Meeting the COVID Challenge
Insurance industry event organizers keep options open, but many move to hybrid conferences amid 2021 pandemic uncertainty.
- Renée Kiriluk-Hill
- January 2021
Virtual or hybrid events will continue through the first half of 2021, with insurance industry conferences and meetings that combine in-person and virtual elements likely remaining the norm in a post-COVID-19 world, organizers said.
“I think we're going to see larger audiences,” said Stuart Ruff-Lyon, Professional Convention Management Association board chairman and RIMS vice president of events and education. Hybrid events break down attendance barriers raised by fiscal, time, distance or physical constraints.
While the pandemic retains its grip, event planners daily are monitoring COVID-19-related local health regulations, city curfews, ordinances capping the size of events, and travel restrictions while keeping abreast of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization guidelines and best practices, Ruff-Lyon said.
Some event organizers who hoped for in-person conferences are rearranging calendars to mid-2021, when potential vaccines could be more readily available. InsureTech Connect Asia was billed as a Feb. 2-4 convention that would bring together more than 1,500 insurance industry executives, investors and entrepreneurs in Singapore. It is now being recast as a hybrid June event, pending government approval for the in-person component, according to Director Rocio Sarriegui. “We also understand some borders will still be closed, or company travel restrictions will still be in place, so we'll be replicating the exhibition hall online, and all the content will be available on demand.”
InsureTech Asia thinks it could reach its pre-COVID target of 1,000 attendees, Sarriegui said. Singapore's borders are currently closed, although the country has a Reciprocal Green Lane travel agreement with Asia-Pacific countries. “We hope things will relax by June, but we need to be realistic and plan with what we know. At the moment, we're expecting 80% local attendees and 20% international. Before COVID, we'd have expected 30% local and 70% international,” she said.
In the United States, InsureTech Connect's ITC Las Vegas is scheduled for Oct. 4-6. Last year's event was virtual. “While being together again in person is our goal, being together safely is paramount,” organizers Jay Weintraub and Mee-Jung Jang said in a statement. “In the near future, we will share specific details of our 'Together Again Safely' plan.”
Registration opens in January. “We understand that not everyone is ready or able to make decisions today about [later in the] year,” they said.
The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies also is pushing early 2021 conferences out by four months, said convention and association services Assistant Vice President Larry Baile. The February Claims Conference is now set for June 6-10 and the March Commercial Lines Seminar is moving to July 21-23. Both will be hybrid conferences with selected educational sessions and general sessions available to virtual attendees. Baile called the setup “the best of both worlds.”
The American Property Casualty Insurance Association will hold all 2021 events, but the format—virtual or in-person—will be decided by current COVID-19 circumstances and safety-driven, it said on its website. Several virtual conferences are set from February through April.
Rendez-Vous de Septembre 2021 is scheduled to take place Sept. 11-16 in Monte Carlo, but the organization hasn't posted details. Organizers canceled the 2020 event, organization president Claude Tendil said at the time.
The events industry is an economic force. Planning for large events starts years in advance, but today the virus has shifted the landscape, and the hospitality industry has adjusted to the situation with more flexible contracts, said Ruff-Lyon.
RIMS holds multiple events annually and this year shifted to maintain momentum online or in a hybrid form. Its annual conference and exhibition has drawn more than 10,000. In 2021 that event is set for April 18-21 in Chicago, the format is subject to change.
“If feasible, we will hold some on-the-ground, face-to-distanced-face activities. ... However, if external factors persist, all educational, networking and solution-sharing components will be virtual for the extended period of April 19-29,” RIMS 2020 President Laura Langone and Chief Executive Officer Mary Roth said in a recent letter to participants.
They plan to open registration and housing reservations in January, but also hired a “leading digital-event producer” to ensure universal access to its “learning and networking experience.”
Once it's safe to travel and gather again, Ruff-Lyon and others said, most attendees will return to in-person events to reconnect and build new business relationships, augmented by others joining in virtual pods or hubs. “It will be exciting to see how this merges,” said Ruff-Lyon.
With COVID-19 cases in a rise-and-fall cycle, Lance Ewing, executive vice president of global risk management for Cotton Holdings Inc., said event organizers continually weigh risk and disruption to their organization, members, vendors and more.
In certain states, there could be an opportunity for small in-person events, Ewing said, and only if COVID-19 protocols are in place. Otherwise, organizations could face general liability claims from third parties as well as workers' compensation claims. “Companies and associations working on 2021 and 2022 planning need to be sensitive,” Ewing said.
Smaller events are more nimble, Ewing pointed out. “They have the ability to lift and shift a bit quicker” as state virus-containment measures and virus hot spots ebb and flow.
“If they're taking up three hotels in Topeka, Kansas, and want to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma,” they can, he said. On the other hand, planning for large events starts four to five years out and in coordination with chambers of commerce, large hotels, transportation companies and more.
“It's like invading a city—you need long-range planning,” said Ewing. The people who stage those gatherings need to be “much more creative than in the past” while COVID-19 is in the picture.
They can be more judicious with their time, said Ewing, instead of rushing between convention floors, lunch meetings and cocktail receptions. “At every conference you're overbooked and have to prioritize who you're going to meet with,” Ewing said. “There's some upside to this. We can learn how to make it better going forward.”
Ewing envisions a lasting hybrid approach, because fully virtual events can't satisfy the need to “look someone in the eye, break bread with them. We will get back to some of that,” Ewing said.
The Medical Professional Liability Association has additional pandemic advisers close at hand, as half of its board members are physicians or dentists, and the other half are insurance executives. “Every one has a very, very acute sense of the seriousness of this pandemic” and brings that gravitas to deciding how the association connects constituents during the pandemic, President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Atchinson said.
Event hosts had a steep learning curve. “It's one thing to host or produce a webinar. It's another thing to host a typical event in a meaningful way online, with high production quality, that spans a three-day time frame and is available to hundreds or thousands of people,” Atchinson said.
In the fall, the MPLA transitioned to a hybrid event for its three-part, annual series on underwriting, claims and risk management, and operational functions.
Held at three locations over two-and-a-half days, it commonly draws about 140 attendees to each part of the series. The MPLA may draw as much as 25% of conference attendees from countries outside of the United States. Last year the MPLA choreographed a hybrid fall session, allocating three to four hours of prep time for each hour of the event, Atchinson said.
“We had multiple rehearsals for each of 28 sessions—86 speakers over three days,” he said. “They were all skilled speakers, but some were not comfortable with the tech platforms for doing this remotely.”
The association rehearsed to identify and solve technical issues and worked with presenters on engaging a distant audience. “This was not just, 'Show up for a webcast at 2 p.m. on a Thursday,'” Atchinson said. The association flew speakers in for what became an interactive online event. Virtual attendees could ask speakers or each other questions in real time, verbally or in a chat room.
The MPLA paid similar attention to sponsors and affiliate members and engaging them during the event. All of the advance work paid off, he said.
“It felt like they had the same opportunities than if they were standing in the hallway sipping a coffee during a break.
View AM Best's searchable calendar of insurance events at: http://www.bestreview.com/calendar.