Brad Rysz is director of marketing and communications at the Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals in Saint Charles, Illinois, and a member of ASAE’s Marketing Professionals Advisory Council.
To replace revenue lost from canceling its annual meeting and other programming, the School Nutrition Association launched a multi-session virtual event to bring together its members, engage them, and prepare for the changes expected in the new school year.
Like many associations, the School Nutrition Association canceled its in-person annual conference due to the pandemic. While SNA had event-cancellation insurance for the event, revenue was still decreasing in all other programs and services, according to Staff Vice President of Membership and Professional Development Jennifer Lewi, MBA, CAE.
However, SNA recognized that it needed to quickly pivot to find another way to help its 50,000-plus members navigate this uncertain time, begin planning for the 2020-2021 school year, share ideas, and understand how to continue feeding kids during a pandemic and in a changing regulatory and academic environment.
The new concept from SNA: a five-part “Stronger Together—Back to School Series” that launched in June 2020.
SNA’s Board of Directors quickly approved the concept in May 2020, and the programming came together in about four weeks. SNA used Go-to-Webinar as the platform for the main conference and Zoom breakout meetings for networking. SNA also launched a program that matched participants and facilitated one-on-one networking. The event included 25 speakers, as well as a facilitator with virtual conference experience.
Since this was the first time SNA had done this type of live virtual event, there were no previous benchmarks in which to compare. However, attendance and sponsorship far exceeded expectations and revenue goals. SNA had 700-plus attendees and 10 sponsors. Members were charged $129, as this was the first time the organization conducted the event. Prices were revised for 2021. Evaluations showed that the members were thrilled with the virtual format and thankful for timely and informative training, while Lewi said SNA learned how to improve on specific areas for the future.
SNA leadership was also able to convey to staff the importance of cross-departmental collaboration and coming together on these types of initiatives.
Being able to produce this program for nominal costs also helped SNA. The association already had a subscription to Go-to-Webinar and a learning management system, and all speakers were offered a free registration in exchange for speaking. Meanwhile, SNA’s professional development team created a workbook and accompanying materials, and the program was marketed organically through a combination of email blasts and social media. That meant the only costs involved for SNA were for the facilitator and for a designer to create a logo.
According to Lewi, it was important for SNA to create a backup plan in case technology failed. For example, SNA scenario planned so potential issues—such as power outages in home offices or system authentication failures—didn’t affect the attendee experience.
In addition, the pandemic forced SNA to think creatively, innovate, and experiment. SNA has created new training products and virtual conferences that they plan to bring back on an annual basis. SNA leadership was also able to convey to staff the importance of cross-departmental collaboration and coming together on these types of initiatives.
In terms of lessons learned, SNA felt the five-part series was too long and has shifted to shorter (meetings that take place over two or three afternoons. The group also transitioned from Go-to-Webinar to Zoom to allow participants to chat with each other, which provides opportunities for crucial idea-sharing and networking.
With the successful outcome of this series, SNA has now held three additional virtual conferences that have continued to grow in efficiency and effectiveness.