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July 22, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 6

Where are we now? Two years into COVID-19, bars assess, reassess event formats

By Dan Kittay

After more than two years of adapting to pandemic restrictions mainly by providing online meetings and CLE programming, bars are now finding that eased restrictions require them to decide whether to change once more, by going back to in-person events, staying with virtual, or finding a middle ground. A series of interviews with some bar chief executives and staff members shows that the pandemic-induced online offerings may have changed how bars view the best way to reach their members.

For some, presenting online CLE programming proved to be a way to boost attendance. "We found that member engagement for those types of programs increased by 30 to 40 percent" during the pandemic, says Marc D'Antonio, senior programs manager at the Massachusetts Bar Association.

"We've been able to reach members outside of the city where our headquarters are located, where pre-pandemic we had held most, if not all, of our CLE programs," D'Antonio says. Convenience also is a factor, he adds. Members who attend virtually don't have to travel or pay for parking. The bar can also be flexible in offering seminars at different times of the day, depending on the preferences of the groups the seminars are designed to reach.

"Some practice groups prefer pre-court, 9:00 a.m. programs where they can come in, get their CLE credits out of the way, and then move on with their day," D’Antonio notes, adding that the MBA is also able to be more flexible with volunteer instructors in terms of when programs are offered.

Efficiency vs. the in-person touch

The bar's neighbor to the north has also found the convenience of virtual CLE programming has been popular with members. The New Hampshire Bar Association has presented a few in-person programs since pandemic restrictions have eased, and found attendance was lighter than the bar expected.

"We realized that, over the past couple of years, a lot of the attorneys have gotten used to the convenience of being able to do their CLEs via Zoom or whatever software is being used," says Lynne Sabean, director of marketing, communications, and member outreach. The convenience is most noticeable in shorter programs that run from one to two hours, she adds.

"If they're driving for an hour to go somewhere for two hours and then going back home, the additional driving time could be spent doing billable hours, and offsetting the cost of the CLE," Sabean explains.

For other bars, the in-person format better suits their needs. "We want to get back to the in-person seminars," says Kathie Selover, executive director of the Volusia County (Fla.) Bar Association. "We look at our CLEs not only for the educational aspect, but there's also a lot of networking that goes on at live seminars. That's always beneficial to our members, especially our young lawyers. We have missed that aspect."

During the past two years, the VCBA presented Zoom programming, but "it does not have the same effect," Selover says. The bar is planning a full schedule of in-person events for the fall. "The biggest challenge right now is getting people to realize it's OK to come out," she says, adding that moving forward, "if we can avoid a Zoom, we're going to avoid a Zoom."

The long and short of it

The Westchester County (N.Y.) Bar Association, like some of the other bars interviewed, is looking to have a mix of online and in-person CLE programming, says Executive Director Isabel Dichiara. "We found our folks seemed to enjoy shorter programs at lunch time," she says. Having a one-hour program online means members don't have to devote as much time to the process of getting their CLE credits.

Most states have a requirement that online CLE providers furnish some type of code or other means of proving attendance during a seminar, which attendees must enter when applying for credit. The WCBA has instead used Zoom polls to get an "instant reaction" from attendees that verified their attendance. The bar has also used the polls as a marketing tool, to ask members about what kinds of CLE they wanted and what format they preferred, Dichiara says.

For shorter topics, WCBA will use online programming. For more complex topics that will last more than one hour, the bar plans to have in-person events, which will also help provide the networking that is missing from virtual programming.

Remember when we thought everything would be hybrid?

While bars differed on whether to offer virtual or in-person programming, they were much more in agreement about hybrid programming: They don't like it.

Hybrid, where people can attend in person or online, would seem to offer the best of both worlds—and many bar executives and others once thought it would be the way of the future. In practice, though, some bars found it made life more difficult, and in some cases, more expensive.

"The provider thinks that they're doing a good deed by offering a choice. People can sign up for one or the other," says Tracey DeMarea, executive director of the Johnson County (Kan.) Bar Association.

"It's easy to create a Zoom account. But the in-person event has a lot more elements to it. There are venues, catering, A/V, and other factors to plan for,” she explains. "You need to know numbers in advance.

“For every [hybrid] event, without fail, the majority of people who had said they were coming in person, switched at the last minute. It's an immense amount of work on my end, for a good chance of no one actually turning up."

The Tennessee Bar Association ran into a similar issue at its first hybrid CLE program. As the program date approached, registrations totaled about 80 people in person and 60 online, says Stacey Shrader Joslin, the bar’s advertising, sponsorship and media content coordinator. "The day before and morning of the program, people wanted to switch to remote. Our in-person count went way down, and it was too late to make changes with regard to meals. Our sponsors were also disappointed that the crowd wasn't what we had thought it was going to be."

The hybrid event was also a strain on the CLE staff, which had to spend time preparing for the in-person portion, and then spend time the morning of the event handling the emails from those who wanted to switch and needed the link to log in to the online program.

And for smaller bars such as the WCBA, having a dedicated facility set up for hybrid meetings is not something that can easily fit into their budget. With the limited technology, "it doesn't feel inclusive" for those people connecting remotely, Dichiara says.

Annual meetings are something special

Bars look at non-CLE events, such as annual meetings, conferences and networking events, with a different lens when it comes to deciding on the format.

At the TBA, the annual convention, which ran from June 15-18, was all in person and had pre-registration numbers that were comparable to what the bar saw in pre-pandemic years, Joslin says. Exhibitor space was sold out, with vendors "chomping at the bit to get in front of lawyers."

In New Hampshire, the NHBA held its multi-day annual meeting exclusively in person on June 17-19. "It just doesn't make sense to have it as a webcast," Sabean says. Member reaction to having the meeting in person has been very positive, adds Events Coordinator Rebecca Bunyard.

Moving forward with 'no script'

All the bars interviewed are following developments in the pandemic to determine the best way to proceed in the future. In the past, many bars could plan for upcoming years based on attendance at previous years’ functions. Because of the unprecedented nature of the disruption to daily life, it's hard to have any kind of baseline to compare against, says the Johnson County bar's DeMarea.

"2022 is not like anything else," she says. "To think that things would be back to normal, as they were in 2019, was naive.

“It feels like I'm working with no script, for the third year running. I am assessing where I'm going, and what I'm delivering, weekly."

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