How to Lead Your Association’s Return to In-Person Events

In-person meetings are returning. But even if you're rushing back, take the time to determine who is (and isn't) eager to meet, and how that might change in the future.

Meetings are back. Ish.

In the latest Associations Now Deep Dive, my colleagues and I spent a lot of time parsing issues around meetings, which are newly resurgent but still dealing with the complications of COVID-19. For leaders, there’s a complicated calculus at play, as they determine how to balance the safety of attendees with members’ eagerness to meet in person after months of Zoom calls and virtual events. 

Successful associations have managed this by thoughtfully surveying their members to get a sense of their comfort levels. Some, like the American Traffic Safety Services Association, have used those findings to go all-in on an in-person event; others, like the Turnaround Management Association, have stayed hybrid while actively courting the longtime members who were most eager to return in person.

Either way, attendance will likely be diminished for a while longer, thanks to anxiety about COVID and restricted travel budgets. But that hasn’t necessarily spelled unsuccessful meetings so far. As Gregg H. Talley, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Talley Management Group, told me: “Yes, the events are smaller, but what we’re hearing from our sponsors and exhibitors almost across the board is that the quality is there, so we’re ready and willing to do the trade-off on numbers so long as the quality is there.”

No question, many in the meetings world are eager to get back to normal: A survey released earlier this month by American Express Meetings & Events found that two-thirds of respondents expected in-person attendance to reach pre-pandemic levels within the next two years. Moreover, 81 percent of meetings next year will have an in-person component of some sort. 

Of course, there are excellent financial reasons to hustle back to a real-deal exposition hall and conference rooms. But this transitional period between now and (knock wood) the end of the pandemic is also an opportunity to slow down and return to some first principles: What audiences are you trying to attract? What are you trying to provide for them that can be best offered in person? What makes them high-quality experiences?

Associations are willing to do a trade-off on numbers so long as the quality is there.

Gregg H. Talley, FASAE, CAE

The answers to those questions, Talley suggests, will need to be based on an understanding of not just where the pandemic will be, but how your members are likely to engage with you. “Boards are saying, ‘We’re not willing to sign contracts unless there are really generous outs, because we simply don’t know yet how our audience is going to respond and what our industry is going to look like in another two years.’”

This is also a good time to think about your international engagement, Talley says. Despite the fact that earlier this month the United States ended its international travel ban and now welcomes vaccinated visitors, travel hesitancy can be strong. Given that reality, virtual meetings may still be valuable—again, if the quality is there.

“If my objective is to reach the rest of the world, increase their opportunity to participate and learn, and I’m counting on building a longer-term relationship with them as stakeholders, that may be an investment I’m willing to make,” Talley says. 

Regardless, he adds, there’s no need to rush to return to old modes of thinking—take the time to research and understand your audiences before you reconvene them. “Those who can switch faster and develop new products and services based on that kind of data and drill it right down to that level are ultimately going to be the more successful association,” he says. “Those that think we can operate the way we were before are going to fall behind.”

What’s been your association’s approach to reassessing meeting attendees as you return to in-person events? Share your experiences in the comments.

(kasto80/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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