What We Learned Hosting Our First Post-COVID Virtual Conference

– By Cory Poris Plasch –

The year 2008 was pivotal for many, including those in local government. I was working as a management analyst in the City Manager’s office in DeKalb, Ill., when building permits and many other sources of income for the city dried up, seemingly overnight.

I remember the challenge of trying to navigate the new environment that had changed so drastically and so quickly. I remember, too, the search for information we all embarked on as we tried to find options and opportunities to deal with the change in finances.

I never imagined that 2020, with a roaring economy and record low unemployment, would bring back the same need for immediate information to an evolving crisis. But when my colleagues and I at Polco/National Research Center (NRC) watched the fallout from COVID-19, we knew there was going to be an information gap that needed to be filled. We felt compelled to step into that gap. Most of our staff has worked in the public sector, at the federal, state or local level, so we understood from past experience just how monumental the next few months would be.

An idea formed around a simple premise: what if organizations that serve local government came together for two days, and each organization contributed one session to a virtual conference? In this time of challenge and uncertainty, having one organization do it alone was impossible. But together, we had an amazing opportunity.

The Forward Together virtual conference was the result. Five national/international organizations and two state associations came together with Polco/NRC over two days to provide resources to local government. We learned a lot along the way, and we hope you did too. Among the things we learned:

  • Virtual conferences are a lot different than traditional conferences.  From the need for shorter sessions to keep the audience engaged to the challenge of organizing speakers to deliver a presentation in different time zones and on different platforms, there was a whole lot that had to be planned from a completely different perspective.

 

  • Technology hiccups are an inconvenience at a regular conference. They can completely derail a virtual conference.  Last year I had to give a presentation at a national conference and there was a snafu that resulted in no A/V and no microphone.  Not an ideal situation, but I pivoted to telling rather than showing and made sure to talk really loud. In spite of the lack of A/V, it was an extremely well-rated session. Challenging, but doable. At Forward Together, we had several technological issues that required quick thinking and a lot of scrambling to solve on the fly. For a virtual conference, bad technology equals bad sessions — no ifs, ands or buts. If you notice a few more grey hairs next time you see me, now you know where they came from. 

 

  • It took a lot of creativity.  I’ve planned numerous conferences in the past but this was a completely different experience. Imagine having to shift from building a brick and mortar wall to constructing one just as sturdy, but made out of toothpicks and Play-Doh with no instruction manual and no Google to look anything up. That about sums up four weeks of our lives.

 

  • It was wonderful in unexpected ways. We learned with you and from you. You learned from industry experts, and from each other. Like many of you, we wanted to be part of the solution and this was a logical place for us to contribute. But I never anticipated how much it would be appreciated, more so than conferences I’ve planned in the past. My favorite quote so far, “You have a great agenda and many excellent speakers lined up, so I think the conference is getting some well-deserved attention! A free conference to top it all off – that is appreciated by just about everyone right now.”

 

  • We really are all in this together.  “Forward Together” wound up having more meaning than we could have imagined. Organizations that have never worked together partnered on a virtual conference. At the roundtables, local government professionals from very different departments and their private sector counterparts swapped ideas around HR, innovation, and more. We knew a learning opportunity was needed, we just didn’t know how much.

Each organization gave us sessions with knowledgeable thought leaders to explore different topic areas. Nick Kittle started us off on the right foot with his keynote on Tuesday morning and kept the conversation moving over two days. Rebecca Ryan and Mayor Mark Funkhouser gave us lots to chew on Thursday morning before we jumped into more thought-provoking sessions that day.

Survey results are still coming in, but we are pleased to share that 86% said that the conference met their needs well or very well. And each individual session was also extremely well rated.  We are happy to share the recorded sessions with you, here. We ultimately reached not only a national audience but an international audience as well with attendees from the United Kingdom, India, New Zealand, and more.

We hope that you will continue to reach out to us and our partners going forward. All of us have resources as this crisis evolves to provide you the help you need, when you need it. To see the surveys Polco/NRC has developed specifically for COVID-19 (some free, and many others eligible for CARES funding) please visit our website, here.  For our other partners, please see their websites below:

In closing, I want to thank you for your part in a successful conference. According to our survey, 28% of participants found out about the conference from colleagues. Not only did you come, but you also brought your friends! That added depth and diversity to the experience, especially to our roundtables, and was especially appreciated by other attendees. My hope is that in the midst of this crisis, that you felt supported, informed, and maybe even a bit hopeful as we look together towards the future.

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