2020 saw an unprecedented number of cancelled events. While we may be starting the new year with some hope of in-person events later in the year, many associations will want to approach their conferences cautiously.
Conferences are a large source of income as well as a space to build community, so it is understandable that many associations are eager to get their members back together. Still, navigating logistics with venues, vendors, attendees and more when things are uncertain may be tricky.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Force Majeure
The French phrase for “superior force” is a claim that associations can make in trying to get out of contracts when factors beyond their control, such as COVID-19 or natural disasters, affect their ability to hold the event. According to Bloomberg Law, the wording around force majeure varies widely, with some contracts spelling out specific events that qualify and others using more catch-all language. As the article points out, even if your contract does not include provisions for a pandemic, you may be able to claim other events such as unforeseen government action, for example, because of stay-at-home orders.
When proceeding with in-person event planning, make sure you look closely at force majeure protections. Some venues have recently made it more difficult to invoke this claim. An article from the American Society of Association Executives offers additional strategies and options.
As conferences are an important source of revenue for associations, handling refunds for entry fees can be a hard line to walk. In a blog post for The Professional Convention Management Association, association leaders explained how they handled refunds last year. The Texas Travel Industry Association kept their funds by alerting attendees that the conference would be postponed, The Association for Asian Studies asked attendees to consider donating their attendance fees, and the Virginia Military Institute offered sponsors, attendees and exhibitors the opportunity to roll over their registration to the next conference or get refunded.
Associations must also consider costs taken on by attendees. While associations may be able to get out of contracts, attendees may not be able to get refunds for flights, hotels or other expenses. Being transparent with your members will help—no matter how you choose to approach refunds.
Consider your budget. Going back to your traditional annual conference may not make as much sense financially now, even if it has been your main source of income in the past. Virtual events are much more budget-friendly and may be safer, particularly after a year where many associations were hit hard.
As much as we all hoped 2021 would see a return to complete normalcy, that is doubtful. Associations need to remain flexible and creative, yet cautious, as we continue throughout the year.