The Future of Association Meetings Looks Entirely Different

Keep your values intact but scrap everything else in your business plan, advises Gregg Talley.

Association Meetings International Future Change

Coronavirus and Meetings
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The "glory days" of international conferences are probably over, says Gregg Talley, CAE, FASAE. As president and CEO of Talley Management Group, Inc., which manages 35 international associations, he’s been helping clients launch virtual events in the short term and organize hybrid meetings in the longer term. Two months ago he told Northstar that COVID-19 would force associations to rethink their business models. Now he’s helping them tackle that challenge.

The pandemic is just one factor driving change. Deepening economic pressures, health concerns, political issues and civil unrest are cracking the foundation of traditional association business models. In a conversation last week, I asked Talley, "Do associations need to reinvent themselves completely?" His answer: "You hold your values in place, but yeah, I think it's all brand new now."

Following are highlights from that conversation, which can be heard in full here.

What is happening in the association world right now?
The biggest thing is the pivot we're all doing to virtual or hybrid events. I've got clients all over the gamut, from those who say, "Yes, we're in," to others saying, "No, no, no — it's going to cannibalize our live event." We're going to have to start from the very beginning and take them through the entire process. We have to help them get their heads around what the opportunity is, as opposed to the threat.

Gregg Talley, Talley Management Group
Gregg Talley, Talley Management Group

With hundreds of platforms on the market, is it overwhelming to decide which to use?
You're right, there are so many. The fact is, you’ve got to jump in, right? Our organizations are looking to us to help guide them through this process. That's where our industry organizations become important, and that's where resources like Northstar become important, to help them sort their way through this.

It seems that everyone wants to know which virtual-event platform is "the best."
Yeah, but it all depends; that's the problem. One of the challenges is that everybody's looking for a silver bullet — and there is no silver bullet. It's totally dependent on your event, what you want to do with it, and your audience.

We’re telling our clients, "Let’s slow down and look at what this really means for the organization on a larger front for the next two to three years. Let's not just approach this as a one-off. How might we integrate this whole thing in a different way? How might we repackage some of this for sponsor support?" This requires a real dialogue about what you need to accomplish.

Have your clients held digital-only events yet, or will they soon?
We’ve got one for the American Headache Society happening this month, which we anticipate will have 1,500 to 1,800 attendees. The International Society of Extracellular Vesicles will hold its meeting virtually in July. We’re integrating live sessions, recorded sessions, exhibits — the whole routine.

When do you expect to see the first face-to-face events or hybrid live/virtual events happening?
I'm living this with a couple of associations. In fact, I volunteer for ICCA (the International Congress and Convention Association). We put a stake in the ground that we would have a November hybrid annual conference. The 59th ICCA Congress is in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and we are still going to have the nucleus of the event there live, to the degree it can be live, for those who are able and want to get to Kaohsiung, and now with an extended virtual component. So, it will be a full, real hybrid event this fall.

If there's a virtual alternative, how do you entice people to attend in person?
I think that’s our big challenge going forward, because probably 70 percent of what I want from the event I can get with a virtual experience and without spending the time or the money that comes with travel. That’s where we're going to have to get really creative as an industry. We are going to ensure that you have an experience that can’t be replicated online.

Do you expect significantly fewer people will attend face-to-face meetings if there’s a virtual alternative?
Yes. The economic pressure that everyone's under, and the ongoing concern for health and safety, are fundamentally going to change our industry and the choices of the events we go to. Decisions about business travel will be put through a new filter. Some of that will come from me as an attendee, but the pressure is also going to come from whoever is approving my travel budget and saying, "Do you really need to do all those trips you used to do?"

What will the in-person event look like in terms of health-safety precautions?
We’re still figuring that out. We've got five months until ICCA, and I we want to use that as a model to demonstrate what a live event will look like under whatever the social-distancing restrictions, food-and-beverage and health-safety guidelines are in place at that time. And that's fluid right now, so we really don't know what we're planning for. We want to be able to model what the future potential of large rotating international events can look like, given the fact that we are going to be dealing with some level of restriction as we go forward in this "middle period."

How many people would you estimate will attend ICCA in person?
That's the big question everybody wants to know. Taiwan right now is still restricting group size to 100 or 200, and there's still a multiday quarantine period. But that's today; what does that look like in another month? What does that look like in another three months? We don't know.

And what is the appetite for Asia-Pacific travel? What does flight access look like in November? None of us has any idea. We've told our partners in Taiwan, "You're going to be the center of whatever we do, no matter what." If the board can travel, we're going to be there to demonstrate that we support travel, we support live events; but we're now supporting hybrid events.

As to how many others choose to or are able to make that trip, it will come down to the decision factors you or I would make about getting on any plane right now and crossing through international borders and perhaps an ocean or two.

That’s the fluidity of the situation. And layered on that now, particularly here in the United States, is what's going on in cities all across the country. Who knows what the hell we're going to look like tomorrow, let alone five or six months from now.

With the extent of the COVID-19 crisis and now civil unrest, I’m worried that the rest of the world will be hesitant to come to the U.S., not just now but in the longer term.
And they will. This really started three years ago, with people deciding not to bring an international conference to United States because of what our leadership is saying about immigration, about people from other countries and other ethnicities. We had already shot ourselves in the foot on that.

People are going to be making decisions based on how destinations dealt with COVID-19 — absolutely. It's going to be one of the first questions we look at, because that tells us an awful lot about infrastructure, which tells us all an awful lot about how that destination would respond to a crisis. That's going to feed into the planning process.

And now you add this on — racial discrimination and unrest. I just had a call with colleagues from Africa, and they're like, "What the hell is going on?"

So, yes, people are saying, "We're not going to go there." If we’re all worrying about risk right now — and risk really has become the number-one issue — why in the hell would we go to the United States of America?

Many associations rely on their annual meeting as their primary revenue source. What now?
Associations need to take whatever the strategic plan was and put it over here and have a new discussion about going forward as an organization. Are we in a survival situation, or do we need to really go back to square one? What do our members need and want from us? How do we deliver value today? And do we have the data to know that? If not, we’d better get it. We think that needs to start pretty quickly.

What are some important steps in that process?
Number one, you're not looking at a single event anymore for 30 to 50 percent of your revenue. You're looking at a stream of interactivity that is providing a whole series of touchpoints and opportunities for you to engage with your stakeholders throughout the calendar year.

Number two, what challenges does this present for your industry and your member base that you can turn into an opportunity? What new needs do they have?

Lastly, and maybe even most importantly, what new collaborations and partnerships would behoove you as an organization to investigate right now that might not have made sense before, but now make more sense than ever?

According to Northstar’s Pulse Survey, meeting planners are worried about travel restrictions and budget cuts affecting attendance.
All of us are understanding that now, right? Every corporation is understanding they don't need — and probably didn't need — to spend all that travel budget.

At the same time, we really value the experience of going somewhere and actually having the face-to-face experience. People will be very excited to travel, but we also can have thousands more people participate on a virtual platform, so that we're really expanding the reach of our message.

Our survey also projects that we will have fewer large, international association meetings even after the COVID-19 crisis is over. Do you agree?
Yes. You and I might have actually seen the last of the glory days of large international events, because now you've got all sorts of other pressures: the economics, health issues, political aspects. Just look on the health front: If Latin America doesn't get its arms around what's happening right now with COVID-19, they are going to become perhaps one of the worst areas in the world as it relates to this disease. What does that do for them as a future destination in our space again? When you look at corporate compliance or risk, what corporations are going to say, "We're sending our folks down there for a meeting or an event"? They’re not going to do it.

There are some really big issues here that will have an impact on how we think of global meetings and events. And I hate that. I'm worried. But that's what it is.

On that note, do you see any positive outcomes for our industry?
Ha! I think a positive is there are going to be opportunities out of this in terms of how we do business. What that translates to is probably more regional events or hybrid international events that will bring regions together, with some participating virtually online.

I think humans are always going to want to get together personally. But in making those decisions, they’ll be asking, "Is that the right and necessary event for me to do in person now, in light of all these other things?"

One real benefit has been a reduced footprint from an environmental standpoint. That’s not a bad thing. And does the reduction of overtourism allow for some destinations to reclaim for their residents the lifestyle that they used to have? That’s also not a bad thing.

Maybe it allows us all to rethink a little bit and maybe reset before we rush back to what was. As organizers and owners of events, we need to think about them more responsibly. And maybe as attendees, we should ask ourselves, "Do I need to attend 14 international events in a year?"

For all the downsides, I also think there’s something really nice about the simplicity of our days right now.
Yes, I'm sure you've noticed it: Without so much of the noise in our lives, we've come to a new equilibrium. You step outside, you hear fewer planes overhead, which means you hear more birds. With more people at home, you hear the kids next door in a way you never heard before. There's a reordering that I think is going to come out of this; that is not all bad.

If we could all snap back tomorrow, would we want to snap back the same way? Have we learned something that, in all of our go, go, go -ness, we didn’t see? We were giving up something, and we didn't really realize what it was until now.