A different approach

Associations are being challenged to consider meeting virtually and diversify their revenue streams as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to upset functions

While Covid-19 has resulted in negative impacts on daily life and businesses, Asian association executives and congress specialists are regarding the pandemic as an opportunity for them to take another look at how their events are conducted and their dependency on event revenues.

Shirlena Soh, president, Association of Biomedical Laboratory Professionals (Singapore) (ABMLPS), which had to cancel two major meetings in 1H2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, told TTGassociations that the situation was proof they had made the right decision to consider moving some meetings online.

“(Due to) the nature of our members’ profession, getting an AGM going (can be) challenging. A decision to postpone an AGM also requires an approval obtained at a meeting. Fortunately, our (association) allows electronic communication,” said Soh.

One of the affected ABMLPS meetings in Singapore was scheduled for March. The gathering, organised in collaboration with a US entity, was expecting some 100 attendees.

Soh explained that the decision to axe the two ABMLPS meetings was made only because its members are among the first line of respondents in the Covid-19 pandemic. They are involved in the intense lab investigations.

“All meetings and activities (in the medical sector) are … impossible now due to a strict hospital segregation plan that restricts medical professionals from coming in contact with one another,” she said.

Another event involving medical professionals, namely the 19th International Congress on Infectious Diseases (ICID), was postponed for the same practical reasons.

It was scheduled initially for this February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but will now be held in September 2020 at the same venue.

Explaining the decision, Marc Mendelson, president, International Society for Infectious Diseases (ISID), said: “The prevention of further spread and the effective containment of Covid-19 is our top priority. The people who attend the ICID are critical to the national, regional, and international response to the epidemic and are needed at home in order to engage with and protect their own communities.”

ABMLPS and ISID are not the only associations whose activities were impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the research division of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), as at February 27, 2020, 65 meetings scheduled for Asia-Pacific in 2020 – out of a total of 1,058 association meetings in the region – have had a change of plans because of the pandemic. Two have been relocated, 11 cancelled and 52 postponed. More meetings have been cancelled or postponed since then.

Control, alternate, quick shift?
The disruption to association meetings posed by the pandemic begs the question: Why aren’t more meetings held virtually? If Soh was for online meetings, why didn’t the ABMLPS hold its March meetings on the net?

“(Moving) an event online, especially one that has the scale of a main congress, would require the establishment of supporting infrastructure and specialists. These can be a costly undertaking for just one activity. Furthermore, time … for preparations (is needed),” Soh said.

Octavio Peralta, founder & CEO, Philippine Council of Associations and Association Executives (PCAAE) and president, Asia-Pacific Federation of Association Organizations (APFAO), said associations hoping to use online events as an alternative during this period must be resource-ready.

Internet connectivity, hardware and human capability must all be available. “Unfortunately, readiness has been wanting,” said Peralta.

Soh opined that a “bite-size approach” – such as converting a small seminar into a webinar – would be more realistic for associations that are new to online event formats, “as such events would be easier and faster to execute”.

“The Covid-19 (pandemic) is actually a good opportunity for associations that (did) not have online events … to start looking into this. Once they start, they can consider adopting online events again even in good times,” she reckoned.

Jane Vong Holmes, senior manager – Asia, business events consultancy GainingEdge, agrees. “It can be quite challenging to move an entire congress online. Some congresses are more complex than others,” she said.

Should associations consider virtual meetings, Holmes suggested they consider hybrid arrangements – face-to-face content with some live streaming for those unable to attend in person.

Smaller events, such as board meetings, can also be held remotely as they involve a small number of executives.

Richard Roocroft, general manager, Interprefy Asia Pacific & Japan, remarked that “the first step towards any new technology adoption is always the hardest”.

Roocraft explained that organisations that get started on their first webinar or online event will find subsequent ones “easier to implement”.

Interprefy specialises in remote simultaneous intrepreting for live and online meetings, using a cloud platform.

The company was roped in for the USANA Australia Kick Off 2020 event, which was moved online due to mounting concerns over Covid-19 developments. More than half of the delegation were supposed to come from China.

Interprefy has seen an increase in engagement of live streaming and remote simultaneous intrepreting services since the pandemic began.

Not a total replacement
While an online conference may help associations fulfil the need to meet during challenging times, Holmes emphasised that it cannot be a complete replacement for live meetings.

“The best part of a convention is the face-to-face opportunities it provides. Participants can make new contacts and/or strengthen their existing relationships,” she noted.

Webinars, while able to facilitate knowledge exchange and allow for the delivery of education, will cause participants to miss out on this “highly-rated benefit”, said Holmes.

“The live experience cannot be duplicated online,” Holmes emphasised.

It is precisely the value of live interaction that led Iain Bitran, executive director, International Society for Professional Innovation Management (ISPIM), to initially determine that online meetings are simply “out of the question”.

“Associations need to get their people to meet – that has to be one of their goals, if not the major goal. Connecting people is the greatest value associations offer their members,” Bitran said.

“Human beings are social creatures… Many ideas happen because people meet, say something to each other and spark something off. You won’t get that through a virtual conference,” he added.

Despite losing a large number of concerned delegates who fear infection and whose travel has been curtailed, the board of ISPIM decided to proceed with the ISPIM Connect Bangkok conference as planned, from March 1 to 4 this year.

The board factored in WHO’s announcements at the time of the decision-making, as well as the fact that Thailand’s borders were still open.

Of course, since the interview in February, the pandemic has spiralled deeper and many governments around the world have either ordered a lockdown or placed restrictions on events.

In response, ISPIM will replace its three-day Innovation Conference 2020 with a virtual one on the same dates – June 7-10 – and return with the full-scale phyisical gathering in Berlin in June 2021.

Impact on revenue
ISPIM derives 80 per cent of its income from the annual Innovation Conference in Berlin, shared Bitran, and the conversion of the event into a virtual meeting will affect event takings. However, he remains confident in ISPIM’s survival as there are other activities in its portfolio to finance its overall operations.

Soh said most associations these days are aware of the need to diversify their revenue streams, and few would rely entirely on conference revenues or a single event to power their entire operations.As such, it was unlikely that the Covid-19 pandemic alone will threaten their survival.

Associations fall into two main categories, according to Soh. The first type operates on a pro bono basis, has low overheads, and engages contract PCOs to manage meetings. Associations in this category adapt well to changes and can sustain operations even without meetings for a year.

The other type are the professional associations that often have a large number of in-house employees. Such associations, typically found in Europe and the US, have “a sophisticated revenue stream” and are likely to have safeguards in place for crises, noted Soh.

ABLPS falls into the first category, said Soh, adding that her association “will be fine” even with two cancelled events in 1H2020.

However, for associations that have yet to move with the times, the pandemic’s impact on events will be a painful reminder for them to diversify revenue streams.

Regional network shines
If there was one key takeaway from Covid-19’s impact on meetings, Bitran and Peralta felt it would be the importance of having a network of local or regional speakers and partners that associations can lean on when hiccups occur.

Peralta said: “Associations must allocate resources to start developing local talents and speakers to be self-reliant and not dependent on sourcing imported expertise.”
Fear of Covid-19 infections led to a few keynote speakers withdrawing from ISPIM Connect Bangkok, but the association was able to swiftly call in favours from supportive partners in Asia.

“It is always good sense to have a strong local or regional network. If you have European speakers pulling out of your Asian conference at the last minute … the nearest replacements are easier to secure, provided there’s something in it for them,” he concluded.