Our guest writer Gordon Glenister, CEO of Membership World, writes the final part of the series from his Covid-19 Impact Report on trade associations.

So, what a 12 months for the those organisations running events. When I conducted my research in the Summer of 2020, who would have thought that the Epidemic would go on for so long having a huge impact on the multibillion-pound events industry. What has happened though, is huge technology advances have been made with online event technology.  The largest part of the events space in 2019 was taken up with trade shows, seminars, member meetings and conferences and so with much of the population in lock down how was that going to translate online.  Would those events work as well? How will our members react to new technology? Our members like to network with each other.  Some organisations simply cancelled conferences in 2020 whereas others pivoted to an online event.

84% of the respondents to the Covid19 Impact Study have run virtual events since the lockdown of 2020, 50% saying they substituted an existing one and 42% ran new events.

There were some positives, however. AGMs, Board meetings, member meetings have had record levels of attendances due to the nature of their being no travel or other associated costs required. Those running online events said there was a lot of free content on the website and so charging and gaining sponsors was more challenging. Of those that have run online events during lockdown, only 27% said they charged while 71% did not The British Promotional Merchandise Association planned a different type of event in the Autumn of 2020 giving suppliers the opportunity to present from the factory floor or in supplier hubs. Running an online event has obvious advantages in the sense the level of outlay is significantly less than an in-person event.  For example, catering costs, venue hires, labour, AV etc.  But it shouldn’t be underestimated how much it can cost to set up an online event with livestreaming and delegation engagement technology.

The League of Angels, a business network and high value investor club, hosts up to 30 events per year in prestigious locations. CEO Barney Battles postponed the renewal fee until 2021 on the basis they were not comfortable about putting on physical events in the near future.  Exhibitions are also a major part of revenue for associations. One organisation said the loss of its EXPO had reduced profit by £150,000, causing a significant loss this year which it was just about able to cover via reserves.

Aside from taking out a loan, there has been no support available to help this trade association cope with the revenue impact. Monetising online events is harder because there has been a perception in the past that they should be free.  Chris Combemale, CEO of the Data and Marketing Association, planned an awards event in December. He was watching with interest their Australian counterpart who was running an online awards event where winners were presented their awards at the agency head office and having them delivered through a partnership with Uber.

Some organisations used sponsors to host delegate zoom breakout rooms to lead discussions while others provided content hubs for the exhibitors and allowed them to speak.  The mood within the association world is that it will take some time before physical events return, certainly while there are concerns around visitor safety and speaker attendance. 41% of our survey respondents expect a significant decrease in attendees at physical events over the next 12 months. Established speakers however have been in high demand for online events, and of course are more available because they are not flying around the world. Other events impacted by coronavirus were annual golf days and award ceremonies, some of which were not able to be replicated online. Many of the venues that hold association events have been supportive in allowing organisations to postpone until a later date, but while that minimises costs, significant revenue opportunities have been lost. The venue and hotels sector have been massively hit by the Pandemic and whilst many have had to waiver cancellation terms in contracts to allow their association customers to postpone, this has not always been the case, leaving some associations facing considerable hardship.

The challenge for event organisers to hold live events is that the risks although dropping are still there, and its going to take a few organisations to lead the way for others to follow. Sponsors and exhibitors are effectively paying for an audience and exposure, and past experiences are no guarantees for visitor numbers so it’s a widely held view that things will improve and return to some form of normality, but it will be gradually.  There will be some associations that will continue to run online events typically AGMs and Board meetings and could work much better in this way giving the pressures on member’s times particularly if they are a volunteer. Online events have also opened the door to global communities for training and member meetings which may have been unthinkable before. 

Online portals like Zoom and Teams lead the way in conducting meetings. But the word Zoom fatigue has also crept into the language, meaning the importance to event organisers of planning breaks in online meetings in the same way you would at physical events.  And in terms of social events, The Chartered Institute or Patent Attorneys had a Taskmaster party based on the TV game show, others ran wine tastings, quiz nights, meditation, and fitness workshop events to keep teams motivated. One thing is for sure it won’t be the same again.  Let’s hope that we do value the importance of human face to face connection and we enjoy a live event sometime soon.

If you would like to receive a full copy of the 35 page in-depth analysis report of the impact of Covid19 to the membership sector, please request it here.


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