As Association professionals we are constantly juggling the changing needs of various stakeholders. The return to in-person meetings is no exception. The last 18 months has taken a toll on the well-being of many of our members, in fact, the World Health Organization reports social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Some of your members are running with open arms to reconnect with colleagues while others appreciated the opportunity to keep these interactions on the screen. As we prepare to bring our attendees back in person, it is important to design in-person experiences for both of these members and all those in between. When we are socially connected we are happier and healthier.
1. First things first, Create a Duty of Care
The health and safety of all your stakeholders – from staff to attendees to vendors is your top priority. Communicate this commitment to your stakeholders by outlining all the measures put in place by your staff, venue and others to create a safe and memorable conference experience. For some associations this may mean you require masks, social distancing or even proof of vaccination. No matter what your Duty of Care includes, be sure to reinforce it by asking your attendees to agree to abide by these guidelines, including it in the Know Before You Go emails and on-site signage reminders. The key to a meaningful Duty of Care is to communicate these requirements early and often.
2. Set the stage for psychological safety
Many of your conference attendees have not attended an in-person event in almost 2 years, so there will be some reluctance and uncertainty. Take the time to acknowledge these feelings and find ways to make your attendees feel safe. This may include implementing the red, yellow, green system for your attendees to visually share their comfort level, or perhaps a quiet room on site for attendees to decompress if they are feeling overwhelmed. Consider creating a virtual cohort ahead of the in-person event so when attendees arrive on-site they will immediately recognize a friendly face. Meetings over the last year and half have been largely passive experiences behind a screen, so take the time to create the engaging opportunities that have been missing through more down time and intentional networking opportunities.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
There is a statistic in Project Management that says 90% of every project is communication. And your in-person event should be no different. Manage attendee expectations by starting with the registration process – collect pertinent information in case of an emergency, ask what they require to fully participate in your event and require them to commit to upholding your Duty of Care. Once you have collected this information, be sure you are applying these details to create a more inclusive experience. None of these strategies should exist in a vacuum. Make sure that you are updating your Risk Management Plans and sharing them with the appropriate stakeholders.
Remember, all your attendees shared a collective experience over the last 18 months. Creating a safe meeting goes beyond helping them feel protected, it takes the next step to inclusivity. Your members have changed over the last 18 months, so your meeting needs to adapt along with their expectations. Planning the same meeting from 2019 is not an option. Take the time to empathize with your stakeholders and design a safe and welcoming meeting for everyone. Whether your meeting is scheduled in the next month or next year, creating a safe and welcoming environment for all your attendees should always be a top priority.