Meeting Mentor Magazine

July 2024

How One Organization Vastly Expanded Its Meeting’s Reach by Going Virtual

Unlike the real-world search-and-rescue missions its members regularly undertake, Civil Air Patrol knew that the realities of COVID-19 would necessitate venturing into the digital realm to meet its members where they are instead of holding its traditional August 500-700–attendee on-site event.

“Civil Air Patrol has been a great partner to ConferenceDirect for many years”, said Daniel Reinkopf, director of global accounts with ConferenceDirect. “When the scope of the COVID -19 crisis made it clear that CAP would not be able to safely hold an in-person national conference this past August, it was important that their entire team knew they could still count us as we pivoted strategies. I knew how much CAP members looked forward to this conference every year. I also knew that ConferenceDirect’s Event Technology team had a wealth of experience delivering virtual solutions to our customers, way before the pandemic brought virtual to the forefront. I had no doubt they’d be in good hands.”

“We didn’t just replicate our conference on a virtual platform. We scrapped our in-person conference and created a whole new event,” said Kristina Jones, CAP chief of philanthropy who stepped in to lead this year’s event.

With only a nine-and-a-half–week window to make it happen, it took all hands on deck. But with a lot of creativity, hard work and perseverance, the new digital event was a resounding success — and a not-to-be-missed event for an astonishing 10,000 of CAP’s 66,000 members.

Expanding Educational Opportunities
Civil Air Patrol’s members in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., provide a wide range of services, from emergency services and locating missing people using cellphone forensics and other technology, to the youth initiatives and K-12 educational programs that impact some 650,000 children each year. While they do have access to CAP’s extensive radio network and single-engine aircraft and drone fleets, members not only pay to join, but they also invest their own funds as well as their time. Instead of just providing a few sessions in each vertical as they usually did, CAP wanted to provide a wide range of education in areas ranging from technical programming on radio communications and radar analysis, to how to mentor and guide youth.

“If I had to boil what we do down to two things, it’s that we save lives and we shape lives — and our members do it out of their own pockets,” said Bobbie-Jean Tourville, CAP Program Manager, Educational Services and Events. “We wanted this conference to honor that by delivering the most value we could for these people who sacrifice so much for their communities.”

“We wanted this event to give members a way to connect, learn, and celebrate,” added Jones.

It took a mind shift to make that happen, she added — and the participation of everyone in the organization. “A great member of our volunteer team said, ‘You know, you don’t have to just go vertical on your schedule — you can go horizontal. With a virtual platform, you can go as wide as you want to.” And so they did.

Civil Air Patrol made a strategic decision early on to expand its program dramatically, from 50 or so sessions in the in-person event to more than 150, plus digital versions of keynotes and exhibitor activations. “We gave each department’s area of focus a full track instead of limiting it to two or three sessions; we ended up with 12 tracks, plus a bonus track for Zoom meetings for additional engagement,” she added. The platform will remain accessible until June 2021 to enable participants to continue to access and share content at their weekly squadron meetings.

 To boost participation, CAP undertook a marketing push through its weekly member enewsletter, plus dedicated email campaigns, to let people know about the expanded program — and the fact that attendance would be free. “It certainly helped that nobody before had an opportunity to attend the national conference for free, without the cost of travel and hotel,” said Jones.

Unlike the in-person event, the 10,000 who joined the digital event included those from military bases as far away as Europe and Japan. “We crossed 10 or 11 time zones,” said Tourville.

Lessons Learned
Civil Air Patrol’s team learned a lot through the experience, including:

• Pick the right platform. “We wanted to be able to use the platform to intentionally design the experience we wanted for the members,” said Tourville. With such a high-visibility event, picking the right platform was key, agreed Joseph Hall, Jr., CAP Deputy Chief Information Officer. “When [ConferenceDirect Senior Vice President, Operations] Adam Briggs told us about all of the capabilities that were available to us with Pathable, including gamification, we knew that platform would work for our event. It’s that engagement piece that we really wanted to recreate for our membership on a virtual platform.” While it wasn’t without some glitches, it did get people to click around and engage by earning points. “It motivated people to see what was available and connect with others,” he said.

• Amp up the customer service. “Because our members tend to have limited experience in using the Pathable platform, and using conference platforms in general,we invested a lot more time than we thought we would on customer service, in order to get them comfortable with the platform and to encourage them to try it,” said Tourville.

• Have monitors and moderators in each session. “You need to have customer service for attendees on the front end as well as the back end to keep communication flowing,” said Tourville.

• Establish a virtual control room. “In addition to some folks from ConferenceDirect to handle some of the technology issues, we had a team set up to solve problems in real time. We sat in that virtual control room for two days running,” said Tourville. “It was absolutely critical to our success because it kept the lines of communication open and created a one-stop troubleshooting shop.”

• Do as much live as you can. While it may leave you more vulnerable to hiccups and slow connections, livestreaming sessions “helps people to feel that they are a part of something bigger,” said Jones. While they did have about 60% of the sessions prerecorded so the instructor could engage with the audience in real time, “People really wanted a real person talking with them at that moment in time,” said Jones. “Even if you don’t have the perfect backdrops or perfect mic setup, our members wanted it live.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for prerecorded content, added Tourville. “It can heighten your production values,” especially for keynotes, which everyone is tuning in at the same time to hear anyway. Still, for CAP members at least, “In retrospect, we would have done it all live if we could go back in time,” said Jones. Or at least flip the ratio to 60% live and 40% prerecorded.

• Don’t forget the fun. “Think about how you will move people through the conference, just as you would for an in-person event,” said Jones. “Having the chat was fun and engaging, and we had a virtual photo both where they could download backdrops with our branding on it. We also had videos in our exhibit hall, which we called The Hangar, and a welcome message from a national comedian who is also a member.”

• Train your speakers. “Training speakers on how to use the platform was critical,” said Hall. “We trained on the front end in terms of deliverables, and then in the last couple of weeks trained them on the platform,” said Tourville. CAP also held training webinars for room monitors and chat monitors, and also held “office hours” for each role.

• No matter how prepared you are, know that issues are going to arise. “It’s all about how you counter them when they do come up, being able to be flexible and stay calm while you make the needed adjustments,” said Tourville.

• Trust your team (including your vendors). “We had a wonderful team — doing something like this can bring everyone closer together,” said Tourville. “And trust your vendors, because they are giving you the capability to communicate with your members and bring them together. Choose carefully, then trust your choice,” she said. “You can question individual decisions, but don’t question the concept.”

Next Up: Going Hybrid
While all are hoping next year’s event, scheduled to be held next summer in Bellevue, Wash., will go off without a hitch, Civil Air Patrol intends to incorporate the digital aspect that proved so successful this year. “We reached a lot of our members who we wouldn’t ordinarily reach due to budget concerns or travel issues,” said Hall. “It was really coming through just how meaningful this was for people who had been members for years but had never before had an opportunity to attend the national conference.”

Tourville added, “The person who’s listening in Anchorage, Alaska, and the person who’s listening in San Juan, Puerto Rico, could share perspectives on issues in a way they hadn’t been able to do before. You can’t go back from that. You don’t want to go back from that.” — Sue Pelletier




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