Although the years-long plan to celebrate its centennial in Las Vegas this week could not happen due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the American Society of Association Executives pulled off a strong virtual annual meeting as a replacement, drawing three times the number of attendees it typically gets for the in-person version.
“It’s unfortunate that we cannot physically be with each other, not only for the food and beverage aspect, the great music, and the fun, but also for solving problems and being shoulder to shoulder,” said Susan Robertson, president and CEO of ASAE, during a press conference on August 11, which was day two of the event. “On the other hand, more than 13,000 people are taking time out of their schedule to convene online, and that makes me proud.”
When the association’s board decided in June to convert the annual meeting and exhibition to the virtual medium, it opted to make the event free for members. There were two reasons. First, “we understand that people’s financial ability to participate in professional development programs might be severely limited right now,” Robertson said. “Moving to a free virtual experience allows individuals who have previously not been able to attend due to budget restrictions to participate for the first time.” Of the 12,813 attendees, 70 percent were first-timers.
The second reason for offering free attendance to members: “The return on investment for our exhibitors and sponsors is critical,” said Robertson. The virtual exhibit hall had 57 booths, with 35 companies showcasing technology and business services and 22 companies showcasing hospitality and meeting services. “We’ve gotten reports from exhibitors that they are getting hundreds and hundreds of visitors, and they are very pleased.” Also, “some of our partners participated in the exhibit hall but also hosted special activation events, such as cocktail-mixing sessions and yoga instruction,” she added.
As for the financial impact of the virtual meeting, “certainly we are not going to make as much as we would have with the live event—that’s not even a realistic expectation,” Robertson said. “But we do have insurance coverage; most of the events we’ve converted to virtual in 2020 are insured so we have been able to protect our finances.” Live events represent about 40 percent of ASAE’s annual revenue.
Further, while membership has actually risen by eight percent from July 2019 to July 2020, “there might well be a lag in the effect [of the Covid-19 outbreak],” continued Robertson. “But we are in a very good position with our reserves—this is the rainy day for which associations build their reserves. We will be fine for 2020, but I think we will need to go into our reserves for 2021 and the board has approved that. Also, our budget for 2021 will be less than for 2020. Of course, most associations face these same challenges over the next 12 months to 18 months.”
As proof of that, Steve Caldeira, the new chair of ASAE and the president and CEO of the Household & Commercial Products Association, noted that while his association’s members are actually enjoying strong business in the present situation, “we had to cancel four live events in 2020 at a seven-figure loss.”
ASAE’s next large event is its Technology Exploration Conference in December, which will also be held virtually. When asked about the lessons ASAE has learned from coordinating the virtual annual meeting that can apply to TEC, Robertson said that “many people have become familiar with the basic Zoom and Teams experience, but we’re looking at it from the participants’ journey. From the moment they enter the experience, is it easy to navigate? And are we giving people areas that have a feel that’s different than simply a Zoom experience? That means managing questions during sessions, allowing people to chat with each other, and other elements. A virtual platform like the one we are using, Intrado, deepens the attendee experience and manages it differently. And the design makes it visually appealing so people feel engaged.”
Another lesson learned: “Using some pre-recorded sessions has been a key to success,” Robertson said. “To put together an event like this, you have to have some reliable elements to deal with so you can work on other things. But the one thing we made sure of was having live Q&A during the pre-recorded sessions to really enhance the experience by allowing people to interact with the presenter.” Lastly, “one other thing that’s necessary is to have a lot of help behind the scenes, because on the first day we had many requests for technical help, but we staffed accordingly.”
For 2021, ASAE plans to hold its August annual meeting in person in Dallas, while its XDP event that focuses on progressive meeting design will also be held there immediately before the annual meeting.