The Return to
In-Person Meetings
Face-to-Face Essentials

An Action Plan for Reconvening in Person

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As associations start bringing back in-person events, many are rethinking how they get people to attend. For many organizations, this means focusing on engagement and understanding what members want.

When the Turnaround Management Association decided to head to Nashville for its annual conference in October after going virtual in 2020, it had two communities to think about: the attendees who couldn’t wait to meet in person and those who’d become used to staying home thanks to Zoom calls and virtual events.

TMA saw its main marketing challenge as finding ways to coax attendees out of their home offices. “The nerve-wracking part was knowing that 2021 was going to be a year that was going to start virtually and then pace to in-person events,” said TMA CEO Scott Stuart. “[We discussed] how to make people comfortable coming out of an environment they’d gotten very used to.”

To do that, TMA surveyed its members and partners throughout the spring, and a common trend emerged: Hesitancy to attend in person had less to do with COVID-19 than with a potential attendee’s engagement with the association. Longtime members and sponsors were eager for an in-person event, but newer members were holding back.

So TMA’s marketing for the conference was built around a “let’s get back together” theme, “Reunited and Reignited,” focusing on past attendees. The messaging also stressed the idea that in-person events are where the action is, even while TMA preserves a hybrid element for an emerging member segment it doesn’t want to lose.

“We’re not looking to draw the in-person people into the virtual environment,” Stuart said. “We’re looking to welcome the virtual people into elements of the in-person environment while still having our own place in the virtual environment.”

“The end goal for most associations will be greater engagement, however they do it.” —Gregg H. Talley, FASAE, CAE, Talley Management Group

That kind of close attention to membership segments is essential for associations carefully planning their transition to in-person meetings, said Gregg H. Talley, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Talley Management Group.

“The end goal for most associations will be greater engagement, however they do it,” Talley said. “Something the digital space offered was a chance to do that better. It gave us the data we need to tailor our events and products and services more directly to key audience segments we’re trying to reach.”

Member-Based Decision-Making

Much like TMA, the American Traffic Safety Services Association is framing its February 2022 meeting in Tampa, Florida, as a main event that a virtual conference can’t quite match. For the traffic-safety professionals that the association represents, hands-on access to new products is crucial. “We learned last year that the tradeshow portion [of a conference] does not translate into any type of virtual or hybrid setting that’s meaningful,” said ATSSA President and CEO Stacy Tetschner, FASAE, CAE.

ATSSA’s surveys showed that many attendees were eager to come back—and that, moreover, many were willing to return even without the association instituting a vaccination requirement. To demonstrate to hesitant attendees that the association can run the meeting safely, ATSSA held a smaller meeting in August, where 300 people met while masked and socially distancing, without incident.

Knowing its membership was critical for ATSSA to determine whether it could meet its attendance goals. Many ATSSA members are government transportation officials who may be barred from travel due to COVID-19. But the number of contractors and vendors is sizable enough, Tetschner said, to offset that potential loss.

Because news on variants and case trends is still shifting, ATSSA will monitor the situation through February. But the group knows its goal is how best to have an in-person event. “We asked first: What does our membership need from us as an association?” Tetschner said.

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.

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