When should your conference planning move to Plan B?

Is it too early to cancel an annual conference taking place later in the year? 

We asked an experienced association meeting professional how she is planning for a large future event and working with speakers during these times.

By Mary Ann Linder, CMP

Just two months ago, our dedicated volunteers numbering nearly 200 met together in San Antonio to develop the 2020 WEFTEC Program. WEFTEC will occur in October in New Orleans and has roughly 24 workshops, over 100 technical sessions (comprised of 3-6 speakers), mobile sessions, WEF chats and a variety of other educational programming along with a very large exhibit. 

WEFTEC 2020 Now, we are faced with uncertainty. WEFTEC is still too far away to say it is canceled but it is too large not to start thinking through the various options. As a larger staff team, we have begun the task of researching and looking at our options for hybrid/virtual meetings. This is taking up a lot of time as I am sure many of you are discovering. But I am also finding industry leaders who have been doing this for some time and they are a huge help! 

For the actual program, we are moving forward, hopefully, this week, with notifications to speakers that they are selected. Our wonderful communications team has written a statement to include in the notifications about COVID and the WEF response.  The plan is to ask speakers to respond in good faith as if the event will happen. We are extending the deadline to let us know if speakers can participate or not- from a two-week window to nearly a month. And even that we will continue to monitor. 

The Program Committee leadership along with the team I work on are looking at everything we ask of our speakers and what we would consider let slide this year. We have always requested papers to participate at WEFTEC but if this means someone can't speak because they can't get the input or data needed- then this may not be the year to follow the traditional rule. 

I know we will be communicating with our speakers more than ever and all of us needing to be flexible. I am not sure our volunteers have thought this through but I know that I have started to think about how we could re-work our program if the event is a go but we have fewer speakers. What would the new sessions need to look like? It is time to start thinking of which one of our many workshops may work as a distance program and which sessions will be good for the hybrid/virtual environment. 

This is a time of constant change/uncertainty.  Our members, speakers, and volunteers need us to work with them and keep up a high level of customer service and at the same time, we all need patience with each other as we navigate this new experience. Who can say for sure if WEFTEC will happen this October? I know my job is to plan- as if it will (and hope it will!) and then come up with a plan b.

Mary Ann Linder, CMP

Mary Ann Linder, CMP is Senior Manager, WEFTEC Education, The Water Environment Federation, and CESSE Education SIG Chair.


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