The Outlook for In-Person Meetings

This year won’t bring the complete recovery for face-to-face meetings that many have hoped for. But things are looking up. Associations have learned to be creative, innovative, and safe while bringing attendees together.

The New York Society of Association Executives is one of the lucky ones. It was able to host a major in-person event in 2020, and it plans to do the same this year. But much has changed between then and now.

Meet NY, a hosted-buyer event that has accounted for 40 percent of NYSAE’s annual revenue, drew a packed house in February 2020, with 500 attendees spending the day at a Manhattan hotel, followed by a group trip to a Broadway performance that night. Broadway has been shut down for the past year, but NYSAE plans to soldier on with a September event that will include social distancing, temperature checks, and a Broadway-style performance brought to the hotel.

Probably 70 percent of our associations have started to more actively monitor members about meeting in person, and we’ve been planning accordingly.

“We’re not going to be able to put 500 people in a ballroom like we did anymore,” says NYSAE CEO and Executive Director Holly J. Koenig. “We are looking at a reduction in attendees and a reduction in sponsors and exhibitors. But whatever that reduction is, we’re going to live with it.”

Like a lot of associations, NYSAE has been eager to return to in-person meetings in 2021. Attendees miss networking; exhibitors miss the leads; associations miss the revenue. While many associations anticipate that COVID-19 vaccinations and safety protocols will allow for a return to in-person conferences in the summer and fall, structurally they’ll be different than in 2019. They might be more local, co-located, shorter, or simply smaller. And regardless of format, associations have been paying more attention to what attendees say will make them feel safe when they get there.

A (Virtual) Listening Tour

The enthusiasm for getting back to meeting in person is strong, says Carol McGury, executive vice president, event and education services, at the association management company SmithBucklin. “Probably 70 percent of our associations have started to more actively monitor members about meeting in person, and we’ve been planning accordingly,” she says.

Before bringing back Meet NY in June, NYSAE surveyed its 2020 attendees to gauge their comfort level with meeting in person. It decided to move forward only after hearing that more than two-thirds of the respondents wanted a live program. Similarly, the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening has been surveying potential attendees every month in advance of a planned in-person event in Vienna, Austria, in June, asking whether they’ll attend if vaccinations and air travel safety hit certain benchmarks.

“We fully expect that the event will have lower attendance than in previous years and that attendance from outside Europe will drop significantly,” says SLAS CEO Vicki Loise, CMP, CAE. “But it’s still very important for us to try and hold this event in person, if it makes sense.”

The interest in returning clashes somewhat with the anxiety that many people still feel about in-person meetings—and traveling to them.

To address that, the Coin Laundry Association is planning a smaller return to normal. CLA Connect Live, a series of small member gatherings around the country, shifted to virtual in 2020 and is now planning a face-to-face comeback starting in July. Danielle Bauer, CAE, director of membership and education at CLA, says it’s targeting regions where it has held successful in-person events in the past. Doing it right, though, has required reconsidering venues—and especially the RSVP process, to forestall same-day surprise arrivals.

“Pre-COVID it might have been OK, but now nobody wants to squeeze people in at a table,” she says. “We might have to rethink our venues a bit. Some restaurants are probably not going to work.”

Together Again, But Differently

In 2017, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) agreed to co-locate an annual conference held in New York. They went their separate (virtual) ways in 2020, but this year they plan to reconvene in October in Las Vegas.

At the start of the relationship, says Chris Brown, NAB executive vice president of conventions and business operations, it “enabled us to exponentially increase attendance and expand the show floor—a win-win for our attendees and exhibitors.” Now, with an ongoing recession and plenty of concerns about meeting in person, a co-located event serves more as a show of strength in a challenging time.

“So much business is done in person, and so much information is passed along that way, so we made the decision that it was vital that we be present again in some form,” says Graham Kirk, director of sales and marketing at AES. However, the organization is making some concessions to the new normal, cutting the length of the AES portion of the conference from four days to three and anticipating a smaller group—approximately 75 percent of 2019’s attendance.

“There’s certainly more activity around co-location,” says Jeff Calore, portfolio director, event services, at SmithBucklin, “particularly groups that bring synergies and are additive to one another in terms of content, audience reach, and buyer segments that one single event was delivering before.”

Regardless of format, there’s a stronger emphasis on safety for the meetings that happen. Donna J. Kelley, U.S. account sales leader for Marriott International (and an NYSAE board member), says the company anticipates a tentative return to in-person meetings in the late summer and fall. But Marriott has developed protocols for cleaning and social distancing and has developed flexibility around an environment that’s still shifting.

“We’ll seek guidance from meeting planners to meet their needs,” she says. “If an organization usually has 1,000 attendees and now projects to host 500 people, we’ll work with them to socially distance the meeting room sets, make suggestions to serve food and beverage, and highlight safety protocols for all guests.”

An Opportunity to Innovate

Smaller, though, doesn’t necessarily mean lesser. Last year, the Association for Advancing Physician and Provider Recruitment shifted its annual meeting in Dallas to a virtual event. But it decided to experiment with a smaller event at the same venue this spring. The hosted-buyer event will be limited to 100 member attendees, coming for free, and no more than 20 paying exhibitors.

AAPPR CEO Carey Goryl, CAE, said surveys of members showed that about half of potential attendees would be comfortable flying to an event in April. “The issue is that people were unsure about their [travel] budget,” she says. “So we thought, if we can take budget costs out of the equation and just limit it to whether they felt it was safe to travel, we could try that.”

The initial outreach was positive—most of the slots filled quickly. “I just kept getting green light after green light,” she says.

Goryl anticipates that in 2022, the hosted-buyer event won’t be a substitute for a larger in-person meeting that couldn’t come off. It will be a new meeting—and new revenue driver.

“This has definitely turned into a pilot,” she says. “If it’s as successful as it appears to be, I’ll certainly want to do it again. If it weren’t for COVID, I don’t know that we would have had the same opportunity to try out a completely new event.”


(PhonlamaiPhoto and m-imagephotography/Getty Images)

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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