Consultant, Event Services
March 10, 2020. I woke up at 4 AM, got in my car, and headed to what would be my last face-to-face event for over a year. The Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Detroit Chapter (AFP GDC) was hosting the “2020 Michigan Fundraising Climate Results” in partnership with The War Memorial. It was a small, quiet event with press and media coverage. I kept hearing “coronavirus” and “Michigan will be shutting down” throughout conversations, but I brushed it off as nothing. I had a year of events ahead of me – the thought of that all stopping was the last thing on my mind. I was focused on my next event, the Michigan Society of Healthcare Risk Management’s Spring Program, scheduled for March 17.
After the event was over, I wandered around The War Memorial for a while to take in the beauty and history of the venue. I then made my way back toward Lapeer, where I was staying, stopping for coffee and lunch, all the while not paying much attention to the news or my phone alerts. Once I was back to where I was staying, I carried on with my day, not giving a second thought to Coronavirus.
The next morning, I woke up, grabbed my coffee, and turned on the news. Emails poured in. My phone pinged nonstop with text messages and phone calls. Within 30 minutes I knew I had been naïve the day before and a pit in my stomach formed that still hasn’t really left. Do we need to cancel? What do we do? Is it really that bad? Do we reschedule for two weeks out? How do we handle this? These are the types of questions I kept getting – and continue to get – with no way to answer them. I wasn’t trained or prepared for this – none of us were. I don’t have the answers, but as Event Managers, we are expected to, so we forged forward into total blindness with support from coworkers, bosses, professional contacts, and the entire hospitality industry.
March 13: events larger than 250 were banned and the Michigan Society of Healthcare Risk Management’s (MSHRM) Spring Program was canceled. March 16: events larger than 50 were banned. March 17: all my events for the foreseeable future were canceled.
The following days were spent in meetings to cancel events, fighting over contracts, giving event refunds, researching the Coronavirus, and trying to figure out how I was going to handle this all. I was frustrated, scared, sad, filled with anxiety, and devastated watching months of event prep be for nothing. Most of those feelings are still relevant, almost one year later.
However, there was no time to wallow in self-pity. This was impacting everyone, and I had a job to do. One way or another, events would carry on, and I had to figure out how to make it happen. The members of the associations needed our events in order to earn Continuing Education credits, regardless of COVID-19. On March 17, AFP DET held its first virtual Town Hall. Topic-based webinars followed shortly after. On May 20, MSHRM kicked off its virtual webinar series. With no end to the event ban in-sight, we transitioned to 100% virtual for the remainder of 2020, with hope for a better 2021.
Since March 17, I have planned, coordinated, and executed more than 55 webinars and virtual events, with over 65% having Continuing Education credit attached (up from about 13 face-to-face events in 2019). I more than tripled attendance for AFP GDC events. I helped plan, coordinate, and execute a virtual award show, National Philanthropy Day, in partnership with Detroit Public TV that reached more than 8,000 people. I have become an unofficial Zoom wizard 🪄. I have witnessed Boards of Directors and committee chairs step up to do what needs to be done. My eyes have been reopened to how amazing our membership is as they offer to present webinars, find speakers, and help in countless other ways. Sponsors have supported us in extraordinary ways. What I am getting at here is although this has been one of the toughest years professionally, it has also been one of the most humbling and eye-opening.
There were, and still are, times when I am convinced, I can no longer stay afloat and balance everything. It feels like the list of to-dos is pulling you under while the rope of “look what you have already done” is slipping out of reach. There are still so many unknowns and I don’t have many answers for my clients. Industry friends are losing their jobs, venues are closing, caterers are struggling to stay afloat, hotels are barely hanging on in some places. Will there be an industry to go back to? I can confidently say that yes, I think there will be, because if nothing else the hospitality industry is resilient and ready to do what we need to do to get us ALL back.
Support your local restaurant (and tip well!). Buy a gift card for a hotel to use later. Donate when you can. Write a positive review (costs nothing!). And understand that as more events are canceled, it breaks the planners’ hearts just as much. We can’t wait to be back with you.
Sarah Dysinger is an Event Services Consultant with Treeline Associates and has over 10 years of experience in Event Management. She currently works as the Events Manager for the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Detroit Chapter and the Michigan Society of Healthcare Risk Management where she plans and executes a variety of events including a multi-day education conference that awards continuing education credits, social and networking events to promote member engagement, and an annual celebration for National Philanthropy Day that brings in over 600 attendees.