Lesson learned: Despite hurdles, associations find ways to keep their members connected

The Lodge at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Ala., experienced an increase in group business during 2021 and anticipates a great year in 2022. The facility offers more than 40,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor event space.
The Lodge at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Ala., experienced an increase in group business during 2021 and anticipates a great year in 2022. The facility offers more than 40,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor event space.

In an average year, more than 250,000 conventions and trade shows are held in the United States. Even in this less-than-average environment, some associations didn’t miss a beat, holding national conventions and statewide events as usual.

The Louisiana Dental Association (LDA) went ahead with its New Orleans Dental Conference & LDA Annual Session last May, and it was fairly “normal,” says Jeanne McFall, director of conference services for LDA and meeting planner for the conference.

“Association members followed the state guidelines—wearing masks, staying six feet apart—and our meeting was a huge success,” McFall says.

Still, there was a lot of uncertainly while planning the conference.

“There was no vaccine when we were planning, so we had to just make decisions based on what we thought would happen,” McFall says. “Thankfully, it all worked out and by the time we had our conference, most dentists and their staffs were vaccinated.”

The LDA was fortunate the meeting was as successful as it was, she says. “That said, we are really looking forward to another great year in 2022 for this event,” McFall says. “We want to continue offering a top-notch program that keeps dental professionals interested in coming back year after year.”

Those events include the planned Winter Continuing Education meeting in late February at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and the LDA Summer Conference in June at the Hilton Pensacola Beach on the Florida Panhandle.

“Our members like in-person events. They will attend virtually if that is the only way, but they mostly prefer in person,” McFall notes. “All our programs will go back to pre-COVID conditions in 2022 unless we are unable to due to state rules and regulations.”

While some of LDA’s continuing education events were held in person, most were held virtually. Remote communication technology, including email, came in handy. “We also sent a lot of information via email for dentists about rules and regulations, which was very important for their practices,” McFall says.

Setting the stage

The Mississippi Enterprise for Technology, a non-profit group that promotes regional economic development, chose a hybrid approach for many of its events, says Program Director Laurie Jugan. That meant doing a lot of advance work to head off potential connectivity issues, particularly when including remote speakers.

“It took quite an effort to pre-record hundreds of talks to avoid technical difficulties during the presentations—truly an exercise in organization,” Jugan says. “But it was very successful and set the stage for annual meetings using the hybrid model.”

Jugan finds the hybrid approach works well for all types of speakers, and there is a significant plus to including virtual. “A big advantage to online presentations is the extended audience potential with access via the internet,” she says. “I do like the hybrid model for events, it extends the reach to essentially the entire globe.”

Beyond boosting attendance and extending reach, there are other advantages. Recorded meetings can become webinars to post on social media, offering members and the public the convenience and flexibility of on-demand viewing. And, Jugan points out, online offerings reduce the time and expense spent traveling to and from meetings.

Attendees pose at the New Orleans Dental Conference & Louisiana Dental Association Annual Session, held in May 2021 at the Hyatt Regency in the Crescent City. The 2022 conference is also set at the Hyatt Regency.
Attendees pose at the New Orleans Dental Conference & Louisiana Dental Association Annual Session, held in May 2021 at the Hyatt Regency in the Crescent City. The 2022 conference is also set at the Hyatt Regency.

Absorbing costs

Because of the technology involved, virtual events don’t come cheap. And that additional cost has some associations shying away from hybrid and fully online gatherings—particularly for smaller events.

Adding a virtual component to the 2022 Oceans in Action/Port Security Summit, co-hosted by the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology, would have meant raising registration fees, Jugan says. So, organizers opted for an in-person-only event.

With larger events, Jugan notes, “costs can be absorbed a little more easily.”

Rising costs can be just one downside to virtual events.

“A virtual platform does not yet support an exhibit hall very well,” Jugan adds. “I have seen several attempts at virtual exhibit halls, but none have generated the traffic the exhibitors are looking for.”

In-person event organizers, however, must take health and safety precautions into account, such as requiring masks and proof of vaccination and providing hand-sanitizer stations.

“We are also separate from any other event in the venue and have our own set of restrooms,” Jugan says of their upcoming summit. “All food items will be individually served and/or pre-packaged.”

With these precautions, organizers of the four-day live event plan to include plenty of face time, including one-on-one meetings, talks, and panels.

Bright spots

Association events provided some bright spots for convention facilities last year.

“We had a large upswing in group business in 2021 as compared to 2020 almost to the level of 2019,” says Dan Keyser, director of sales and marketing at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, in Gulf Shores, Ala.

The facility welcomed the Alabama Association of School Boards, the Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association, and the Alabama Council of the American Institute of Architects. Those association events could herald good things for 2022, and Keyser says he anticipates “a very good year for our group business.”

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