After the year we had in 2020, all of us in the association industry are asking the same type of questions: What does the future of the events industry hold for us? How do we go about navigating the new “normal” for holding in-person events? With associations deriving a substantial amount of revenue from events, trade shows, and conferences, there is no question that we need to figure out not only what we can expect from our events moving forward, but how to mitigate event-related risk in a safe and practical manner.
An important note: If your association purchased event cancellation insurance for your event(s) or conference(s), you were given the choice to accept or reject communicable disease coverage. Since January 2020 when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern,’ the majority, if not all, of insurance carriers, no longer offer communicable disease coverage, with specific COVID-19 exclusions. I do not see this changing in 2021 or for the foreseeable future. In my experience, about 80% of associations elected to purchase this additional coverage. By electing communicable disease coverage, the insurance policy most likely would have responded to a claim you filed for a cancelled, curtailed, or postponed event triggered by COVID-19. Each insurance policy language differs and should be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
The health threat from COVID-19 isn’t completely disappearing now that a vaccine is available. COVID-19 will continue to be the driving force behind cancelled or modified events. So, what can we do to ensure the safety of our attendees at association events? What steps can we take in the planning process to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and to expedite our industry’s recovery?
Look to the CDC for health guidelines
The first place we should look for some of these answers is the most obvious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the guidelines they have put forth for how to hold responsible and safe in-person events should be your first information stop for minimizing health risks. Face masks, 6-foot distances, temperature screenings, self-monitoring symptoms, and washing and/or sanitizing hands frequently are all measures every group should implement when holding an in-person event. You can expect these risk mitigating steps will be here to stay for a long time, especially as we inch closer to in-person events. The CDC website offers roadmaps and guidance on how to evaluate risk levels, and protocols for cleanliness that can help prevent the spread of the virus. I encourage everyone tasked with planning an event to start with CDC’s website.
Rely on virtual events to eliminate health risks while still allowing an event to happen
If your association could manage to not cancel an event outright, you likely held it as a virtual or hybrid event as an alternative. Virtual events are currently the best way to mitigate risk because they eliminate in-person interaction altogether while offering a way for members, suppliers, sponsors, and other stakeholders to interact with each other. With that said, in my dealings with clients and insurance carriers thus far in 2021, I expect virtual events will continue to be the most popular route taken by associations for at least the next six months.
Test out a hybrid event
As we start to see vaccinations and herd immunity increase throughout the year, it is my belief that we will start to see more associations turn to hybrid events. As cities and local governments begin to ease crowd restrictions and quarantine regulations, I think hybrid events will be an important step in the process to getting back to full in-person events. Holding a hybrid event allows associations to gain back some of the face-to-face interaction, networking, and camaraderie that they would otherwise have lost with a cancelled event, or virtual for that matter.
Know which safety practices will be required for in-person events
If your association plans to hold an in-person event in 2021, there will be the added pressure of implementing health precautions and prevention practices to your planning process. To make your event as safe as possible for attendees and exhibitors, you will have to include sanitizing stations to help prevent the spread of infections. Cleaning booths and service desks, meeting rooms, and exhibits will more than likely be necessary at the end of each day, if not multiple times. It might also be a reality that you require a negative COVID-19 test result or proof of vaccination. As mentioned, the CDC’s website has a lot of helpful and informative information for your event planner to reference. There should also be constant communication between your planner and local and state officials, to make sure that your association is complying with any regulations that might be required of your association for holding an in-person event in their community.
Anticipate common risk factors.
Making sure your event is safe while attendees are there is critical. But there are also steps to be taken prior to holding the events that are equally as important. The following are all crucial factors that your association needs to consider and be educated on, prior to holding an event.
- Are the levels of local infections within the city of your event high or increasing? This could increase the risk of the spread of COVID-19 amongst attendees of your event.
- Will your event be indoors or outdoors? If indoors, the venue’s ventilation system needs to be considered.
- Has your association confirmed refund policies for those attendees that have either fallen ill or can no longer travel to the event due to COVID-19? You will want to make sure the process is easy for potential attendees to get their money back should they have to back out, to entice them to register for the event in the first place.
Another good idea is to nominate a person (or persons) to be responsible for all COVID-19 related issues during your event. Make it a point to reiterate to attendees and staff who this person or team of people are and how to get in touch with them, so that everyone knows in case an issue arises at the event.
The good news is that we are already seeing more in-person events scheduled and planned for 2021 than we did this time in 2020. While we can expect the virtual, hybrid, and smaller in-person event options to be sticking around for rest of the year, it is still a great improvement from the extraordinary year we had in 2020.
As more people start to get the vaccine and local and state restrictions start to lift, the light at the end of the tunnel will get a little brighter with each month that passes. If we are all doing our part to carry out our responsibilities we owe to our attendees at our events, we can start the process of putting 2020 further in our rearview and get back to in-person events as we know and love them.
Consider all the risk factors (before, during and after) associated with holding a large gathering at an event, put the safety protocols in place, take the health precautions seriously, set realistic expectations and I think we will be in great shape for 2021 and beyond. I am excited for the future of the association events industry – it is within reach!