When I was asked to write a piece to help meetings professionals make the big decision on what to do with their events for the remainder of 2020, my first thought was, “Wait, I’m not an expert on this. I’m flying by the seat of my pants with our meetings just like everyone else.” Then, I realized that’s kind of the point – most of us are novices when it comes to trying to plan events during a global pandemic, and yet we’ve also become experienced and learned quite a bit in a trial by fire over the past few months. I will share with you my thought process in managing our meetings in the hope that I can help with these often difficult decisions.
As you’re considering your options for the rest of the year, you have three choices for most events: postpone and re-book at a later date, go 100% virtual or re-work your meeting as a hybrid between virtual and in-person, or cancel the meeting altogether. The first step in the process of gathering the data and insights you need to inform your decision, is to re-evaluate the purpose of your meeting by answering the following questions:
- What were the original defined goals and objectives of the meeting in question?
- Are the original goals and objectives still relevant, and more importantly, are they feasible and achievable now?
- Will these goals and objectives remain equally relevant or become more relevant as the meeting draws closer to actualizing?
It’s easy to get caught up in the speed at which internal and external stakeholders want a decision, and to forget the original point of your meeting. This alone may drive useful conversations around the way forward.
Now, let’s dig into each option in more detail.
OPTION 1: To Virtualize or Not to Virtualize, That Is the Question
While there were certainly 100% virtual events pre-COVID-19, virtual meetings have quickly gone from a niche opportunity to a serious option for many different types of organizations. If aligned with your organizational goals, planned well from a technology and logistical standpoint, and executed with virtual participation in mind (i.e., not just attempting to run your exact in-person event over Zoom), virtual meetings can be a powerful way to pivot and provide value to stakeholders.
That said, now that we’re 90 days into a pandemic which looks like it could extend well into to the foreseeable future, and many of us spend the bulk of our days staring at our colleagues (or, according to some studies, ourselves) on a computer screen, thinking about how participants may, or may not, be willing to engage, and for how long, has to be top-of-mind when considering a virtual option.
It’s no longer a simple question of “Can I make this meeting or event virtual?” (which is a question that must be asked of not only your executive and learning/education teams, but also of your technology and other shared services teams), but also “Should I make this meeting or event virtual and can my participants handle yet another virtual thing?” Virtual or “Zoom Fatigue” is a real issue, and is likely to only get worse as many of us spend more time working remotely.
OPTION 2: Let’s Write off 2020 and Re-book Our Meeting for 202X
At first glance, this seemed like my best option, and that may still be the case. Once I spent more time with it, however, it became clear that it’s just as grey an area as planning and executing a virtual meeting, and there are critical considerations to discuss before simply postponing your event.
Re-booking can be a great solution for both the meeting owner and property, or destination, given the right conditions. However, for some, you may be looking at a booking anywhere from two to seven or more years out. For longer-term re-bookings, make sure you’re considering and answering, to the best of your ability, these questions:
- Are your goals and objectives for the re-booked meeting going to be the same as they are now?
- Do you have all of the right data you need to rebook now (what aren’t you thinking of that could present a problem down the road)?
- How are you predicting and/or adjusting rates for your future program?
- Are there other terms and conditions or clauses you need to re-negotiate before re-booking the event?
A re-book should be a new contract, not just an addendum. Take the opportunity to review the previously signed agreement and revisit items like rates, rebates, cancellation and force majeure clauses. The world as we know it has changed, and so should your contract before you sign on the dotted line.
OPTION 3: Let’s Just Cancel 2020 and That Includes Meetings
At the start of the pandemic, there seemed to be two warring positions at extreme ends of the spectrum (and nothing in-between): “Cancel? Cancel. CANCEL!” versus “Never cancel at any cost.” Regardless of which camp you may have pitched your tent in, for some meetings professionals, this may be the first time you’ve ever had to even consider cancelling a meeting, which was the case for me.
I have a fantastic relationship with many of my hospitality partners, and trying to cancel a meeting felt like I was personally failing my hospitality partner colleagues and their property/destination. I wanted my meeting to be a hero in a sea of villains, but COVID-19 turned out to be more damaging than Kryptonite is to Superman. It comes down to doing the right thing for participant and staff safety, no matter how difficult that is for the other areas you are working so hard to support.
Cancellation may be the best option if virtualizing or re-booking will not work for your meeting. Cancelling a meeting can be a large undertaking and has been about as much fun for me as unknotting cooked spaghetti. While each cancellation will be different, the key constant in each one is to start the discussion early.
Your perception of how your contract reads is likely very different from how your property/destination may be interpreting the document. Save yourself the headache of feeling rushed by alerting your hospitality partner very early on in your cancellation consideration. Once you come to terms with the cancellation, make sure that everything is communicated in writing and it is clear what is expected of each side (ex: return of deposit, no financial liability to your organization, etc.).
At the end of the day, we need to remember that we’re all experiencing this for the first time, together. There isn’t a well-defined playbook (yet) for something like a pandemic and there may not always be a right answer, rather a best option. Determining the best option for your meeting using the information you have available at the time is critical to making the best decision for your organization.
I’ve summarized the content above into a quick cheat sheet:
- (Re)Evaluate the goals and objectives of your meeting.
Are the original goals and objectives feasible or do they need to be revisited/modified to make the meeting feasible? Could the goals and objectives be modified to achieve the desired outcome(s) in a modified delivery format like a virtual meeting?
- Just because a virtual meeting is an option, that does not mean it is the best option for your organization and your participants.
Once you’ve determined if your goals and objectives can be delivered in a virtual format, you need to determine if your audience is ready and willing to attend. If you can’t definitively answer that question, you should conduct a needs assessment of your target audience.
- Don’t be in a rush to re-book and don’t allow yourself to be pressured into doing so.
There might be some good incentives to re-book quickly, but close out the old contract and start anew. You can use the previous contract as a strong base, but make sure you revisit rates, terms, conditions and clauses. If you’re still contracting like you were before the pandemic, you’re already behind.
- Don’t be afraid of cancelling.
Start the conversation about cancellation early on with your hospitality partners. Once you’ve come to an agreement, make sure you have clear documentation on what, if any, is the responsibility of both parties.
As I stated at the outset, these are uncomfortable times for all meetings professionals, and the right answer for you, your organization, your event and your participants may be wildly different than that of other meetings professional in the office (or house) next door. You may not be an expert on meeting planning in a pandemic, but you are an expert in planning and executing meetings. Taking the time to review and consider every option, just as you would for any meeting, will serve you well when it comes time to make your decision.
Kyle Jordan, Ed.M, MS, CAE, CMM, CMP
Managing Director, Learning and Conferences
Financial Planning Association