Collector - September 2020 - 26
Planning ACA's Convention: How We Made the Pivot
We talked with Mary Thao, ACA's director of meetings and events, to hear how the ACA meetings and events teams planned the
association's virtual convention in a compressed timeframe while learning a brand-new event platform technology.
When did ACA decide that we'd have to make
the convention a virtual event?
The safety of our members was always our top priority.
Everything began shutting down in March and we watched the
warnings and orders for the city of Chicago closely. It was a
difficult decision to make because no one could predict what
things were going to look like in July. We were constantly
meeting internally to play out all the different scenarios.
At the end of April, the governor of Illinois highly
recommended that large gatherings in the state be cancelled
through the end of the summer, and that was the turning point
for our decision.
You turned ACA's Washington Insights conference,
held June 3, into a successful livestream event pretty
quickly. What did you learn from that experience that
helped you with planning the convention?
They are two completely different events, of course, but it did
help us understand the session logistics and what to expect as
far as how things might flow behind the scenes. It also helped
us look at registration trends for virtual events. We knew going
in that the pace of registration numbers would not be like they
are for an in-person convention and that attendees would
register later than they normally do.
What was the workload of this pivot like for staff?
I think there's a perception that when an event is virtual it's not
as much work, but it's actually twice as much work because
we're learning a completely different way to produce an event.
Our marketing schedule shifted. The timing of our messaging
was different because attendees are not tied to hotel deadlines
or airfare costs. We knew our audience would shift a little bit as
well. Those who don't normally attend convention would possibly
attend now because there weren't travel costs.
With the COVID-19 virus changing how agencies were
operating, we had to completely update our session content so it
fit the needs of agencies right now. Our education team sent out
a second call for presentations and anyone who had previously
submitted a topic could also resubmit if their topic still applied.
For an in-person convention, our events team has templates
and staging guides for the planning process. These templates
include every detail the hotel needs to successfully execute
our event, including meeting room set-up, speaker AV needs,
food and beverage, hotel rooms, etc. There's not necessarily a
learning curve-we just focus on getting better year after year.
With the shift to virtual, our templates are out the door. We're
learning brand new software and we shifted the recommended
14-week timeline to just six weeks.
How did you keep members engaged throughout
ACA's virtual convention?
Engagement initiatives included personal inspiration on the Main
Stage, professional inspiration in the breakout sessions, chat
boxes in all sessions, the ability to chat and video chat one-onone with screen-sharing capability, a virtual Expo Hall loaded
with products and services (we had over 60 types represented),
a searchable attendee list and social interaction. In addition, the
platform allowed us to create a game where attendees could
earn points for their engagement activities.
It turns out that finding someone on the virtual platform is
actually easier than finding someone at an in-person event,
because if you know their name you can send them a quick
chat. If you were at an in-person event and you didn't have a
person's phone number or email, you might be out of luck.
What did you learn from this experience?
So much! The full ACA Member Experience team consists of
Education, Events, Member Services and Marketing. This is
by far one of the greatest projects we've taken on in a short
period of time and we couldn't have done it without the help
of every ACA team member. It felt like for every one thing that
we didn't do because the event wasn't in-person, we had two
things we had to do or learn. Now that we have a full virtual
convention under our belts, the team is ready to take on the
next event. Although we learned that there's more than one
way to provide member value, we would prefer to see friendly
member faces in person in the near future!
Collector - September 2020
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