The Return to
In-Person Meetings
Business Smarts

Should You Hold an In-Person Conference? Tips for Making the Decision

In this article:
The stop-and-start nature of the past 20 months has complicated many things, including the critical decision whether to hold an event in person or virtually. Associations are weighing several variables and making sure their events will meet members’ needs.

“Should I stay or should I go?” Good question. It’s a famous conundrum of song—and our current reality as many associations continue to grapple with deciding whether to go ahead with an in-person event. Predictably, in a world full of unpredictability, there is no easy answer.

The Water Environment Federation decided to go ahead with the in-person component of its October 2021 annual meeting in Chicago because they realized through informal conversations with members that many of them wanted to meet face to face. “They want that chance to connect, but they’re also looking to us to ensure as much as we can that they can meet safely,” said Stephanie D. Jones, CAE, WEF’s senior director of conferences and education.

Safety First

WEF made the decision by weighing evidence-based and anecdotal information. The group looked at other associations that had successfully hosted events. They analyzed the risks and determined whether they were willing to accept them.

“Each organization has to do that for themselves,” said Jones. But using the World Health Organization’s mass gathering COVID-19 risk-assessment tool and seeing if venues are GBAC STAR certified are good places to start. “Basically, we made the decision based on believing we can meet safely in person,” she said.

Jones recommends looking at the level of risk in the city or county where your venue is located and determining where your attendees are coming from. For example, are they coming from communities where COVID-19 spread is higher? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker is updated daily with information on local rates of transmission, hospitalization, vaccination, and more.

“Don’t host an event just to host an event.”—Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, Event Garde

Also look at the demographics of participants, because the CDC states that risks are higher for people 60 and older.

There are two sides to safety, said Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, president and CEO of Event Garde. One side is based on scientific information that guides what to do to protect people. The other is the perception, or theater, of safety, where visual cues—like signs and stickers on the floor for distancing—are in place to show safety is top of mind.

“Our attendees are smart, and they’re looking for both,” Wolowiec said.

Weigh the Options

Typically, the go-or-no-go decision rests with someone on an organization’s meetings or learning team. But in the current environment, associations should put together a decision-making group or task force, which might include the CEO, board chair, members of the executive committee, and head of the meetings team. Wolowiec said it is important to identify internally who will gather the relevant information and then present it with a recommendation to the executive committee or the board, who will ultimately sign off on it.

Another factor to consider is what kind of experience you will be able to provide attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors and whether it will align with their expectations and what they’ve become accustomed to at your prior in-person gatherings.

“If the experience isn’t going to meet the needs of your members, that’s a big consideration,” Wolowiec said. “Don’t host an event just to host an event.”

Events are not likely to return to all in-person gatherings because some of the components that have shifted to a virtual space are here to stay. “Ultimately, the future of meetings is not any one sort of approach,” Wolowiec said. “The future is a more balanced portfolio of some in-person, some virtual, and some hybrid.”

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

More from Business Smarts

With partners sometimes feeling underwhelmed by sponsorship opportunities at events reshaped by the pandemic, now’s the time for associations to rethink their strategy. Success will require talking to industry partners about their needs, getting smarter about virtual, and experimenting with new offerings.
After associations experienced costly event-cancellation penalties due to the pandemic, many are looking at their meeting contracts differently and incorporating new provisions when possible.