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

4 Lessons Learned From the Return of In-Person Conferences

In this article:
A pair of meeting pros—whose associations were among the first to stand up events this year in Chicago—share tips and tactics on what works now.

Meeting planning might be the new “sharing economy.” That term likely brings to mind crowdfunding and ride-sharing. But without a doubt it lends itself well to how associations, venues, suppliers and event destination marketing operations have been partnering to host in-person conferences once again.

“Other organizations are completely willing to share. ‘Hey, here’s what worked. Here’s what didn’t. Here’s what we ran into,’” says Elaine Richardson, senior director of conference operations and special projects at the National Black MBA Association.

Lesson 1: Collaborate and Then Collaborate Some More

NBMBAA relaunched its Annual Conference & Career Expo in early September at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Intense collaboration internally and with other associations helped make the conference possible, Richardson says. “Everyone has to be really generous with their information.”

That willingness to share and be extra flexible in most every way extends to DMOs, venues and suppliers too as the conference world navigates the COVID-19 recovery landscape.

Both Choose Chicago and McCormick Place “were committed to helping us execute a successful event,” says Elizabeth Ambacher, vice president of meetings and expositions for the National Apartment Association. “We partnered closely with Choose Chicago.”

Like NBMBAA’s conference, NAA’s Apartamentalize 2021 was among the first events held at McCormick Place since the pandemic shuttered the expansive venue.

Ambacher and Richardson say they met often with Choose Chicago staff and McCormick Place leaders—far more than was typical when planning events before the pandemic. The frequent communication helped the meeting planners keep attendees, suppliers and association staffs informed. Both noted that the regular exchanges became especially critical as the Delta variant surged in late spring.

Ambacher recalled that Choose Chicago even gave her a heads-up when the city’s mayor was about to hold a press conference about mask mandates.

Lesson 2: Communicate, Communicate and Communicate Some More

Although Chicago has been proactive in its health and safety measures throughout the pandemic, changes and unknowns continued to force adjustments right up to the NBMBAA and NAA events. That translated to sharing updates with attendees—often and swiftly.

“Overall, we needed to make people feel safe, that it would be safe to come,” Richardson says. To that end, whatever safety updates came out, members and attendees heard it first from NBMBAA.

But, even when providing important safety protocol information, “it’s important to be positive,” Ambacher adds. “We would always pair it with something positive about the conference, something attendees could look forward to.”

“The idea of structured networking as a concept is an important one. We shouldn’t just assume that everyone is ready to get out there and start chatting with everyone else.” — Elaine Richardson, senior director of conference operations and special projects, National Black MBA Association

Lesson 3: Ease the Return to Networking and Being Together

Reimagining dining and networking demands extra attention when social distancing and capacity limits come into play.

“It’s like we’re all minorly agoraphobic now,” Richardson says, only half in jest. For its lunch hall, which previously packed people in for a meal and keynote, NBMBAA spaced out tables in a room twice as large and placed fun topic signs on all of the tables along with cue cards bearing conversation prompts.

“The idea of structured networking as a concept is an important one,” she says. “We shouldn’t just assume that everyone is ready to get out there and start chatting with everyone else.”

It’s one reason NAA reduced its education sessions. “As attendees get back to in-person events, they don’t need to be overwhelmed,” Ambacher says. The association also created a large open streaming lounge if people were concerned about being in small session rooms. NAA produced on-demand content that people could watch from outside or in their hotel rooms too.

It also set up an open-air beer garden on one of the McCormick Place rooftop decks. “We had never done anything like that,” Ambacher says. “People loved it. They were outside. They could have a snack, meet with people they hadn’t seen in a while or catch up with a supplier. It really was a hit.”

Lesson Learned 4: Build on Your Pandemic Skill Set to Retool Future Events

Looking to 2022 and beyond, neither Ambacher nor Richardson expect their conferences or their planning processes to return to the way they were before COVID-19.

In fact, an unexpected lesson for Ambacher was that planning for 2021 Apartamentalize made her team focus on what would truly benefit members. “We always say we reflect on what’s important when planning the conference—and we do,” she says. “But this year was different. Planning during the pandemic really did make us focus on what matters and how we can bring value to our members.”

Richardson agrees: “You have to take the lessons learned during the pandemic and activate them. It’s easier to think about new ideas when you’re not trying to get back to a place that you really can’t get back to.”

With its two international airports, expansive private-sector workforce, and the largest, most flexible convention center in the United States, Chicago is the leading meeting and convention destination in the country. We work tirelessly to make Chicago the premier city to host everything from small meetings to international conventions with thousands of guests. Learn more.

More from Face-to-Face Essentials

During a prolonged period of change, something had to give. Life and work have been reshaped and transformed, and that means people want different things. In planning future meetings, it’s time for associations to put the participant first and let the event follow.
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.