Even before COVID-19, fewer than 20% and generally closer to only 10% of members attend their association’s in-person events. This means that virtual events, whether as part of an in-person event or offered as separate events, should be part of your event and education strategy.

We all know the expression, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade”. Certainly, COVID-19 has provided us more lemons than we know what to do with. Our lives have changed in ways that were unimaginable only a few short months ago.

For associations too, the changes have been swift and dramatic. Trade shows and events have been postponed, canceled, or gone 100% virtual, creating a significant financial hardship on operating revenue.

While we can wish for the good old days, the likelihood is that those days are not returning anytime soon, if at all. When we do return to in-person events, they will look and feel different. And we’re not just talking about masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing. It’s expected that most events will move to a hybrid model – in-person and virtual. The good news is that this new normal creates a great opportunity for those willing to think differently and embrace the possibilities.

Done correctly, virtual events provide opportunities to engage with additional members and prospects than would attend an in-person event. For attendees, it’s much easier to justify spending a few hundred dollars on registration to earn continuing education credits as compared to the cost for in-person registration airfare and hotel, not to mention the challenges and concerns these days about flying, and the time away from home and work. Virtual events also directly benefit your bottom line, whether its upselling attendees on related association programs and services, improving member retention or increasing the number of qualified leads and converting them into new members.

Sponsors are increasingly interested in year-round opportunities that achieve one or more of the following objectives: (1) business development, (2) brand differentiation; (3) knowledge leadership.

Virtual events also provide added value to exhibitors and sponsors, providing exposure and access to new audiences at a reduced cost. For sponsors, their brand is exposed to far more individuals in their target segments and they can gain new opportunities to engage with attendees before, during, and after the event, as compared to just a few days at an in-person event. Virtual events can also allow attendees and companies to connect at a time convenient to both, which isn’t always the case at an in-person event.

But don’t settle with just virtual events. Sponsors are looking to maximize their marketing investment round. According to corporate partnership expert Bruce Rosenthal, prospective sponsors are increasingly interested in year-round opportunities that achieve one or more of the following objectives: (1) business development, (2) brand differentiation; (3) knowledge leadership.

A great way to help your sponsors achieve these objectives is through a year-round corporate partner program. These programs are most effective when focused on relationship building and shared outcomes and tailored to meet the business objectives of your partners and the association.

So, what does this all mean for your non-dues revenue programs and especially your events? Five takeaways:

  • Define your new normal.  Don’t wait for the past to return. Act now to redefine your products and services, and to create new value for members/attendees and for exhibitors/sponsors.
  • Don’t sell yourself short.  Individuals and companies will pay for value. You don’t have to give away the store.
  • Reset sales and budget objectives. At the end of the day, it’s about net revenue. So, readjust what success looks like. Not just on the revenue side, but also examine your expenses and find opportunities to adjust and retarget spending to reflect your new focus.
  • Get buy-in from leadership.  Board members can be hesitant to make a big change, especially in times of uncertainty. It’s up to you to educate them on why things need to change and provide a vision of how these changes will better position the association for success.
  • Stay with it. Don’t abandon your plans and go back to the old ways. Leverage traditional models with new approaches to take your events, education, and corporate partnership opportunities to a new, sustainable level.

Remember, disruption leads to change, and change leads to opportunity. Squeeze those lemons into lemonade and enjoy the taste of sweet success!

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