How This Association Re-Energized Itself and Its Membership with Online Connections

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This association professional learned that it is never too early to innovate.

In the summer of 2019, The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) was in the process of identifying its strategic priorities. Member engagement emerged as a key theme. That fall, ATS turned to Higher Logic to launch an online community called Engage ATS for its members to network and engage in peer learning.

This move proved to be serendipitous—it enabled the association to be uniquely prepared when, just months later, the pandemic changed the world as we knew it. Engage ATS soon became essential for the organization and the 272 North American graduate theology schools comprising its membership. “The timing could not have been better,”notes Lisa Kern, manager of member engagement at ATS.

“Our members were very appreciative that this community existed so that they could quickly and easily turn to one another to figure out a game plan in the middle of this unexpected crisis,” says Kern. “Theological education is a unique niche. “You cannot currently participate in webinars or virtual business events to easily find other people who do the exact same thing that you do. Our members have said, ‘My gosh, I don’t have this anywhere else. It’s so great to connect with people who speak my language.’”

Engage ATS consists of 15 hyper-focused communities, ranging from areas of work to specific topic interests, plus one big open forum community that any registered member can participate in. Engagement, Kern reports, began with an organic need for members to communicate during lockdown, but it has stayed strong in some of the focused communities ever since. “Members continue to reach out and learn from one another,” Kern says. “It has helped us learn a lot about our members too— their needs, their successes and their outlook,” especially while in-person meetings and business travel remain limited, she adds.

While organic growth and enthusiasm are great, Kern has started to initiate strategies to ensure that these communities continue to thrive. “I’ve been trying to work with my staff members to incorporate Engage ATS into our events and other offerings,” she explains. “For example, we recently asked event presenters to post established discussion threads for their specific topics into an Engage ATS community before their event. Once the event ended, presenters reminded attendees that the conversations continued among those discussion threads that they started in Engage ATS.”

For many associations, the ultimate goal of increasing member engagement is to increase renewals. But for a unique association serving a unique membership like ATS, the goal is, not surprisingly, outside of the norm. “Our goal is to learn from, for and with our members by continuing to provide accreditation and to offer them resources and tools like Engage ATS to enhance the good work they are already doing at their schools.”

For Kern, helping theological institutions connect in an online member community has been rewarding. “With the pandemic shutting down many office spaces and many in-person events ATS used to host, it’s been very difficult,” she says. “I’m energized by the presence of people around me, so I am very empathetic toward the people working for our member schools who may be feeling the same way. With Engage ATS, our members can have real-time conversations with their peers facing the same challenges, and they can share resources and success stories others may learn from. I’d like to think that this platform can make them feel like they are not alone in their work. That also energizes me.”

Higher Logic, the industry-leading, human-focused engagement platform, delivers powerful online communities and communication tools to engage members at every stage of their journey. Higher Logic provides a robust engagement platform and strategic services with over a decade of experience in building personalized and scalable community engagement programs. We serve more than 3,000 customers, representing over 350,000 online communities with greater than 200 million users in more than 42 countries worldwide.


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Membership Pro Tip: Give Members What They Want

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Using data to get a better idea of member preferences helps associations provide them with a better experience and boosts engagement.

Member job titles are not always the best way to gauge their interests. To get a better picture, the United Fresh Produce Association set up a customer relationship management system to track member interests based on what emails they opened, webinars they attended, and more.

The system automatically tags their records, which allows United Fresh’s membership team to retarget and take a deeper dive into the content, instead of constantly pulling lists, says Miriam Wolk, CAE, United Fresh’s vice president of member services.

How Does It Work?

In the past, United Fresh had several disparate systems. For example, members registered for a meeting on one platform and website visits were tracked on another. Having an effective system in place that integrated both its marketing and sales activity gave the membership team a way to track how members were interfacing with United Fresh because the information was all being sent to one place.

“Basically, we have a better sense of how members are choosing to interact with us,” Wolk says. Having that all information consolidated into one area gives the membership team a chance to follow up with members in a more meaningful way.

Why Is It Effective?

“It’s a timesaver for staff,” Wolk says. Instead of having to check multiple sources to get a read on members’ activity, there is a snapshot all in one place. It is also not a heavy lift technologically. “Once you get the basic architecture in place, it’s pretty seamless,” she says.

What Is the Benefit?

Members are getting information and content they are actually interested in. “It helps us provide a more tailored approach,” Wolk says, instead of throwing out emails to members hoping something will stick.

It has also helped make member prospecting more efficient. The more targeted approach has led to an increase in the download of publications and participation in webinars, too. “They get curated content that’s of interest to them, which in turn means it rises through the clutter,” she says.

Do you have a membership pro tip? Please share in the comments or send me an email.

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Why Associations Need to Improve Their Approach to Mental Health

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A new report on mental health in the workplace finds that workers are experiencing more mental health distress. For associations looking to address the issue, it begins with leaders advocating for mental health and putting resources behind it.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been an increased focus on mental health. A new report from Mind Share Partners shows the negative impact the pandemic has had on workers’ mental health and offers some advice on how employers can help.

According to the “2021 Mental Health at Work Report,” 76 percent of workers experienced at least one symptom of a mental health condition in 2021, up from 59 percent in 2019. The most common symptoms were burnout (56 percent), depression (46 percent), and anxiety (40 percent). The symptoms weren’t short-term either: 80 percent of workers said their symptoms lasted a month or more, and 36 percent said their symptoms lasted five months to a year.

That’s why supporting mental health in workplaces is something that employers can and should do. The first step is looking at the problem in a holistic way.

“Historically, we thought about supporting mental health in very individual ways—such as providing therapy or the more common mental health day,” said Bernie Wong, manager of research and design at Mind Share Partners. “Increasingly, we are really encouraging organizations to think from a systems and culture level.”

How Employers Can Help

For associations looking to improve their approach to mental health, Wong said there are a couple of broad items to begin with.

“One is a bit more public facing: leaders really advocating for mental health and really normalizing mental health as an everyday experience that many people go through,” Wong said. “This can look like sharing their own story to simply verbal encouragement.”

The second approach focuses on resources. “Really prioritizing the budget for mental health or making sure there’s a steering committee committed to and accountable to those activities internal in their organization,” Wong said.

While having top leaders be supportive is important, it’s also key to empower people managers at every level to have open conversations about mental health and the team dynamic.

“Managers really have a lot of control over the experience of work itself within their teams,” Wong said. “So, conversations around working norms or even checking in proactively in an intentional way can do a lot for individual employees to make sure that their experience of work is positive, especially amidst remote working and even return-to-office conversations.”

When organizations look at employee mental health as something they can collectively work to improve, they can take on a proactive role to head off problems.

“It’s important to prioritize noticing the signs and symptoms of mental health burnout and averting crises,” Wong said. “We encourage this proactive culture piece around creating a culture where it’s safe and supportive around mental health and [where] individual employees who may want to share or seek support can do so safely in an encouraging and empowered way.”

One way to support mental health proactively is through check-ins, where managers find out how things are going with their employees.

“Checking in isn’t just simply checking in,” Wong said. “It’s communicating value. It’s creating opportunities for individual employees to share, because bringing it up yourself can be challenging. And also checking in doesn’t have to be so explicit around mental health; we don’t need to share our deepest-darkest challenges every time there’s a check-in. Most of the time check-ins will look very anticlimactic.”

While mental health concerns affect all employees, there are some differences among groups, and it’s important for associations to take that into consideration when planning their efforts to address mental health.

“We think of mental health as a diversity, equity, and inclusion issue,” Wong said. “We found that certain groups like caregivers, the LGBTQ+ community, Black, and LatinX employees face greater mental health challenges and are more likely to report work and the workplace as having a negative impact on their mental health.”

Being sure to support all employees will be crucial, as many employees are seeing a supportive mental health environment as a requirement to staying at their job. “How an employer organization decides to prioritize and support employees will really drive many of the attrition rates for the general wellbeing of their employees,” Wong said. “It’s important that any organization explores different strategies. For example, if you have a mental health day, who takes advantage of that? And then make sure they pursue those strategies that are inclusive for people.”

What is your association doing to address your staff’s mental health? Share in the comments.

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Do You Really Need a New Membership Model?

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Changing membership models is a lengthy process that should not be taken lightly. It requires looking at several items to determine if a change is necessary. One membership pro offers her insights on a timely topic.

Is it time to update your membership model? It’s a popular question on many membership professionals’ minds and is reflected in recent data. Forty-five percent of associations have considered a new membership model in 2021, up from 40 percent in 2020, according to Marketing General Incorporated’s (MGI) 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. It is a small, but notable, increase.

But before jumping into a new membership model structure, Camille Sanders, CAE, director of marketing and membership at the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, recommends taking a step back to see if you really need one. “Because you obviously don’t want to fix what isn’t broken,” she said.

Look at the Big—and Small—Picture

Before starting the process, look at where your association stands. Is membership growth stagnant? Are there issues with retention? Take a deep dive into membership data to identify performance gaps or if there are any target market needs that are not being met. Drill down into data—especially engagement data—both from members and customers.

Looking at dues revenue is also essential because that will show if you are hitting your association’s goals, or if there is a deficit in dues revenue. “Membership growth and retention analysis can seem intimidating to a lot of association professionals because everybody’s not a numbers whiz,” Sanders said. Leveraging the expertise of the association’s finance team can help with the analysis of revenue trends and financial modeling to see if a new membership model is the way to go, she said.

Then it’s a good idea to conduct qualitative analysis by surveying or conducting focus groups with the association’s leadership, volunteer group segments, nonmember customers, and members. The goal of those assessments is to determine whether the features and the benefits of the association’s current membership model address the high priority needs of the target audience.

Ask What Members Value

“When you’re talking about a membership model change, what you’re essentially talking about is reassessing the way that individuals are able to find value in your organization,” Sanders said. For example, a tiered membership model structure provides different levels of access to different membership types.

There might be a more expensive category, where members get a full suite of benefits and a less expensive category that only provides digital access and online resources. “The less expensive category might be more appealing for people who don’t need all of the bells and whistles that come with the higher tier,” Sanders said.

Another compelling reason to look at a tiered structure? Associations experiencing increases in membership over the past five years, and those showing growth in new members and renewal rates, are more likely to have implemented a tiered membership structure, according to MGI’s report.

A tiered dues model “really does work to eliminate that one-size-fits-all approach to membership,” Sanders said. A tiered approach gives members the opportunity to customize their experience. But associations “have to be prepared to speak uniquely to the value of each different tier based on who you’re marketing to,” Sanders said.

We all know that associations have been thrust into an environment where they have to reconsider how they do business. “People don’t need or want the things they needed or wanted just two years ago,” Sanders said. This means associations must adjust and respond to the marketplace as it stands right now. Looking at current membership models and deciding if they are still effective is a good place to start.

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Whether Your Association Has 1,000 or 100,000 Members, It All Comes Down to One-on-One Relationships

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If you want to go big with your membership base, you have to stay small with your communications, says this association marketing pro.

The American Medical Group Association works with some of the biggest and best-known health organizations in the country, including the likes of the Mayo Clinic and The Permanente Medical Group. But despite the size of AMGA’s 175,000+ membership base of physicians, Director of Council Relations Joe DeLisle believes the strength of this association lies in individual connections.

“The number one thing I would advise any marketer or membership professional in the association world looking to grow new memberships and increase retention is to develop one-on-one relationships with your members,” says DeLisle. “There is obviously a limit to the number of people you can do this with, but I have members with whom I text about baseball and chat about nerdy movies. As a representative of your association, you want to be regarded not only as a trusted source of information, but also as a person with whom the member feels connected.”

This personal touch pervades the AMGA’s approach to its Councils, which are online groups organized via the Higher Logic community and communications platform. “We’ve taken a different approach than many other organizations,” explains DeLisle. “A lot of associations have these big, open community boards, but ours are all private. We have 16 separate Councils, which are sorted by various roles or demographics. We have one for CEOs, we have one for attorneys, marketers, and more along with specialized Councils for women and emerging leaders.”

Rather than blasting members with every issue under the sun in healthcare, this approach keeps the conversations specific to the member’s individual needs and expertise, and it has had phenomenal results. “When I first started, we had 800 people in nine councils — now we have over 2,500 in 16 Councils. It has absolutely exploded,” DeLisle reports. “The ‘throw everything at members and see what sticks’ approach just trains people to ignore the community emails since a good chuck of them don’t relate to their specific situations. Keeping it applicable and relevant preserves the sanctity of the conversations.”

Because at the end of the day, he says, applicability is what members want. “Everybody is looking to learn from someone in their shoes because it’s one thing to read about a solution in a book or in an article, but it’s something different to hear it coming from somebody who is in your exact situation, talking to patients or working on a merger or an acquisition. Nuance matters. Being able to connect to someone who’s in the trenches and who’s actually done what you’re trying to do? That is invaluable.”

The AMGA doesn’t just sit back and hope for great engagement. They employ a multi-pronged approach to keeping members active in the Councils. DeLisle says this can come in the form of a simple email saying, “Hey, we noticed you haven’t posted in a while,” with a link to a thread where their expertise could be useful. “Sometimes we find that a little invitation to participate can be all it takes to get someone who hasn’t posted before to get involved,” he notes. “And every two weeks or so, we will repromote any unanswered questions. Everyone has a thousand emails in their inbox, so we want to call attention to important questions that might have been missed.”

This attention to detail has not gone unnoticed by members, says DeLisle, which helps fuel the passion of the professionals behind the scenes at the AMGA. “It’s very humbling to have a CEO in charge of hundreds of employees and thousands or millions of patients send you a note that says, ‘Thanks so much for putting this together. I don’t know what we would have done without it.’ Or they tell us that there has never been a more valuable time to be involved in an association allowing healthcare professionals to help each other. Making those one-on-one connections happen is incredibly rewarding.”

Higher Logic, the industry-leading, human-focused engagement platform, delivers powerful online

communities and communication tools to engage members at every stage of their journey. Higher Logic provides a robust engagement platform and strategic services with over a decade of experience in building personalized and scalable community engagement programs. We serve more than 3,000

customers, representing over 350,000 online communities with greater than 200 million users in more

than 42 countries worldwide.


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Good Reads You Might Have Missed: Working With Speakers

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Whether the speakers at your events are first-timers or old pros, it’s a good idea to think about both how to select them and how to prepare them for your audience.

Associations have lots of events each year, and events have lots of speakers to manage. Some are old hands at the speaker circuit; others are existing members who have decided to step on the stage for the first time.

And both may find themselves having to deal with an additional layer they may not have in the past: a webcam and virtual event setup for a virtual or hybrid audience.

So, how can you get them ready? Check out these entries from the ASAE and Associations Now archives:

Help Virtual Presenters Shine With a Speaker Instruction Manual. With virtual events on the rise, it’s becoming more important than ever to prepare speakers ahead of time, especially as the setting may be new to them—which makes an instruction manual an effective tool. In the piece, Kiki L’Italien, CEO and founder of Amplified Growth, explained a few strategies for building such a manual. “What I’ve noticed is that speakers need a lot more help,” L’Italien says. “They’re actually asking more questions: ‘Is it OK if I do this?’ ‘How does this mic sound?’”

‌First-Time Speakers: How to Better Prepare Them. But what about speakers who are new to the stage? This piece offers ideas that help ensure that someone who is getting in front of an audience knows what’s what. “It’s unlikely that first-time speakers can ever be over-prepared, so arm them with all the information they need on practical matters like how slides should be formatted or what they should name their session,” Associations Now Editor-in-Chief Samantha Whitehorne writes.

How to Choose the Right Keynote Speaker. This 2018 piece by executive trainer and speaker bureau operator Steve Markman breaks down the myths of speaker selection, as well as what associations should expect when assessing the market. “At the end of the day, your primary objective should be to hire memorable keynote speakers who will give you a good return on your investment,” he writes.

Leveraging Referrals to Find Speakers. Is the secret to finding a great speaker a good referral and recommendation initiative? Cindy Simpson, CAE, former chief business development officer at the Association for Women in Science, breaks down considerations for setting up your content selection committees for success in finding speakers—including at the American Society of Addiction Medicine, which has integrated referrals into its program. “By following established policies, the process of identifying speakers and content through referrals and recommendations will go much more smoothly for volunteers and staff alike,” she writes.

Why Speaker Preparation Is a Must. This listicle offers options for getting speakers ready for an event, including webinars, mentoring strategies, and online toolkits. “Ahead of your conference, it’s a great idea to get all your speakers together online or over the phone and provide them with some event details,” the piece states.



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Membership Pro Tip: An Update to Better Meet Member Needs

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The Urgent Care Association knew it was time for a reset to better meet member needs because of a tidal shift in its industry due to the pandemic. With a small staff, planning and a realistic timeline are key ingredients for a successful overhaul.

Many associations were significantly affected by the pandemic, especially ones in the healthcare field, like the Urgent Care Association. A wave of people coming into urgent care centers to get tested for the coronavirus led to many unforeseen challenges, like a markedly increased workload that put a strain on staffing, and more. With a growing industry to represent, UCA recognized it needed to make some updates to better meet member needs.

“We are doing a reassessment of everything that we do and everything we offer to our members to make sure that we’re meeting their new needs,” says Cindy Simpson, CAE, administrative assistant at UCA. “As their needs have changed, especially over the past year and a half, we realized that we need to change so we can continue to remain relevant.”

How Does It Work?

UCA looped in its board and members for a series of discussions to identify and realign programming to make sure it can continue to attract and retain members. The group started with a series of internal exercises to look at everything they were offering members and grading them in terms of relevance.

“It’s not enough to just say it is still important,” Simpson says. “You have to know why it’s important, and you have to back that up with data, revenue, and more.”

The next step is an internal gap analysis, keeping in mind UCA only has a staff of 13. “We can’t do everything all at once,” Simpson says. The analysis will help prioritize which new programs to create, whether to revise the dues structure, and more. However, none of this will happen overnight. “This is not a six-month project. It’s not a six-week project,” she says. “This is a two-year project we’re taking on.”

Why Is It Effective?

The goal is to continue to increase UCA’s membership to correspond with the growth in the industry. The process will also help UCA position itself to sell more of its programs and services and attract more people to the organization. It will also emphasize to members—and prospective members—why they need to belong to UCA.

What Is the Benefit?

For the association, they’ll be able to assess what areas need attention and where to add the necessary staff to accomplish those objectives. In turn, UCA will then be able to develop programs and services that match member needs and provide them with resources that are more tailored to a shifting healthcare landscape.

It’s not a fast process, especially with a small staff. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, you have to plan,” Simpson says. “You have to give yourself the luxury of time to make this happen.”

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A Look at the Post-Pandemic Association Workplace

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While many other industries have already returned to the traditional office, a new survey reveals that associations are moving toward more remote and hybrid workplaces as they look to offer staff more flexibility and retain employees.

While associations are sometimes criticized as being slow to embrace change or different ways of working, a new survey shows that a lot of associations are going all in when it comes to hybrid and remote work options, as compared to other industries.

The “State of Association Workplaces Post-Pandemic Survey,” conducted by Achurch Consulting and Association Trends, asked associations a multitude of questions about their work before and since the pandemic and their future plans. The survey found that in March 2020, 85 percent of association staff were onsite, while in March 2021, nearly the opposite was true, with 83 percent working remotely. (This compared to 21 percent of all workers who were still working remotely due to the pandemic in March 2021, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics pandemic data.) Moving forward, 79 percent of associations plan to be hybrid or fully remote.

Rebecca Achurch, CAE, founder of Achurch Consulting, said associations seem to be on the leading edge of this workforce opportunity, in part, because the work they do is well-suited for remote and hybrid.

“We don’t have to be in person most of the time to carry out our job,” Achurch said. “Our organizations are primarily fewer than 200 staff members, so our processes aren’t as complicated. We have opportunities to re-create or just become more efficient.”

The survey was primarily targeted toward C-level association executives. While the execs embraced hybrid and remote, Achurch notes the shift was pushed by employees, who were looking for more flexibility. A general desire by organizations to retain and attract talent played a role as well.

“We want people to be engaged,” Achurch said. “We want people buying into our mission. We want our team members to really be performing and bringing their best to our workplaces. The workforce is saying is saying, ‘Yeah, I want to do that, but part of what’s going to make me at my best at work is a more flexible work environment.’ In order for organizations to hire the best talent, employees are demanding this flexibility.”

Adjusting to Hybrid and Remote Work

While associations are embracing hybrid and remote, there are some concerns about how it will affect the organization.

“Our study showed that communication challenges were the number-one challenge that people were concerned about,” Achurch said. “The second challenge was culture.”

To reduce the impact of those challenges, Achurch recommends thinking intentionally about how you want your organization to work and implementing a plan to achieve that.

“This is the time where every organization can take a step back and reimagine what work is going to look like for their organization,” Achurch said. “That’s where we see a great opportunity to engage your staff now and ask about their needs. Understand what it is that makes your organization unique, what makes it remarkable. Then, craft your processes around that.”

To address the challenges that can crop up as organizations shift to hybrid or remote, Achurch had three pieces of advice, based on the report’s data.

“First, you need to understand the perspective of your workforce,” she said. “You need to actually ask and be transparent and talk about what works, what doesn’t work, and you have to iterate. We’re not going to get this right out of the gate, immediately. It’s going to take some patience and some time. That open, transparent iteration and constant communication about how you’re making tweaks is going to be really important for the long-term success of your organization.”

Because communication was listed as a top challenge, it’s important for organizations to make that a high priority.

“We believe you need to embrace new communication models and set some boundaries with them,” Achurch said. “What we hear is, ‘I’m feeling bombarded all the time; there’s so many different channels of communication.’ We need to understand how digital communications are received and set protocols around them, so that people know when to use email, know when to use Slack.”

Finally, people managers need to get more training on how to manage people in remote and hybrid environments. “We need to give them tools in their toolbox so that they can be successful managers and leaders,” Achurch said.

How much does remote or hybrid work play a role in your association’s plans? Share in the comments.

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Managing Extra Pandemic-Related Health and Safety Costs for In-Person Events

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The extra layers of safety that come with hosting events during COVID-19 also come with additional costs. Experts say some of the costs are being passed on to attendees, while in some cases, sponsors can offset fees through branding.

Events taking place during the pandemic have required an added layer of safety, which often comes with an added layer of expense. Those include costs for things like masks, extra signage, floor tiles indicating distancing, hand sanitizer, and even the costs of software or apps to help verify vaccination status.

Tim Turner, a COVID-19 compliance officer and executive producer for Freeman, said that organizations are adding the price of these extra safety and sanitation supplies into their meetings budgets.

“In the same process that you go through your meeting planning process and your budgeting process, that [COVID cost] just needs to be added to that,” Turner said. He said he’s generally seen fees for COVID-19 safety items raise the price between $25 to $50 per attendee, and some organizations will simply add the cost as a supplemental COVID registration fee, or up the price of their registration by that amount.

For those with vaccination requirements, there may be additional fees if the association outsources that vaccination verification process. That fee is typically paid by the association. However, when it comes to testing, fees are typically paid by the attendee, except in a few circumstances. One example is if the organization mandates onsite testing.

However, if organizations use a third-party vendor to administer optional onsite tests to attendees who would like to be tested, then any costs would be covered by attendees. For organizations that want a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival, attendees would cover any costs involved themselves.

Ways to Offset Costs

Some associations have considered ways to creatively offset some of the costs related to onsite health and safety protocols.

“They’re branding masks, so they’re looking at those different opportunities,” Turner said. “There’s a lot of different options that people are doing to sort of pass along that cost, spread it out a little bit, and find other ways to make revenue to offset the cost of what [COVID-19 supplies are] doing to their budgets.”

Lewis Flax, founder of Flax Associates, a firm that specializes in strategic partnerships, said he has seen some associations do this. However, it’s not a slam dunk, as there are two schools of thought on this type of sponsorship.

“One is, ‘Yes, get your name out there’—whether it’s hand sanitizer, whether it’s masks, whatever it is related to that, go ahead and sponsor that because people are going to be using them; they’re going to be front and center,” Flax said. “The other school of thought is, ‘No way. I don’t want my brand associated with masks. I don’t want my brand associated with things that bring up a negative connotation, a negative image for people.’”

Flax noted that it’s important for sponsorships to align business goals. So, a partner who is a healthcare company might be keen to sponsor masks, whereas those with broader recognition goals who aren’t in healthcare might not.

“I don’t think there’s a right answer there,” Flax said. “If you were to ask some of the more advanced companies in terms of how they engage and how they activate their sponsorships and are focused in on their brand, they’re probably going to be very hesitant about those types of offers. Others, they’re probably going to be quite willing to do that.”

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Game On! Returning to Face-to-Face

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With many organizations actively planning for an upcoming in-person conference or tradeshow, now is the time to make firm decisions for your attendee-experience, staffing and safety plans.

We recently held a webinar featuring leaders from two large associations that have held face-to-face events in recent weeks. Here are five of the top take-aways that can help other associations navigate their new journey.

1. Increased and Transparent Communications

Most Q3 and Q4, 2021 conferences are reporting attendance numbers that are 40 – 60% below 2019. Events with greater international participation are seeing the steepest declines. Expositions, while attracting fewer buyers, are consistently reporting high satisfaction rates with the quality and interest of the buyers: quality over quantity.

The emerging best practice is to communicate lower attendance expectations weeks or months before the conference. Where you are able, also provide insight on the quality of attendees by job title and firmographics.

2. Hybrid, or Not

 We’re seeing a split down the middle for conferences offering a virtual, synchronous conference option. Just because the event media says the future is hybrid doesn’t mean that you need to go all in. Organizers are weighing cost vs. benefit options for hybrid. Nearly everyone, however, is finding a way to better capture and amplify the conference in other ways – recap videos, articles, podcasts and scheduled replays.

If you do plan for hybrid, make sure that you have dedicated staff and trusted vendors to focus on delivering that experience.

3. Business Model

Exhibit space is down 25% or more. Sponsorship revenue, however, is holding its own–and in some cases–growing. If you have not adjusted your sponsorship menu to include more thought leadership and attendee-experience elements, make it a high priority.

 4. Staff and Vendors

If your association is conducting board and committee meetings virtually, there is a good chance you can send fewer staff members to your large annual. If you’re like most, quite a few of your team members have not traveled since the beginning of the pandemic. They may have concerns regarding their personal participation. Be patient, listen to their issues and consider filling in with other staff members or experienced contractors.

Enhanced communication with your trusted vendors has never been more important. In some cases, they have experienced high turnover and may have fewer team members who know and understand your event. Plan for daily touch-base meetings or huddles with key players to ensure each day runs smoothly.

 If you plan on enforcing protocols, like wearing masks, it’s best not to put that responsibility on your staff. Instead, select a contractor or company that can focus their energies there. Work closely with your venue partners to explore options.

5. Observation

More than ever, track and monitor behavior activity on-site to determine the mood and vibe of your audience. Does it feel like a reunion? Is attendance on the show floor or in education sessions as expected? Are people utilizing the spaces you’ve created to network or have downtime?

Your audience may be excited or nervous (or both). So far, loyal attendees are appreciating and engaging in the familiar aspects of the event. They are also expecting you to offer new, fresh content and experiences. Don’t be afraid to take more risks. If you have small glitches, attendees will be more forgiving than ever…this time.

When are you planning your organizations return to face-to-face? What are your top concerns leading up to your event?

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