5 Strategic Considerations for Conference Planning When Faced with 2020 COVID Déjà Vu

5 Strategic Considerations for Conference Planning When Faced with 2020 COVID Déjà Vu

By Katherine Wayne

Here we go again. As associations plan their conferences for 2022, many are experiencing 2020 COVID déjà vu.

Move forward with an in-person format? Switch to virtual as positive case counts tick up? What will the COVID landscape be like when the conference actually kicks off months from now? The uncertainty abounds.

When it comes to selecting a conference format in 2022 (in-person, virtual, or hybrid), it’s starting to look a lot like what we experienced in 2020.

At a recent webinar for 911’s association partners on Leading Practices for Virtual/Hybrid Events, several of our executive and event leaders shared their experiences navigating uncertainty when planning conferences these past 2 years. During times of continued COVID uncertainty, these are the 5 strategic considerations they keep in mind when determining the best format for their conferences.

Start with a direction, but be prepared for Plan B.
Having a plan B has been the norm the past 2 years, with most of us already well-accustomed to preparing for multiple contingencies. Yet dwelling too much on all the many “what ifs” when planning starts can inhibit forward movement.

Avoid paralysis for your staff, planning committee, presenters, and board by starting with a direction in mind. Define the goals and expectations for your conference, choose a format based on the current landscape, and accept the strong possibility a course change will be needed.

Hybrid vs virtual vs streaming—what exactly do they mean to you?
Your stakeholders likely know what you mean by an in-person conference, but what about hybrid and virtual? Or streaming? There are many interpretations of all of these when it comes to conferences, so be sure to define what they mean and entail for your association before planning starts.

Does a hybrid conference for your organization mean that every session will be offered in person and online at the same time? Or, does hybrid mean that some of the conference sessions will be offered asynchronously? What about virtual?

Be sure everyone—staff, board, presenters, and sponsors—is speaking the same conference language.

Create a financial model for every option.
It’s important that decision-makers have a clear picture of potential financial outcomes for each potential format (in-person, hybrid, virtual). Create budgets for multiple options, so in the event you need to quickly change format, you’re already aware of the potential financial implications.

Along with assessing your own financial picture, be sure you understand the financial landscape for your meeting attendees, speakers, and contributors.

Have their employers cut travel funds from their budgets or even banned travel altogether? Many employers who were once able to fully or even partially cover expenses pre-COVID may not be in the same position to do so now, leaving attendees to absorb costs or forego attending altogether.

Logistics: Will it all work the way you envision?
A virtual format or component to your conference can open the door to more attendees being financially or geographically able to attend, but what about accessibility needs such as ASL captioning and large print? Does the digital platform you’re considering meet all of your accessibility needs?

How will corporate sponsors participate in a way that meets their goals and is also meaningful for attendees? Virtual exhibit halls sounded good in theory when conferences first transitioned to virtual. The reality, however, hasn’t kept pace. The spontaneous, in-person connections made in an exhibit hall are challenging to replicate in a digital world, so you’ll need to re-envision the experience for sponsors and find new ways for them to engage with attendees.

Don’t make decisions in a vacuum.
And, finally, be sure to hear from all key stakeholders and contributors throughout the decision-making process. It may seem easier on the surface to make decisions with just leadership or a core group of staff, but you need insights from all stakeholders to make an informed decision. Your meetings, corporate and member relations, IT, and program planning staff will have valuable insights—as will previous attendees and sponsors. Find out what they hope to gain from your conference and how you can deliver the best experience possible.

Thank you to 911 executive and event leaders Mary Beth Benner, Dave Bergeson, Stephanie Dylkiewicz, and Josh Karney who participated in the webinar and whose expertise contributed to this blog post.

Katherine Wayne is senior manager of corporate communications at 911.

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