Associations still need to be cautious and limit their goals when it comes to in-person meetings. But that leaves room for creativity too.

The face of meetings is changing, which means leaders have to think more about what they’re having meetings for.

In the spring issue of Associations Now, I wrote about the outlook for in-person meetings in 2021. To sum it up in one word: Better. But it’s also more complicated than that. Associations can’t completely reject virtual meetings, because they often opened the door to new audiences in 2020. And economic constraints mean that meetings may be shorter this year, or co-located with a related association, or simply smaller. As we reported in March, one poll of scientists found that a large majority (74 percent) wanted virtual meetings, while 69 percent lamented the lack of in-person networking.

So while virtual meetings are unlikely to disappear soon, some kind of in-person meeting is increasingly seen as essential. As Graham Kirk, director of sales and marketing at the Audio Engineering Society (AES), said of their decision to meet in person this October: “So much business is done in person, and so much information is passed along that way, so we made the decision that it was vital that we be present again in some form.”

So much business is done in person, and so much information is passed along that way, so we made the decision that it was vital that we be present again in some form.

That means that leaders will need to be creative about their in-person meetings formats, building on input from members and customers to determine the best fit. AES is co-locating. One organization I spoke with, the Coin Laundry Association, revamped its regional meetings for a socially distanced environment; the New York Society of Association Executives decided to host a smaller version of its tradeshow in September after a majority of past attendees asked for it.

But the new environment doesn’t just mean you need to tweak the meetings you already have. It’s also an opportunity to create new meetings you hadn’t previously considered. As the story was going to press, the Association for Advancing Physician and Provider Recruitment (AAPPR) was making plans for a new hosted-buyer event in Dallas in April. Its member surveys showed that the idea was appealing and that members would likely be comfortable flying to a conference then, if costs could be kept low.

That event wrapped up last month. How’d it go? “All positive feedback,” says AAPPR CEO Carey Goryl, CAE. “So successful between acceptance of the concept and overall logistics and execution of the event.” The meeting brought in 112 people, about evenly split between members and vendors. Some attendees were vaccinated and some weren’t, and they had different attitudes about masking, but over the course of two days the group established a sensible behavioral protocol, Goryl says.

“It is hard to have strict adherence to CDC guidelines between people who are long-time friends,” she says. “It’s also challenging because events are so much about the eating and drinking—it’s happening nonstop so people are always pulling their masks down. It was interesting to watch the group take nonverbal cues from each other about whether to leave masks off or put them on quicker.”

The Dallas event became a way to feed content for AAPPR’s follow-up virtual annual conference last week. Keynotes at the in-person event were presented online, and Goryl says they improved the overall vibe of the virtual event. “The production value looks so much better with a speaker on stage, who you can tell is getting energy from the audience and they’re talking in real time,” she says. “Many of our virtual conference attendees were unsure if it was live or recorded.  Our virtual conference looks so much better because of it.”

Challenges remain—the association discounted attendance fees for members and vendors for the annual meeting. But Goryl says the mix of smaller regional in-person events and virtual conferences makes sense for now.

“My bigger challenge is continued member travel and professional development budget reductions,” she says. “But I think we can manage.”

MARK ATHITAKIS

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE »