Taking the Virtual Conference Leap of Faith
Looks Great in the Rear-View Mirror
Let me tell you, looking back in the rear-view mirror of our first ever fully Virtual TLTA Annual Conference feels pretty great. It’s a much better view than the one we saw in April when we strapped in, looked at the lonely stretch of unknown road ahead and took the ultimate leap of faith into virtual conference-land. We had no experience and didn’t know where we were headed, but we were committed to bringing our community together and carrying out our annual tradition. Thankfully, our members and sponsors signed on for the adventure with us and together we proudly made TLTA history.
Now, just in case you’re starting to think the ride was easy, let me stop you there. As I said, the view looking back is much prettier. Putting on a virtual conference from scratch in a limited amount of time with no experience whatsoever, is, well, let’s just say it’s an experience. We have an extremely hard-working and talented team, but we worked harder and stretched ourselves further than we even thought possible – often with the sensation that we were flying blind. It was a true leap of faith at every juncture.
Of course, as they say, the view from the top makes the climb all the sweeter and it’s pretty darned satisfying to look back, know we tried something totally new and pulled it off. Was the end result perfect in every possible way? No, of course not, no meeting is. Are there things we would do differently another time? Absolutely, we learned a lot for next time. But in the overall scheme of things, and by all measurements, including attendee evaluations, it was a resounding success. Not too bad for our first time out of the chute!
Deciding to Take the Leap
As COVID persists, the virtual meeting landscape is rapidly evolving, so let me share a quick overview of our experience and give you some things to consider if you decide to take this leap yourself.
For starters, when the pandemic reared its head in early March, we all naively thought it would be short-lived and before long we’d be back together, meeting and gathering as usual, right? At TLTA, we postponed our April meetings to late summer but assumed we could still hold our mid-June Annual Conference live. It seemed unfathomable we’d have to cancel. Surely things would be back to normal by then we told ourselves. A little nagging voice kept tapping on our shoulders saying “what if,” but we optimistically brushed it off.
Boy, what a difference a few weeks makes in the time of COVID. By April, that nagging voice could no longer be ignored. We had to face facts. Things were not getting better and while the Governor was talking about re-opening our economy slowly, clearly things were going to be much different.
A phone conversation with our host hotel snapped us fully out of denial. Our salesperson assured us that despite the fact that the hotel was closed for the pandemic and would not reopen until two weeks before our conference dates, they’d be thrilled to welcome us as their very first group. Yikes, that sounded a little scary. Sure, she admitted, it would be experimental, they didn’t yet have answers on how things would work, but they were game if we were. A few things would be different she continued – the room sets would take 2-3 times as much space to allow for social distancing, all food and beverage would be pre-packaged (no buffets or beloved shared cheese trays), social events would have to be completely re-thought and restricted (certainly no dance floor for starters), elevators could only be occupied by 2-3 people (imagine the lines), housekeeping would clean rooms only upon request (ugh). You get the picture. Somewhere midway through that conversation we mentally moved on. Before we hung up, we asked about our cancellation options. Luckily, in the end, they were very flexible and we rebooked for 2023 with no penalty, a great relief considering the sizeable contractual liability we had.
Without the financial concerns hanging over our heads, it didn’t take our Board long to decide to cancel the live 2020 annual conference. Simply too much risk and too many unknowns. Our staff had been open to postponing until September but thank goodness we didn’t. As of mid-August, our host hotel still had not reopened and COVID was more present than ever in our lives.
Charting a Virtual Course
Ok, so no in-person Annual Conference this year, but what could we do instead? We had already been reading every article we could get our hands on and watching every webinar available about how to pivot to a virtual meeting, so we were primed. That said, this was totally new territory for us. But, hey we thought, we’re a pretty smart and creative group, so let’s go for it.
Starting out, our goals were simple – reimagine our event virtually to include as many of the components of our live event as possible while making it accessible to as many members in our TLTA community as possible. I have to be honest with you, that first part was my personal goal. Our staff argued for something much simpler and more scaled-down, but I wanted to keep as much of the look and feel of our live conference as possible, so I pushed us in that direction. Our Annual Conference is an important part of who we are, a family reunion of sorts, where we come together to connect, learn, celebrate, transition leadership and launch a new year. I thought it was critically important, in the midst of this crisis, to maintain that tradition and some sense of normalcy.
I’ll now readily admit that it was so much more work than I could have ever envisioned. In the very long and hard weeks leading up to the conference, I felt very guilty for pushing our team, but by then, we were in too deep to turn back. In that rear-view mirror, though, we all now agree we are so glad we went for it. The finished product was better than we ever imagined, it met and exceeded our original goals and we are truly proud of what we accomplished.
From Concept to Reality – First Steps
So, what do you do first? Once you’ve made the decision to go virtual, you suddenly have a laundry list of about 100 things to do all at once. Don’t become distracted by the little things just yet. You have several fundamental decisions to make before you can do anything else. First things first: develop a program and decide what technology and vendors you’ll utilize.
Your Program: As you map out your programming components and schedule, keep a few things in mind. In the virtual world, it’s harder to change the schedule later, so decide early and stick to a plan. Keep it simple, use the KISS theory. Sort out the need to from the nice to and consider what is feasible based on your size and resources. Don’t sell yourself short on what you can accomplish, but don’t bite off more than you can chew either. Remember, you are on a steep learning curve. Also, two things about your audience – they’ll be at work, so space things to accommodate their limited availability. Also, you may have an expanded audience of folks who can’t normally come in person, so adjust your programming to fit your new audience’s needs.
Our Technology Choices: It took us longer than we envisioned to pick the technology platforms and vendors we wanted to use. In the end, we decided to use three different vendors:
• A main conference platform that looked like a website and integrated with our association management software. It housed a sponsor gallery – a directory of our sponsors where they could load information about their company, a schedule where attendees could click on each topic to watch sessions, a list of attendees, information on our speakers, and a help desk.
• A social networking platform with face-to-face (zoom-like) attendee interaction that we used for our sponsor marketplace (exhibit hall), virtual networking lobby and networking reception.
• A production company that coordinated pre-recording of virtually all the sessions (we had minimal live components to cut down on technological issues), all the other programming components (emcees, announcements, awards) and then pulled all the components into a fully produced program, complete with graphic transitions and lower-thirds to add some pizzazz.
Choosing the Technology That Fits You: So, how do you choose the technology you need? Factor in plenty of time for this for starters. We spent almost a month sorting through those decisions. Knowing your programming needs is key to the technology decisions. You can’t decide what you need unless you know what you are trying to do. Virtual meetings come in all shapes and sizes and there is no one-size- fits-all solution. Ask lots of questions. If you aren’t comfortable with the answer, ask again until you are. Remember most of these vendors are new at what they are doing too. Don’t assume anything. Prepare to be a bit overwhelmed. Midway through, Linda from our team said, “the more we learn, the less we know.” It felt like that a lot. Become comfortable with uncertainty but keep pushing for certainty. Our mantra became, “Onward Through the Fog.”
Here are just a few things to ask vendors, but be sure to compile your own comprehensive list before you start your search. How does this platform interface with my software – in our case, association management software? How will attendees access the platform? How complicated is it for users? Show us how it works? Are sessions live or recorded? Is there a live chat feature? How many of these have you done? What expertise do you offer us specifically? Can you assist with graphics? What complications and challenges should we anticipate? What customer service do you provide in advance and during the meeting? And, of course, what does it cost and are all costs included in your quote?
Program and Technology in Place – Now What? To-Do Lists, Budget, Marketing, Sponsors and More
Throw Out Your Old To-Do List: Once your key first steps of programming and technology decisions are in place, what’s next? Start by throwing out your live event to-do list. I’m only halfway joking, but virtual events do require a whole new list of tasks. Get your new checklist in place early and keep adding to it as you go. Take your old live meeting list, transfer relevant items and then forget about it and only work from your new list. These are just totally different animals. You are largely starting from scratch and the sooner you make that mental transition, the better.
What Will It Cost and What Should You Charge?: You should now have an idea of your technology costs. Without food and beverage and typical in-person costs, you’ll save a bundle. Figure out your other expenses – speaker fees, marketing costs, credit card fees, gifts/prizes, etc. You’ll find there are fewer expenses with the virtual meeting and your primary cost is technology. On the revenue side, if you have sponsors, you’ll have work to do first in developing a new sponsor package with different virtual conference benefits. We completely re-engineered our sponsor program, spent lots of time communicating one-on-one with all our sponsors to walk through the new benefits and were fortunate enough to maintain the bulk of our sponsorship dollars. With the expense and sponsor revenue information in hand, you can figure out what you think is the appropriate registration price to round out your budget. There is no right answer on this for virtual meetings. I’ve seen everything from standard pricing to free and everything in between, and all are valid for different reasons. In our case, for this particular meeting, we drastically lowered the price because we wanted to make our annual membership meeting accessible to as many people as possible. That said, for our upcoming virtual educational training programs, we are keeping the cost at our standards fees.
Now Tackle the Details: A virtual program, just like a live program, has a long list of details that need to be taken care of, from marketing the program, to securing speakers and more. This is territory you are more familiar with. With key decisions in place, now get busy on all those items and knock them out. The earlier you can get those details in place, the better, so you can focus your time closer to the event on the production piece that is less familiar. Dig in and stay focused, be flexible as speed bumps and surprises come along and keep your eyes on the prize.
Don’t Forget Communication, Customer Service and Caring
There are a few details worth mentioning that are unique to a virtual program. It was important to us that everyone feel confident and comfortable with the new format and that we created a sense of welcoming and togetherness. Here’s what we did to accomplish that:
Pay Extra Attention to Your Sponsors: First of all, our sponsors had a whole new learning curve themselves in adapting to our technology and determining how to maximize their presence in both our Sponsor Marketplace and Gallery as well as through the commercials available as a benefit to our Platinum and Gold Sponsors. Our sponsor liaison spent countless hours providing individual demos, assisting with technology needs, advising about graphics and content for their listing in the gallery, easing their nerves and generally making sure they were comfortable and ready to launch on Day 1. They greatly appreciated the special attention.
Orient and Prepare Your Attendees: Secondly, a whole new level of communication and preparation with your attendees is necessary for a virtual conference. This goes well beyond the standard live meeting confirmation about where the registration desk is and what to wear to all the events. Your attendees are nervous about how to access the program and if they’ll have the right technology on their end to participate, and those are valid concerns. An individual user’s technology will determine whether they have a good experience or not, and in some cases, whether they can even participate. The meeting host can only provide clear information about what is needed to access the program, but in the end, has limited control of end users’ full experience. To prepare for that, we launched a comprehensive advance communication plan to prepare attendees. We developed a support page with FAQs. We hosted a tutorial the week before that provided a detailed walk-through of all the conference elements and the technology needed to access them. We created a simple “ticket” system that was their access to the platform and provided extensive information in our confirmation about how to enhance the experience – what kind of computer equipment and internet service was optimal, and so forth. And most importantly, we had a fully staffed and trained customer service team to answer questions and troubleshoot problems throughout the program. In summary, know from the outset that there will be problems and confusion for users, provide them with as much advance information as you can and then be ready to help them during the event. Assume and accept lots of hand holding.
Don’t Forget Your Manners: Finally, how do you make your VIPs and special guests feel welcome when you can’t show them in-person? In Texas, we kind of have a thing about hospitality and we genuinely get a kick out of making people feel welcome and honored. So, we put together a small working group to brainstorm and create a plan for doing that virtually. We developed a list of special gift deliveries and surprises for all those special guests and dignitaries – specialty food items from Texas for our out-of-state guests, yard signs for our incoming and outgoing leaders, fun mail-order treats for our speakers, flowers for award winners, party boxes with a cocktail kit and paddle for our major PAC donors during our live auction, even a party tray delivery for our outgoing President and his family during our President’s Party. In a year when we couldn’t be together in person and share handshakes, hugs, congratulations, and thanks, we had so much fun and found great joy in sharing the love with all these special folks. The little things truly do count, so don’t forget all those special touches. They mean more now than ever.
A Few Final Takeaways
Ok, I’ve covered the decision-making process and the first key steps you need to take, along with a few tips, but I’ve left out a world of other details about what it takes to plan and produce a virtual conference for the first time. There’s simply not room here to cover it all – that’s a whole other article for another day.
Instead, I will leave you with a few final thoughts and key takeaways along with the offer to personally answer any additional questions you might have if you decide to go the virtual route yourself. Just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to share any insights about our experience and would also love to hear how your virtual meeting goes. In the meantime, remember:
• Approach this positively. See it as an opportunity to try something new and learn new skills.
• Have an open mind. Don’t get hung up on the way things have always been done.
• View it as a chance to shake things up a little, to reinvent, maybe even kill a sacred cow or two.
• Use it as a chance to create a new experience for your attendees, to liven up your meeting.
• Focus on keeping it easy for your attendees to access and navigate.
• Keep your expectations realistic. Dream big but stay grounded.
• Don’t assume anything. Ask a million questions. Make it a personal quest to learn more.
• Don’t assume others know more than you. We’re all on a learning curve, vendors included.
• Don’t beat up on yourself. Remember, you’re a beginner at this and so is everyone else.
• Take comfort in knowing that your audience will appreciate your efforts and cut you some slack.
• Remember, things will return to normal, we will be able to meet in person again.
• It’s stressful – eat well, get sleep and take breaks, deep breaths and good care of yourself.
• Lessons learned are lessons earned. Pat yourself on the back a whole lot and hang in there.
• And, have fun with it. Consider it an adventure and enjoy the ride!
About the Author
Leslie Midgley, CAE is the Executive VP & CEO, Texas Land Title Association‹ Back to Blog