How to plan for an uncertain 2021 association conference format

Chris Gloede and Aaron Wolowiec
October 22, 2020
How to plan for an uncertain 2021 association conference format

The 2020 annual conference season is largely complete, and it was certainly the most confusing, demanding, and complex event period in modern times. For many associations, 2020 marked their first large-scale virtual event.

Next year’s big meetings will be even harder, fraught with even greater challenges — starting with which conference format to choose. Event planners will need to choose from one of the three common meeting formats: in-person, virtual or hybrid. Selecting the right format is deceivingly difficult. 

Planning for large 2021 conferences must start now despite large gaps in the information planners need. We recommend a four-step approach to make event format selections during this confusing time.  

Step 1:  Scenario planning

Define a handful of possible conditions at the time of your conference. Consider vaccination availability, travel restrictions, employer attendance and reimbursement policies, and local gathering regulations. Rank scenarios from most likely to least, using your best judgement.

Step 2:  Demand planning 

Informed by past events and the context of your scenarios, anticipate the attendance you can expect in each of the three formats. Survey prospective attendees, members, exhibitors and sponsors to understand format interest.  Be sure to segment your attendees with a special review of international, healthcare industry, and medically-at-risk attendees, all of whom will likely be working under unique precautions. Enhance your projections with sponsorship and registration fees and expense estimates.

Step 3:  Concurrent planning

If the in-person, virtual or hybrid choice is not clear, begin planning for multiple formats concurrently. You can reference our Complete Guide to Virtual Event Creation for a helpful checklist of the early strategy steps and technology tasks applicable to all formats. When speaking with prospective partners and vendors, ask how they support each of the three formats.

Step 4:  Final selection

Plot your timeline to produce a high-quality event and determine the date a final decision must be made for each of the formats. Share those decision dates with your leadership and staff well in advance. As you approach each decision date, update your scenarios and forecasts and convene your decision-makers to evaluate the format options informed by the latest projections.  


Throughout this complicated planning process, it’s important to keep association leaders informed of the options and projections and elevate conversations beyond instincts and emotions. Proactively establishing a decision process and explaining the deadlines will generate confidence in event planning during this tumultuous time.

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Chris Gloede and Aaron Wolowiec

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