Association Laboratory Interviews GSAE on In-Person Meeting Success

As associations and other groups are debating whether meeting in person is safe enough to move forward with, the Georgia Society of Association Executives decided that their role, for their members, was to put on a safe in-person meeting and provide lessons learned. So here they are.

Communication is Key

Safety was a priority. GSAE originally moved its Annual Meeting from May to August at the beginning of the pandemic. When it decided to move forward with an in-person meeting, it was after getting a pulse check from those who had already registered to attend when registration had opened, as well as weeks of discussion with the Board of Directors.

“As a Board, it caused us to look at our core values,” said Ashley Goodin, CAE, executive director of the Railway Tie Association and treasurer of GSAE.” If it was possible to hold a safe meeting, we should.”

According to GSAE President Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, they kept the marketing low key and were careful not to make people feel pressured or that they were missing out. In fact, she arranged for members, who were not comfortable with attending an in-person meeting, to get member pricing to the virtual conferences held by the Ohio Society of Association Executives and Florida Society of Association Executives, to ensure they could receive continuing ed credits for their CAEs.

GSAE also allowed for full refunds up until just a few days before the meeting, so people could gauge their comfort level at the last minute.

“We wanted to be sure there was no pressure,” Goodin said. “We completely respect your decision not to attend, and we’re happy to see you if you do attend.”

In the end, the event had 113 attendees.

The Hyatt Regency Savannah, the site for the event, also provided the association with a video and other information to help attendees understand what new procedures would be in place in terms of both cleaning and movement around the hotel space.

Signage throughout the hotel clearly communicated expectations about mask wearing, social distancing, as well as directed traffic flow in some areas. In potentially higher-traffic areas, hotel staff stood as human directional arrows to help everyone navigate.

“As an association executive, we set the tone and manage the expectations,” Goodin said. “You can’t just communicate the plan but also have to communicate expectations and lead by example.”

Pandemic-related Changes

The society got creative. “Our goal was to provide models to our folks that are reasonably priced, manageable, and that they can replicate,” Kavanagh said.

They had to get creative with resources and provided the GSAE Board with a variety of possible outcomes: Best-case scenario, middle-case scenario and worst case, which was no money, no meeting. GSAE went with in-house A/V instead of partnering to offset costs, as they generally do. They did provide some tradeouts, including to PMSI, which provided safety pouches to attendees, with  masks, hand sanitizers, door hooks to open doors, and sanitizing wipes.

Exhibitors couldn’t hand out swag, so instead they handed out already-filled swag bags that were stuffed by volunteers—with everyone masked and hand-sanitizing frequently.

The Seating and Feeding

To comply with the city of Savannah’s safety measures—more stringent than the state’s—the Hyatt Regency Savannah has limited seating options to offer groups that hold meetings there, said Ian Slaughter, associate director of events. There are rounds, which are limited to four at a table, with each table set 6 feet apart, or schoolroom, with one person at the end of each table, again, with each table set 6 feet part.

In addition, the hotel designated certain doors entrances and others exits, to control traffic flow better.

Kavanagh said it was a real partnership between the association and property staff. “We needed to know how to stagger dismissals, where hand sanitizers were going to be placed,” she said. At the start of each general session, someone from the stage reminded attendees of several procedures, including wearing masks when not eating or drinking, not to leave anything on the tables when they exit. and to wash their hands frequently.

“What felt foreign on Wednesday when they arrived, felt more normal by Friday,” Kavanagh said.

From Goodin’s point of view, there was some interaction lost at the tables with a normally 8-person round only having four. “You have to be more creative, and aware of how hard it is to communicate in a mask because it muffles the sound,” he said. “Human contact was that was missing.”

For breakout sessions, attendees were each dismissed one by one to control the flow of traffic back into the General Session. In the General Session, each table had a napkin in the middle of it, with a different color, which designated which of the three buffet lines that table would go. Staff acted as human directionals to get each table to the correct station. Lesson learned, Slaughter said: “People don’t believe each buffet is the same, so some go peek at each.”

Each buffet line had three or four servers behind it, with Plexiglass shields, and the servers provided the portions of the meal onto each plate. From Slaughter’s perspective, a plated meal does more to limit the amount of potential contact, but he realizes that attendees like to have choices.

The Hyatt chef has revamped the menu to allow for revised service and to use more to-go containers that are compostable.

Overall, Goodin thought there was a good use of space, with plenty of different types of places to gather. “Space felt respected by other attendees,” he said, “you had space to take a break and engage at your comfort level.”.

Make Use of Your Mobile App

GSAE previously used a mobile app, MapDynamics, for its
exhibitor and sponsor maps at its Annual Meeting, but with moving to a
touchless meeting, was able to use new upgrades within the app that included
speaker handouts, a COVID-19-related self-assessment they had to complete every
morning before attending, and the silent auction offerings.

COVID Monitoring Post-Event

After the event, GSAE distributed a survey asking about COVID-19 exposure or symptoms – any potential prior exposure before the event, development of symptoms after the event, as well as positive or negative tests received since the meeting. Although staff carefully turned off all tracking options in Survey Monkey, Kavanagh’s first version inadvertently almost created medical records (by having an option for attendees to request follow up from staff by leaving their name and e-mail). Luckily, the gaff was corrected early in the process. Attendees received 4 reminders and could record different responses at any time. Fortunately, no attendees reported positive diagnoses or COVID-19 symptoms in the two weeks after the event. 

Lessons Learned

As one attendee put it to Goodin, “we’re a hugging group,” and although the sense of relief and excitement of being together was there, there is some of the human touch that is lost. Kavanagh mentioned that the hotel staff each wore buttons with their photos on it, along with their nametag, and she wishes she had thought of that to offer to attendees, to combat the masks covering most of everyone’s face.

On the hotel side, Slaughter said that the planning process takes longer, and it’s a lot harder to throw anything together last minute. There are just many items that need to be thought through and staffed differently; for instance, more people needed to be used in the lobby as human directional at peak times, at the elevator banks and at check in, to engage more with guests and get them moving in the correct direction with social distancing and occupancy limits.

Goodin, whose staff attending the GSAE meeting to better understand how they can move forward with planning an in-person meeting, summed up his takeaways at how to move forward: “We have to think outside the box, respect individuals choices, respect the policies put in place by businesses that have banned travel, overly communicate and manage expectations.”

Kavanagh is sharing documentation, including table setups, procedures, and communication tools, with the GSAE community in an upcoming toolkit. 


GSAE is a member of the Association Laboratory Research Alliance – a global cooperative of nearly 20 state, specialty, and global societies of association executives developed to help investigate the future of the association business model.