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With Event Refunds, Do the Right Things

At this moment, every organization is concerned about lost revenue. But associations must play the longer game in order to maintain member satisfaction and future event attendance.

Let’s be frank: The uncertainty around when business travel will resume is making many associations shudder. Because event revenue is central to the financial health of most professional societies and nonprofits, the thought of returning attendance fees to registrants because a meeting’s original dates are no longer feasible surely induces great anxiety.

On the other hand, even if
an association’s new plan for its in-person educational events is set—for instance, new dates or a virtual replacement—being honest and prompt with communication about refund options for a canceled or postponed meeting is critical to the long-term health of an association. Lisa Block, executive vice president of conference strategy for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, is advising her association clients that “this moment is about maintaining a trusting relationship with your members. Now is not the time to be holding back their money because they will never forget it. The relationship could be damaged for many years.”

Screen Shot 2020-04-01 at 3.27.49 PM.pngHere are Block’s tips for handling registrant fees and managing communication even as you try to rework events:

• First, “offer to provide refunds without penalty and communicate the time frame in which attendees will get that refund, be it 30, 45, or 60 days,” she says. “Don’t go past 60 days; that doesn’t look good.”

• As you do that, though, “consider allowing registrants to apply what they have paid as a credit towards a future in-person meeting. You should certainly not mandate that, but you can offer it.”

• Understand your organization’s ability to deliver a virtual-replacement event—how robust would it be? Associations must get a firm handle on this because “you need to know exactly what you are going to do before you communicate with potential registrants about cost and ask them to apply to the new event some or all of what they’ve already paid.” For example, would the electronic event be mostly one-way video learning with simple Q&A
functionality, or will there be chat forums or even video-based small-group attendee gatherings using Zoom or another technology? “Even just a series of webinars over a period of time is perfectly acceptable,” says Block. “Just make sure you price it right, not only to get attendance but also to maintain credibility with all your members.”

In summary, Block says associations “must keep their members in the loop on the plans and the progress of those plans. Tell them they have a refund option, but maintain regular communication to tell them what else they should expect from you as far as upcoming events, what it will cost to participate, and how the planning process is going. All of this maintains member goodwill,” and you might be pleasantly surprised at the uptake on a new event offering.

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