If you’re looking to potentially expand the reach of your membership base, increase engagement, and lower costs, you may want to consider venturing into the world of virtual events.
The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) decide to do just that five years ago, and now Maurine Kwende, director of e-learning, and Steve Gardner, director of education, know just what it takes to make virtual events an effective addition to your portfolio of educational offerings.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa talks with Steve and Maurine about what prompted them to begin offering virtual conferences, how they’ve evolved over the years, and the inherent benefits and potential difficulties associated with them.
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[00:18] – Thank you to Castle, which is the sponsor of the Leading Learning podcast for the second quarter of 2017. Castle is an accomplished full-services certification and licensure testing company that also offers its clients a variety of learning solutions capabilities. With an expert team of testing and instructional design professionals and a thirty year history of excellence in it’s field, Castle understands what it takes to develop and deliver quality learning and certification programs.
[01:13] – Highlighted Resource of the Week – Association Virtual Events – a free Tagoras report that draws on data from more than 100 associations to help you understand the emerging role of virtual events in the association sector. This report will help you learn fast and get on the road to success. To get the report, go to www.tagoras.com/virtual-events.
[01:53] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Celisa talks with Maurine Kwende and Steve Gardner of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) about their efforts with virtual conferences.
[03:22] – Introduction to Maurine and Steve and some background information about NHPCO, including their mission and whom they serve.
[05:08] – Could you first give us a snapshot view of what the NHPCO portfolio looks like in terms of educational offerings, certifications, events, etc.? Steve shares that NHPCO offers 24 webinars a year (two per month), over 100 asynchronous online courses available, about a dozen synchronous instructor-led courses (approximately six weeks long each), two in-person national conferences annually and between one to two virtual conferences per year. They also offer a number of manager and executive leadership programs. NHPCO is accredited to provide continuing education credits to counselors, nurses, physicians, and social workers.
[06:35] – What were the main drivers that led you to try the virtual conference format? Maurine says they had various reasons for taking on virtual conferences including:
- They noticed a decline in their on-site conference attendance
- There was an increased cost with hosting the in-person conferences and with a decline in attendance they were losing money
- They conducted a member needs assessment and the feedback indicated an interest in having a virtual conference
- Members already had experience with webinars and webcasts for their educational programs so they were already comfortable with technology
- Having a virtual conference allows multiple participants at no additional cost
- They were able to expand reach to participants who typically couldn’t travel to national meetings
[09:08] – Would you share about the evolution of your virtual conferences? What’s remained constant over the years, and what’s changed over the years? Steve shares that starting out in the planning stages over 5 years ago, they really evaluated what resources and support they would need to pull off a virtual conference for the first time. They first identified a partner that could provide all of the technical support expertise they didn’t have on staff—this was probably one of the most important decisions they made since the success of the conference depends on the delivery of the content electronically. NHPCO also created a business plan and budget and they approached the planning of the conference the same way they do for an in-person conference.
Steve adds they designed two different types of formats: plenary sessions, which are live streamed and concurrent sessions, which are web-based. Once they developed that program they did a few things differently than you would with an in-person conference. First, they had faculty training to share format/expectations (which they found better to do earlier on) and also offered training for participants, both of which they recorded and put it on their website to be accessed anytime. NHPCO also provides access to all of the content for 3 months after the conference is over—another advantage to having a virtual conference. There is a video library where they assemble all kinds of resources and tools, which build on what they are presenting in their content.
[12:43] – Steve shares what’s changed regarding virtual conferences since they started, including:
- Figuring out how many days to offer the conference (they found 2-3 half days is their sweet spot)
- The amount of “extras” they offer—in the beginning they had a virtual exhibit hall and silent auction but they didn’t really garner a high level of interest so they pared them back and now added academic poster sessions as additional resources
- Because of the popularity of the live streaming, they’ve gone from one of those a day to two per day
- Initially they were providing 30-minute breaks between sessions but the feedback was that was too much down time so they now do 15-minute breaks
[14:32] – Can you talk a little bit about evaluations and what level of response rate you’re getting from those? Steve shares that one of the requirements they have for people seeking continuing education credits is that they must complete an evaluation so this really helps them get the feedback they need. On top of that, they are always asking and suggesting that people give them that feedback on a daily basis or after the conference is over.
[15:47] – Was NHPCO worried at any point about cannibalization, about the virtual conferences negatively impacting attendance at your place-based conferences? Maurine admits they certainly thought about the issue when they first started offering virtual conferences and they wanted to make sure the content was unique from that of their in-person conferences. She says you have to strategically determine the content and dates of your virtual conference to ensure it doesn’t compete or clash with others you may offer in person.
[16:52] – Do you see innate pros and cons of the virtual conference format? If yes, what are some of the main advantages and disadvantages of the format? Steve shares the pros for them are:
- They’ve been able to reach a much wider audience
- By having a flat registration fee associated with an organization any amount of people can attend—this has been a great selling point from a marketing standpoint. It also gives the organizations an opportunity to invite community members or colleagues to participate at no additional cost
- There aren’t any travel costs associated with their webinar faculty participating which helps from a cost perspective and also with recruiting
Some cons regarding the virtual conference format are:
- Some faculty might not know how to engage/interact with the audience as well in a virtual conference environment so they work with them to utilize the technology they have available (polling questions, chat boxes, posing questions in the Q&A and on social media, photo sharing, etc.)
- Some learners may not have the technology or may not have tested their equipment so NHPCO is constantly communicating about this
[20:47] – It seems that technology is a much more integral aspect of a virtual conference than a place-based conference, which suggests that getting the technology right is integral to overall success. What issues and criteria wound up being deciding factors for you in picking a technology partner? Maurine shares that they have offered 24 webinars a year for many years and the provider was CommPartners. Knowing they had the technology required to produce a virtual conference helped them feel comfortable choosing them as a partner.
[23:00] – What recommendations would you have for an organization that is considering a virtual conference but hasn’t yet tried one? Steve suggests that you:
- Start small
- Ask a lot of questions of your learners through needs assessments/surveys beforehand to ensure you have them on board and interest built up
- Make sure you have the support of your senior leadership
- Recognize that the planning of a virtual conference is about as time consuming as planning a live conference
- Make sure you have the staff resources to pull it off, including registration resources, IT, and your entire education team
- Consider partnering with other organizations as an option—this way you share the risk/reward and expand your reach (Steve notes this is something they did later in their evolution)
- Have a trusted partner to help you with the technology piece
[25:14] – Can you talk a little more about how you go about partnering with organizations? Steve says they are partnering with other membership-based organizations that have similar constituencies (currently three) and they don’t want to compete with one another. They share the risk, do a revenue share, and have a planning committee that represents all of the organizations. This also allows them to expand some of their content reach and to get faculty to participate that they may not be able to get if they were doing it alone. Steve notes it’s been great to really pull the best from all three organizations and even though they are holding the conference in their office, they have the ability to include all of their partners as moderators and give them a visible role.
[27:14] – I’d like to hear from both of you on what’s going on in learning these days that most excites you—this could be something with application or potential application at your organization or just something that excites you as an individual lifelong learner. Maurine starts off sharing the area that excites her is around microlearning. She’s curious as to how it can count towards continuing education in the association industry and she’s looking forward to seeing this implemented in her organization. She’s also excited about the area of virtual reality and creating games in education. Steve reveals that like Maurine said, technology is providing so many options to reach learners and things change so quickly, which keeps them on their toes.
[30:38] – How do you each approach your own lifelong learning? In addition to participating in live and virtual conferences, Steve says he’s a big believer in mentoring, whether it’s formal, informal, in person or virtual. He thinks everyone should really seek them out, either within their organization or perhaps outside their organization with someone not associated with their business line because it provides a different way to enrich you both personally and professionally. Maurine echoes Steve about the importance of mentorship, adding that she approaches lifelong learning by making sure she’s constantly in the loop of lifelong learning discussions. She participates in a variety of educational programs saying you just can’t stop and you have to keep learning.
[32:50] – How to learn more about NHPCO:
- Website: https://www.nhpco.org/ – Note that on the Education tab on the Home page you can find information about their upcoming virtual conference this July.
- Email Steve or Maurine: firstname.lastname@example.org
[34:00] – Wrap Up
Thanks again to Castle, a full service certification and licensure testing company that also offers its clients a variety of learning solutions capabilities, for sponsoring this episode of the Leading Learning podcast.
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[35:46] – Sign off
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