Trade group leaders adapt as COVID-19 again upends fall conference season

  • From left to right, Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Skibinski, Associated General Contractors of Alaska Executive Director Alicia Siira, Resource Development Council for Alaska Executive Director Marleanna Hall, Alaska Chamber President and CEO Kati Capozzi, and Alaska Travel Industry Association President and CEO Sarah Leonard. (Photo/O’Hara Shipe/Shipe Shots Photography/For the Journal)

In 2020, the Resource Development Council for Alaska planned to celebrate its 41st anniversary at its yearly fall conference.

The organization’s largest event, usually held the week before Thanksgiving, features 1,200 guests, 125 exhibitors and 28 high-level speakers. COVID-19 had other plans.

“We did a virtual program in 2020, but we lost a lot by doing that. Where we lost out was in networking and hearing from our exhibitors,” said RDC Executive Director Marlenna Hall.

Known for its diverse membership, Hall says that what makes the RDC conference unique is that it brings together leaders from Alaska’s five major industries: fishing, forestry, mining, oil and gas and tourism.

Without the ability to meet in person, Hall says that her organization lost a valuable opportunity to hear both project and industry updates. A year later, RDC is once again facing the same prospect.

As Alaska’s hospitals continue to struggle to combat short staffing and limited capacity caused by the current COVID-19 surge, many organizations are grappling with deciding the right course of action.

“What to do about this year’s conference is probably the hardest question I’ve had to answer in my entire career,” said Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Skibinski.

After polling her membership, lengthy discussions with her board, and months of planning, Skibinski has decided to move forward with AMA’s convention and trade show. Slated for Nov. 1-6 at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, the event will come with some caveats.

In an email sent to AMA’s membership, Skibinski outlined potential mitigation plans, including required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, mandatory masking, and the cancelation of luncheons, breakfasts and the banquet.

“From our member survey, it was very clear that whatever we decided to do, we weren’t going to make everyone happy. But we are doing our best to balance public safety with the desire many of our members have to meet in person. It is a hard tightrope to walk,” Skibinski said.

Hall is in a similar position. Prior to the explosion of the Delta variant, Hall’s membership expressed their dislike for teleconferencing and advocated for an in-person event. Now, Hall isn’t sure RDC would even be able to provide the resources that people have come to expect of their conference.

“Where the challenge comes in is getting the high-level speakers to participate in person because many of them come from companies which are nationally managed, and they have instituted travel bans,” Hall said. “So, for us, if we don’t have those high-level speakers, then what are people coming to us for? Today, I can’t tell you almost anything with confidence because we just don’t know what our conference might look like.”

Alicia Siira, Executive Director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, echoed Hall’s concerns.

“It’s really uncharted territory for everyone. As an organization, we want to make sure that we’re still providing value to our members, but also not just doing something because we always do,” Siira said.

For now, Siira is working with her team to determine what portions, if any, of their planned conference they can move forward currently scheduled for Nov. 10-13 at the Hotel Captain Cook. Still, Siira said that things are changing every day, so it’s too soon to know what the future holds.

While Hall and Siira continue to weigh their options, others have decided to postpone.

“We actually made the very difficult decision just last week to go ahead and postpone our conference, which was originally scheduled for the last week of September (28-30 in Girdwood),” said Alaska Chamber President and CEO Kati Capozzi. “We were going to require vaccination or negative COVID tests, but with everything going on and our hospitals completely overwhelmed, we didn’t feel like we could have a safe and responsible in person event at this time.”

Citing feedback from members, Capozzi said that the Alaska Chamber will not transition to a virtual-only conference.

“We feel like it is a kind of been-there-done-that with virtual conferencing. Our members are ready for in-person, but they are prepared to wait the appropriate amount of time before we actually do meet in person,” she said.

After 18 months of virtual conferencing, employees worldwide are struggling with the newly minted term “Zoom Fatigue.” Last April, Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, wrote in an Opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in which he outlined the five types of fatigue associated with video conferencing: general (overall tiredness), social (wanting to be alone), emotional (being overwhelmed and “used up”), visual (symptoms of stress on one’s eyes) and motivational (lacking the drive to start new activities).

“I think the prevalent themes resonating throughout associations right now are uncertainty and adaptability,” said Alaska Travel Industry Association CEO Sarah Leonard, whose annual conference was scheduled for Oct. 11-14 at the Dena’ina Center. “I think this is just the world we live in right now. We’re all trying to absorb the idea that events are probably going to have to be hybrids of in-person and virtual.”

However, Leonard remains optimistic that there will be safe ways to have in-person events in the near future.

“I think or, at least I hope, that in the next like, three or four months, or six months, that there’s a way that we can host in person events safely, or at least with mitigating health concerns,” Leonard said.

Up for another challenge

As challenging as navigating the ever-changing pandemic landscape has been, for Hall, Skibinski, Siira, Leonard, and Capozzi, it’s just another opportunity to put their adaptability and ingenuity on display.

When Skibinski assumed the executive director position at AMA in 2012, the organization did not have a website, social media, or even a communications strategy. They did, however, have one piece of outdated technology.

“Believe it or not, our office actually had a typewriter in it,” she laughed. “AMA represented this really modern mining industry where, you know, there’s technological advances all the time. There’s always a bunch of research that’s being done to grow the industry and find efficiencies and find more environmentally friendly ways to do things.

“But they didn’t have a communications plan to talk about all the good work they were doing.”

Skibinski had developed a high-level knowledge about the industry from her seven years as a Projects Coordinator with RDC. However, she was reticent to take on a leadership role within the organization.

“Typically, (AMA) has been led by geologists and engineers, and that wasn’t my background. So I really didn’t think that it was something I could do. But the board was confident they could teach me, so I decided to trust their faith in me,” she recalled.

Although Skibinski said she has had a positive experience working in typically male-dominated trade organizations, her hesitation in pursuing upper management may speak to a more significant issue concerning women occupying positions within the C-Suite.

According to a 2019 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise just 15.7 percent of all people employed in Mining, Quarrying, and Oil and Gas Extraction in the United States. The number is even bleaker when it comes to construction. Only 10.3 percent of those employed in the construction industry are women. Nationally, women account for 21 percent of C-Suite level executives across all occupations.

“I think sometimes in trade industries there is a subtle undercurrent that can favor men over women, but I do think that is changing, and Alaska is on the pioneering end of that,” Leonard said.

A testament to diversity in hiring, many of Alaska’s top trade industry groups are led by women. Besides Capozzi, Hall, Leonard, Siira and Skibinski, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association is headed by Kara Moriarty and the Alaska Support Industry Alliance by Rebecca Logan.

“I feel like Alaska is a pretty progressive state, and I’ve had the good fortune of having incredible women role models since I entered into this arena,” Capozzi said.

One such mentor is longtime Alaska Oil and Gas Association President and CEO Moriarty, whose organization has postponed its annual event from Sept. 2 to Jan. 12, 2022.

“Kara took me under her wing and showed me the ropes, and I’d say she’s the ultimate promoter of women in business,” according to Capozzi. “I know she’s mentored a lot of us and taught us to lean in and be perfectly comfortable having a seat at the table.”

A member of the Athena Society and a recipient of the Alaska Journal of Commerce Top Forty Under 40 (as have been Skibinski and Siira), Moriarty has been a role model to many and inspired a sense of collective success among her female counterparts. She’s led AOGA since 2012 after succeeding Skibinski’s mother Marilyn Crockett as president and CEO.

“As industry leaders, we’re all close and each other’s cheerleaders because professionally, we’ve grown up together,” Siira said. “I think being close like that has been such an asset. But I think it’s also really important to say that we are only a few of Alaska’s mighty female leaders. There are a lot more out there.”

Now, looking to the future, Siira, Hall, Capozzi, Leonard and Skibinski are poised to mentor the next generation.

“We all need that person to help us understand that we can do anything we put our mind to. We need that person to pull us out of our shell and remind us not to be timid, know our stuff, and open our mouths because we have something to say, Skibinski said. “I was lucky to have a mentor like Carol Fraser (Regional Director of Sales and Marketing at Aspen Hotels of Alaska), and I hope I can do that for someone else.”

O’Hara Shipe is a freelance writer and photographer based in Anchorage. She can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/14/2021 - 7:10pm