Should Associations Be Hosting In-Person Conferences in 2021?

A recent survey of 8,525 meeting attendees sheds some light on the path forward for associations. 

An empty conference hall

Twenty-six associations representing 11 industries recently collaborated to conduct one survey of their respective prospective 2021 conference participants, to better understand what conference options might make the most sense for them. 8,525 individuals participated—88 percent of whom are U.S.-based.

As with any survey results, these findings represent sentiments at a moment in time. The survey was conducted in January—and since then, there has been increasing vaccine-versus-variant hope in the U.S. and some other countries. But the financial circumstances and budgetary die may already be cast for many organizations’ 2021 travel and in-person conference expense reimbursement. 

The Conference Roadmap to Recovery recaps the survey results. Here are some key takeaways.

Virtual Gains More Adaptors
Most conference stakeholders, including those who had previously resisted online content delivery and consumption, were presented with little choice in 2020 but to take the leap into virtual conference platforms. 

Successes included record registration numbers, worldwide participation and some innovative content delivery. Challenges included inconsistent participant engagement and unacceptable ROI for exhibitors and sponsors.

Comparable Levels of Format Preference
Some respondents are eager to participate and engage in person in 2021, while some are more comfortable with virtual formats and others could fall in either direction.

For associations hoping to strengthen the breadth and depth of relationships within their community (including sponsors), offering multiple conference formats to address varying desires may translate into new opportunities—specifically with customer loyalty and revenue generation from attendees and sponsors.

Recovery of Employers’ Conference Budgets
Most prospective conference participants rely upon employers’ financial support. Many such employers have already set financial restrictions in place, which will reduce or eliminate employees’ conference expense reimbursements, according to the survey findings.

Presenting virtual and in-person conference formats could open doors to both those who want to engage with an association’s offerings but will not pay in-person registration fees, as well as those who do have the financial resources to pay registration fees tied to an in-person event.

Vaccinations Matter Most
Being vaccinated themselves, and knowing other participants are vaccinated, were the most important considerations noted for those who would consider in-person participation. Juxtaposed with this reality is the fact that there will be a percentage of people who would want to attend in-person events while not being vaccinated.

Associations will need to manage differing vaccination plans and communicate accordingly to address the variances within their respective communities. It may be the case that, at least for 2021, some community members may not choose to—or be able to—participate in person due to their individual circumstances, personal safety concerns and/or association policies.

Safety Protocols Also Matter
Heightened sanitation procedures, distancing and mask-wearing requirements were among the most important safety protocol aspects noted as in-person participation decision-making factors. 

Additional protocols conference organizers and venues can implement, which would encourage in-person participation, included vaccination validations, temperature checks and COVID testing.

Hub-and-Spoke Is an Emerging Format
A new hybrid approach includes a “hub” of conference content, possibly with some in-person gathering at this location, being connected with multiple geographically diverse “spokes." The spokes would be additional (yet smaller) in-person groups conducting their own respective sub-event. This format was of interest to survey participants, who noted that hotels would be the most preferred location for such gatherings, with interest in office and restaurant settings, as well.

The opportunities of offering in-person engagement while addressing remaining obstacles (like safety concerns and budgetary constraints) should be considered alongside the challenges of such an undertaking. There will be multiple moving pieces in each location—as well as with the connecting of multiple gatherings.

Hard costs will need to be addressed, such as those within the respective venues (e.g., catering and AV) and technologically connecting the respective venues. New sponsorship opportunities could counter additional costs, in addition to giving sponsors new ways to connect with participants.

Association staff may need to delegate responsibilities due to incorporating activities within and between multiple venues. While maintaining the roles of oversight and coordination support, staff might consider delegating tasks to chapters, regional volunteer leaders and/or third-party service providers. These responsibilities might include securing of multiple venues, planning, marketing, sponsor management and event implementation.  

The Path Forward
Options and opportunities exist to color outside the lines, which may have constrained our past thinking. This may be the perfect time, born from necessity, for associations and their members to experiment with various meeting formats, participation models, sponsorship opportunities and price points.

Moving forward can work with the engagement of and learning from those already within an association’s own reach (including past sponsors and new volunteer leaders), colleagues in other associations who are making similar calculations and decisions, and service provider experts who can cross-pollinate best practices being incorporated within other organizations. 

See the complete survey findings in The Conference Roadmap to Recovery

The report’s authors are Paul Miller, who supports conference organizers; Bruce Rosenthal, who creates successful corporate partnership programs; and Chris Gloede, who helps associations leverage modern marketing technologies and strategies. 

Photo: Pavel L Photo and Video