By Paul Bergeron
Here’s a checklist of a few dozen questions and critical things meeting planners and their CEOs might not have considered when looking to plan their first virtual meetings, based on comments from a veteran Assn meeting planner. Caution: There’s not a lot of uplifting points made on this list. Rather, it’s a sober dose of reality.
Right now, it’s all-aboard for most associations when it comes to holding a virtual meeting now, but what tolerance will your members have for laptop-based communications such as Zoom a month from now, much less in the fall or by year’s end?
When does Zoom fatigue set in? It’s only mid-April and already some are saying, “I’m webinar-ed out.”
Be careful. There is plenty written and shared by association consultants about how to do the perfect virtual meeting. But there is NOT a one-size-fits-all solution. It comes down to what works for your members, your industry and syncing with the country’s shifting social lifestyle.
The silver lining taken from Covid-19 is that meeting planners are forced to think differently about their events. Meeting planners who have been doing the same ol’, same ol’ for 20+ years are in trouble. They don’t know how to plan an annual meeting any other way.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Don’t stress too much if you struggle: Everyone’s trying to figure this out right now.
Before spending day-after-day watching demos from virtual meeting service providers, determine what your goal is: Provide a member benefit? Offer valuable content? Include a trade show? Make money? Replace your annual meeting?
Phrases you’ll hear often: “Go/No Go” and “Pivot”
If planning the Association’s biggest event of the year isn’t challenging enough, some meeting planners are being asked to construct virtual meetings and in-person meetings simultaneously.
What’s the first question association that CEOs are asking their meeting planners: When do we need to make a decision by?
Come fall, are people going to be willing to jump onto airplanes?
Will their companies have money in their budgets to send employees to events: $700 registration fee, $500 air fare; $300 per night in a hotel. Who’s going to approve that during a recession?
What will hotel and convention center social distancing guidelines be? Will everyone have to wear a mask? Gloves?
Buffets? Forget about it.
In big cities, what will attendees do during down time? Are they going to want to jump onto buses (a huge expense to meeting planners) to get around town? Will the restaurants even be open? Will they be able to catch a ballgame or want to attend an Opening Party or even a small reception?
THE BREAK-EVEN BUDGET
If your association’s annual operating budget runs July 1 through June, and your annual meeting is this fall, you might not have even set your budget. In this case, it’s suggested that the annual meeting budget for break-even or even to operate at a loss given the unpredictable future.
The first thing you should do: Eliminate any expenses or revenue that are based on “hope.”
Don’t forget: Your show decorator, registration company, convention center, CVB, and hotels have already furloughed or even laid-off a lot of their staff due to lack of demand. So, if/when you get a green light to resume effort toward a live event, how long will it take those organizations to staff back up?
There’s nothing like spinning your wheels into the unknown. For meetings scheduled for late September, associations would have posted their Call for Presentations in fall 2019, and either have selected or are close to selecting their sessions now.
If your annual conference is in fall, what will your education look like? All Covid-19 All the Time? Or, will people be tired of hearing the same “these are uncertain times” messages over and over. Will the country have pulled out of its funk by then? If so, will your programming fit the mood?
Associations must have this discussion right now:
- Do we go with some content “as-is”
- Do we go with sessions “as-is” but ask speakers to tweak their sessions using a “Covid-19 filter”
- Or do we re-open the Call For Presentations and ask for new content, focusing on lessons learned, how to prepare for pandemics?
Remember: With virtual conferences, you don’t have to jam as much as you can into a 3-day window like you do for live conferences.
The hottest keynote speakers are generally booked months and months in advance. It’s a big investment. But what message do you want them to carry? Who knows today what mood the country will be 6 to 9 months from now?
If a live event like the keynote is part of the virtual event, don’t forget about time zones. A great keynote speaker kicking off your event at 8:45 a.m. ET will be missed by the West Coast, where it’s 5:45 a.m. – and for associations with global membership, timing becomes a greater challenge.
It isn’t feasible to expect an attendee to sit at their computer from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for three straight days. Break the virtual event into time blocks, such as into 11 a.m. to 2pm and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. EST. You can then schedule networking events/opportunities in “open” time slots for those who choose to participate in those events.
Too many firms out there are pitching their virtual meeting services and yet, many have never put on a virtual meeting. Most won’t tell you that until the end of the demo.
Be sure to ask the companies you are scheduling demos with to list the virtual events they have done and for which clients.
BIO’s website does a good job explaining why it is moving to an all-virtual event (in June) describes what associations can expect. https://www.bio.org/events/bio-digital
Saving grace: Does your association already have a smaller in-person meeting in the fall or early next year? Think about combining the annual conference with that, if you are fortunate to be in a capable location.
It’s also important to remember that you aren’t alone. All event organizers – in the U.S. and around the globe – are going through the same thing. Reach out to peers to learn more. Join and participate in industry online groups. Knowledge is power.