Organizations see opportunity with virtual conferences

Organizations see opportunity with virtual conferences
With COVID-19 restrictions in place, Washington organizations say they’ve achieved success replicating in-person conferences and events through virtual and online interaction. Photo: freepik.com

Although the concept of online meetings and conferences isn’t new, the COVID-19 restrictions imposed in Washington since late March have forced state organizations and associations to make a rapid transition for many of their traditional in-person events that have as an important component both vendor and networking opportunities. Though the switch brings with it a variety of technical and logistical changes, many say the results have been positive and in fact appear to have accelerated an inevitable trend.

“I think any organization needs to now have some sort of virtual component,” Washington State Veterinary Medical Association (WSVMA) CEO Candace Joy said. “It gives a whole new group of people an opportunity to participate, learn, join the community – and so it’s a win-win.”

Prior to COVID-19, the association hosted in-person Sunday education meetings along with its annual Pacific Northwest Veterinary Conference, which it has held since 1909. Although the state-imposed restrictions did not affect the ability to continue hosting webinars, which had been started in 2019, Joy said the switch had to be madefrom the in-person conference format to a virtual event.

It’s been a similar situation for the NAIOP Washington State Chapter, which recently held it’s annual Night of the Stars Gala. Executive Director Peggi Lewis Fu said that prior to COVID-19, the organization held weekly in-person events that since June have been conducted via Zoom, instead.

The transition is certainly an adjustment. Joy noted that with conferences “it’s those conversations that happen in the back of the room that are the most valuable sometimes. It’s really hard to replicate that in a virtual space. Our biggest concern were exhibitors and the exhibit hall. It’s a little more difficult for vendors.”

For the Night of the Stars Gala, a formal-attire event typically drawing 1,000 people, NAIOP turned to AirMeet, a virtual event-host program that seeks to replicate the kind of networking found at traditional conferences and summits. The event also included a 40-minute pre-recorded award ceremony; 400 people participated in the event.

Lewis Fu said the key to success was preparation. “We realized to transition the event successfully we had to have an actual plan in place for the technology,” adding that the format was tested out on breakfast meetings. “We didn’t just roll out this technology for this one event…to make sure people are able to engage.”

To accommodate the large number of people, Lewis Fu said it was necessary to ramp up the computer equipment capabilities. “While we can all work remote and we all have normal laptops, we didn’t have the graphic requirements and processing speed. I think people underestimate that – it’s not just about wi-fi.”

Joy said her organization turned to a combination of a virtual hall along with live and pre-recorded presentations. “We had a lot of lively engagement aspects of it that naturally doesn’t take the place of an in-person conference, but (it’s) the next best thing. I was fortunate to hire a young staff member a year ago who eats this stuff up. She was really terrific in creating the engagement piece.”

She added that despite concerns about vendors, “the ones who attended were all very pleased and pleasantly surprised. Now that we’ve been through one, we have…great ideas on how to offer packages for them for 2021, which we expect we will be doing virtually. It’s hard to predict.”

All in all, Joy said attendees “enjoyed everything – they rated it highly – and, of course can’t wait to get back to being in-person.” Moving forward, they envision a hybrid of online and in-person meetings as restrictions are lifted. One of the benefits is how it allows veterinarians from around the world to participate.

The Washington Policy Center (WPC) has the same strategy in mind. The nonprofit think tank hosts a variety of conferences and events, including two annual dinners in Spokane and Seattle. Communications Director David Boze told Lens that while the virtual transition has been “a big adaptation, it’s also had some advantages, too. It’s less expensive to hold a virtual event than a live event.”

Also, congestion or geographic distances often made it difficult for people to attend events, he said. “If you’re in Everett, you might not want to go to Bellevue. For breakfast in Seattle, few people who live outside Seattle will want to go. It’s a big commitment. We’re able to serve a broader population.” However, with its weekly virtual summits “you’re able to connect with people and guests that don’t have to leave their house.”

For their virtual dinners, Boze said WPC turned to a professional production company and offered a “how-to” guide for people new to online meetings. “Attendance certainly was comparable to what it had been in person. We had a really good turnout. People are spending so much time inside that they were looking for ways to participate.”

Regarding technology issues, he said that while “there’ve been a couple of bumps … I would call them ‘bumps,’ not roadblocks or obstacles. We’d like to get back to live events, but we don’t want to give up on reaching the broader platform. I view it as a great opportunity for people. It’s one of the few positive things I think to come out of COVID.”

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