At the end of February, for the staff at The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), it was pretty much business as usual, although they were keeping their eye on how coronavirus concerns were beginning to force some organizations to alter, postpone, or cancel their events. Registration for The IIA’s General Audit Management (GAM) Conference, scheduled for March 16–18 at the ARIA in Las Vegas, was on pace to eclipse 1,300 participants. By March 2, though, new registrations had started to slow.
“Then,” Samantha Lazo, CMP, DES, told Convene, “registration just stopped.”
Lazo, the IIA’s director of event production and event technology, said that the organization had already been planning to build on the success of the inaugural livestream of some of the GAM program in 2019 and, by March 7, The IIA’s leadership team decided to strengthen their livestreaming offering. Lazo reached out to talk with the organization’s tech vendors about the possibility of expanding the effort by adding another track of online education.
Three days later, on Tuesday, March 10, the organization decided to cancel the in-person event and move forward with plans to broadcast from a studio environment in the host venue, the ARIA. The IIA’s events staff — along with members from marketing, customer service, accounting, and membership departments — mobilized to tackle an overwhelming to-do list: notify attendees that the in-person portion was canceled, give them the option to transfer registration to the virtual broadcast, and figure out refund policies. Oh, and one other important detail: The conference program team needed to determine the makeup of the actual program, which had been thrown into chaos.
A Closing Venue and Condensed Program
By Friday, the program was locked in, and, on Saturday, after revising the emcee script and making a few final changes, the team was confident that the virtual broadcast was ready to go. Then, on Sunday night, they were thrown another curveball: The ARIA announced that it would close at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and advised The IIA to wrap up the program as soon as possible. The on-site team, with support from colleagues at the organization’s headquarters in Florida, spent late Sunday night condensing the two-day program into a one-day program that would stream from two rooms.
What became known as “Virtual GAM” got underway at 8 a.m. Monday and wrapped with minimal hiccups by 4:15 that afternoon. In addition to general sessions, remote attendees could pick between two concurrent sessions throughout the day. The team considered allowing some speakers to present using Zoom; however, they opted for a greater sense of control over the broadcast and only featured speakers who were already on site at the ARIA.
Lazo said it was “disappointing to be canceling the in-person event, but our primary concern and focus remained on one thing: delivering an optimal learning experience for our members and attendees.”
Many organizations have used virtual meetings as audience-acquisition tools with zero-dollar price tags, but The IIA has been ahead of the curve in using digital engagement as a revenue stream. Before the coronavirus disruption, the registration for GAM’s virtual attendees had been priced at $995 for members and $1,195 for non-members, which included 12 sessions and access to on-demand learning after the conference. The in-person event was priced between $1,495 and $2,000, depending on whether registrants were members and when they registered.
“We believe there is value for the online experience within our conferences as well as other learning channels,” Lazo said. “Those attendees still get the same amount of CPEs. They miss the networking, but they gain access to professional knowledge that supports their development. We wanted to make sure we delivered on that promise to our members with relevant, value-driven content.”
Their Virtual GAM experience has emboldened the IIA team to consider new ways to further enhance livestreaming efforts going forward. The results from this year — more than 500 online participants compared to 65 in 2019 — clearly demonstrated its value. Those are impressive numbers for sponsors, and the organization expects some of them to be more willing to invest in support of the program in the future. “There were dedicated eyeballs looking at a screen for eight hours per day,” Lazo said. “We didn’t see a drop-off. And that’s really good exposure for a sponsor’s brand or message.”
Making major last-minute adjustments can cause anxiety at any organization, but Lazo said that the stress was mitigated by the fact that The IIA was well-equipped to handle the changes, thanks to already having three things in place: crisis management plans, a commitment to collaboration across the organization, and great relationships with the partners and vendors who helped execute the virtual event.
Lazo acknowledged that meeting planners at other organizations probably are now finding their inboxes “flooded with messages about services for converting to a livestream.” She offered them this tip: “Look for the quality vendor who will be nimble and agile and can advise you on the program,” she said. “Don’t wait until a problem arises, but rather, plan for potential alternatives now.”
David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.
What Events Professionals Need to Know About COVID-19
PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the outbreak and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared.