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How to plan for an uncertain 2021 association conference format

image Chris Gloede and Aaron Wolowiec image imageOctober 22, 2020 image image3 min. to read
How to plan for an uncertain 2021 association conference format

The 2020 annual conference season is largely complete, and it was certainly the most confusing, demanding, and complex event period in modern times. For many associations, 2020 marked their first large-scale virtual event.

Next year’s big meetings will be even harder, fraught with even greater challenges — starting with which conference format to choose. Event planners will need to choose from one of the three common meeting formats: in-person, virtual or hybrid. Selecting the right format is deceivingly difficult. 

Planning for large 2021 conferences must start now despite large gaps in the information planners need. We recommend a four-step approach to make event format selections during this confusing time.  

Step 1:  Scenario planning

Define a handful of possible conditions at the time of your conference. Consider vaccination availability, travel restrictions, employer attendance and reimbursement policies, and local gathering regulations. Rank scenarios from most likely to least, using your best judgement.

Step 2:  Demand planning 

Informed by past events and the context of your scenarios, anticipate the attendance you can expect in each of the three formats. Survey prospective attendees, members, exhibitors and sponsors to understand format interest.  Be sure to segment your attendees with a special review of international, healthcare industry, and medically-at-risk attendees, all of whom will likely be working under unique precautions. Enhance your projections with sponsorship and registration fees and expense estimates.

Step 3:  Concurrent planning

If the in-person, virtual or hybrid choice is not clear, begin planning for multiple formats concurrently. You can reference our Complete Guide to Virtual Event Creation for a helpful checklist of the early strategy steps and technology tasks applicable to all formats. When speaking with prospective partners and vendors, ask how they support each of the three formats.

Step 4:  Final selection

Plot your timeline to produce a high-quality event and determine the date a final decision must be made for each of the formats. Share those decision dates with your leadership and staff well in advance. As you approach each decision date, update your scenarios and forecasts and convene your decision-makers to evaluate the format options informed by the latest projections.  


Throughout this complicated planning process, it’s important to keep association leaders informed of the options and projections and elevate conversations beyond instincts and emotions. Proactively establishing a decision process and explaining the deadlines will generate confidence in event planning during this tumultuous time.

Chris Gloede
Chief Consultant at | + posts

Chris Gloede is the Chief Consultant for Ricochet Advice, a firm helping associations transform their marketing and membership through modern lead generation, marketing automation, technology, and analytics. Chris helped pioneer live virtual events as the CMO of the American Bar Association where he created its monthly free continuing education program. At the time, it was the world’s largest recurring educational virtual event. Chris now brings similar innovations to his clients in this changing world.

Aaron Wolowiec
+ posts

Aaron’s obsession with learning traces back to preschool, where a knitted purple people eater taught him important life lessons (like cleaning up after yourself). All these years later, Aaron’s honed his craft and now designs engaging, multisensory learning experiences for association learners, resulting in the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, the forging of new relationships, and the application of new ideas and perspectives in the workplace. A serial learner and entrepreneur himself (with an alphabet soup of letters trailing his name), Aaron is nationally recognized for his professional development work with boards, learners, staff and volunteers. Having launched four successful brands – Event Garde (coincidentally reprising his early fascination with purple), Healthy by Association, Review My Speakerand FacilitateMI – Aaron’s equal parts practitioner and theorist. While the hours are long, Aaron ensures there is no shortage of fun amidst the Slack notifications, email pings and video chats – from the personal connections he shares with each client, partner and colleague to the precious moments of free time spent stalking the latest episodes of his favorite true crime podcasts.

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