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Vaccine: the future looks brighter, let’s not blow it

News that a safe and effective vaccine may be given approval for use in a matter of weeks has raised the tantalising prospect that life could return to normal sooner than anyone dared imagine.

‘…by Spring’ according to Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, after Pfizer and BioNTech announced they had developed a vaccine with a 90 per cent efficacy rate.

This is unequivocally good news – how could it not be? – but those involved in organising international association meetings would be wise to take the professor’s words with a pinch of salt.

None of us knows what Bell had in mind by ‘normal’ but it seems impossible that by March next year international conferences will have returned to pre Covid-19 levels – or anything like.

We are in the middle of a second wave of infection and with the daily death count approaching 10,000 it’s difficult to see the business events calendar looking ‘normal’ until the end of 2021.

Even if all the technical, bureaucratic, and logistical challenges of administering a mass immunisation programme are overcome before then, international meetings take months to organise.

But these are quibbles in the face of good news – and quibbles that can be resolved in good time. The big question is still: what will international meetings look like when they return?

While some expect a huge spike in activity once travel restrictions are lifted, there’s a queasiness about the idea of returning to business as normal if that means doing things in the same way.

This queasiness – as expressed in various online industry forums – is justified.

There were questions hanging over the future of international association meetings before Covid-19, and this year’s hiatus was seen by some as a perfect opportunity to take stock and rebuild.

To simply pick up where we left off would be calamitous – trotting out tired old formats to dwindling numbers of delegates for the benefit of baby boomers in ways which paid little attention to climate change.

That’s a harsh caricature of course – lots of forward-thinking, innovative associations were already shaking things up – but like all caricatures the exaggeration highlights broad, underlying truths.

The most important questions now pertain to purpose and legacy, the changing role of cities and venues, how to cater to diverse audiences, the role of technology, and, of course, sustainability.

These issues are distinct, but there is much overlap – and the common thread running through them is sustainability, which is to say securing a future for meetings that doesn’t imperil the planet.

Maybe I’m an optimist, but I believe things have already changed for the better, and that once this period of immiseration is over, we will be meeting in a more meaningful and sustainable way.

Here are just a few examples of how that might happen:

Solution-focused meetings

Purpose and legacy + The role of cities and venues + Sustainability

Associations will create solution-focused events that allow delegates to be part of something big and inspiring. The world is broken, will be the thinking, and associations can help fix it. Whether it’s a medical association filling knowledge gaps in developing countries or a trade association helping its members do things better, the association meeting of the future will be driven by a strong sense of commitment and purpose.

In this scenario, cities (and to a lesser extent venues) are no longer just part of the logistics, but association partners, helping organisations to connect with local academia and industry in a way that adds genuine value to the meeting. Convention bureaux will act as the ‘hubs’ of an intellectual network, opening doors, making introductions, helping to create a meaningful relationship between association and city.

Virtual as permanent fixture

The role of technology + Diverse Audiences + Sustainability

International meetings harm the planet.  Younger association members – those most at risk from climate change – are unlikely to tolerate ‘business as normal’ if that means pointless swag bags, excessive food waste, and clocking up airmiles for content that could have been delivered online. Associations have learned lots of new tricks this year. They won’t forget them. Many saw unprecedented numbers of people attending their virtual congresses from parts of the world previously untapped. It is now clear that online events can attract entirely new audiences, helping to strengthen an association’s community and keeping sponsors happy. Add to that the imperative to cut carbon emissions and associations will surely convert some of their in-person meetings to virtual formats for good. Some might choose to hold alternating flagship congresses – one year in-person, the next virtual.

The inclusively bespoke meeting

Diverse audiences + the Role of Technology + Sustainability

There are people who don’t attend in-person association meetings because it is difficult for them to do so: people with physical disabilities, people with young children, people on low incomes, people who live in remote parts of the world. Likewise, there are people who could speak or present at association meetings but, for similar reasons, do not. Online meeting technology solves many of these problems and should allow associations to extend their reach and be far more inclusive. Diversity is the lifeblood of a successful international organisation, where a multiplicity of voices helps solve problems. A sustainable organisation has diversity in its DNA.

Savvy associations cottoned onto something very quickly during the pandemic – that a virtual meeting need not resemble an in-person meeting in any shape or form. In fact, trying to ‘flip’ an in-person meeting to virtual may result in something rather stale and uninspiring. Online meetings provide extraordinary (unlimited?) ‘band-with’ in terms of parallel tracks and sessions, but also extraordinary flexibility in terms of how content can be presented. With the right platforms, programmes can be created that allow content to be presented and consumed in the most suitable formats – pre-recorded videos, live debates, in-studio interviews, virtual roundtable etc – and which will appeal to the broadest possible audience.