The Future of Association Events

Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of ASAE Robb Lee

Annual conferences and meetings are the lifeblood of many organizations. For associations, they can determine whether an organization ends the year in the red or the black. Since the pandemic hit, the association community has been scrambling, trying to figure out the best approach to take to continue generating much-needed revenue while balancing the needs of health and safety. Some have outright canceled events, others opted to postpone them in hopes that the pandemic would be short-lived, and others learned how to quickly transition to virtual meetings.

With no immediate end in sight to the pandemic, we wanted to take a closer look at what the future might hold for industry events, so we turned to ASAE Chief Marketing & Communications Officer Robb Lee. ASAE is the “association for associations,” a membership organization of more than 46,000 association executives and industry partners representing 7,600 organizations. Robb has worked for the organization, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, for 15 years and has seen his share of annual conferences and events.

Do you think virtual events will become the norm post-pandemic?

Absolutely. Virtual offers scale and thereby much broader exposure. And that leads to another layer of engagement and opportunity. Even pre-pandemic, not everyone could participate in face-to-face meetings, and now organizations are diving in and investing on virtual experiences out of necessity. Everyone will benefit. 

What are the most innovative associations doing to create high-impact, meaningful events?

In speaking with many colleagues, the starting place dictates the creativity of the solution. Many are leaning into the perspective of designing for the “channel” of virtual versus replicating face-to-face. That orientation leads them down a different path that will feel fresh and new to attendees.

What are three steps associations should be taking now to plan for events in the future?

  1. Identify the best engagement aspects of face-to-face.
  2. Separately, think about what you can accomplish in a virtual setting that are unique experiences for stakeholders. For example, engaging attendees with the speakers during the session if it’s recorded previously.
  3. Map all of the revenue streams and work with potential sponsors to create the experiences they consider valuable.

It’s 2025, what will association events look like?

Hybrid focused, data-centric, and agile on every level!

While no one can predict with absolute certainty what the future holds, it’s safe to say that association events as we once knew them are likely to look quite different.