Cancel, Postpone, or Go Virtual?

How are you handling the pandemic meetings challenge?

Cancel, Postpone, or Go Virtual?

You've probably already canceled or postponed at least one meeting or conference, and you're just not sure about plans for the third and fourth quarters. Uncertainty is the name of the game in this pandemic. Everyone is exploring options. Every meeting planner we talk to is juggling different ways to handle upcoming meetings.

Who knows when face-to-face meetings will again be possible? There are some large face-to-face meetings now being held in China and other Asia Pacific nations, but only under stringent guidelines and sanitary procedures. That also could be the case in the US, but nobody knows when the "all clear" might sound. We do have to start planning for such meetings in case they can happen, but we also have to decide what to do if they don't.

This is also a problem with postponements. If you haven't already arranged with your venue for later dates for your conference, there may be none available when you want them. And changing venues might not be possible. After all, everybody is scrambling for later dates. If the quarantine continues or is re-started, even these later dates won't work.

Another problem is whether your potential registrants will be comfortable enough to attend a face-to-face meeting. This will differ in different parts of the country, so you have to know your target audience and the environment. You will need to provide thorough information about all the steps you and the venue are taking to keep everyone safe and healthy. There are, I am told, some groups preparing guidelines on what must be done and those should be ready in the near future. In the meantime, there's plenty of information online on cleaning, sanitizing, social distancing, and the like to give you a good idea of what you should be working on for now.

Safety First

If you do go with a face-to-face event, it's essential to communicate, says Amy Brown, Director of Events and Education for the Trade Press Media Group (TPMG). "You must promote safety measures to potential attendees, and you need to be open and honest with your communication. We usually over-communicate just to be sure everyone gets the message." TPMG had a major conference scheduled for March and, on short notice, decided to postpone to August. "On short notice, we had to notify speakers, attendees, and exhibitors. We made calls, sent emails, and checked to see if the emails had been opened. If not, we started a phone tree and called them. People understood. We got new dates right away, so we're able to give them the new dates." Brown concedes that it's possible the August event might not be held, and they reevaluate weekly. She and her team also are considering going virtual with parts of the program.

Many organizations have been preparing to go to a virtual model, sometimes with just presentations, sometimes with more interactive models. This means the staff has to learn a new skill set and technology and that technology has to be in place and reliable. Another problem -- with everyone exploring platforms for this type of program, some companies are not taking new clients because they are simply too busy. And if you can get the platform, can you get the dates?

"We are working hard to make the pivot to virtual meetings," said Jennifer Woods, CMP, Director of Global Events at the CFA Institute. "We're looking at various opportunities on how to deliver content and different experiences. It's possible some changes may be long-lasting." Woods believes there is a future for in-person events, but she doesn't see an end date for the current situation." She is concerned that people do tire more quickly with virtual events ("How do you keep them interested for more than an hour?") and don't get the same networking value. But she is up to the challenge and sees some additional opportunities with virtual events. "For example," she says, "the ability to reach people who may not have been able to attend in person but now can benefit from the program."

Online Meetings and Virtual Events

There are many articles online from some very reliable sources about how to move to a virtual platform and how the meetings might be structured. We are not going to talk about that specifically here. What we want to do is provide you with some things to think about as you weigh the decision or have already made the decision to go virtual.

One of the things to consider as you plan for a virtual event is the logistics of the presentations. According to some experts, an individual's attention span when viewing a presentation on a computer will depend greatly on how interested they are in the content. It might be as little as five minutes but seldom as long as 90 minutes. The average adult has a 15-20 minute attention span and probably less when listening or watching rather than attending a talk. Advice to keynote speakers often maintains that 20 minutes is long enough. As FDR once said, you have to "Be sincere, be brief, be seated." And remember that most TED Talks are limited to a maximum length of 18 minutes. It's probably good to share this information with presenters and maybe suggest they should go no longer than two TED Talks with some relief after 20 minutes. If it's a panel, longer time periods would probably work.

Next, consider the time frame for the meeting. If you'd traditionally do this in two or three days, and you want to keep the same schedule virtually, consider making time for plenty of breaks in between sessions. Maybe a sponsored 15- or 30-minute coffee break where individuals can sign up with email and their postal address. The sponsor can then mail them coffee mugs, sugar/creamer packets, and a donut coupon. This way, the sponsor gets their email and some attention.

Handling sponsors and exhibitors can be challenging because they won't get face-to-face time with the attendees. But the sponsored breaks (maybe a virtual pizza lunch at the end of the day?) can help add value for them. A 15-minute chair yoga session might be welcome. Be creative by giving them lots of options -- and ask them for their ideas as well.

Live streaming is the most popular way to proceed with virtual conferences, but content-on-demand offers another option. This makes it possible for those who cannot "attend" the event to watch the sessions of most interest to them. On-demand content also enables people to watch in quiet settings, maybe evenings instead of during work hours.

Brown and Woods acknowledge the uncertainly meeting planners face today in planning events. They have contingency plans and brainstorm all the what-ifs to help ensure they're ready for whatever happens. Like others we've spoken to, they appreciate the challenge of finding options that will work for their attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors while acknowledging that some of the changes we see could result in positive changes for the future.

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