough to make that decision to come.”

Speaking of the association-member relationship…

Best tool? Your members

Hamill said the best tool her association has is its members.

“The most valuable lesson that I learned in 2020 is to stop and listen to the members regarding their needs. They can come up with ideas [to address them] that you probably didn’t think of yet.”

Members are attending annual association events and other virtual events, so they can tell you what’s working and what’s not. “What you think is going to work for your audience might not satisfy their needs, and you can’t satisfy everyone,” Hamill said. But she added that you can have open and honest conversations with members—as well as exhibitors and clients—to cultivate those relationships and plant seeds for people to feel comfortable providing feedback in the future.

And in a close second, the tools that bring those members together

Now that you’ve listened to your members and found that information sweet spot, the third piece of the puzzle is finding and adopting the right services and platforms to execute your well-informed vision.

She and her team worked closely with Personify, especially when they had to cancel, move, postpone, or downsize events. Personify helped their association with many of the moving pieces on when to make those changes and quickly sending them off to exhibitors.

To summarize, when it comes to smooth sailing during a turbulent time of shutdowns and safe reopenings, it’s about three key things—keeping your ears open to members, making sure communication is open and flowing, and maintaining a digital toolbox that can deploy all of your event planning (and scrambling) needs.

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.