Incoming PCMA Board Chair: ‘We’re Going to Start to See Events Come Back’ in Late 2021

The way events professionals supported each other in 2020 was “uplifting,” says Kirsten Olean, incoming Chair of the PCMA Board of Directors. Now they need to “embrace that next normal” of digital and hybrid events.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Kirsten Olean

“Business events strategists are problem solvers. It does not surprise me at all that we totally rose to the occasion over the last few months,” says Kirsten Olean, incoming chair of the PCMA Board of Directors.

Kirsten Olean, CAE, IOM, director of meetings, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, calls herself an “extreme extrovert” who draws her energy from being around other people. So the social distancing part of the pandemic has been particularly hard for the 2021 Chair of the Board of Directors. But the silver lining over the past year, she said, has been getting to spend quality time with her young son without rushing to take him to school, to get to the office, and try to balance her home life around a demanding travel schedule.

“I don’t think I realized how hectic my life was,” Olean told Convene in mid-December. In addition to enjoying a slower pace with her son, she said she began to take “so much better care of myself than I was” — sleeping and exercising more and cooking healthy meals.

“I think the biggest surprise for me has been that I’ve actually settled into this quieter life in a way that I never thought that I would,” she said. “I’m not saying I’m not anxious to get back to socializing and going to events, but I don’t think that I’m going to be out all the time like I was before, because I really am appreciating the downtime and the alone time. I’m recharging in a different way than I used to.”

Olean shared what else she thinks will look different in 2021 and how she sees PCMA helping to guide the industry in the next normal.

You said that you’ve leaned into the remote work situation. Will that mean that you will work more often from home and the rest of your team will have that flexibility once the crisis is behind us?

Yeah, I do. We’ve all proven that we can do this. We did actually go in the office for the days of our virtual event — none of us had never done a virtual conference for 6,000 people and we did it from home and we did it successfully. We also have an organization that’s always been flexible about where people want to work and when. I’ve always managed that way. I am interested to see what the overall policy for the organization becomes about remote working when we get back to the office, but I think there’s going to be a lot of flexibility. I think it’s hard to argue with, because we’ve proven that we can do it, right?

So your first virtual event, what did you learn from that?

We worked with Freeman and we knew some but not all of the team. When we had our first meeting with them, the volume of questions we had was just massive. They were like, “Well, that part of it comes later in the process.” And we said, “Look, we want to understand everything now, because we want to make all the decisions now so then we can just focus on doing. We don’t want to be making decisions as we’re going through the process. We want to understand what’s going to happen at eight weeks out, six weeks out, four weeks out and understand the depth of those processes so that we can make those decisions now, plan now for what we’re going to do then, and just focus on getting the job done.”

I think that the biggest thing for all of us was that we had to accept that we didn’t know a lot. We had to start from that. And we had trust that we would figure it out, with the right partners and with relying on other resources and people in the industry. It required a level of collaboration among the team beyond what we’ve ever done before. People took on roles that were completely unfamiliar to them, like our logistics people were working with speakers on the program side.

Because the team had that great relationship and that trust in each other, it just worked beautifully. I frequently said to leadership, “I want you to understand that a lesser team could not have done what we did. This team is doing extraordinary work and they’re doing it as a team. You take one of those people out of the equation and we are not as successful.”

For my team, I think they knew that they were good, but I think now they really know now what they’re capable of, and I think they really got recognition for that within the organization in a way that just really elevated their skills and talents to the rest of the organization. That gives people really a lot of confidence in taking on what’s now going to be an omni-channel meeting in September. We are hearing from our folks that they are going to be ready to come back. We don’t know what to predict, but I think we could have more than 50 percent of our people in San Antonio at the event in person.

Is your audience mostly physicians?

Yes, clinicians and researchers. So the cystic fibrosis care team is made up of physicians, nurses, dieticians, nutritionists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, social workers, you name it. It’s the gamut of care, and they make up the cystic fibrosis care team. They all come to our meeting and then researchers as well. We’re about 75-percent clinician, and they’re all going to be vaccinated in the next couple of months.

It’s going to be incredibly challenging, because now we’re really essentially planning two events. That’s the reality of it, and we’re a small team. To do a virtual meeting, we had to acquire new skills. To do a hybrid meeting is less about acquisition of new skills. We knew how to do a face-to-face meeting. Now we know how to do a virtual meeting. Now it’s doing both at the same time and thinking about how those two pieces intersect in a way that’s very meaningful for both audiences. It’s very challenging, and it’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s a different kind of challenge, and there’s I think less of a learning curve.

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How about the financial challenges?

The purpose of our meeting is not to generate revenue, it’s to advance care for cystic fibrosis and cure cystic fibrosis — it is critical to our mission. We actually netted more revenue on a virtual meeting than we do on a face-to-face meeting.

But I do think that that is a real challenge facing organizations this year — they want to do hybrid, but it’s cost-prohibitive for them. I think there will be groups that choose to either go virtual or go face-to- face — just do one or the other and if in-person, risk the smaller attendance. It’s one of the real challenges: How can our vendors help us to figure out a way to do it in a cost-effective way that can help us get back to doing meetings?

So as incoming chair at PCMA, how do you think the association can help planners during what looks like it would be another really challenging year, albeit in a different way?

I’m really proud of how PCMA has supported, not just its members, but the industry through the last few months of the pandemic. I think we were out there really early with good information, starting with having a webinar with a microbiologist to explain exactly what COVID-19 is, so we had that baseline understanding of the science. And then, offering incredible resources, including DES. There’s just been so much that PCMA has provided them, and I think that’s exactly what our members and our broader community has really needed.

I think the other thing that we’ve done and continue to do is the Recovery Discovery piece. We’re supporting our industry where they are right now, but we’re also helping to prepare everybody for where we’re going, because this is temporary, but the next normal is permanent. We probably needed to shift as an industry and we were slow to do it and now we’ve been forced to do it. We’re really supporting our members as we move forward towards that. We’re in the moment, but we’re looking ahead. The first six months of 2021 are going to look probably a lot like what the last few months have looked like. Until the vaccine is widely distributed, it’s still not going to be safe to gather. There’s going to be restrictions still in a lot of places. But really, as we start to look towards the third and fourth quarter, we’re going to start to see events come back.

The thing that’s interesting is that PCMA is a global organization, and the recovery is in different stages in different parts of the world. APAC is much further ahead than we are in their recovery and leading the way as to how we bring back events.

I see it as this rolling wave. It’s going to start one place and move itself across the globe. As each region goes through recovery, we can learn from their experiences so that we continue to move things forward. It’s going to be a challenging year, but also, there’s so much hope, because I think we’re really going to start to get back to meetings the way that we knew them, way that we grew up in the business doing face-to-face. Everyone’s anxious to get back to that.

Aside from acquiring digital event skills, how has the role of event organizer changed?

Business events strategists are problem solvers. It does not surprise me at all that we totally rose to the occasion over the last few months. We didn’t know how to do virtual, but it had to be done, and we figured it out, and we had very successful virtual conferences. I try to explain to people who are not in our industry that this industry is very personal. And so, every time you see on social media or on one of the forums or LinkedIn that another person has lost their job, or another hotel has closed down, it’s heartbreaking, because it’s personal. That’s part of what has made this so hard. The numbers, the statistics around the impact that this has had on our industry are staggering, but they’re not statistics to us because those are our friends. Those are our friends and our colleagues that we have really close personal relationships with.

But the amazing and uplifting part of it has been the way that we have come together as an industry to support each other. I’ve been facilitating a PCMA Community Conversations, and we’ve been meeting every week since April. The openness, the willingness to share — pre-pandemic, I would have never seen this kind of transparency and willingness to share the good, the bad, the ugly. There’s no trade secrets. It’s, “Here’s what happened. Here’s what we did well. Here’s what we screwed up.” We got each other through this. The reason why we rose to the occasion in producing these successful meetings is because we relied on each other and we learned from each other as we went through the process.

The personal piece of it and the passion of the industry has made it both heartbreaking and uplifting. Everyone who is in this business is in it because they love it, and they’re incredibly passionate about the work. But what we’ve been passionate about is face-to-face events. We have not been passionate about virtual events. We’ve done it and done it well. We’ve been very successful, but I don’t see that same level of passion for virtual events. I think the challenge to all of us is to realize that at the core of what we do is bringing people together.

Whether we’re doing that face-to-face, or whether we’re doing that virtually, we are still achieving that. We are still bringing people together. We need to embrace that next normal and understand that the virtual might not have been why we got in the game in the first place but is now an incredibly important part of how we continue to do what we do, which is bring people together. We need to find our passion for the virtual, and we need to find our passion for what’s coming in the future, and not just leave our passion back with the old model of doing things.

RELATED: A Convene Chat With Stuart Ruff-Lyon, 2020 Chair of PCMA’s Board of Directors 

When you look at DMOs and hotels, they rely on large numbers of people coming together. What kind of changes do you foresee for them?

I do think that if we’re working on the assumption that the omni-channel meeting is the next normal, which all the research points to, all the arrows point in that direction, I think that those on the supplier side that can be part of that solution, that’s where the strength is going to be. You’re seeing convention centers building studios and helping to develop content that you can supplement with your meeting. Hotels are offering the ability to connect multiple hotels in a network so that you can do a hub-and-spoke model for your meeting. There are packages now where you can work with three different hotels — you can have three different venues and broadcast your meeting into different locations.

There’s been so much focus on the safety and sanitation and the cleanliness, and that’s critical. But that is also now the price of opening your doors. That is just the entry-level cost of doing business. We’ve upped the game on safety and sanitation, and I think those standards will stay. But on the supplier side, there also has to be this recognition that we’re not going back to the way things were.

Yes, we are going to bring back face-to-face meetings, but they look different now. We have potentially more AV needs. We have a lot more equipment. We’re going to need better internet and better bandwidth. How can your facility or your destination support, not just my audience that’s coming to your facility, but support the virtual audience as well and the experience we’re trying to build for the virtual audience? I think the places and the organizations that can really find a way to be a partner in that are the ones who are going to be the most successful.

What do you think the industry is going to be talking about a year from now?

That’s a really good question. I don’t know what we’re going to be talking about. I guess I’m thinking more of the emotional side of it, like how are we going to be feeling? I think we’re going to be tired, because it will be another challenging year, but I think we are going to be feeling more joyful. I think we’re going to be reconnected to that passion that we have. I think we’ll be talking about the successes that we’ve had and what these meetings look like. Right now, we’re talking about those who have done virtual well and what that has looked like and we’re really learning from each other.

I think that as we move through the omni-channel meetings of 2021, there’s going to be that same question of who’s finding good ways to do them successfully and so that they bring in revenue? I think we’ll be talking about the people who have approached it with a lot of innovation and creativity. I think we’ll still be figuring out who’s going to make it and who’s not both on the organization side and on the supplier side.

So, back to your question about suppliers: I think we’re going to see them evolve more over this year, and maybe we’ll be talking about some innovative things that destinations or hotels or convention centers are doing that are really helping to lift up this new model of meetings. I know we’re not going to be fully recovered by the end of 2021. We’re just going to get to the start of recovery, but I’m hoping that we are going to feel reconnected, passionate, joyful, and excited about where we are, even though we know that we still have work ahead of us.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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