The pressure is on when you’re planning a conference for event professionals. So when the Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA)—a 33-year-old association representing CVB, hotel and convention center leaders across North America—started planning its 2021 conference, the team knew they had to think carefully about the best way to approach it.
“One of the things that made this really challenging is that we all service historically live events—so we're all about live events,” says newly elected ESPA President Julie Brakenbury, who is also the director of destination services at Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau (North Carolina). But ultimately, the board of directors sat down and defined the conference’s No. 1 goal—and that was to enable as many ESPA members as possible to have access to education and learning, especially during such a difficult time. “So at the end of the day, we made that decision that a virtual event would best serve our members.”
The online conference took place Jan. 21 and 22, and had the theme #ServicesStrong. The schedule was a mix of keynote speeches, think tanks and breakout sessions, and interactive coffee and activity breaks, with speakers including author and entrepreneur Simon Bailey, PNC Arena’s Larry Perkins, MPI’s director of events Melinda L. Burdette and others. (MPI’s session was co-presented by Jessie States, director of the MPI Academy.)
Here are four smart, steal-worthy strategies Brakenbury and the conference-planning committee employed in the shift to virtual.
1. They asked attendees what they wanted.
During the initial planning stages, ESPA decided to poll its members to see what type of gathering they were comfortable with right now. “We learned that with widespread budget cuts for CVBs, hotels and convention centers, it was going to be hard for our members to travel to a live event,” says Brakenbury, adding that many members were juggling multiple roles, or had been laid off or furloughed; others were being told by their superiors not to travel for safety reasons. The survey affirmed the team’s belief that virtual was the right choice for this moment.
They did find, however, that members in areas with fewer gathering restrictions did want some sort of in-person component. With ESPA’s support, CVBs in cities including Pittsburgh, Virginia Beach, San Antonio and a few others organized their own, socially distanced networking events on the first night of the conference.
“They invited not just their own staff, but partners in the area, and practiced social distancing,” explains Brakenbury. “That gave us an opportunity to have at least some local aspect to it where people could be together in person, but also show parts of the world where we can meet and do things safely together. … The idea was really to be a little bit of a pep rally to celebrate the people who were still servicing after a very difficult year.” Members were encouraged to take pictures at the local events, which were incorporated into a slideshow later in the conference.
Keynote speakers included speaker, author and life coach Simon T. Bailey, whose speech was called "SPARK: Act Like an Employee and Think Like a CEO." (Screenshot: Courtesy of ESPA)
2. They rethought their programming, schedule, and pricing strategy.
With an all-virtual conference, the conference-planning committee and ESPA staff knew the team would have to reimagine some components, including the fee structure (discounted tickets were offered to people who had been furloughed or laid off), sponsorship offerings and the overall schedule. They also carefully thought through the speaker lineup, really focusing on presenters who were up-to-date on best practices in a COVID-19 world.
Another change? All the day’s activities started around 10 a.m. EST, a bit of a later start in order to accommodate members who were joining from different time zones. “We also made the keynotes shorter, and made sure we built in some good breaks for networking,” says Brakenbury. “It’s one thing to be at a live conference, when the energy keeps you going all day long. [But with virtual,] you really need those break times.”
One timing aspect that didn’t change, though, was the length of breakout sessions and think tanks; those peer-to-peer discussion sessions were kept the same length as they would have been in-person, to ensure everyone was able to share and get the most out of it.
3. They built interactive moments into the programming.
To keep attendees engaged virtually, the ESPA team looked for a tech partner that would allow for a variety of interactive moments. Ultimately, they partnered with Encore (formerly PSAV) and its Chime Live platform. “It allowed us a lot of engagement tools, things like live discussion boards and video libraries,” Brakenbury says, noting that video libraries were used to share experiences that various member’s destinations were offering right now. Through the platform, ESPA was also able to incorporate aspects of gamification to encourage engagement on the platform, as well as networking sessions, yoga breaks and happy hours.
These interactive moments and education breaks were also used to shine the spotlight on various ESPA members and destinations. During the virtual coffee breaks, for example, attendees were invited to virtually “travel” to various cities and learn about the offerings. And for one end-of-day activity, members watched a fun video from Visit Kansas City (the host of next year’s ESPA conference) that spotlighted some local bars and bartenders, who discussed mixology and shared drink recipes that related to the city’s history.
During breaks, attendees could virtually “travel” to various cities and learn about the offerings. (Screenshot: Courtesy of ESPA)
4. They find ways to engage with their members year-round.
Next year’s ESPA conference will take place Jan. 21-23, 2022, at The Westin Kansas City at Crown Center. While Brakenbury isn’t yet sure if the event will have a virtual component, it’s important to her that ESPA members can stay engaged year-round—regardless of their location or travel concerns. “We do a continuing education series that's once a month. We also have an excellent virtual program for people who are assistant director-level and higher that nurtures those leaders throughout the country,” she notes. “Those are all virtual.”
Brakenbury’s ultimate goal for both the conference and for the year-round education? That members learn some best practices they can now bring back to their own clients. “Most of us anticipate that at least for a while, we're going to be doing hybrid events,” she says. “Now that our members have experienced [a virtual conference], they can go back and help their event organizers and clients do the same thing.”
Top photo: ST.art/Shutterstock