As Cassandra Strupp, program manager for the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW), watched the evening news on March 11, she knew she had a problem. The World Health Organization had officially designated COVID-19 to be a pandemic, and in response, the U.S. government announced additional flight restrictions. In just a week, more than 1,200 attendees were expected to attend PDPW’s annual two-day PDPW Business Conference in Madison, Wisconsin.
The next day, PDPW assembled a crisis team to discuss next steps, “but in all honesty,” Strupp told Convene, “canceling the meeting was not an option.” The education program and connections shared between attendees — who include dairy farmers, veterinarians, representatives from allied industries, and academics — are “the whole reason the association exists.”
That left converting the meeting to a virtual event as the only way forward. It was something the association had talked about, but had never before done, Strupp said. “We’d tiptoed around it, and entertained the idea, but every year, we would say, ‘this just isn’t the time.’”
One day later, PDPW was in talks with the video-streaming company, Mediasite, which is based in Madison, Wisconsin, just 46 miles away from PDPW’s headquarters in Juneau, Wisconsin. For Mediasite, which is also PCMA’s service provider for its digital events, the speed at which the PDPW meeting was moved online was also a first. “It was the first time,” said Justin Hartman, Mediasite’s events director, “we met a client, picked a venue, and started executing the same day.”
The in-person agenda had offered attendees a choice of concurrent sessions, and PDPW decided to stream them all one at a time. To make it fit, PDPW lengthened the program each day of the meeting and trimmed 10 to 15 minutes from every presentation. “We started at 7 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., which made for a long day,” Strupp said. Since the sessions were all recorded, attendees could choose the ones they wanted to watch with the group, and view others later, she said. “All of the speakers were phenomenal to work with,” and agreed to make the switch, Strupp said, with Mediasite “staying calm, cool, and collected,” even when working with a few very nervous speakers.
The event originally was scheduled to be held at the Alliant Energy Center; but was moved to Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, also in Madison, where an emcee, a PDPW board member, introduced every session and where a panel of local farmers — who kept their distance from one another — was filmed. The face-to-face connection at live events “is invaluable — there is no way to really simulate that,” Strupp said. But to enable participants to ask questions and interact with one another during the virtual event, the platform featured Fido, a live chat service.
PDPW already had established a “PDPW Prime” virtual storefront on its website, providing information about the event’s sponsors, partners, and exhibitors, Strupp said. In the absence of an exhibition hall, the meeting’s emcee “amped up” the promotion of PDPW Prime.
The biggest challenge was communication, she said. “All of the boxes had to be checked, including communicating with attendees and speaker. The sponsors had to know that we didn’t forget about them, but that we were just shifting formats, and the vendors needed to know that we weren’t backing out on them.”
The reaction from attendees, who continued to register for the meeting as it was underway, was “very positive,” Strupp said, as were the attendance numbers: The event had 2,292 registered “day of” live views, and since then, there have been approximately 1,000 on-demand registered views, she said. By their calculations, the virtual event had doubled their reach.
It was only eight full days from when the coronavirus was declared a pandemic to the conclusion of the meeting. Afterwards, Strupp said, she was left with both “an adrenaline crash” and feeling of great satisfaction. “We pulled this off,” she said, “and fulfilled on all our promises.” She said she also was feeling excited about the future — going forward, she and her team plan to add virtual elements to the events they execute in person.
When it comes to virtual, this was the year, she said, “we ripped the Band-Aid off.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.
PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the pandemic and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared now and in the future.