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As with most everything in 2020, professional conferences and meetings had to move online, bringing enormous challenges to the organizations planning and managing these events. Annual meetings or conferences are an essential way for associations and other groups to serve their members, as well as a major source of revenue to help fund year-round association activities.

Those of us who work for or with the American International Recruitment Council, a nonprofit membership association dedicated to promoting professional standards in international student recruitment, virtually convened our 12th annual conference during the first two weeks of December 2020. Below, we share 12 lessons that we learned and also a final thought on how such lessons will probably influence our next in-person conference. They are intended to help other organizations and associations plan their own virtual conferences.

Lesson No. 1: Keep prioritizing content. Yes, finding the right mode/methods for conference delivery and attendee engagement is important. But the top priority is still offering the highest-quality, most up-to-date information and analysis from the most qualified and highly regarded experts. For our attendees -- and, we suspect, for those at every professional conference -- that will always be the top criterion for judging the success of the conference.

The virtual conference format compelled us to streamline content: our typical annual conference usually included upward of 40 concurrent sessions, whereas we pared the virtual conference down to 15. That required careful curating by the conference committee to include only the most relevant topics and most appropriate presenters.

Lesson No. 2: Aim high when enlisting speakers. Our 2020 annual conference featured a great many high-value presenters, even more so than in normal years with an in-person format. In some ways, travel constraints may have made it easier to sign up well-known speakers. We experienced fewer scheduling conflicts, and travel/accommodation costs were not an issue. So when planning your conference, cast a wide net. Be ambitious. Having a range of well-known international education leaders really boosted the quality of our conference.

Lesson No. 3: Don’t try to replicate the in-person conference schedule. Going virtual opens innumerable scheduling opportunities. We decided early on not to try to replicate the same three-day schedule of the in-person conference and instead held the conference over 11 days. We did that primarily to find mutually agreeable times for global attendees. For example, we scheduled a session during the evening U.S. East Coast time geared toward attendees located in China. Another reason for a less rigid, more spaced-out schedule was that many of our U.S.-based members could not attend a full conference day while juggling the increased work and other demands brought on by the pandemic.

Moreover, we made every session a stand-alone event rather than offering concurrent sessions, so attendees could attend every session rather than being forced to choose among several. In addition, the ample time between conference sessions gave attendees time to think about previous sessions. That resulted in attendees engaging more actively in discussions at subsequent sessions, yielding even higher-quality content.

Lesson No. 4: Do try to replicate the in-person conference session atmosphere. We set up most of our sessions as meetings, not webinars. That allowed participants to use their microphones and videos to engage actively with the presenters and other attendees. We also found the chat was highly effective for engaging attendees during presentations and Q&A periods. When a session ended, if we weren’t offering another one immediately afterward, we encouraged attendees to linger over informal conversation, as they might in a conference room at an in-person conference.

Lesson No. 5: Register teams of attendees from institutions and organizations. We viewed the virtual conference as an opportunity to engage people who may not typically attend our conference. Therefore, we offered the possibility for institutions and organizations to register teams of up to six people for one discounted registration fee. More than 40 teams did so, with one institution alone signing up four teams. Institutions used this as an opportunity to bring in professional staff from the different areas that support international student recruitment, such as financial aid, student life and legal affairs. That helped to educate and train those professionals, benefiting the international student recruitment efforts at the institution. It also embedded our association’s membership more deeply within our member institutions.

In fact, the team concept did not end when the conference ended. We encouraged institutional teams to note the leading ideas and strategies that they gleaned from the conference and to think about which ones they might implement. This month, we will convene the teams via webinar to discuss how they are planning to develop these ideas and strategies.

Lesson No. 6: Be prepared for a late surge of registrations. Nearly half of our attendees registered in the last three weeks leading up to the conference, making it our largest conference ever. Fortunately, colleagues at other associations who had run recent virtual conferences told us to be prepared for many last-minute registrations. (Because no travel plans were necessary, many potential attendees decided whether to attend later than they would for an in-person conference.) As a result, we eliminated late registration and early bird rates, allowing people to register right up to and even during the conference at the same rate as those who had registered early. While that meant our staff members were especially busy in processing and orienting new registrants around the beginning of the conference, it was well worth the effort.

Lesson No. 7: Keep the online platform simple. Using a simple, easy-to-navigate platform meant that only a handful of our attendees needed to stop by our virtual information booth, which we staffed throughout the conference. Attendees are most likely to raise questions or issues at the beginning of a conference, so it is important to have staff ready to assist.

Lesson No. 8: Make sessions and presentations available on demand during the conference. This is perhaps a no-brainer, but it is critical. We recorded every session and made the recordings available within 24 hours. Attendees could access sessions they’d been unable to attend live as well as go back and review sessions they had already attended.

What’s more, the recordings received thousands of views. In fact, on average, only 25 percent of conference attendees attended sessions live, which meant that most chose to view the sessions at their convenience. We also are making the session recordings and materials available for a nominal fee to both members and nonmembers who did not attend the conference.

Lesson No. 9: Create a sense of community. We chose an online platform that required attendees to create a profile. Chat and messaging functions made it easy for attendees to communicate with one another. A variety of “social hubs” provided opportunities for attendees to share and discuss their favorite spices and recipes, take part in a quiz about holiday celebrations around the world, and share coffee and conversation. Small touches were also important for setting a warm, collegial tone: at the closing session during which awards were given out, applause sound effects helped to create a fun event.

Lesson No. 10: Give sponsors as much visibility as possible. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the conference was creating effective sponsorship opportunities. Like most associations and other organizations that hold major conferences, we rely on sponsors to help fund the events and keep attendee costs down. While we spent much time and effort encouraging attendees to visit the virtual exhibit hall, we learned that the virtual exhibits do not work as well as in-person exhibits.

In contrast, we found that coffee breaks, which may be less popular and more expensive at an in-person conference, were more effective and less costly in a virtual setting -- sponsors could engage attendees in creative ways while promoting services. In addition, sponsors of individual sessions could have their logos displayed at the beginning and end of the session, which was affordable and effective; session moderators also announced the sponsors. Other options included giving sponsors the opportunity to send customized messages to attendees, both during and after the conference. Proactive exhibitors reached out directly to attendees through the networking functions and downloaded reports of visits (clicks) at their respective booths to contact people later.

Lesson No. 11: Produce a daily newsletter. While in-person conferences can provide an overall narrative that resonates with attendees, we worried that a virtual conference with far-flung attendees might not hang together as a coherent, unified whole. We sought to create this narrative by producing and distributing a daily newsletter, sent each day in the late afternoon U.S. Eastern Standard Time. The newsletter summarized the day’s hot topics and themes that generated the most interest and discussion, and it also framed the session topics for the following day.

Many attendees, including those who may not have been able to attend sessions on a particular day, told us that the newsletter helped them to keep track of the “plot” of the conference. At the closing session, key staff members underscored the conference narrative through short presentations that summarized major conference topics and themes and laid out implications for the future of international student recruitment.

Lesson No. 12: Make sure staff can communicate via multiple media. We transitioned to a virtual office arrangement in spring 2020. Therefore, our staff managed the conference from multiple remote locations. Each morning of the conference, all staff members met to troubleshoot and plan for the day’s events. We used multiple forms of communication, including Zoom, email, WhatsApp and text messaging; we had a plan for using each mode based on the situation at hand.

A challenge arose when part of the conference platform crashed 30 minutes before one of the sessions. Fortunately, we were able to resolve the problem through rapid communication among our vendor, IT consultant and staff members. The session was not impacted, and hardly any attendees ever realized that there’d been an issue.

The Future

We’ve begun to plan for our next annual conference, which we expect to convene in Miami this coming December. Based on our recent experience, we’ve decided that we can’t return to offering only an in-person event. The genie is out of the bottle, and future conferences will need to have at least some online programming for those unable to attend the in-person event. We are discussing a variety of options for incorporating online options into the conference.

One thing is clear to us: we should neither try to replicate the in-person conference for virtual attendees nor simply offer virtual viewing of the in-person event. Rather, we will create a distinct online portion of the conference that engages online attendees in targeted ways. Exactly how this online experience will intersect with the in-person event is our next challenge. Stay tuned!

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