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90 Days to Virtual

The American Society of Association Executives is in the middle of three-month sprint to convert its annual meeting and exposition to an online event. Here, the planning team discusses that formidable task and offers advice to other associations.

Well, it’s not how they wanted to spend their 100th birthday. But for the American Society of Association Executives, the centennial Annual Meeting & Exposition that was scheduled for August 8-11 at Mandalay Bay Casino & Resort in Las Vegas and expected to draw approximately 5,000 participants will now take place virtually on August 10-12.

In mid-May, ASAE announced that the in-person event was canceled and that its online replacement was in the works. Then in mid-June, the association announced that all its learning events for 2020 will take place virtually, including the Technology Exploration Conference originally scheduled to take place December 8-9 in Washington, D.C., and which typically draws more than 1,000 attendees.

“TEC is a perfect event to deliver virtually, and making the decision [in mid-June] allows the staff team and volunteers to focus on planning and delivering the best virtual event for attendees and exhibitors,” said Amy Ledoux, CAE, CMP, ASAE’s chief learning and meetings officer. She added that the ASAE Learning team and the event’s content leaders are “focused on reimagining the deliverables, the platform, and the learning experiences needed to sustain association leaders and their staffs through the rest of the year and beyond. More details about TEC will be shared in September.”

AM0720ASAEmtg2.pngFor ASAE’s Annual Meeting & Exposition, however, the team has just 90 days to build out an educationally satisfying and technically seamless experience for participants. With a daily agenda that will run from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Eastern time each day, the event will offer more than 90 breakout sessions along with seven “Express Talks” plus five 45-minute “Game Changer” presentations on big-picture issues: Diversity, technology, innovation, psychological wellness, and geo-political and economic trends.

In late June, six weeks ahead of the annual meeting, MeetingsNet spoke to several members of ASAE’s learning and events team to hear about how different elements of the meeting are being converted to digital—and how the association has priced the upcoming online experience.

MeetingsNet: What is the toughest part of converting educational sessions to the online medium?
Michelle Kudrin, learning director, conferences: Although attendees are able to actively participate through the virtual environment, they are not able to completely immerse themselves in the conference experience as they do when they are on site. We are working hard to find the right balance so that the speakers can deliver their content while understanding that attendees might have things happening outside of the event that need attention.

MeetingsNet: Will there be opportunities for peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing via video or audio?
Krista LeZotte, CMP, CSEP, associate director, meeting operations & special events: This year’s annual meeting will not have small-group video-based conversations; most individual interactions will be handled via text chats. However, there will be many opportunities for attendees to interact. They include career-focused chats within the ASAE Engagement Center Lounges, plus general chat capability within each session’s chat/Q&A functionality and in the virtual exhibit halls. There will also be live Q&A with two of our three keynotes and some of the Game Changer speakers. We will also have real-time engagement through virtual happy hours that are being planned.

MeetingsNet: To commemorate ASAE’s centennial, you created a sizable walk-through exhibit highlighting societal accomplishments that benefited the association community. Will that exhibit be converted to the online medium, or how else you will commemorate?
Lauren Precker, senior manager, public relations and social media: While attendees will not be able to physically move through the timeline exhibit, there’s actually a more in-depth version of it available at

The centennial celebrations will be part of the virtual experience, but we have shifted the focus to how the association community can continue to positively impact society as we move into the next century. Also, the ASAE Research Foundation will release its Centennial Research Initiative, which includes 19 case studies along with two education sessions that will focus on those case studies. And we will create an interactive visual experience for attendees to participate in and enjoy.

MeetingsNet: How many exhibitors do you typically get for the in-person event, and how many have you gotten for the virtual event?
Kelly Price, CEM, associate director, expositions & registration: We typically have about 430 exhibiting companies occupying 700 total booths. After reviewing the best practices for a virtual event, though, we decided to not replicate that number of exhibitors; to create the best experience, we are capping the number of booths at 75. Our business partners will have other opportunities outside the expo hall to engage in the virtual event. This includes having a company listing when they register to attend the virtual meeting, along with other sponsor opportunities.

MeetingsNet: For attendees, how will the exhibit hall experience be conducted online?
Kelly Price: Attendees will be able to explore two exhibit halls; they will be organized based on the exhibit-service focus: hospitality or technology. Inside each hall, attendees can choose which booths they want to visit and engage with exhibitors through real-time chats plus video content and PDF resources.

MeetingsNet: What is the price to attend the virtual event compared to the member price for the in-person event?
Amy Ledoux, CAE, CMP, chief learning & meetings officer: We are offering full conference access at $595 for members and $795 for nonmembers, or one-day access at $295 for members and $395 for nonmembers. These figures are almost half the price of attending the in-person event, and attendees dont have to budget for airfare, hotel, or meals either. As an added benefit, full-access attendees will have all the content available to them on demand until August 28th. Our goal with this pricing model is to make participation possible for association professionals and industry partners who previously have not been able to attend the in-person event because of cost. And for this year’s event, we are allowing industry partners to attend regardless of whether they have purchased a booth in one of the expo halls.

MeetingsNet: Now that you are more than halfway through the event-conversion experience, what advice do you have for other association planners?
Amy Ledoux: You must remain open to doing things differently than you would in person; not everything will translate to a virtual environment. Knowing what the goal is for your virtual event is key in helping make the decisions for what elements will be included. 

To make the conversion seamless for attendees, create a core work team internally and define everyone’s roles and responsibilities right at the beginning. Having a strong project manager is critical to ensuring that each team member has the information pertinent to them and that all deadlines are met. 

Lastly, include staff from other areas of the organization in the planning process. If you have a small staff, perhaps incorporate volunteer members. Within ASAE, these additional staffers have provided input on and assisted with completing various projects. Overall, you just need to be open to learning and new ideas, and accept that you will find yourself in situations outside of your planning comfort zone. 

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