Planning a Return to In-Person Meetings

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By Aaron D. Wolowiec, CAE, CMP, CTF/MT, CDP

For more than a year, we scrambled to postpone, cancel, sunset, or otherwise reimagine our in-person meetings and events utilizing a variety of new-to-us virtual formats and platforms. At minimum, these changes impacted contracts, relationships, and revenue – though the long-term impact has yet to be fully realized. While we made the best of it as association professionals and meeting planners, the “15 days to slow the spread” languished on far longer than most of us anticipated.

In March 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an Executive Order lifting the mask mandate in Texas and increasing the capacity of all businesses and facilities in the state to 100%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a similarly surprising announcement in May 2021 when it declared that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.

Given this roller coaster, and the sort of “new normal” that came with quarantine, work from home, and Zoom calls, it’s no wonder associations are nervous about hosting in-person meetings again. Understandably, their top concern is safety. Be it variant strains of COVID-19, new outbreaks, stalled vaccine adoption, or confusing mask guidance, it’s uncertain what lies ahead. And for smaller associations where meeting planning is one of many hats a staff member wears, it’s increasingly challenging to stay abreast of the latest protocols and recommendations.

While the return to in-person meetings offers hope of economic recovery, associations should not feel pressured to jump on the bandwagon before they’re ready. Our focus must remain on providing members with quality experiences that are safe, accessible, and conducive to effective learning and networking. At the same time, we must be good stewards of resources – keeping registration rates reasonable for those most affected by the pandemic, while also minimizing expenses to recoup revenue desperately needed to sustain our organizations.

For the next 18 months, it’s important to first check-in with your audience before committing to any in-person programs. Understanding that your members likely have a range of perspectives on issues such as vaccines, masks, and social distancing, following is a starter list of questions you should consider asking prospective attendees to help inform your decision-making process:

  • What travel restrictions, if any, do you currently anticipate from your employer that would prohibit you from attending an in-person event?
  • What budget limitations, if any, do you currently anticipate would prohibit you from attending an in-person event?
  • To what extent are you personally interested in and comfortable attending an in-person event right now?
  • What learning or networking experiences would most compel your interest in attending an in-person event right now?
  • What safety measures would you expect to see in place to ensure your comfort with attending an in-person event?

Ultimately, the data will shine a light on how best to move forward. Although some of your most vocal members may be interested in meeting in-person right away, other forces outside of your control may unavoidably delay the return to large, in-person gatherings. In those instances, it may be prudent to start smaller with local activities, or host in-person gatherings for certain membership segments (e.g., a special interest group roundtable or community of practice).

Pamela Donahoo, FASAE, CAE, chief executive officer of USFN – America’s Mortgage Banking Attorneys, knows this tension between optimistic members and current industry realities all too well.

“In our hearts, USFN members want to begin in-person meetings right away,” Donahoo said. “However, in our brains, we need to be aware that business conditions, including corporate travel bans and reduced travel budgets, have to factor into our decision of when we will schedule our first in-person event. Several other industry meetings are scheduled for later this fall, and we will be closely monitoring and factoring their results into our decision.”

But for some associations, the time has come to jumpstart a safe return to in-person meetings. Inspired by TSAE members who are paving more than one path forward, following are five key considerations intended to inform and support your planning efforts.

1. Safety is priority one. Both actual safety and the perception of safety.

Tracy Ginsburg, Ed.D., CAE, executive director of the Texas Association of School Business Officials, knows her members are hungry for human connection and the ability to dialogue with one another in person. But safety is top of mind for her and her team.

“Our goal is to make attendees feel safe,” said Ginsburg. “As of now, we anticipate maintaining three feet of social distance and requiring masks in the meeting space. We’ve also limited attendees to 50 percent of pre-pandemic capacity and are only allowing sponsors to exhibit.”

But the day-to-day member experience is an important consideration when establishing attendee protocols. Ginsburg went on to say, “we hope to balance our expectations and those of the venue with established industry guidance, while also recognizing a large portion of our members are vaccinated and have lifted mask and social distance mandates at their schools.”

To enhance your safety efforts, consider appointing and training a pandemic compliance advisor. This person should be well versed on key issues, including mitigating risk, screening, positive test/symptoms protocol, personal protective equipment, social distancing, sanitization, and enforcement. Industry organizations, such as the Events Industry Council and Meeting Professionals International, offer reputable education programs on these and related topics.

2. Develop, communicate, and be prepared to enforce a clear set of expectations for all participants.

“The most common question we are getting these days is whether we can mandate COVID vaccinations as a precondition of meeting and conference attendance,” said Jeff Tenenbaum, managing partner of the Tenenbaum Law Group in Washington, DC.

“The short answer is, legally, yes you can – so long as you make reasonable accommodations for those who have a qualifying medical condition that prevents them from being vaccinated,” said Tenenbaum. “That being said, whether you choose to mandate vaccinations for conference attendees is a much more difficult and politically charged issue.”

When asked specifically about HIPAA, Tenenbaum clarified, “it is not a violation of HIPAA for most associations to ask their employees, members, or conference registrants whether or not they have received a COVID-19 vaccine, as only organizations that are HIPAA Covered Entities or Business Associates are subject to HIPAA regulations with respect to how information about vaccination status is collected, maintained, used, or disclosed.”

He went on to say, however, that “organizations not covered by HIPAA may be subject to other applicable federal, state, or international laws, such as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. So, keep in mind that certain states, such as Florida, make it illegal to ask a customer or employee for proof of their COVID-19 vaccination status.”

Should you wish to steer clear of vaccination status altogether, an alternative approach is to convene a group of key stakeholders, including staff, board, attendee, and venue representatives. Charge them with developing a set of reasonable and succinct conference commitments (commonly known as ground rules) based on industry standards and potentially hot-button association concerns.

Communication of these expectations should start pre-conference, both informing attendees of their existence and documenting commitment prior to arrival. Onsite, consider posting group commitments in prefunction spaces, adding them to presentation slide decks, and reinforcing them from the lectern. Be sure to also identify how attendees can report behavior not aligned with these expectations should they arise (e.g., participants crowding into elevators with clearly posted passenger limitations).

Finally, remember to update the post-conference evaluation with questions seeking honest feedback about event safety measures. Aggregate and share responses, as appropriate, as well as update the association’s safety plan for future in-person gatherings.

3. Lean into the discomfort of uncertainty. This is largely uncharted territory for you and your members.

Because COVID guidelines are changing so quickly, it’s not always possible to outline your attendee expectations upfront during the registration process. As a result, Trevor Mitchell, MBA, CAE, CDP, executive director/CEO of American Mensa, has taken a wait-and-see approach.

“With the ever-changing guidelines and information regarding COVID, American Mensa has taken the approach to wait closer to our World Gathering in Houston this August to announce our COVID-related policies,” Mitchell said. “We want our attendees to have a clear picture of what will be required at the event and deciding several months out wouldn’t allow us to realistically do that.”

For many associations, this first in-person event coming out of the pandemic is met with an incredible amount of pressure. Both to fulfill the needs and wants of members safely, but also to earn back some of the lost revenue from canceled events and/or unsustainable pricing models introduced over the last year.

Therefore, prioritizing nimbleness can be an important strategy for associations to employ. It’s okay not to have all the answers before registration launches. But establish a date about two to four weeks out where everything is firmed up and communicated to attendees. This will allow them to better evaluate their personal comfort level in attending, commit to event expectations, and plan their travel and participation accordingly.

Many associations are even adopting an optional color-coded stoplight system of stickers, name badge ribbons, or wristbands where green represents attendees who are fully vaccinated and for whom hugs are welcome; yellow represents cautious attendees who prefer to only bump elbows; and red represents attendees who prefer no contact whatsoever.

4. Anticipate throwing the tried-and-true event timeline and checklist out the window.

The Texas Apartment Association held its 2021 TAA ONE Conference and Expo in San Antonio this past April. Lynn Fisher, CMP, vice president of conference and exhibitions, says she learned a variety of things from planning her first in-person event in two years.

“First, everything is different,” said Fisher. “From vendor contacts and speaker arrangements to room sets, audiovisual, and food and beverage. The planning process, including the budget, was a constantly moving target.”

So while it’s important to review and consider an event’s history and traditional milestones, associations should recognize that this data is merely a starting point. Planners must anticipate investing more time upfront in event strategy and not rely solely on their experience or intuition.

The silver lining, according to Fisher, is that “all of the differences allowed for some fresh and innovative thinking, including the way we marketed the program.”

This included a big tactical shift from print and mail to digital and social marketing. TAA leveraged member influencers and a Visit San Antonio representative on Facebook Live to explain the safety measures in place, as well as partnered with Feathr to help grow, engage, and convert its digital audience through various campaigns like cart abandonment and retargeting ads.

Additionally, volunteers participated in “phonathons,” where they got together to make personal phone calls inviting their colleagues to attend, answering prospective attendee questions, and scheduling opportunities to meet face-to-face.

5. Prepare yourself and your attendees for an emotional reaction to meeting again in person.

The biggest surprise, according to Fisher, was the emotional impact meeting in person had on conference attendees.

“We tend to focus on the logistics of the meeting, but this one was different,” Fisher said. “We realized how many lives we touched, putting so many of our vendor partners back to work. It was more of a celebration, both for our members and for the event industry itself.”

Having recently traveled out-of-state for the first time fully vaccinated, I can personally relate to this assessment. It started with venturing out of the comfort and routine of my own home and into a world I’d experienced before, but this time with a new (and slightly jaded) perspective. I’d become unaccustomed to the packing, the traveling, and the exploring. While it was decidedly more effortful, it was also beautiful and refreshing at the same time.

At our in-person meetings, it’s reasonable to expect our participants will experience a range of emotions – from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. We should create safe spaces for people to share, discuss, and process these feelings. Some groups might even welcome and benefit from the opportunity to engage with emotional support animals or to speak with a licensed professional providing onsite mental health services.

So, What’s Next?

Having recently conferred with a group of industry consultants, we seemed to agree that the notion of certainty – relying on member loyalty alone to renew memberships, volunteer for committees, register for annual conferences, and participate at expected, pre-pandemic levels – may take years to fully come back, if at all.

In many ways, we’ve all grown accustomed to our new lives: working from home in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing; ditching the commute in favor of an extra hour or two of sleep; baking bread and other confections to our heart’s content; tending to flower beds and gardens previously deemed too high maintenance; and protecting our evenings and weekends from work commitments.

And yet, we can do this. One task and one event at a time. People are burned out on virtual calls and conferences. So much so that we’ve even named it: Zoom fatigue. Members are looking for a different and more interactive solution. While your meeting and event portfolio from this point forward may never be 100 percent in-person again, take this opportunity to determine what balance of in-person, virtual, and hybrid will meet the evolving needs of your audience.

And, above all, be kind to yourself. President Theodore Roosevelt and others have said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” We’re not going to get it right every time at bat, and there’s really no value in directly comparing ourselves with one another given the differences in our industries, organizations, and members, but we have to start again somewhere. Let’s set our intentions, do our best, and continue the dialogue based upon our collective lessons learned. From my seat, only one thing’s for certain: We are better together.

Note: TSAE’s sister association, the Michigan Society of Association Executives, convened more than 70 volunteers in April 2020 to develop guidance and resources for groups of 10 to 10,000 to meet safely. The guidance booklets are available as a free download at

Aaron D. Wolowiec, CAE, CMP, CTF/MT, CDP, is a learning/meetings strategist; certified Technology of Participation facilitator/mentor trainer; and association author, coach, and speaker. He designs engaging, multisensory learning experiences for association learners, resulting in acquisition of new knowledge and skills, forging of new relationships, and applied learning and perspective in the workplace. As the president and CEO of Event Garde, Aaron is a serial learner and entrepreneur who is nationally recognized for his professional development and facilitation work with boards, learners, staff, and volunteers. He can be reached at .

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