Is it “Groundhog’s Day” for Donor Events?
An Interview with Allegra Hewell Wilson

Ann Fitzgerald President AC Fitzgerald author

Ann C. Fitzgerald, President

Last year, nonprofit organizations navigated many challenges as they returned to hosting in-person donor events. From changing safety protocols, to switching event locations, returning to in-person was no easy task. With new pandemic challenges facing us, will we see a repeat of 2021?

To understand the outlook for this year, I interviewed one of the top experts in event planning and production, Allegra Hewell Wilson, founder of Hewell Events Group.

She provided invaluable insight into today’s event landscape. Enjoy!

Ann C. Fitzgerald
President, AC Fitzgerald


For organizations that held in-person events last year, what were the big lessons learned? 

Allegra: There were really four things that stood out:

  1. Attendees appreciate a color-coding comfort system. That is, using green, yellow, or red stickers or bracelets to indicate their comfort level with contact. It freed people to make a choice and not have to explain their choice.
  2. There was significant attrition at nearly every event in 2021. Groups should be prepared for this in 2022. Most events will be at 60-75% capacity this year.
  3. Planning takes place on a compressed timeline. This is happening on all sides. Venues are dealing with supply chain issues and a tight labor market. Meanwhile, your donors are making decisions on attending a few weeks out.
  4. People want to feel safe and that means going to 4 and 5-star hotel or conference venues. There are higher expectations of service and cleanliness today.

What was one surprising challenge you faced last year?

Allegra: In one case, we were planning a large event and needed chairs for the gala dinner. We had to call 15 different vendors before securing the chairs! Every vendor said the same thing: We have the chairs; we just don’t have the people to deliver them.

What is the outlook for in-person events in 2022?

Allegra: Overall, I’m positive. People still have a desire to gather in-person. The real fear around coronavirus has abated in many places and is nonexistent in others. A few trends I’m noticing:

  • While many events moved to Texas, Florida, or Arizona the last two years, I foresee a return to cities like DC and New York in 2022. Of course, organizations in heavily regulated states may still move events to other locations.
  • Virginia could be a new event opportunity for DC groups due to the change in administration. Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s new Governor, has already suspended mask mandates in schools. This is probably a precursor to increased flexibility in other areas.
  • Organizations need to understand that many covid safety protocols are up to them. Venues are taking a client-based approach; meaning they don’t have hard line policies for temperature-taking, masking, and social distancing.

If covid protocols are mostly up to the group, how do you suggest dealing with this?

Allegra: I recommend polling your donors or regular event attendees to get their input. Of course, it is also very important to communicate your protocols—whatever they are—to attendees throughout the entire planning process.

Should nonprofits forge ahead with events this year or take a wait-and-see-approach?

Allegra: Regardless of covid, every organization should ask the questions: Why are we hosting this event? What are our objectives? Does it make sense?

If a group is planning an event, it should keep in mind:

  • Events will be more expensive. Expect costs to go up this year by 15-20%. This is primarily due to food and beverage, and AV costs.
  • Give people room. Book enough space so attendees can spread out. This means more space at the cocktail reception and a maximum of eight to ten people per table at a seated dinner.
  • Keep it outside anywhere you can. Attendees appreciate fresh air now more than ever.
  • Run the numbers. Take a look at your budget and your goal and consider adjusting ticket pricing as necessary.

Do you see the trend of hybrid (in-person and online) events continuing?

Allegra: Most groups seem to be moving away from the hybrid model. Mainly because it requires two teams of people to manage the online and in-person aspects. The good news for groups that need an online component is that the technology is actually getting cheaper.

How would you sum up 2022 in a few words?

Allegra: Flexibility and understanding. This is still not an easy environment. Groups need to be flexible with budgeting and planning and understanding with their vendors.

Ann C. Fitzgerald is Founder and President of AC Fitzgerald, using her decades of experience in fundraising, management, leadership, and sales to help nonprofits build their capacity and achieve success. She is a sought-after speaker, writer, and advisor.

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