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SUSOPS Project Blog #3: The Silver Lining of a Cloud-Based Conference: Financial and Expanded Benefits of the Virtual Meeting

By Lance Simon and Judith Nielsen


In February, 2012, the United States Forest Service held a hybrid conference that was 96% remote, 4% on-site and 100% successful. It saved the Agency almost a million dollars in costs, doubled attendance rates, helped it “walk its talk” by saving hundreds of metric tons of CO2 emissions, and fully met the expectations of its participants, 90% of whom said they were satisfied or highly satisfied with the event. The 2012 National Sustainability Summit is a perfect example of the benefits of virtual conferences, many of which the Agency outlined itself in summaries, others of which emerge from professional analyses of other virtual conferences. Here are just a few.

Ups and Downs (that are really Ups) of the Virtual/Hybrid Conference

Numbers go up. A large number of organization members, as much as 90%, don’t attend physical conferences. Virtual conferences reach those who wouldn’t attend site-based meetings. Higher numbers also means greater diversity. Observed Stephanie Pickern, Green Team Chair, “One aspect that was so profound for me, was the technology that made the virtual viewing of the Summit possible for everyone who wished to participate. I met and listened to like-minded people share their knowledge and experiences for all of us to learn from. It was a great experience and I’ll never forget it.”

Revenue goes up. More participants mean more registration payments. Although the USFS isn’t profit-driven, for private companies that are, an expanded audience is a boon. Furthermore, virtual conferences bring in revenue from advertising, booths and vendors, premium events, and the future recycling of recorded events. Since the increase in expense for more participants is negligible – whether 50 or 100 attendees, the cost differs little – the rest is profit.

Costs go down. The USFS saved as much as $840,000 on travel and accommodation alone, plus another $150,000 on facilities. Other savings can include staff time, and reduction in paper, printing and publishing costs. Although the Forest Service paid $52,000 to hire contractors, including virtual technology provider iCohere, its savings far outweighed the additional expense.

Visibility goes up. The Summit drew attention and participants from outside the Forest Service, including other Federal government agencies, state and local governments, and communities. It helped further establish the Agency as a premier leader in the field of sustainability.

Quality of presenters goes up. Because they’re convenient and economical, virtual conferences attract national and global “stars” who might otherwise decline or prove unaffordable. Many Summit attendees commented on the knowledge and passion of the speakers and the overall quality of the presentations.

Environmental Impact goes down. This was a big one for the Forest Service, which was not only holding a conference on sustainability, but values sustainability as part of its conservation-motivated mission, “caring for the land and serving people.” Its Summit saved over 600 metric tons of C02 equivalent emissions by avoiding air and ground travel and electricity/natural gas use at meeting sites.

Commitment to Mission goes up. The USFS Summit engaged employees and decision-makers from across the country in discussions and plans for sustainability projects, strengthening the Agency’s goals and providing collective support of its vision. And it kept them engaged. Participants can still access Summit blogs and recorded sessions for a year following the event so that collaboration can continue.

Although these are the key benefits of the online meeting there are many others, which is why 75% of organizations that have held a virtual event say they would do it again. Would the United States Forest Service? Discussions are already underway for the next Summit which may be a completely virtual event. Costs are going down. Anticipation is going up.

For more information on the Sustainable Operations conference, join the USFS meeting team, on April 25th in a webinar discussion hosted by virtual services provider iCohere. http://gov.icohere.com

“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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Chris Cairns

Love the hard data provided. Speaks for itself. I’d be interested to hear more about the specific technologies used. I’m a proponent of using 3D worlds for virtual conferences like this.