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.