Returning to In-Person Events: Headwinds and New Formats

By Douglas Quattrochi, Executive Director

Many members, especially members who have been in business with us a long time, are eagerly looking forward to a return to in-person networking and training events. Landlord groups around Massachusetts have been meeting in-person for decades, but the pandemic disrupted and perhaps permanently changed this tradition. This article will detail the problems we’re seeing and the experiments we will be conducting starting fall 2022.

Worcester event attendees sit gathered around tables of eight listening to a speaker at the front of the room. Dinner has been served.

MassLandlords and chapters have a decades-long tradition of meeting in-person. We are working on economically sustainable ways to return, to still meet our educational objectives and to sustain our “no sales pitch” guarantee. Copyright MassLandlords.

As you know, MassLandlords is governed by a Board of Directors of five volunteers, one elected each year, and a team of roughly 20 full- and part-time staff. We are meeting regularly about in-person events. We also listen to our 2,400 members like you.

As we look toward returning to in-person, we first want to assure devotees of the Zoom format that we will also continue Zoom events. Zoom events are very popular and effective. Between when the pandemic began in March 2020 and the time of this article, July 20, 2022, we have counted 6,073 virtual event attendees (many of these are of course repeat attendees). This is an incredible engagement metric, and roughly 16% more total engagement than if we had not had a pandemic. Zoom opens doors and schedules.

But we know networking opportunities are poor on Zoom. Also, we know many of you prefer the in-person format for many other reasons, including social support. Meeting with a room full of other landlords is the best assurance that we’re not crazy! It’s a tough, lonely business sometimes.

At our Zoom business updates, we have been discussing the return to in-person events. We have lost venues during the pandemic:

  • Our Newton venue was lost just prior to the pandemic due to a manager closing their office. That manager wanted to continue hosting us, but a non-member landlord neglected maintenance and tenant relations on the floors above, causing flooding in the office.
  • Our Cambridge venue became unsupportable. They want to charge $300 per hour now for a five-hour booking. That location only attracted 20 attendees.
  • Northern Worcester lost their technical high school as a venue due to public health concerns for the children there. This leads us to expect that we will not be approved to return to the technical high school in central Worcester, either.
  • Pittsfield's restaurant venue has confessed they've lost money on us for years and were hosting us mainly just out of respect. The Berkshire County landlords had a model where food is optional for attendees, making it very hard for a restaurant to operate.

Greater Springfield is actually the best positioned to host an in-person event first. This region has many remaining and willing restaurants and venues. But Greater Springfield is waiting for a statewide event plan.

The logistics team that enabled Greater Springfield and other directly managed events can't, under the old work arrangement, be brought back for that one region alone. They'd be looking at a 75% workload reduction on what was already only approximately 10 hours a week. A monthly eight-hour Springfield drive, setup and tear-down would interfere with the first/second shift primary jobs they have or would have. That means we could be asking them to take their wellness or vacation time to work for us. This makes this role more expensive to staff than before. And many landlords can’t easily get to Greater Springfield.

Add to this the following headwinds:

  • Food costs have doubled ticket prices in all regions; or else food quality and quantity must decrease.
  • Event planning and emceeing was an unpaid role: I personally volunteered about 60 hours a month attending events statewide pre-pandemic. Given my current management responsibilities, I can't go back to that without hurting the organization in other ways.
  • Experiments done in other regions produced in-person attendance numbers that were one-third of pre-pandemic levels. Those events would lose money unless someone regularly donated time or food month after month.

We have had experiments in Southbridge, Marlborough, Waltham and Fitchburg. The attendance has been good enough for volunteer organizations, but not scalable or staffable by MassLandlords directly.

Plans to Experiment with Larger and Smaller Formats

We have plans to experiment with a larger conference format and a small dinner format.

The larger conference format may look like pre-pandemic events in Springfield, Worcester, Waltham and Cambridge, except at a frequency that would draw enough attendees to make them economically sustainable long-term.

The smaller dinner format would scale statewide without on-site staff. This would be a one-table, reservations-required dinner meeting with a host or expert. There would be no slides. It would be like the old Board of Advisors meeting, for those of us familiar with that format.

We can’t be sure if either event format will be successful. We have educational objectives and economic constraints. But we know in-person events matter and we are working to return to them.

Full details will be forthcoming. The first events announced will be experiments, though, so please keep in mind we will have to work at this.

If you have suggestions for event models that would be educational and sustainable, please email us at hello@masslandlords.net. We are particularly interested in hearing about your experience with ticketed events run by other staffed organizations. Any venue recommendations must be fully accessible to our many members with disabilities. Absent your suggestions, we will continue on the plan that our team and Board of Directors are creating.

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