Colleagues across the country are thinking about converting their in-person conferences into online learning events. I offer these reflections on how we implemented this shift to help you think about how to move your conference into the virtual space.
On March 16, our conference planning committee decided to pivot on how we would implement the Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good. (“Pivot” will certainly be a contestant for one of the most used words during the COVID crisis.) We moved the conference from a day at the Yakima Convention Center on April 7 to a week of online events starting Monday, April 6. It took a village to make it happen, and ultimately, we achieved our goal. Nonprofit people from across eastern Washington learned, connected, and renewed their inspiration during these difficult days.
Here’s what we did, how it worked, and general lessons from the experience.
The Conference in a Snapshot
It was a traditional conference, now in its 7th year, with a morning keynote speaker, 10 breakout sessions, “table talk” crowdsourced discussions, exhibitors, and lots of networking in the hallways. We planned to interpret into Spanish one track of sessions.
It became a system of synchronous and asynchronous learning and connection using BlueJeans cloud-based video conferencing for Live Stream events, Facebook groups (English and Spanish) for conversation, and separate (mostly Zoom) online meetings organized by exhibitors. We delivered an orientation on Monday, April 6 and ended on Friday, April 10 as the final exhibitor information sessions wrapped up. We set Tuesday and Thursday as Live Stream days, giving people a break on Wednesday.
Spanish interpretation: In the new online format, we were able to interpret (and record) the entire Conference since everyone was in one “room.” The Spanish language Facebook group made space for further conversation.
How did it go?
Not having to get up at 5:00am to lay out name badges is just one of the many advantages of an online conference. What were some of the other benefits?
- We expanded participation geographically by removing the need to drive to Yakima.
- We saved money on food and venue and shifted some of the savings into technology costs.
- We expanded access by delivering the entire conference in Spanish through a separate call-in line.
- We introduced people to new ideas in short segments without having to think about moving people into rooms or onto the podium. This helped us to move from ten 75-minute sessions to six longer sessions and two shorter sessions.
- We expanded comfort with technology for some people who experienced online learning for the first time through this conference. We certainly expanded our skill moving people into virtual breakout rooms and leveraging multiple rooms to capture the action in two languages.
- Given the very real distractions that many nonprofit people have right now, people could come and go knowing that they will have access to all recordings and supporting materials for the next month.
I did like not having to choose a break out session because I didn’t have to miss anything. Thank you for recording the conference so we can go back and listen again and allowing us to share within our organizations. Thank you! Thank you!
There were certainly some challenges as well:
- We lost some people. They didn’t register for a virtual conference originally. While we did not see many requests for refunds, we had at most 70% of attendees in the main room at one time. Of course, there are always no shows at in-person conferences. It is a lot easier to know who they are when their name tags are left out on the registration table.
- The Facebook groups never took off. It is hard to get traction in a short period of time. Finding quiet reflection and connection time these days is a challenge for all of us.
- We missed the bustle that comes from a room full of awesome people coming together with anticipation, curiosity, and love. That bustle is important to create inspiration. As our morning keynote speaker Erica Mills Barnhart reminded us, the word “inspire” comes from inspirare, which means to breathe. We come together not just to learn and get tools– we need inspiration to fuel our motivation.
I chose not to participate in the virtual meeting. It would have been my 4th this week.
When you strip a virtual conference down to its core, two general lessons apply:
It is still a conference.
Last year Mark Nilles and I wrote and spoke a lot about how to make a conference learningful. (Download Conferences That Make A Difference here.) We talked about the importance of having a clear strategy. You prepare your speakers in all the same ways as with an in-person conference (and add in some technology training). You get your attendees ready. You stay in touch with your attendees afterwards to make sure they access recordings and otherwise take action. Don’t let the fun whistles and bells of an online conference platform distract you from building a learning event that supports performance back in the office, even if that office is your dining room table right now.
It is an online learning event.
These lessons hold true of any online learning event:
Tell the story. Good learning relies on story telling as much as anything else. We need to bring our attendees into the narrative of the conference so they find their place of connection. This is particularly important in an online conference where they aren’t physically connecting with others. I leaned on our strategy and the stories our planning committee told us around why we chose the sessions we did to craft the tracks and narrative for each day. We emailed every day from the week before through the conference to help people follow along.
Name your hosts. Priya Parker explains in The Art of Gathering the importance of a prepared host. We rely on trusted news anchors to bring a human touch to the evening news. We found it helpful in this virtual conference to have two hosts who together advocated on behalf of attendees and tied the whole program together.
Make it personal. If you were together in a convention center ballroom, you would see each other. You would be reading name tags and referencing names in calling on people. You would reflect on the emotions that people were bringing into the room and honor that. There is a virtual version of these actions:
I was surprised at how engaging an online conference was. The moderators and speakers did a thoughtful, creative job of keeping my attention.
- Cameras on. We saw the people talking.
- High chat box interaction. The moderators regularly used the chat box for feedback and to call out people’s comments by name.
- Intentional focus on emotion. We asked along the way how people were feeling. We acknowledged the overwhelm. We even created a conference music playlist to celebrate how the arts help us to process the overwhelm all around us.
- Reflection time. It was a delight to see people stay for our 15 minutes of reflection time at the end of our Live Stream days, a great chance to share key take-aways.
COVID hit just as many nonprofit associations and organizations were dipping their toe into online learning. Suddenly that change needs to happen at a much faster rate. I am excited for the day when we again can gather together in one room. And I am excited to see the potential in bringing together possible even more people in an online community that is rich in learning and connection.
With gratitude to Celisa Steele and Jeff Cobb of Tagoras for their timely resources on virtual conferences and masterful demonstration on how to deliver an excellent virtual conference. Your work greatly influenced our thinking about this conference, and we are grateful.