SPRINGFIELD — Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference has garnered a reputation as the premier event of the spring at the MassMutual Center, with big-name guest speakers like actress Rita Moreno and journalist Barbara Walters and plenty of opportunities for women to network.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the university canceled the conference, which was set to feature entertainment and beauty icon Tyra Banks.
Initially Bay Path planned for a virtual conference in 2021. But on Wednesday the school announced it will instead hold out for an in-person conference in 2022.
“We looked at possible virtual platforms to hold the conference, but we felt that, given the energy that is felt in the room on that day and the networking that happens, that it was just not going to be a comparable experience,” said Caron Hobin, vice president of strategic alliances, who has produced the conference since its inception 24 years ago.
Hobin said planners were also realistic about the amount of screen time people are enduring for work and social gatherings since the pandemic began.
“We realize, from our own experiences attending Zoom meetings and digital forums, that screen fatigue is real,” she said. “In order to truly create a day that would meet the high standards that we — and our attendees — have come to expect, we feel that waiting it out to create a great in-person experience is the right way to go.”
Bay Path University President Sandra J. Doran said the school was excited about the possibility offering a virtual conference, but feedback from the community made it clear that was not the best option.
“Knowing how important this was to our community we did some small focus groups with supporters, with sponsors, with attendees to tell us why the conference is important to them and whether they thought we could satisfy that purpose if we held it virtually,” she said. “Universally people came back and said no. The value of this conference is the relationships we build, the conversations we have around our table, and that’s something we cannot provide virtually.”
Doran said the opportunity to network, connect, learn and grow happened in an organic way when people came together in one space. The annual conference brings more than 2,000 attendees to downtown Springfield for a day of speakers and workshop sessions devoted to professional development and personal goals.
Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the annual event is a boost for small business owners who sell their goods during the conference, as well as for the local economy as a whole.
“That event comes in at $200,000 in terms of impact because it is mostly a local draw, and it’s a one-day event, but you do get people who will stay in the downtown area and grab dinner after the conference,” she said.
Wydra said the value of the conference is in the exposure it provides for the MassMutual Center and downtown.
“They have been super successful in getting some really prestigious people to attend, and it’s bringing in business leaders throughout the region who are exposed to the MassMutual Center, and many of those people are involved with groups that convene,” Wydra said. “So the exposure in terms of what the building can offer in hosting an event, that will certainly be missed this year.”
Wydra said this is one of many annual events being canceled this year and next.
“We track loss of business, and we are at 158 group gatherings or events in Western Massachusetts that have been canceled, and that’s a $95 million impact on the region,” she said. “From gymnastics events to meetings and conventions have been canceled, and those are just the larger ones that we know about. I’m sure there are more.”
Hobin and Doran hope that, with an extended timeline, social media and digital forums will serve as virtual hubs to generate conversations and share thoughts and information that will carry over to the 2022 conference. The university will continue to offer smaller virtual experiences for students and the community.
During Hispanic Heritage Month in October, the university hosted a virtual conversation with Selenis Leyva, star of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” More than 400 people from across the country participated in the free event.
“It was a phenomenal conversation, she was absolutely fantastic, and we are looking to create more of those opportunities in the spring,” Doran said. “That kind of presentation is perfectly conducive to Zoom. That really is the power of this modality, that you don’t have to fly across the country and sit in the same room. That you can participate and learn and develop virtually, and we want to offer that to the community as well.”