Like many others, at the end of April 2020, Sharon Schenk, Director, Conventions and Event Management for CCA Global Partners, knew their in-person summer convention couldn’t proceed as planned. The annual education and networking event typically brings together 1,500 business owner members from retail flooring stores across the U.S. and Canada, as well as 800 to 900 vendor representatives.
But canceling the convention wasn’t an option. Sharon and the entire convention team knew members still needed education, and now, critical pandemic-related information – including new guidelines and safety protocols necessary for retail store operation.
The initial decision was to turn the in-person August event into an entirely virtual convention during the same time frame. “But that quickly changed,” explained Sharon. “Because the COVID-19 situation was rapidly changing and our members needed information right away, we moved up the virtual convention to early June – even though that gave us just five weeks to plan, produce and execute our first ever full virtual convention.”
Developing the Event Plan
Sharon and her “all hands on deck” team from marketing, communications, university/education, IT, and meeting services got to work. LIFT 2020 became the virtual convention theme, selected to reflect the cooperative’s groups need to come together and rise up to the challenges of doing business during a global pandemic.
The team decided to turn the virtual convention into a robust, multi-week experience. “One idea from ELI’s Virtual Event and Meeting Management certificate course I kept coming back to is you can’t replace a physical event with a virtual event – it’s apples and oranges,” Sharon explained. “We created a new experience for our members, with new kinds of content to specifically fit a virtual format.”
Format & Technology Platforms
First up was forming a small committee, which included CCA’s IT department and other key stakeholders, to evaluate dozens of virtual platform providers. Based on an early and critical decision to pre-record content, the team selected Intrado Studio as its broadcast technology platform.
Sharon said, “pre-recording some of the segments streamlined the archiving process and post-convention replays, plus it gave us a ready-to-go backup in case any technology failed during the event – an important piece-of-mind strategy for our team.”
The communications and IT teams built a custom website using WordPress. However, because LIFT 2020 was not available to the public, CCA managed participants through their existing members.net sites.
Pre-recording much of the content eased the run of show production. But Sharon and the team still knew it was essential to test and rehearse with speakers before laying down their tracks. “Speakers were operating out of home offices, with different set-ups and recording equipment (many just using their phones). We provided speakers with microphones and best practices on lighting, and then conducted tech checks to view backgrounds and room set-ups to ensure each ‘stage’ was ideal for broadcast,” said Sharon.
One key learning Sharon shared: encourage speakers to stand, rather than sit – just like they would in-person. “Our speakers were more animated and approachable when presenting standing up.”
Sharon shared, “we decided to hold a kick-off on June 3, the first official day of the virtual convention.” The purpose of the kick-off was to preview what was coming up over the next several weeks, and it was a great way to get our members acquainted with the format.”
The agenda included a two-day live event on June 23 and 24, with pre-recorded keynote presentations and updates from the CCA corporate team with live Q&A following those sessions. “We gave speakers 20-minute slots, but several speakers delivered shorter, TED-style presentations that lasted eight to ten minutes,” said Sharon. “This was a big lesson learned. We didn’t want to have ‘dead air,’ so we moved to the next agenda item when sessions ended early.”
After the main event, LIFT 2020 wrapped up with “Education Week.” The Education Week line-up of 52 pre-recorded and 23 live sessions covered a wide range of topics, from business operations to marketing and technology.
Another new element was to create informative and short product session videos – called the “Product Runway” – shown over a two-week period. These gave vendors who traditionally showed products and met with members in an in-person exhibit hall, a virtual opportunity to provide product information, trends, and special deals.
Sharon explained they realized an important lesson about hosting sessions during the day for this particular audience. “There was tremendous pent-up demand for home improvement services and products during our virtual convention, which meant our members were extremely busy running their stores and couldn’t always step away to join sessions during the day.”
In the future, Sharon and her team are considering shifting session times to accommodate members’ schedules better. And they’re also thinking ahead to add more virtual components to their in-person events when they resume to create a hybrid approach.
Future virtual events will also include more audience engagement initiatives. “We simply didn’t have time to put these in place,” explained Sharon. “We’ve already discussed adding a moderator/emcee to keep the audience engaged and the program moving forward, plus other audience engagement elements like gamified activities, polling, entertainment during breaks and wellness elements between sessions.”
“We were very pleased with our first virtual convention turnout,” Sharon explained. “While many members ended up with an unexpected boom in business during the event dates, we had over 750 unique members join us during the two-day main event, with another 200+ viewing after the initial broadcast.” She also added that over 400 people participated in the Education Week.
And with the Product Runway format for vendor videos, Sharon noted, “because these videos were featured over two weeks versus three days of an exhibit hall, our vendors shared that they sold more with this format.”
“This was a real team effort across communications, marketing, IT, our planning teams, plus our external partners from Intrado Studio and our production partner, One Smooth Stone, as well as our Product Runway support team iGAD – and we all learned so much,” said Sharon. “But hearing both our members and partners tell us what a great experience it was, and how much value they received from the content and information, it was worth all of the hard work.”
Looking to learn the fundamentals needed to plan and manage virtual events successfully? ELI’s next Virtual and Event Meeting Management course begins soon!
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