Viral outbreak prompts associations to reconsider event management

While the Covid-19 has resulted in negative impacts on daily life and businesses, Asian association executives and congress specialists are regarding the outbreak as an opportunity for them to take another look at how their events are conducted and their dependence on event revenues.

  • Virtual meetings may help associations fulfil their constitutional need to meet during challenging times
  • Sudden changes to meetings are a reminder for associations to not rely solely on conference fees or a single event for revenue
  • Investment in building a local or regional speaker and partner network is critical

While the Covid-19 has resulted in negative impacts on daily life and businesses, Asian association executives and congress specialists are regarding the outbreak as an opportunity for them to take another look at how their events are conducted and their dependence on event revenues.

Moving affected meetings online may be a solution

Shirlena Soh, president, Association of Biomedical Laboratory Professionals (Singapore) (ABMLPS), which had to cancel two major meetings in the coming months due to the Covid-19 outbreak, told TTGassociations that the situation was proof that they had taken the right decision to consider moving some meetings online.

One of the affected ABMLPS meeting in Singapore was scheduled for March, a gathering organised in collaboration with a US entity, with some 100 attendees expected.

“Even before the outbreak, ABMLPS was already looking into how to take some of our meetings online, for instance our AGMs. Because of the nature of our members’ profession, getting an AGM going is sometimes challenging. A decision to postpone an AGM also requires an approval obtained at a meeting. Fortunately, in our constitution, we allow electronic communications,” said Soh.

Soh explained that the decision to axe the two ABMLPS meetings was made only because members are the first line of respondents in the Covid-19 outbreak and all are involved in the intense lab investigations in Singapore.

“All meetings and activities are also impossible now due to a strict hospital segregation plan that restricts medical professionals from coming in contact with one another,” she said.

ABMLPS is not the only association whose activities were impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.

According to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) Research Division, 44 meetings scheduled for Asia-Pacific in 2020 – out of a total of 1,065 meetings in the region – have had a change of plans because of the outbreak. Five have been relocated, five cancelled and 34 postponed.

ICCA: Most affected association meetings are postponed, not cancelled

While most meeting plans were changed out of consideration for the welfare of attendees, the 19th International Congress on Infectious Diseases (ICID) was postponed for practical reasons, just like ABMLPS.

It was supposed to be held this February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and was moved to September 2020.

Explaining the decision, Marc Mendelson, president of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, said: “The prevention of further spread and the effective containment of Covid-19 is our top priority. The people who attend the ICID are critical to the national, regional, and international response to the epidemic and are needed at home in order to engage with and protect their own communities.”

Control, alternate, quick shift?
If Soh advocated online meetings, why didn’t ABMLPS convert its March meeting into a web conference then?

“To move an event online, especially one that is the scale of a main congress, would require the establishment of supporting infrastructure and specialists, and these can be a costly undertaking for just one activity. Furthermore, time is needed for preparations,” Soh explained.

Octavio Peralta, founder & CEO of the Philippine Council of Associations and Association Executives (PCAAE) and president of the Asia-Pacific Federation of Association Organizations (APFAO), said associations hoping to use virtual/online events as an alternative during this period must be resource-ready – Internet connectivity, hardware and human capability must all be considered and be available.

“Unfortunately, readiness has been wanting,” said Peralta.

Soh opined that a “bite-size approach” would be more realistic for associations new to online event formats – such as converting a small seminar into a webinar, “as such events would be easier and faster to execute”.

“The Covid-19 outbreak is actually a good opportunity for associations that do not have online events now to start looking into this. Once they start, they can consider adopting online events again even in good times,” she added.

Jane Vong Holmes, senior manager – Asia, GainingEdge, a consultancy specialising in the business events industry, agreed. “It can be quite challenging to move an entire congress online. Some congresses are more complex than others as well,” she said.

“However, if time is of the essence, association committees or board meetings involving only a small number of executives can meet remotely. The technology available is varied, advanced and will serve the purpose well,” added Holmes.

And should associations consider taking their congresses online, Holmes suggested that they should be hybrid arrangements, with face-to-face content built alongside some live streaming for those unable to attend in person.

Richard Roocroft, general manager of Interprefy Asia Pacific & Japan, remarked that “the first step towards any new technology adoption is always the hardest”.

Interprefy specialises in multilingual remote simultaneous interpreting for live and online conferences, meetings and events, using a flexible, scalable and premium cloud platform.

“Once an organisation does get started on an online event or webinar, subsequent ones become far easier to implement,” Roocroft said.

Interprefy’s remote interpretation expertise was roped in to support the USANA Australia Kick Off 2020 event, which was moved online due to mounting concerns over Covid-19 developments among organisers and delegates. More than half of the delegation were also supposed to come from China.

With Interprefy having seen an increase in the engagement of live streaming and remote simultaneous interpreting services since the spread of the coronavirus, Roocroft said the number of new deals will “in the near future surpass the amount of (live event) business that was lost due to event cancellations and postponements”.

Not a total replacement
While an online conference may help associations fulfil their constitutional need to meet during challenging times, Holmes emphasised that it cannot be a complete replacement for live meetings.

“The best part of a convention is the face-to-face opportunities it provides its participants so they can make new contacts and/or strengthen their existing relationships. A webinar, while able to deliver education and knowledge, will not be able to fulfill this highly rated benefit from attending a meeting,” she said.

“People endure traffic jams to go to a football match on a hot and humid night when they can get a better view of every kick from their armchair because the live experience cannot be duplicated online.”

And it is precisely the value of live interaction that led Iain Bitran, executive director of The International Society for Professional Innovation Management (ISPIM), to determine that online meetings are simply “out of the question” even though 80 per cent of his association’s revenue is derived from its events around the world.

Bitran: connecting people is the greatest value associations offer their members

“Associations need to get their people to meet – that has to be one of their goals, if not the major goal. Connecting people is the greatest value associations offer their members,” Bitran said.

“Human beings are social creatures. You won’t get the same level of interaction online. Many ideas happen because people meet, say something to each other and spark something off. You won’t get that through a virtual conference,” he added.

Despite losing a large number of concerned delegates who fear infection and whose travel has been curtailed by their companies, Bitran said the Board is determined to proceed with the ISPIM Connect Bangkok conference as planned from March 1 to 4 this year.

“Why should we cancel? We are following the facts; we are looking at what the World Health Organization is saying. Borders are still open. Today, we had a delegate who told us that the Thai government is going to stop people from travelling and meeting. So I contacted TCEB (Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau), and they clarified that wasn’t true. Event organisers may cancel voluntarily but there are no government restrictions on events,” he said, adding that simply cancelling events based on fake news is “devastating” for those whose livelihood depends on business events and tourism.

The 10th Congress of the Asia Pacific Initiative on Reproduction (ASPIRE) will also proceed as planned this April in Manila.

Association co-founder PC Wong said an online alternative was not considered “due to the nature and structure of our congresses”, although “attendance may be affected somewhat” by outbreak and transmission concerns.

“We are in the midst of drawing up plans to ensure delegates’ well-being are taken care of during the congress,” he added.

Impact on revenue
When asked how ISPIM’s revenue for 2020 would be affected by reduced attendance – and therefore reduced fee takings – at its Bangkok meeting, Bitran said the association has many other events to finance its overall operations.

“Most of what we make comes from our Innovation Conference, which will take place in Berlin as planned (in June),” he added.

The XXXI ISPIM Innovation Conference in Berlin is expected to attract 700 innovation professionals from 50 countries, and deliver more than 250 presentations, more than 25 workshops and six innovation tours in Berlin over three days.

Soh said most associations these days are aware of the need to diversify their revenue streams, and few would rely entirely on conference revenues or a single event to power their entire operations.

As such, it was unlikely that the Covid-19 outbreak alone will threaten the survival of associations.

She explained: “There are two main types of professional associations. There are those that are run on a pro bono basis. They have low overheads and rely on contract PCOs to manage their meetings. They are nimble and will be able to survive even without a main meeting for a year. The other kind of associations are the professional ones, with in-house staff and often a large headcount too. Such associations, often found in the US and Europe, have a sophisticated revenue stream, and will be quite insulated from crisis-induced event cancellation.”

ABLPS falls into the first category, said Soh, adding that her association “will be fine” even with two cancelled events in the first half of 2020.

However, for associations that have yet to move with the times, the outbreak’s impact on event continuation will be a painful reminder for them to diversify revenue streams.

Regional network shines
If there was one key takeaway from the Covid-19’s impact on meetings, Bitran and Peralta said it was the importance of having a network of local or regional speakers and partners that associations can lean on when sudden hiccups occur.

Peralta said: “Associations must allocate resources to start developing local talents and speakers to be self-reliant and not dependent on sourcing imported expertise.”

Fear of Covid-19 infections led to a few keynote speakers withdrawing from ISPIM Connect Bangkok, but the association was able to “quickly fill up the holes” by calling in favours from supportive partners in Asia.

“It is always good sense to have a strong local or regional network. If you have European speakers pulling out of your Asian conference at the last minute, you don’t reach far out for replacements; the nearest replacements are easier to secure, provided there’s something in it for them,” he concluded.

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