In the midst of sequestration cuts and strained budgets, virtual events are emerging as a creative solution for delivering professional training in government at a low cost. Planning and organizing these virtual events and training, however, is a new experience for many agency professionals.
Hoping to glean some tips on how to make the transition from in-person to virtual events, I spoke with Bernie Iszler, who spearheaded the first virtual conference at the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). The event, entitled “Cuff Key to Door Key: A Systems Approach to Reentry,” became NIC’s largest single event, registering more than 2,600 participants with over 1,100 registrants participating at one time, and garnering 5,000 views of the conference site. During our discussion, Iszler shared her lessons learned in planning a virtual conference and outlined the benefits of the event.
Hammering Out the Logistics: 6 Lessons for Planning Your Virtual Conference
When organizing a virtual conference, Iszler recommended that you should keep the following five things in mind:
1. Set goals from the outset: Knowing what you hope to achieve will drive the design and marketing of your event. It also will provide a metric for measuring the success of the event. “One of our goals was to attract not just corrections professionals but also our other stakeholders, such as service providers, housing agencies and community services,” explained Iszler. In the final analysis, the event attracted 885 registrants that were corrections partners (35% of all participants), which far exceeded NIC’s expectations.
2. Combine theoretical and practical content: Iszler found that e-courses and live presentations that offered “a mixture of theory and examples of implementation in the field” were most popular at the NIC virtual conference. Based on this observation, Iszler recommended that event presentations and materials should be “concise, with links for more information” and contain information “can be used immediately.”
3. Ensure adequate staffing for the event: Just as you would have multiple individuals at an in-person event, you will need several staff members who are able to serve in a variety of roles throughout a virtual conference. For instance, you will “need to have people who welcome participants and answer their questions throughout the conference,” said Iszler. “You can’t just build it and think it will work on its own. There must be people working the site.”
4. Prep your speakers: Even for seasoned presenters, it is a good idea to provide preliminary training to ensure that all speakers are familiar with your platform. Iszler noted that, “Most of our presenters had never delivered presentations virtually.” As a result, she said that future virtual events at NIC “will be adding training for our presenters, including how to deliver virtually, slide guidelines, and rehearsal time.”
5. Expect technical difficulties: According to Iszler, technological problems are inevitable when it comes to virtual events, both for vendor and the participants – but don’t let that prevent you from hosting them. “Our participants were far more patient with the technological problems than we expected,” said Iszler. However, in order to limit the number of glitches on the day of the event, Iszler recommended that you provide links for participants and speakers to test their systems in advance. Especially in government agencies, it’s imperative that event managers work with IT to prevent firewalls from blocking the broadcast of a conference.
6. Offer flexibility to participants: The virtual conference discussion forums and recorded sessions were available to registrants for an entire week before the virtual conference date. The conference date offered 4 hours of live presentations, and all the presentations were recorded and available to registrants afterward. Even the presenters were available to answer questions several days after the conference. Iszler stated, “We know that people who work in the corrections field rarely have even a hour to participate in training so we designed in all the flexibility we could so staff could have access.”
You cannot eliminate every potential problem associated with an event – and that’s true both for in-person and online conferences. Plan accordingly and address as many risk factors, as possible, in the planning phase. “Our backup plan saved us and, although we had ‘technical difficulties,’ we didn’t lose any of the presentations. Everything was recorded and will soon be archived on our website.”
Building a Business Case: 4 Benefits of a Virtual Conference
Reflecting on the event, Iszler achieved the following four benefits both for NIC and the event’s participants.
- Savings: By holding a virtual event, Iszler eliminated the need for travel and location costs, which had previously constituted about 60 percent of their annual event’s budget.
- Expanded reach: NIC’s virtual conference drew 2,600 registrants and generated about 5,000 views on the conference website. Through their virtual event, the NIC was able to reach “out to even the smallest agency and any line staff. All they needed was an internet connection,” said Iszler.
- Increased access: Participants had access to nationally known speakers’ presentations and the ability to ask them questions through threaded discussions and chats.
- Networking opportunities: Participants also had the chance to network and speak with each other in discussion forums, sharing and learning from each other’s experiences.
Ultimately, Iszler indicated that the NIC virtual conference “far exceeded our expectations in terms of numbers of participants” and that “the presentations were very well received.”
Is your agency moving in this direction? What lessons are you learning?
- First, we have produced a guide entitled, “Building Better Conferences and Training: The Value of Virtual Events in Government.” Read or download it here.
- Second, we have administered a pilot social learning project with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Learn more here.
- Third, if you need consulting services or technical assistance, we would like to partner with you. Please reach out to me at [email protected].
* This interview does not constitute an endorsement of GovLoop tools or resources by the National Institute of Corrections.