A Look at Safety, Budget and Costs for Meetings in the Current Environment

At a recent webinar on getting back to in-person meetings, experts offered tips on communicating safety protocols, budgeting for hybrid, and pricing your meeting as associations try to adjust to the changing landscape of the pandemic.

As the pandemic continues to shift and new variants arise, meeting planners are figuring out which strategies will work best for meetings, especially those with in-person components as rules constantly change. Panelists at the recent AMC Institute webinar, “Navigating the Journey Back to In-Person Meetings and Events,” offered thoughts on dealing with safety protocols, budgets, and pricing.

Sarah Timm, CAE, president and CEO of Parthenon Management Group, noted that in addition to following federal and local safety protocols, communicating those protocols to attendees is crucial.

“We are having all of our groups sign a COVID code of conduct at the time that they register, which basically says they will attest to live by the standards that we put out there,” Timm said. “Usually six weeks prior to the event, we lay out the protocols for the event. We are telling them exactly what to expect when they arrive onsite, what they should expect with food and beverage with their arrival, as well as what we are expecting from them: If we are expecting masks, if social distancing, what those things are looking like, so they can be prepared.”

While assuring attendees of safety protocols is helpful, it’s also important that meeting staff feel comfortable, said Phelps Hope, vice president of meetings at Kellen.

“We turned to staff, and said, ‘This is what we’re doing. You are not obligated to be there if you are not comfortable with it,’” Hope said. “We’ve had a half a dozen meetings since April, and we’ve had cases where staff just were not comfortable traveling yet. Yet, we had other staff who were very comfortable. We simply switched folks out, but we also, in one case, brought in some local support that we normally wouldn’t hire.”

Matching Budget to Goals

Beyond safety protocols, panelists said budgeting for events in this environment has been tough. Many planners are trying to figure out the costs for hybrid for the first time and whether that will fit within their allotted budgets.

John Rissi, senior vice president for customer and industry relations at event production company Encore, suggested talking to the experts early on about what your budget can accomplish.

“We tell clients, for that kind of budget, here’s what we can provide and here’s what you can expect,” Rissi said. He said asking for three meeting scenarios around your budget—good, better, best—can provide a feel for what can be achieved.

Timm agreed. “We are working on a meeting in Florence, Italy, coming up in early 2022,” she said. “What they thought would fit in their budget—they were able to do so much more. It is all about working with the venue to get prices and things sorted out very early. Not every session has to be livestreamed. Figure out what sessions do [and] what don’t for the virtual attendees.”

Michael Dominguez, president and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International, added that costs can come down if planners focus on the goals of the meeting rather than the bells and whistles that can be purchased.

“I’ve seen too many people that are buying a Ferrari when they only needed a Honda,” he said. “I’ve heard this: ‘Virtual is expensive, and how much is it going to cost me?’ That’s like asking me, how much is dinner going to cost? Where are we going, and what are we going to order? Because that really does have a difference in the pricing. Again, we’re not asking the right questions. What are you trying to accomplish?”

Rissi noted that prices for some services may even come down, as staffing levels begin to recalibrate after huge reductions early in the pandemic.

“Before, we were turning down work; we just didn’t have enough people to execute it,” Rissi said. “The thought was, we have to charge a premium because we just don’t have the resources. I think you’re probably going to see some of the prices coming down because we have people now available, and we are not stretched so thin.”

The discussion also touched briefly on how to price events. Organizations held many free meetings in 2020, but the panelists noted free doesn’t work fiscally. When contemplating the right price, focus on value.

“Pricing is based on the establishment of value,” Hope said. “What are we offering, and what value does it offer to that audience? That is the process we go through rather than just saying, ‘Oh yeah, add up your costs, tack on 20 percent, and you’re good to go.’”

(Sushiman/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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