In late 2019, when Convene talked with Stuart Ruff-Lyon, CMP, DES, about his goals as 2020 chair, he spoke of his role in terms of serving and listening and helping PCMA continue on its path of growth and innovation. Little did he — or any of us — know how much of those qualities and spirit would be required over the past year.
2020 was a year of personal and professional challenges for most, including Ruff-Lyon, vice president of events and education for RIMS (the risk management society), who battled COVID-19 in April after having to cancel RIMS 2020, the society’s annual conference scheduled for May in Denver. He also has embraced remote working — after years of commuting from New Jersey to the New York City RIMS office, Ruff-Lyon and his husband relocated to Indiana.
I spoke with Ruff-Lyon in late December about the many changes in the events industry world that took place in the wake of the pandemic and what he sees ahead.
What were you most looking forward to in January 2020 that obviously did not come to pass?
I was looking forward to what I thought was going to be the best year ever, and I say that with all sincerity. I was excited to be PCMA’s chair. RIMS events were all in a great place. I had also been named the Meeting Professional of the Year by the New York Society of Association Executives and I remember my boss coming into my office right before we made our final site visit for RIMS 2020, and she’s like, “2020 is really your year, isn’t it?” And I was like, “I know! I’m feeling really great about things.” And two weeks later, the world went to hell in a handbasket.
It happened so quickly that way. But I was most looking forward to having the opportunity to meet event professionals from around the world, really represent PCMA to different segments of the world and engage the global events community. And, of course, we had to all transition to virtual with that, which has created a lot of new opportunities, but I’ve missed that face-to-face interaction. But I know that it’s not gone away. It’s just been paused.
What has 2020 taught you?
Oh, my gosh. I have been humbled this year. I have learned new things about my leadership skills that I didn’t realize I had before, like learning to manage my team remotely. Being a part of PCMA’s Board of Directors during the CEMA acquisition definitely taught me new skills and pushed me out of my comfort zone. I’d say the entire year actually did a good job of pushing me outside of my comfort zone, and I feel like it’s taken me the full year to really master being chairman of the board, to be honest with you.
I learned a lot about myself, and frankly, one of the things I learned personally is that I could be alone. I’ve always been such an extrovert. COVID actually taught me the lesson that I could enjoy my own company and that I could work and get things done from home, because prior to that, my entire professional life has been a frenetic travel schedule. I’m used to working on airplanes and in hotel rooms, so this taught me a lesson in patience and to get comfortable in my own skin, really with myself.
But I’m looking forward to the return to travel in general next year. I think we’ll probably see a rebound of some business travel happening more towards the summer right now, but I’m definitely looking forward to returning to travel. I think business travel in general is going to be reduced, and we’re not going to see that return fully for the next several years — a lot of data indicates that. We’re looking more at 2023, 2024 for a return to pre-COVID levels, which to me seems realistic and unfortunate.
I’m going to circle back to what you learned about leading a remote team. What’s one of the things that you’ve learned is important in managing a team of people from remote locations?
I think communication, checking in has been key. Having pre-established meetings and team meetings more than we’ve ever had before on Zoom, has kept everyone engaged. And I wanted to make sure everyone felt engaged and felt like they had a purpose and were working towards something, because it was very unsettling to a team of event professionals to cancel the conference. I think they needed to feel more leadership than ever before, and I think that checking in with them more often, more frequent Zoom meetings really was effective to help keep them engaged and understand the crucial roles they continued to play at RIMS.
This has been a challenging year to say the least, but most event strategists have been able to “pivot” to provide digital content. How about our supplier partners, particularly hoteliers and CVBs. Have you seen any interesting examples of a changing business model that makes them more able to operate under these circumstances for the next year or so?
It’s such a difficult question. I just can’t put myself in their shoes on that right now. I’ve seen some models where work schedules are reduced and, unfortunately, salary cuts to keep more people employed and receiving benefits. But I don’t know how this is going to shake out. It’s unfortunate. This is a relationship-based business, and I’d say particularly for RIMS, I manage my team that way. I believe in strong relationships. I believe that relationships are at the heart of all that we do in the events business, and our accounts have absolutely just been decimated right now. Right now, it’s not a relationship-based business for me. It’s become transactional and a lot of the people we’ve worked with are no longer in their roles. It’s difficult to establish new relationships and trust on this virtual environment. It really is. Maybe that’s a generational thing — for me, to get to know a new partner, to build the relationship, to build trust, it’s definitely best conducted face-to-face and eye-to-eye.
My fear, and I hope that I am wrong, is that we’re going to see the meeting planner side of things disrupted in 2021 as we start to rebuild, because 2021 is still such a year of uncertainty with event revenue, event-attendance projections, things like that, that I could see 2021, there being unfortunately, perhaps more of a wave of job loss on the planner side of things than we saw in 2020. Hopefully I’m wrong about that.
A lot of companies and associations were able to continue operating because they had good event cancellation insurance policies, and their claims paid out, so they were made whole for the most part. But we’re not going to have that going forward, and many are planning for hybrid events. When doing a hybrid event, your costs potentially increase with technology expenses. If you have to socially distance a meeting and employ COVID-19 protocols, your costs are going up, too. The bottom lines are going down, and I think we’re going to see associations and businesses in general that rely on that revenue to have more of a hardship in 2021 than we did in 2020.
And for organizations that derive a lot of their revenue from exhibition halls, recouping those revenues has been a major challenge. What new avenues of revenue generation have you seen?
At RIMS, we pivoted our entire sales strategy to be more about partnership with the whole organization on a year-round basis, and not just making it so event-driven. So we’re working with our partners to build packages that are, yes, going to support the virtual event component, but they’re also going to be related and tied to content, with our magazine, to webinars, to podcasts. So thinking about it more holistically than we have before about, “Hey, you’re an event sponsor. You’re an advertiser. You’re this.”
It makes more sense anyway from a revenue perspective, and just from knowing what’s going to be sponsored for the year and things like that, it’s certainly more beneficial to us. So we’re having those conversations with customers, but for us, a lot of our bread and butter is that smaller 10’ x 10’ exhibitor who wants to access the world’s risk management community. I think that’s a big problem to solve — how do you offer those with that lowest budget price point something of value in a virtual realm. They’re spending a lower price point on a booth, and they want to translate that into a virtual experience, but that can be hard to replicate.
Have you also changed the way you’re looking at engaging your members, as more of a year-round kind of engagement?
We are looking more at a 365 kind of engagement. The annual meeting is always going to be the hub and the heart of that connection we have with our members, we believe, but beyond that, there are definitely different opportunities, various channels, and micro opportunities, for increased engagement in a virtual environment. For example, we’re creating additional virtual events that are around industry roundtables and discussion groups and things like that to really keep people engaged — to have virtual fill in some of these gaps between face-to-face opportunities.
How do you think PCMA can help this industry in this new year, which you say you think is going to be in some ways even more challenging than 2020?
First of all, PCMA did some incredible things in 2020, obviously, to support the industry and had some great research with the Compass report, the town halls, the think tanks, the monthly Dashboard, and community conversations that took place. I think that PCMA will continue those throughout 2021, and even up the ante on them a little bit. And hopefully we’ll see PCMA have a successful return to face-to-face events with EduCon in June as well.
I want us to find a way of giving back to those members that are in transition right now. So I’m really excited that we’re going to be able to offer them free access to digital programs and resources through June 30. I think that’s going to help these people that have been disrupted and displaced right now to continue to engage with their peers, to network, and to upskill and reskill as they look for their new opportunities. Hopefully, that will be something of great value and benefit to those members that have been displaced.
A year from now, at the end of 2021, what do you think the business events industry will be talking about?
That’s a tough one, sitting here next year right now. I think in 2021, the events industry is going to be having a lot of conversations around contracts, risk transfer, cancellation clauses, force majeure. All that is going to be at the forefront as we look forward to future business, because doing citywide conventions obviously takes several years of planning, and we’re already starting to see some difficulty with some future years around what force majeure looks like, or what cancellation clauses looks like. I think that’s going to be a tough conversation for meeting professionals to have with their partners. Everyone wants to protect themselves and reduce their own risk. However, we’re going to have to find a way of meeting in the middle somewhere on these conversations.
I think the conversation about event cancellation insurance will continue as well — there’s a lot of movement around that. But I think the kind of the conversation we’ll be having too is realizing a new world of opportunity where the role of digital has been interwoven successfully at that point within the next year with face-to-face events and really taking that hybrid experience to the next level, engaging larger and more diverse audiences around the world to events. Hopefully, we’ll be having a discussion about how they’re stronger than ever at the end of 2021. They’re going to look different from the past, but they’re going to be strong and at the forefront of opportunities for innovation and creation and diversity, just as they always have been.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.