How the Pandemic Has Changed Meetings

2020 has become a real-life testing ground for agility, creativity and viability.

By Michelle Mason, FASAE, CAE

FRM NovDec Perspective

Michelle Mason, FASAE, CAE President & CEO, Association Forum

Earlier this year, in the January/February issue of FORUM, I wrote about staying agile and getting creative with your non-dues revenue strategy. “The fundamental nature of member engagement has evolved,” I wrote in the issue’s CEO Letter. “We must evolve to stay relevant to members and as an industry.”

Little did we all know that 2020 would become a real-life testing ground for our organizations in terms of agility, creativity and viability.

This year has held too many challenges to count and among them was putting on events for our members. We moved our internal teams remote, we canceled business travel and we reached a new level of mastery on Zoom calls. All the while, our organizations had to cancel in-person events, switch to virtual events and reimagine attendee engagement.

We are right there with you! Forum’s team quickly shifted from in-person to virtual events. While we’d always hosted webinars, we had to increase our online offerings so that members still got the same educational value as before the pandemic. Our office in downtown Chicago has always served as a gathering place for the association community via SIG meetings, CAE study groups, workshops and more. Once we closed the office, we had to move all of that content and all of those connections online.

Like you, we’ve been learning as we go. We are always striving to be transparent for our members so that we can serve as an “open case study” for other associations. In the spirit of transparency: It’s been tough! But we had a great foundation for our events because the content was still strong. Logistics, technology and revenue were all places we needed to learn and grow.

We quickly learned that a virtual conference needs to be shorter than an in-person conference. We’re all feeling the fatigue of working remotely and staring at screens, so we didn’t want our meetings to contribute to that burnout. Instead, we looked for creative ways to interact with attendees and move them through the day without sacrificing educational content.

One way we did this was to hire an outstanding facilitator, Karen Millsap, for Forum Forward. Karen introduced the meeting, connected with attendees between sessions, served as a moderator at the closing keynote, and she even tried her hand at mixing drinks during the closing reception. Her energy helped carry attendees through the day, and she also gave useful tips for using the meeting platform, when to grab lunch and when to take a break.

Another lesson we learned this year is that we need to rethink pricing strategy in the virtual space. This has been a huge area of concern for many associations, as our revenue models around trade shows and conferences have had to change significantly. Honestly, this is an area we’re still figuring out and working to build up. We’ve already experimented with some small hybrid meetings (some in-person and some online education), and we’ll continue to do so in 2021. The health and safety of our staff and members will continue to guide our decisions in event planning and every other aspect of association business.

We know that the world will never be the same after COVID-19, but we are still optimistic for what’s ahead. This unique time has prompted our teams to develop an arsenal of creative solutions for engaging attendees, even under the most unusual circumstances. Associations have always been focused on creating community no matter what the current climate is like. Now is a time to take pride in our profession and look for opportunities within the challenges we face. It is time to integrate Welcoming Environment® concepts and develop a sense of belonging, connection and appreciation of uniqueness in our digital meetings and member engagements in this new reality.

I look forward to seeing you in 2021, if not before!

About the Author

Michelle Mason, FASAE, CAE, is the President and CEO of Association Forum.

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