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Chapter leaders are eager to get back to in-person meetings. But are in-person events a responsible and viable option for the near future? CRPs want to help chapters make the right decisions and provide the support chapters need to host safe events when the time is right. What is the best way to approach this thorny issue?
To get the guidance CRPs and chapters are seeking, we tapped the expertise of Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, CMP, the CEO of Event Garde, a professional development and meetings consulting firm. We felt a lot better after talking with him, and we hope you do too.
As Aaron suggested in our previous post, chapter leaders must consider prospective attendees’ access to the vaccine, their comfort level in attending an in-person event, and their employer’s stance on event attendance.
Above all, chapters must know whether their venue and attendees can adhere to safety standards and protocols. The Safe Meetings e-book, developed by members of the Michigan Society of Association Executives along with other event professionals, provides advice and resources for making these decisions and hosting in-person events.
Aaron said some venues, such as larger chain hotels with corporate safety standards, are well-positioned to host events. “But you can never make assumptions about a venue’s capability. You must ask questions. Some venues are more ready than others.”
Aaron suggests chapter leaders do this exercise before deciding to host an in-person event. “It will test their tolerance for potential consequences,” he said. Ask chapter leaders to draft the email they’ll send to attendees after finding out someone at the event tested positive for COVID. “If you don’t have the stomach for that email, don’t proceed with the event.”
Chapter leaders are well intentioned and eager to get their members back together. They know their audience, venue, and community but Aaron said, “they’re not as plugged into the reality of meeting during COVID.” CRPs, however, are plugged in; it’s your job.
You have access to the advice of event professionals at your association and in your professional network. You can get your hands on an overwhelming amount of information about the legal implications of events, health and safety protocols, and industry trends—information chapter leaders need to know. “But what volunteer wants to read all that?” asked Aaron.
Aaron said, “CRPs must be curators of resources. Don’t provide a list of public health websites for chapter leaders to wade through. You’re putting the burden on them to take the time to review all this information and figure out what’s relevant—that’s not helpful.”
Instead, Aaron suggests preparing a safe meetings toolkit for your chapters that includes the questions they should ask a venue before signing a contract or moving forward with a contracted event. The resources in the Michigan Safe Meetings e-book and this information from Associations Now can help you develop content for a chapter toolkit:
The toolkit should also include a crisis communication plan. “CRPs and their associations understandably worry about seeing their name and logo in the media when a chapter ends up hosting a super-spreader incident,” said Aaron. Describe roles, responsibilities, and lines of communication if something goes wrong. “Chapters need a post-event procedure to follow if they have to report issues to attendees and the venue. They can’t rely solely on public health departments to do that for them.”
Develop templates for chapters. “Don’t make chapter volunteers design their signs. Instead, provide standard templates for signs related to safety procedures. Volunteer leaders shouldn’t have to start from scratch and figure it out themselves.” Include other useful samples, such as a script for opening announcements, floor plans, and code of conduct.
“Anticipate where chapters may need and want a heavy hand from HQ.” Your association can play a useful role as enforcer if chapter volunteers are feeling the heat from less COVID-cooperative members.
Aaron said, “The novelty of virtual events has passed. Members may have virtual fatigue along with heightened expectations. The old formula won’t carry chapters forward. Virtual programs must be intentionally designed for their audience, but the problem is, chapters generally aren’t instructional design experts.”
Aaron advised helping chapter leaders understand why they need to rethink program design. Here’s where CRPs can step in. You and your event/education colleagues can provide basic training on engaging event design. Spend a few hours with chapter leaders helping them think about a new framework for their events.
Aaron suggested CRPs act like a clearinghouse. “Collect stories about what’s working for other chapters. Don’t assume successful chapters will debrief their peers on your community platform. Take the lead by interviewing chapter leaders, finding out what resources they wished they had, and sharing their practices across the chapter network.”
When a chapter leader developed a methodical and successful approach for planning golf tournaments, the Community Associations Institute talked to him and shared the details in a webinar for their chapter leaders.
Technology is another challenge for chapters. “Let them know Zoom is not the only option. Event technology is constantly evolving. Introduce them to other tools, like proximity chat.” Proximity chat platforms host a virtual environment, typically a room with tables, where attendees (represented by avatars or icons) can move between conversations, hearing only the people who are nearby. A few popular ones are Remo, Wonder, and Gather.
“Chapter leaders are in a constant state of overwhelm. Don’t expect them to research new technology. Share information about the tools you’ve vetted and invite them to try them out with their chapter leader peers.”
Every chapter faces the same event challenges. First, they must decide which type of event to host: in-person, hybrid, or virtual. Then, they must design the attendee experience, which means making decisions about safety, format, content, networking, revenue partners, and event technology. You can help chapters navigate this new event environment by providing the guidance and resources they need to make wise decisions, host safe, and compelling event experiences.