Associations Must Rethink Everything to Stay Relevant

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be long-lasting for membership organizations, says Gregg Talley, and some will be permanent.

Associations Must Change Virtual Meetings

Coronavirus and Meetings
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COVID-19 has struck a swift blow to many associations around the world by halting their key source of revenue: the big annual meeting. In the immediate term, these organizations should find new ways to support and connect members in this time of crisis, says Gregg Talley, CAE, FASAE. "We’re in that phase right now of just needing to share and to validate what we're all feeling and going through," says Talley, president and CEO of Talley Management Group, Inc., which manages 35 international associations.

Meanwhile, those who haven’t added virtual components to their live events should be figuring that out right now, Talley advised, because this crisis will be with us long after COVID-19 is under control. We caught up with Talley earlier this week to discuss the significant and long-term impact of the coronavirus on association meetings and revenue models.

How Talley Is Handling the Crisis for Associations

Gregg Talley, CAE, FASAE
Gregg Talley, CAE, FASAE

Are you cancelling meetings or postponing? How do you make that decision?
A couple of things are going on here. The first is the actual epidemiology of this. If you speak with epidemiologists, it's their opinion that this is a long-term issue. We will be dealing with this for far longer than the administration or anybody else has really been willing to put out there

If you look at the most recent models, they're talking about this going into August, and then you still have to figure we've got another month, two months, three months, in terms of the residual effect.

Our largest event is for about 50,000 people over July 4th weekend, and we just cancelled it. We were talking about postponing it, but we have a couple of epidemiologists on our advisory board, and they basically said there's no guarantee you're not going to be in the same position a year from now.

When might we return to some sense of normalcy?
What does that even look like? This is not going to be a snap return. My concern for those people who postponed until this fall is that they're going to be facing the exact same decision they were facing this spring. Even if I were going to hold an event in the fall — and let's assume we're able to travel by then — how much of my audience is actually going to come?

People with health risks might choose not to travel, and others won’t come because of economic circumstances – either their budgets have been cut or they can no longer afford it. Even without those factors, some people will say, "Tell me why I'd get on a plane and go to a hotel and be intermixed with hundreds of people while this is still even somehow impacting us?"

You really have to have an understanding of your audience base and where they fall, and obviously start polling. And start planning for these to be virtual events, because you're just not going to see the snap back.

What will be different about large association meetings a few years from now?
I think we've got longer-term issues with those. Number one is risk mitigation — that is certainly a growing concern for planners and boards. Speaking on a global context, we were already seeing decisions getting delayed longer and longer because the world was just getting too weird politically, economically and everything else. So, people were holding back. Now you throw this health crisis on it, and you've got folks saying, "No way are we signing contracts now for five years out."

How will that shrinking booking window effect site selection?
I think there’s going to be more space available because some groups are not going to be meeting, or they're going to have smaller events.

Are you planning virtual meetings this year for your association groups?
Absolutely. I think that's one of the key things we have to be doing. In any type of crisis, you need to up your level of communications, right? Now, more than ever, we need to be figuring how to get in front of our members. How do we show them we care? How do we provide information that they need? How do we, right now, just create a space for them to share? Because in many cases that’s all they want to do. They want to say, "Hey, here's what I'm going through. Have you guys dealt with this? If so, what did you do?"

Are you planning completely virtual conferences for this year?
Yes, for a number of our clients, we're just planning for full-scale virtual events now.

For anybody who has a meeting in the third or fourth quarter of 2020, I would strongly urge that if you don’t already have a virtual component to it, get on that fairly quickly. And be ready to pivot, because I think some of those events are not going to happen, and then you're going to have a completely virtual event whether you had intended to or not.

Are associations grappling with how to stage a virtual event? Is that a difficult pivot? 
I think for a lot of us it's going to be a little bit of trial and error. And we need to determine how complicated we are going to make this. Are we going to have one-way communication, or two-way? Are we trying to tie this in with some other apps? Are we going to charge for this? If so, we've got to tie it to a pay platform.

You can also set expectations with your audience. Say, "Hey, we're all going through this together for the first time, and there may be some technology glitches from our end or, frankly, from your end, but let's jump in and learn from that experience." And the next one will be better.

Do you think people will be skittish about attending large events after this period of isolation ends?
We're just starting to talk about that now. Say we go back to traveling in the fall and I've got an event planned. What is the level of expectation of the attendees who come? Will they be asking, "How has it been reorganized and planned with my safety and wellness in mind?" What does that mean for the room sets? What does that mean for all the social events? How do we now do a face-to-face event when there's going to be heightened awareness and concern about all of that? And does that ever go away?

What do you see happening with international meetings?
I think it’s a bigger issue for global meetings. Who's going to say, "Sure, let me get on a plane and sit for eight hours in a confined spot, and maybe go through two ugly airport experiences"? I don't see it.

We've been talking for years about how associations need to broaden their revenue models. Will this crisis accelerate that process?
It has to. We’re going to be forced to get granular with our attendance base. We're going to have to rethink the model and do more things to get the same amount of revenue that we used to get from the one big annual event. We’re going to have to completely rethink the delivery of education and professional development.

And what happens to the big annual association event?
We will see everything from just smaller, more regional events, to a combination of a live piece and a much broader virtual component, to 100 percent virtual.

Will associations be able to monetize virtual events?
The price point is an issue. If you used to charge a couple of hundred euros for a live two-day event, can you do the same thing virtually? Of course, the answer to that is no; but nor are you incurring the same expenses. We're going to have to see how the economics work.

Among the few silver linings of the pandemic, we've seen an improvement in air quality. Are we going to be willing, as a society, to undo that?
There's going to be some interesting dialogue out of this experience. Just from a sustainability standpoint, we can see the level of CO2 dropping around the world. We'll have to ask ourselves, what have we learned, and what are we willing to go back to? Those are questions we’ll have to answer on the flip side.