What the Experts Say About In-Person Chapter Events for 2021
A year ago, component relations professionals (CRPs) and chapter leaders turned their focus to virtual chapter meetings. Now, as the vaccine rolls out across the country, the focus is shifting again as the potential for in-person meetings becomes a possibility for chapters in 2021.
New questions are arising as CRPs figure out what advice or directives to give to chapters. Should chapters plan on in-person events and meetings this year? Can they provide a safe experience? Will members be ready? Is hybrid a viable option?
Like you, we had more questions than answers so we turned to one of the brightest minds we know on association and chapter events, Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, CMP (and holder of many other credentials), the CEO of Event Garde, a professional development and meetings consulting firm.
What’s the outlook for chapter events in 2021?
We got right down to it. When does Aaron think in-person meetings will (or should) return? “Chapters want a return to normalcy and members want to see each other, so chapters are pushing for events sooner rather than later.” He sees some organizations planning events for the May to August window, but thinks they’re being overly optimistic.
“Healthy skepticism is needed right now,” he said. “The rosy picture they’re painting is not what reality is dictating. Is it possible to have summer events? Yes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in-person events don’t return more fully until the fourth quarter of 2021.”
When will chapters know it’s okay to return to in-person events?
“When” is the big question for chapters and CRPs. Texas just revoked all COVID restrictions. Other states may follow suit. Aaron said, “Being open doesn’t necessarily mean we should move forward with in-person events.” The decision should take several factors into consideration.
First, it depends on the chapter’s constituents. Younger, healthy people may not have access to the vaccine until the summer (or early fall if we run into rollout complications), but some professions will get vaccinated well before then.
What is the venue’s safety protocol? For guidance on questions to ask venues, Aaron suggests consulting the Safe Meetings e-book developed by members of the Michigan Society of Association Executives along with other event professionals.
Consider your audience’s access to the vaccine, their comfort level in attending an in-person event, and their employer’s stance on event attendance. Ask members:
- Will their employers permit them to attend professional events?
- Will employers provide a professional development budget?
- Will they grant permission to travel?
- Will they require employees to quarantine after attending events?
What’s the timeframe for making decisions about in-person chapter events?
“The wait-and-see game—waiting to make a final decision 30 days out from the meeting—is not a good approach. It puts too much stress on chapters, planners, and attendees.” Aaron said it’s better to make early decisions (90 days out or more) about the events on a chapter’s calendar. “An early decision settles uncertainty and allows time for proper planning.”
Aaron suggested chapters be overly cautious and plan for only virtual events through the third quarter of 2021. “The responsible thing to do is to make the decision to pull the plug on in-person events for now and make the best of it. Yes, you will disappoint some people, but a last-minute conversion to virtual won’t provide as good an attendee experience.”
What should a chapter consider when deciding whether to hold an in-person, hybrid, or virtual event?
Like the rest of you, hybrid is weighing on Aaron’s mind. He suggested these areas of focus when making event decisions and plans.
To make the best decision about event format, first identify your goals for each audience—virtual and in-person. “Don’t assume they’re the same goals you had for past events. Identify the event elements and experiences you want to offer each audience. Understand where there’s overlap and where there’s divergence. Let these goals guide the program format.”
A chapter’s goal might be to:
- Make the event accessible to all, no matter their distance or budget.
- Provide opportunities for networking and discussions.
- Connect attendees in learning cohorts before, during, and after the event.
- Continue the learning experience with post-conference activities.
“You can’t have it all—the usual event elements. You can’t do the exact same thing you did at the traditional event.” Aaron said your goals help you distinguish what to prioritize and what to let fall away.
Forget copy and paste.
“Chapters can easily fall into the copy and paste trap. Copy and paste is easy for volunteers. But they can’t copy and paste right now; the copy machine is broken.” Instead, chapters must get clear on which traditional program elements help you achieve your new goals, and which program elements are missing.
Think about the experience you want to provide to attendees at home and attendees on site. Does the virtual audience have the tolerance for a low-tech experience, or do they have high-tech expectations? Is it acceptable to merely livestream a speaker via Zoom? Do you want to provide a passive viewing experience like that to your virtual audience? Perhaps it worked last spring, but the bar may be higher now.
Consider alternatives to hybrid.
With a hybrid event, Aaron said you’re essentially planning two (or even three) events at the same time with limited resources. Providing support to both audiences is a heavier volunteer lift than planning and hosting an in-person or virtual event.
“Rapid succession of events is a good alternative game plan to the traditional hybrid meeting. Plan a virtual program for Tuesday and a deeper-dive in-person workshops for Wednesday or a week later, whatever works best for your audience.”
Aaron suggested creating opportunities to integrate the two event audiences. “Find creative ways to bridge the two events. For example, attendees who meet virtually can do an activity that informs the in-person audience later.” Over time, share the virtual highlights with those who attended in-person.
Chapter leaders are not professional event planners. We know most CRPs aren’t either, but you can help chapters make the wisest decisions about returning to in-person or hybrid events. In our next post, Aaron suggests ways CRPs can support chapters with event decisions and planning.
In the meantime, download The Complete Guide to Virtual Event Creation from Event Garde and Ricochet Advice, and sign up for our March webinar – Chapter Events: Deciding on In-Person, Hybrid, or Virtual.