How to Get Members to Show Up at In-Person Events
Associations are returning to in-person events, a goal we’ve been working towards for the past three years. As with any transition, the return to in-person events brings a new set of challenges for associations to navigate. Have you scheduled an in-person board meeting only to have attendees back out at the last minute because they thought there would be a way to dial-in? Do attendees now expect there to be a virtual or hybrid component to meetings that used to be fully in-person?
Read on for challenges and considerations for continuing to navigate the return to in-person meetings.
Challenges with returning to in-person:
First, there remain real health concerns that might lead to hesitation about meeting in person. Some people are still not able or willing to travel due to their own health or that of their family. Even for those who are comfortable back in person, there remains a greater likelihood of a last-minute cancellation if someone is sick. Additionally, there are budget concerns for some organizations which might limit the amount of travel your members can do.
The last three years have also shifted scheduling norms and changed expectations about being able to attend meetings from anywhere. Last minute cancellations have become more normalized, in part because they were (and are) very encouraged if someone is sick, and this has perhaps shifted to a broader cultural norm. Additionally, personal responsibilities have been accommodated in a different way, and attendees may no longer be able to accommodate a busy in-person meeting schedule as they used to.
As your association continues the return to in-person, here are some points to consider:
Be strategic: First, take a strategic approach to what education or programming should return to in-person. “The return to in-person events will take as much innovation and change as associations needed when pivoting to virtual programming in 2020,” says Tom Stautzenbach, Executive Director and CEO of the American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.
Revisit your program’s strategic priorities and work with your stakeholders to decide what meetings should return to in-person, and perhaps identify some that could continue to be successful as virtual or hybrid. Some programs may be better suited to a virtual platform (for example, a recorded education program), while a hands-on course or a mentoring program might be best in person.
Get Feedback: Check in with the members that would need to be in-person for an event to be effective. For example, enable your board to make a group decision that they would like to be back in-person, and give members a chance to voice concerns.
Set expectations: If you are planning an in-person event (whether a small board meeting, or a large annual conference), plan early and clearly communicate the format for the event. Be clear what hybrid or virtual options are available, or which aren’t, and communicate how you will provide any updates to attendees who can’t attend. While many attendees have come to expect a full hybrid experience for all meetings, this isn’t always possible. For large annual meetings, “true hybrid is not always feasible. It’s often cost prohibitive and results in a large workload for staff, with variable return of value for the participant.” says Eileen Murray, Executive Director of the American Epilepsy Society.
“The move away from a true hybrid experience can be challenging, since members saw what was possible during 2020 and 2021,” says Cristina Graham, Director of Education at the American Epilepsy Society. “It’s important to set precedent for what your members can expect, and what you can accommodate.”
While hybrid isn’t possible for all events, hybrid or virtual may remain the preferred format for certain meetings, and it’s also important to communicate the format and expectations for those events.
Communicate the value of in-person: If you plan an in-person event, it’s important to clearly communicate the value of attending. After years of being able to attend meetings from anywhere, potential attendees want to know why they should travel and attend in-person. For many associations, this may mean emphasizing the face-to-face networking and the community of in-person meetings that provide your attendees with a more engaging experience.
And, communicate the value of any options for remote attendees, especially since some of these options may also provide additional value for on-site attendees. For example, recording content at a large annual conference that will be available for on-demand viewing provides a way for remote attendees to access content while also increasing the value of attending in person since attendees can be strategic about which sessions to attend on site and how to use their time at the meeting.
Evaluate, and adjust: As new meeting norms continue to take shape, expect that you will need to continue to revisit your meeting formats and member needs. Continue to evaluate your programming, and adjust as needed. Association staff and members are continuing the return to in-person, and needs may change in the coming months and years.
Do you have other challenges or tips for how continue the return to in-person events? Share your own tips on MyForum.