From Over-the-Top to Over the Net: A Solution to Costly Conferences

By Lance Simon and Judith Nielsen

If you think the United States Forest Service is just in the business of saving trees, think again. The nation’s conservator of forests and parklands is also pretty good at saving money, especially when it comes to government conferences. In its 2012 national conference entitled The Sustainable Operations Summit, the USFS cut its travel and accommodation costs by $776,000 to $840,000, and its facility costs by $150,000, thus saving taxpayers almost a million dollars. And there were other savings, but I’ll get to those in a moment.

They managed this economical coup because they didn’t go to a hotel in Manhattan, a spa in New Mexico, or a resort in Honolulu. They managed it because, for the most part, they didn’t go anywhere. Their conference was 96% virtual.

As one of America’s foremost custodians of natural resources, the USFS has a special interest in “green” events that, according to conference leader Jim McGinnis, let them show their level of commitment to their mission. So for four years now, and way ahead of the curve, they’ve been organizing virtual conferences that minimize the environmental impact of large meetings. This year it was a “hybrid” conference (part on-site, part remote) called the Sustainable Operations Summit. And it sustained not only their duty to the green in our landscape but the green in our wallets.

Employees were encouraged to participate virtually, while only a small group would actually gather on-site in Sacramento. They rallied to the cause. 658 participated remotely and only 25 in person. The result? The Agency saved that almost-a-million dollars in travel and facility costs, and an estimated 607 metric tons of CO2. There are other savings with virtual events, including reduced staff time, and less paper, printing and publishing fees. As for additional cost, the USFS paid out $52,000 to contractors, including state-of-the-art virtual software provider iCohere, but total savings were still way over the treetops.

Virtual or hybrid conferences aren’t just cost savers – they can be revenue makers. Although government agencies aren’t driven by profit, other organizations have leveraged virtual conferences into a cash crop with online promotional messages, advertising, premium events, and an expanded audience that brings an increase in attendance fees. On average, 90% of organization members don’t attend live conferences, due to inconvenience, cost, and time demands. Yet the USFS participation counts at this year’s hybrid conference were more than double that of its six previous conferences. “Due to the virtual nature of the Summit,” said Co-Chair Lara Polansky, “many more individuals participated then would have been possible given the current Agency travel cap. This led to tremendous cross-pollination between regions.”

Forest Service employees not only showed up, they left or logged off happy. Around 90% reported the conference satisfied them and met their objectives…even without room service.

For more information on the Sustainable Operations conference, join the USFS meeting team, including conference coordinator Jim McGinnis and co-chair Lara Polansky, on April 25th in a webinar discussion hosted by virtual services provider iCohere.

“This webinar and the above blog are produced and funded by iCohere, Inc. The Sustainable Operations Summit conference is funded by the U.S. Forest Service. Any views expressed in the webinar or blog are for general educational purposes only and do not represent any official views or positions of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Government, nor the Sustainable Operations Summit Core Team.”

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