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Kristen Wheeler (left) and Mary Ackleson, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

Meet the Silo Busters

Here’s how two meeting owners, who planned separate meetings for their association, collaborated to give those conferences new life and meaning in a combined, cohesive virtual experience.

MeetingsNet’s 2021 Changemakers list recognizes outstanding meeting professionals for their efforts to move their organizations and the industry forward in unique and positive ways. Find the full 2021 Changemakers list here.

Meet the Silo Busters

Kristen Wheeler, Meetings Program Manager
Mary Ackleson, Senior Program Manager 
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

For bringing two events together into one highly successful online event and shaking up “the way it’s always been done”

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has always held its annual meeting and its TechAdvantage event at the same time and place. But other than chance meetings in the exhibit hall or at networking functions, there wasn’t much that connected the two events’ distinct audiences: Leaders and managers attended the annual meeting, called PowerXchange, and technical staff went to TechAdvantage—even though both audiences worked at the electric co-ops NRECA serves.

NRECA Meetings Program Manager Kristen Wheeler, who manages PowerXchange, and Senior Program Manager Mary Ackleson, who oversees TechAdvantage, had already been working towards a new vision for these events that would deliver more value and a new experience to attendees. 

Then the pandemic hit, and the February 2021 events were moved to online. Wheeler and Ackleson seized the opportunity to combine these events. The goals were to make the online experience an easy one, expand attendees’ exposure to both events, and work toward bringing their new, collaborative vision to life.

The events did retain their separate names—TechAdvantage because it already had a strong identity and PowerXchange because it had recently been rebranded—and they were marketed separately as well. “We wanted to ensure the audience could see that ‘their’ event and content were still available, and that the merging of the events was more of a bonus,” says Wheeler. “While we worked on our schedules separately, we made sure that the timing of the sessions aligned. So, if they wanted to attend a session for PowerXchange and then pop over to TechAdvantage for the next session, they could. We also made sure our general sessions did not align. That way everyone had the opportunity to see all of the ‘big stage’ speakers.”

Wheeler says one of the main challenges in merging the two meetings was making participants aware that they could attend both events. “Our attendees are creatures of habit. In the past, some may not have even known that the two events were occurring simultaneously. So, we had to ensure they understood what that meant and that access would be easy and all in one platform.” Likewise, they worked with presenters to clarify that while the “main” audience was one group, some from the other audience was also likely to be there. 

 By working together, the two teams found everyone’s creativity got a big boost, and they shared the workload. However, some did find their roles changing. For example, the planners who typically handled hotel and venue logistics found themselves more closely involved with the platform provider and show production. Combining budgets also allowed them to be more flexible in securing high-level speakers

Wheeler and Ackleson say that bringing the events together opened their eyes to the gaps in their normal processes and shook up the “way it’s always be done.” Their next steps will be to identify the things that went well in the online environment and figure out how to make them come to life for even better, more creative in-person events moving forward.

View the full list of 2021 Changemakers

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