Issuing admission refunds can be tricky business even during normal
times, but the issue has become a common and complicated challenge for
event planners during the pandemic.
As planners work to reschedule meetings, many are finding that there
is no one-size-fits-all solution for issuing refunds and rethinking
pricing. Below are some solutions organisers are implementing.
A menu of options
Establishing the right approach will
depend on a variety of factors, notes Gregg Talley, president and CEO of
the Talley Management Group. The company, which provides full-service
event planning and consulting services to more than 20 associations, has
been helping a number of its clients navigate rescheduling and refund
"It's so hard to generalise on this topic because each event, each
organisation and frankly, each audience is so different and unique,"
said Talley. "You have to have the discussion of who are we, who is our
audience, what is our relationship with them and what do we want it to
be? It's every variation under the sun based on those factors."
The best course of action for many organisations might be to offer a
variety of options to registrants. Doing so can help keep attendees
happy and allow organisations to hold on to some of the registration
funds, rather than simply issuing a blanket refund to everyone.
"A lot of us are using the revenue coming in from events for
cash-flow purposes," said Annette Gregg, senior vice president of
experience at Meeting Professionals International, which rescheduled its
signature World Education Congress from June to November. "For us, we
wanted to create a menu of options for folks and say, 'If you're not
comfortable using your registration for WEC, we have 10 other ways you
can use that money and leverage your investment with MPI.'"
According to Gregg, it is especially important to adopt a flexible
refund policy as many businesses are facing cutbacks, unemployment and
furloughs remain high, and gathering restrictions continue to change —
all factors that could keep registrants from attending.
One of the most popular options
amongst event planners is to allow guests to roll over their
registration to next year's meeting. MPI offered this choice, allowing
guests to apply the 2020 registration fee to WEC 2021, which is
scheduled to take place in Las Vegas, or its 2021 European Meetings
& Events Conference.
The Society of Government Meeting Professionals did the same after
cancelling its National Education Conference, which was scheduled to
take place May 19-21 this year in St. Louis. Registrants had the option
to receive a full refund or transfer their registration to next year's
NEC, scheduled for May 18-20.
"With the health and safety of our members and conference attendees
our highest concern, due to the Covid-19 pandemic hitting the United
States, SGMP determined it was best to cancel our NEC," said SGMP
executive director Pamela Valenzuela. "For our sponsors, exhibitors and
registrants, we have offered them the option to roll over their fees to
our 2021 NEC or to receive a refund. Those of us in the meetings
industry appreciate in-person opportunities, such as the SGMP NEC, to
gather for business, education and developing new connections, so we
were sad that was not going to be possible this spring."
Redirecting fees to other benefits
Another option is to
allow attendees to apply the registration fee to other association
offerings. This could include online courses or certificates programmes,
or the extension of their membership for a certain amount of time.
"We'll let them use that investment on anything we have to offer,
whether that's a membership extension, anything from our MPI Academy or
another event," said Gregg. "What we wanted to do is to be flexible with
everyone and say, 'Here's all the different options and if you still
don't want to do that and invest in these other ways, then we'll refund
Lower registration prices can help
planners drive up attendance rates during lean times, whether it be for
an in-person or virtual event.
MPI's WEC Grapevine event was not only moved to November, but has
also been changed to a hybrid format. The price for a live event ticket
has been lowered from US$999 to US$799. The price for virtual attendees
will be US$299.
According to Talley, planners who move their meetings online should
adjust their prices accordingly. After all, the cost of the event is
likely to be lower with venue, food-and-beverage and transportation
costs no longer necessary. The price of the ticket should reflect the
cost of the event and the value of the content, advises Talley.
"When it comes down to pricing, that's where we all have to be
realistic that a virtual event should be cheaper to produce than an
on-site live event," said Talley. "You should still be able to make a
net positive from your event — perhaps not as much as initially
anticipated but still a net positive."
Free registration to members
Some event organisers that
have had to pivot to digital meetings are eliminating registration fees
entirely for their members. Talley notes that doing so can be a smart
way for planners to increase brand loyalty while still bringing in
"If you've got an event where 50% of your attendees are members and
50% are nonmembers, this represents an opportunity," he said. "You might
want to do one thing for your members and offer another set of options
IACC, formerly the International Association of Conference Centers,
has applied this thinking to its flagship Americas Connect event. The
2020 conference was scheduled for 30 March to 1 April in Dallas, but had
to be cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions. The organization
quickly launched IACC Americas Virtual Connect, which took place online
Registration was free for all IACC association members, as well as
for staff members of all currently active IACC-certified venues.
Nonmembers were able to purchase a four-day pass to the virtual event
"We took the approach that we needed to step up and invest in putting
on the virtual event for each and every member at this time, without
the possible barrier of paying," said Mark Cooper, IACC CEO. "V-Connect
went from US$950 in registration per person, to free for every staff
member in the membership organisation. It was a massive undertaking
given the importance of association conference revenue for running the
business, but at the same time we believe 2020 is our chance to do
Cooper noted that registration soared as a result of the pricing
change. IACC Americas Virtual Connect was the largest IACC conference in
the association's 39-year history, with 660 attendees (up 187% from the
2019 event). In addition, many guests chose to transfer their
registration fees to next year's event, rather than receive the full
refund, in order to support the association now.
The American Society of Association Executives also saw a huge spike
in attendance for its Annual Meeting & Exposition. Originally
scheduled as an in-person event in early August, the meeting was moved
online to 10-12 August. ASAE association members were able to register
for the event for free; while nonmembers received reduced rates.
The virtual event broke the association's registration records. More
than 14,000 industry professionals attended the event, compared with
5,400 at the in-person convention in 2019. According to ASAE, 71% of the
2020 participants were first-time attendees.
It is inspiring how many people will
donate their registration funds back to the organisation if given the
chance. In addition to IACC, one of the Talley Management Group clients
also saw success with this method.
"We had about 30,000 people registered for an event that we had to
cancel. Because it's an event that happens every five years, there was
no way we could offer to hold or apply those funds," said Talley. "What
we did do was say, 'We're going to give a full refund to everybody and
those of you who would be willing to donate some portion or all of your
registration fee to the organisation, please indicate.'"
The client was pleasantly surprised to find that more than 1,000
people donated some, if not all, of their registration fees back to the
Communicate changes in a timely manner
event strategy and updating the pricing and refund policies can take
time. Whichever menu of options planners choose to offer, Talley noted
that the changes should be communicated with registrants as quickly and
clearly as possible.
"The other challenge we're running into with this is when we are
communicating what the refund options are. Obviously, the earlier and
the more information you can provide, the better," he said. "Be upfront
and be realistic about when people can expect to see their refunds
because that will help build trust for the long term."
The article was first published on Northstar Meetings Group