From the day we made the decision to "go virtual," it's been a nonstop learning experience. With only eight weeks to turn months of planning for a live event at Hershey Lodge into an engaging virtual conference, all amidst a pandemic where our members need us supporting them in other critical areas - let's just say our team had their work cut out for them.

We are dedicated to delivering what our attendees have come to expect and love about our annual conference - excellent keynote speakers and education sessions, an exciting EXPO Hall, and plenty of networking opportunities with their colleagues and peers - but we were up against learning a new platform, revamping the entire educational program, creating new ways of networking and exhibiting, navigating through live and prerecorded sessions, training speakers, and many other unanticipated bends in the virtual landscape.

The Time. By far, the biggest challenge was time. There were many decisions to be made, skills to be learned, and tasks to be completed in just weeks. From the communications standpoint, priority one was to announce the pivot and avoid an immediate sigh from potential attendees. Who knew what to expect from a virtual conference? How exciting could a string of webinars possibly be? We knew the platform we selected offered us the ability to create interactive features and present our sessions in a clean, professional, and exciting way. The key was to make sure our members knew it too.

In a short period of time, we were able to pull together some great ideas for sending this message. Our keynote filmed an exciting invitation for us to use for marketing, we invested in an interactive online event brochure, coordinated the professional production of prerecorded and live general sessions, promoted exhibitor boxes of goodies for the first 500 registrants, and targeted communications through direct mail, social media, and paid ads.

The System. Learning to manage a new system/platform quickly with a large group of speakers is no easy task, even for our very own webinar extraordinaire, Heather Bleiler. She was wise to remind us often that everyone has a different comfort level with technology and walking speakers through the process from a distance would be challenging, but not impossible. Patience and flexibility allowed her to state the end result was great and speakers were very well prepared at the conference.

We also faced some issues with attendees being frozen in the system, and unfortunately, there was no way to assist them besides directing them to the live technical support. We wish there was more we could do to alleviate some of that frustration. Fortunately, the system also provided some unique features that enhanced interaction. Our members were able to interact with one another throughout the conference and with the speakers during their sessions. The Q&A function, both during live and prerecorded sessions, allowed for attendees to interact more with the speakers and get their questions answered.

The Experience. The support of our business partners at every level is so critical to our mission and to the services we are able to provide members, so trying to think of new ways to approach networking and exposure for our exhibitors and sponsors in a virtual setting was very challenging - but very important. Natalie MacDonald worked tirelessly to help create a great experience for our 90+ exhibitors and sponsors to ensure a positive return and their continued support. The interactive virtual booths were amazing! They were easy to build and offered tons of space for resources like brochures and videos, and attendees could talk to a representative through video, chat, email, etc. One partner shared he had more than 30 leads in one day of our virtual EXPO Hall - interaction he hasn't experienced in the course of an entire event. Despite not getting to link up at the receptions and the lodge bar, many of us worked more closely with our business partners, LeadingAge state and national counterparts, and sponsors than in the past. It was a highlight to create and build on relationships with so many of the people important to the Association.

There are also important member recognitions that traditionally take place at our annual conference, such as the Distinguished Service Awards (DSA). The pivot to virtual challenged us to get creative and try new ways to celebrate the incredible work of our membership. We created "celebration baskets" for our DSA awardees, hand-delivered to most by our membership director, Megan Stedjan. We provided gift cards and other gifts for nominators to support a great celebration in their community, despite our inablility to provide one at Hershey this year. 

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Though it was tricky to bring excitement and excellence in a virtual world, we were fortunate to find a platform that allowed us to share a new journey with attendees, while also giving them the core elements of the conference they love. Overall, it was a truly positive experience for our team. We all learned and trusted together to accomplish our common goal of hosting a successful conference our members deserve.

For those of you heading into the unknown terrain of the virtual landscape in the near future, I can offer these words of wisdom from members of our team most intimately involved in the planning and execution of our virtual annual conference:

Heather Bleiler - Education & Research Manager
I would say that you just need to remain calm and stay flexible. Technology is a great thing when it works but, sometimes, there will be issues. Everyone has experienced these issues so do not let it overwhelm you. You just have to take each hurdle as they come and work with the team around you to correct it as quickly as possible.

Natalie MacDonald - Corporate Partnerships Director
This is new to us all...we don't know what we don't know. Approach the whole experience with the best of intentions, hard work, and transparency about what you know and don't know when communicating with your members and partners. The "we're all in this together" mentality is a very powerful tool in accomplishing great things in a new environment.

Marianne Lake - Education & Research Senior Director
Ask questions. Never assume you know how the process works - invariably there will be something that you assume wrong and will throw your plans out the window. Fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. Take one step at a time and remember, you are not curing cancer, you are doing an event. People are more understanding and gracious toward us than we are to ourselves. Keep telling yourself, "You got this!"

Sharon Fahrer - Special Events Director
An in-person event will never be the same in a virtual world, so focus on the real purpose of your event. If people attend for the education sessions, make sure you deliver top-level speakers/topics backed by solid technical support. If it's for networking, make sure you find ways to help attendees interact. It will be difficult for your conference to be all things to all people, so make sure you provide what's truly important. Then if you are able, take advantage of being virtual and add in something new and different. Make it an opportunity to not just replicate an event, but to reinvent it!