How an Association Turned Its Major Conference Into a Virtual Event in a Week

Virtual Meeting April 8, 2020 By: Bob Moore CAE

With the escalation of COVID-19 leaving the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians no choice but to cancel its 2,000-person annual convention, the group was able to convert it to a virtual conference in seven days. A look at what they learned along the way.

The American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians’ annual convention—scheduled to take place in mid-March in New Orleans—was shaping up to be a successful event with record registration of just over 2,000 attendees. But, given the escalation of COVID-19, we had no choice but to cancel it on March 11—a week before its scheduled start.

However, seeing that COVID-19 was going to affect our onsite attendance, we were already discussing ways to have a hybrid event in early March. This helped give us a running start when we canceled the in-person convention and chose to move the sessions to a 100 percent virtual environment we called ACOFP ’20 Virtual. That said, we opted not to do anything with our expo, awards, and other ancillary events: A laser focus was set on holding four days of continuing medical education programming.   

Within 24 hours of notifying registrants and members of the board’s decision to cancel, we created a webpage to give our registrants choices on how to handle their registration. They were able to:

  • Convert their registration to our virtual conference, giving them a 25 percent discount for doing so. More than 50 percent went with this option.
  • Receive a full refund. Forty-four percent did this.
  • Defer their registration to the 2021 conference. About 100 people chose this.
  • Donate it to our foundation. Five chose this.
  • Donate to our auxiliary. None chose this.

All in all, we had a great response: 1,050 people registered for the virtual event, and 944 of them (90 percent) logged into the conference. Here are some lessons we learned along the way for you to consider as you implement virtual events of your own: 

Email, email, email. We found that we had to send several emails. After we initially emailed registrants to let them know of the cancellation and present them with options, our open rates were as high as 60 to 70 percent. But we continued to push reminders using marketing-automation software (we used Informz) to those who didn't open the message. Two days before our virtual conference started, we sent a text message to the 400 non-respondents. The next day, staff called the 200 remaining registrants who still hadn’t replied because we didn't want anyone accidentally showing up onsite. Despite all of this, one person did. 

This was an amazing team effort all the way around.

Keep it as simple as possible. We used Zoom’s webinar platform for the virtual conference. We also ended up keeping the same conference session schedule we had planned onsite, as we found that easier than recalibrating everything since speakers had those times already held. Lucky for us, the vast majority of speakers were able to commit to the virtual event, although we did have to move a few sessions around and fill in a few gaps.

Make use of tools you already had in place. We already had our Mosaic mobile app in place for the in-person meeting, but we found it just as valuable for our virtual meeting. Since the app was already built out, we just needed to make updates for the virtual meeting changes. We added the Zoom room link in the "room" field. We also used Cadmium for presentation management, which helped us collect presentations to upload into the app.

Add an interactive element to virtual sessions. Polling is the most interactive of the various Zoom features. The chat function works well, but since not everyone has a question, polling is a nice way to keep all engaged. Moving forward, we definitely will want to invest in speaker prep. Tech-wise it was smooth, but presenting in this environment is different. Some speakers are thriving, while others could use some support. 

Have some fun and make it personal. Our board president had an idea to dress up as Elvis and sing a modified version of his most famous lyrics, inserting COVID-19 related words of wisdom. It was a highlight. Each day, our leaders also greeted participants before the program kicked off. We worked with WorkerBee.TV to record a short video from our board presidents that went out with our daily preview email.

Allow attendees to access content post-event. Those who registered for ACOFP ’20 Virtual, but were unable to attend every live session, will have access to the sessions in a recorded format via our learning management system, BlueSky. The recordings will also count toward the most coveted level of continuing medical education credit for at least three weeks following their published date, requiring them to complete a pre- and post-test to obtain their certificate. After this, the content will still be available and count toward a less sought-after tier of credit.

Keep sponsors and exhibitors in mind. We are trying to get them to move to 2021, and any exposure the sponsors received this year is a bonus. We promoted them on the virtual conference page as if we were in New Orleans. However, if they insist on a refund, we’re looking to give 50 percent, depending on what part of the agreement we covered or was already paid for. For exhibitors, we’re doing the same. We are fortunate to have added a communicable disease rider in early January before it had exclusions, so we have a bit more flexibility.

Lean on your staff, volunteers, and industry partners. About eight months ago, I implemented a staff reorganization that added a few senior staff positions to a traditionally flat organizational structure. Being technology savvy was one of the key attributes I looked for in these new hires. Their contributions, in partnership with our existing team’s strengths, was critical to our success. Asking our volunteers leaders for help and proactively bringing them into the process as soon as we could was also key. This was an amazing team effort all the way around. 

This all may sound like a lot—and it is a big lift—but we are a fairly small association with 17 staff that pulled this together in a week's time. So I know organizations of various sizes can do this, especially when you have more time to prepare. As for smaller associations, there are great technology partners that can be leveraged to help host your meetings, moderate, and so forth. Since this was our first foray, we partnered with PSAV to have one of their staff be there for extra help. We also rented a shared workspace with dedicated high-speed internet as our internet at the office has been known to cycle at times. We didn’t want to risk that with a web-based program.

With 60 percent of attendees already providing feedback, it looks like there is no turning back: Thus far, the vast majority rated the virtual meeting experience as excellent (4.59/5.00), and the same is true for the quality of the CME programming (4.43/5.0).

Bob Moore CAE

Bob Moore, MA, CAE, is executive director of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians in Arlington Heights, Illinois.