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2020 was not exactly a premier year for association conferences: Starting in March, thousands of conferences were canceled or switched to virtual. Some conferences scheduled for the Spring were rescheduled for later in the year, then canceled or switched to virtual.

Some virtual conferences had record attendance – attracting people worldwide who had never attended the association’s conference – yet were challenged to maintain those participants’ engagement throughout those conferences.

Many exhibitors and sponsors experienced platforms and benefits that had been plucked from in-person conferences and inserted into virtual environments. The results provided marginal value at best for many companies.

The hope for many organizations was to get though 2020 and “get back to normal” in 2021. Alas, that isn’t happening.

With the goal of providing perspective and guidance to association executives, we approached organizations about conducting a group survey of their members. Twenty-six associations representing numerous business and professional sectors distributed the survey to their members in January. We received 8,525 responses; 88% were from the U.S.

Here is what we discovered and reported in “The Conference Roadmap to Recovery”. 

Virtual Events are Now a Mainstream Format

Three-quarters of the respondents attended in-person conferences in 2019. In 2020, the data flipped: three quarters of the respondents attended virtual or hybrid meetings.

Furthermore, our survey questions were about “multi-day events”. If we consider the many virtual meetings, webinars, networking events, etc. that association members attended, virtual became the predominant path for conference delivery.

A word of advice: Be aware that association members – as well as exhibitors – experienced a variety of meeting formats in 2020.

Conference Format Preferences are Split

We’ve all heard “people can’t wait to meet in-person again” and the claims of virtual meeting overload. The data paint a different picture.

We asked association members to look ahead to 2021 and indicate how interested they are in attending meetings and conferences in various formats. The responses were roughly evenly split: 56% said virtual; 53% said in-person; and 43% said hybrid.

A word of advice: The survey data show that a significant percentage of attendees prefer formats other than in-person for the foreseeable future. Associations should also consider productive ways to include exhibitors and sponsors.

Employers Reduced Conference Financial Support

Many association members depend on employers to reimburse them for conference expenses. When we asked association members if they expected their employer to pay conference expenses in 2021, 28% said their bosses are eliminating or reducing reimbursement compared to previous years.

A word of advice: Due to the wide split on what employers will or will not pay for conference expenses, associations should offer a variety of price points. Virtual events could be more attractive to employers and employees who will pay the registration fee knowing there aren’t any travel-related expenses.

Vaccination Affects In-person Attendance

The survey data demonstrated a point that we suspected: Most people want the vaccine before they’ll attend an in-person meeting. Nine out of 10 plan to take the vaccine; seven out of 10 won’t attend an in-person conference until they have been vaccinated.

For association members who tie conference attendance to the vaccine, the data show two cautions: One in 10 do not plan to be vaccinated; three in 10 might or will attend conferences before they are vaccinated. 

A word of advice: Associations will need to accommodate and balance the differing preferences of members regarding COVID vaccinations. 

Venue Policies Influence In-person Conference Attendance

The survey probed the importance of various factors in the conference venue related to association members’ decision to attend an in-person event.

More than 80% of the respondents listed heightened sanitation procedures, social distancing, and requirements to wear face masks as important to their decision about attending. More than 80% also said COVID infections being at a low rate and widespread adoption of the vaccine are important. 

About two-thirds of the respondents said their decision about attending an in-person conference would be influenced by attendees’ health factors, such as passing a temperature check, or providing proof of being vaccinated or having a negative COVID test.

A word of advice: Association event planners should work closely with meeting venues, provide safe meeting protocols, and monitor COVID infection and vaccination rates. Information should be provided to prospective meeting attendees to increase the likelihood they will attend.

Hybrid Hub-and-Spokes are the Emerging Format

In addition to in-person, virtual, and hybrid meetings, a new opportunity for associations is hub-and-spokes settings in which small meetings are held in various locations and connected to a central conference event with a virtual platform.

When asked if they would be interested in joining a small, in-person group of local colleagues tied to a main conference location virtually, about half replied they would be interested in participating. A hotel setting was of interest to 54%; 48% favor an office conference room; and 47% like the idea of a restaurant banquet room. Gathering in someone’s home was favored by only 26%.

A word of advice: Hub and spokes meetings have potential, though associations will need to consider costs and logistics.

The Path Forward

While “going back to normal” – traditional, standalone in-person conferences – is not likely for some in our foreseeable future, the options are plentiful. Associations and their members will be experimenting with various meeting formats, participation models, and price points.

Not to be left out of the planning process is the role of exhibitors and sponsors. These players can provide a wealth of content as well as revenue to support association conferences. Their preferences should be solicited, considered, and (when possible) accommodated.

Decisions moving forward can be guided by survey data as well as conversations and input from all stakeholders – the association’s board and staff; attendees at previous conferences; prospective attendees; and exhibitors and sponsors.

See the complete survey findings in “The Conference Roadmap to Recovery”. For other ideas on improving association conferences, see “The new Sponsorship Model for Virtual Events.” 

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

Bruce Rosenthal
Post by Bruce Rosenthal
April 25, 2021
Bruce Rosenthal is a strategic advisor and consultant to associations and not-for-profit organizations, creating successful corporate partnership programs that increase revenue and add member/constituent value. Previously, he held senior-level positions with associations and not-for-profit organizations. He understands the “ins and outs” of association structures, governance, member services, advocacy, education, revenue streams, and conferences. He directed a successful corporate partnership program for a national association, launching the program in 2009 and revamping it twice to keep pace with changes in the economy and the evolving needs of corporate partners. He demonstrates leadership in identifying and fostering corporate partnership and sponsorship best practices, opportunities, and solutions as convener of the DC-Area Partnership Professionals Network.