Canceled, rescheduled, or postponed—these are words that have become entirely too commonplace in the meetings industry. Association meetings are no exception.
In fact, a survey of association executives in March—practically a lifetime ago, by pandemic standards—found that, even in those early days, 56 percent of associations were forced to cancel or postpone their face-to-face meetings scheduled for 2020.
The survey, by Association Laboratory Inc., also revealed that those cancelations hit associations hard from the very beginning, with approximately 72 percent of respondents saying their total revenue would decline in 2020, and nearly 30 percent reporting that they expected the declines to continue into 2021.
While the meetings landscape has changed dramatically and unexpectedly, planners have grown by leaps and bounds in learning how to host a meeting through a pandemic, whether by going virtual or by creating hybrid experiences. With the pandemic likely to persist into 2021, association meetings will continue to focus on physically distant gatherings in the coming year.
Here are some of the trends and topics that will continue to dominate the association meetings space:
Say hello to more hybrid
Many meeting attendees want to get back to face-to-face, but that is not expected to happen on a large scale anytime soon. According to American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) chief learning officer Amy Ledoux, approximately half of meeting attendees still are not comfortable with the idea yet, and it could take quite some time for people to feel safe in that scenario.
“The majority of people I’m talking to are saying face-to-face meetings won’t happen for at least the next six to 12 months,” said Ledoux. “That means, at the earliest, we’re looking at early summer or potentially the fall. That viewpoint has been pretty consistent across the board.”
The inability to have everyone together again means hybrid meetings are going to become the new normal, at least for the next two to three years, said Bill McGlade, founder and CEO of Victory Productions, an event sales and marketing firm.
“Hybrid is a must because it’s going to take time for us to overcome the fear many individuals will have of traveling,” he said. “Even with breakthroughs like a vaccine, it doesn’t mean fear is going to subside. So we need options from a virtual standpoint. That’s where hybrid will come into play.”
But with half of meeting participants attending virtually, it creates an even greater need to have a cohesive event experience for everyone.
Mapping out the customer journey
To McGlade, creating that cohesive event experience comes from first understanding that it is going to be different. Virtual attendees and in-person attendees will not have the exact same experience. “But we can combine those experiences and have them interact in a way as if they were engaging together,” he added. “When we acknowledge they are going to be different, we can map out the customer journeys and find ways to create an immersive experience.”
Using the right technology will be a key to creating those cohesive event experiences. Besides allowing virtual attendees to hear or view the meeting’s educational content, the right technology can allow them to easily interact with in-person colleagues and exhibitors, whether it be via text or video.
“This kind of technology has been around for a while. People just haven’t utilized it as much as we’ve had to this past year,” Ledoux added. “Technology can be used to make it as simple or as elaborate as you want in creating the experience.”
This can include something as simple as having GoPro cameras for in-person attendees to wear around the trade show floor for virtual people to watch, Ledoux said.
Latisha Dutch, owner and CEO of Total Management Delivered, utilized simple technology for one hybrid meeting last year to keep virtual attendees engaged. Her team brought in a live DJ during the breaks to play music, which was broadcast live for virtual attendees to enjoy as well.
“We incorporated some giveaways into the breaks as well, and the virtual attendees had a chance to win too,” Dutch explained. “We hoped broadcasting the breaks live would keep virtual attendees logged on, and we were really surprised at how well it went over. We had so much chatter going on with our virtual group that we started taking music requests. Then we started pinning videos of people in the crowd enjoying the music for at-home attendees to see as well. It went over better than we ever expected in making the virtual crowd feel a part of the action.”
Think outside the (annual event) box
Another role technology plays in creating cohesive experiences is rethinking the annual event itself. Associations need multiple engagements with members throughout the year, and an annual meeting is just one piece of that engagement.
“Right now, COVID-19 has thrown us into a virtual world, but for five or six years now we’ve been talking about extending the life of events,” McGlade said. “We need to have 365 days a year of engagement with our audience, and that annual event is just one component of the entire engagement strategy.”
Once associations begin thinking this way, the annual event can be driven based off of the desires and wants of the audience. The physical, live event can be the culmination of the total experience. “Understanding throughout the year what your audience likes and wants can drive engagement and help you better deliver engagement through events,” McGlade said. “Once we start understanding engagement through the lens of what drives our audience, we drive true experiences for live events and you’ll see people coming back year after year.”
To understand those likes and wants, technology comes into play in the form of a ‘365 engagement’ platform. While many associations currently use various social media platforms, having their own engagement platform may be even more valuable.
“If an association has its own 365 engagement platform, they can show their audience exactly what they want them to see and that audience will tell the association what they want to see,” McGlade explained. “From there, they can really start delivering the content and value the audience wants. If COVID-19 has made one thing clear, it’s there is too much reliance on revenue from events. If we were providing correct value to members throughout the year, associations wouldn’t have lost so much of their revenue base because members would be getting the value they seek.”
While having a 365 engagement platform helps take pressure off of the annual meeting, it does take time to get the platform and system put into place. Just like building the annual event itself, it can take a couple of stressful years to launch the platform, but over time it will get easier as members become more engaged.
“When members are engaged, they will start giving ideas of how to increase their engagement,” McGlade added. “I heard a term one time that stuck with me: create loyalists. Loyalists can help associations create strategy incentives to engage everyone else.” They become influencers for the organization, post on its behalf, and tell their network why they find value in that organization and its events.
Associations must also reexamine the importance or strategy of an annual meeting by rethinking its size and scope. For example, perhaps an annual meeting is no longer seen as a three- to five-day event, McGlade said.
“Those are great, but we’re going to start seeing a lot of smaller events that are more niche and more localized. We’ve been talking about this for years, and now it’s just a matter of safety,” he said.
While adding smaller meetings to the annual agenda is an option, it does not mean the big, annual event has to disappear. What the addition does, according to McGlade, is target an entire group of potential attendees who may have been missing.
“You’re probably missing out on a lot of locals who want to come to your big annual meeting but don’t have the budgets,” he said. “If you aren’t delivering value to all of those members, they won’t be your members much longer.”
Creating smaller, regional events also helps associations keep some face-to-face meetings on the calendar. This helps on a financial level, as associations can find ways to profit from in-person meetings.
“It’s difficult to create enough sponsorships and exhibit hall opportunities in the virtual environment compared to a face-to-face trade show,” Ledoux said. “Before the pandemic started, many associations said their annual meeting and trade show was anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of their net revenue. It’s very difficult to have those same economics with purely virtual events.”
Whether an association hosts a hybrid event or smaller, regional events, they must ensure members do not become fragmented. Offering a variety of options to attend, thereby giving members a choice on how they want to participate, helps fight that fragmentation, Ledoux believes. But to McGlade, the problem already existed before COVID-19.
“If you look at the percentage, only a small portion of an association’s member base is actually attending the large annual event,” he said. “That shows fragmentation. It means the annual event isn’t really providing the value needed for your full membership base. That’s an issue.”
For McGlade, keeping members moving forward together all goes back to the association’s engagement platform. If the association is finding ways to provide value to its members throughout the year, it is fulfilling the needs of members and driving members to the meetings because they see the full value in attending.
Do not commit ‘assumicide’
It is easy for association leaders to fall into the trap of assuming that they know what their members want and need. But now more than ever, it is critical for them to invest some time and energy in finding out definitively.
“Those needs and wants could have easily changed during this environment we’ve been in,” Ledoux said. “People’s focus has probably changed, and it’s a good time to check back in.”
In addition to checking in with members and getting their feedback, it is also an important time to form a small advisory committee that incorporates every type of organization’s audience segment, from suppliers and attendees to speakers and exhibitors. By getting each point of view, it will be easier for the organization to put together a strategy moving forward in both planning annual meetings and creating engaging content to boost meeting attendance.
“I think now’s the time for us to understand that we can’t have that stress and reliance on a single event,” McGlade said. “We really need to have a true organizational strategy, not just an event strategy. If our organizational strategy is listening to members and engaging them on a daily basis, then we can create our colony and drive further engagement, which can drive annual meeting attendance.”