Back in March, as the annual meeting of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS20) — scheduled for April 23-25 in Portland, Oregon — approached, the outlook, from board and conference program chair Jonathan Singer’s point of view, was “terrifying on many levels.”
There was the general fear and anxiety created by the COVID-19 pandemic itself, said Singer, an associate professor at the School of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago. Added to that was the weight of responsibility he and staff at the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit felt as they considered the health and safety of members and presenters who would be traveling to the conference, as well as the financial and legal implications that a decision to cancel would have on the city of Portland and on their organization. “There were no easy answers,” Singer said in a May 6 webinar produced by Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, which began consulting with AAS on the conference last April. “We were in a situation where we were getting new information every day that was changing the calculus. We had to make a decision about how to make the decision.”
At the same time, the association was getting angry emails from members asking, “Why can’t you make a decision?” said AAS CEO Colleen Creighton. When they realized that members didn’t understand the contractual obligations and financial impact of the choices that the association faced, “we decided to be transparent,” Creighton said. “All the conversations that we were having behind the scenes, whether at the executive level, at the board level, at the staff level, we said, ‘Let’s explain it to people.’” AAS organized a weekly series of town halls, broadcast on Facebook Live, and opened them to everyone, she said.
The association used the forum not only to update members, but to gather feedback. In particular, members continued to respond negatively to the idea that the association was keeping open the option of going ahead with the meeting. “People were not happy,” Singer said. “We have amazing members who have dedicated their lives to saving lives. And we were doing something that, in their eyes, was going to put people’s lives at risk.”
But canceling the conference didn’t seem like the right thing to do, either, he said. “It flew right in the face of this year’s theme” — Crossroads: Preventing Suicide and Creating Lives Worth Living — “which looked at suicidology through the lens of equity.” As the pandemic spread, it was becoming clear that the health crisis, and the unequally distributed economic devastation that went with it, were resulting in increased gun sales, as well as increased isolation and the potential for increased domestic and interpersonal violence. “All of these things correlate with suicide risk,” he said. “We knew that it would actually be counter to the theme of our conference and everything that we had put together if, in the face of one of the greatest instances of inequity in our country, we would have said, ‘We’re not going to have a conference that focuses on equity.’”
If thematically AAS had a good reason for holding the conference, Singer also was confident they could deliver a valuable event online. “I’ve been teaching online for years,” the professor, who founded and hosts the Social Work podcast, said. “Based on my experience and background I knew that we could have a powerful experience if we gathered virtually.”
On March 11, Oregon Governor Kate Brown banned all gatherings of more than 250 people, and within a matter of hours, AAS announced that it was going to convert its 53rd annual conference to an all-virtual experience. With a little more than a month left before the scheduled conference was to begin, the staff and volunteers had a very long to-do list. One thing they kept doing was communicating with attendees: Singer and Creighton held regularly scheduled interactive Facebook Live town halls in the weeks leading up to the event.
Doing ‘Everything We Say Not to Do.’
AAS had been on track for 1,600 attendees at the event — the virtual event ended up with slightly under 3,000 attendees. The conference also had “crazy engagement,” pointed out Sarah Michel, a vice president at Velvet Chainsaw and the webinar moderator. AAS scheduled as many as 17 talks, paper presentations, and panels into a time slot — by packing so much content into three full days, ASA was doing “everything we say not to do” as their advisers, Michel said. On the second day, hundreds of attendees were online from early in the morning until 7:30 p.m. — on a Saturday.
Part of the reason that attendance was high and people were engaged, Creighton said, “was that people were excited about the content. We’re in a period of transition where we’re being more inclusive and we’re bringing a lot more voices who haven’t had their voices heard previously in the association.” AAS membership includes researchers, academics, prevention experts, public health experts, social workers, clinicians who are seeing patients, as well as impacted family and friendsand those who have survived suicide attempts, she said. “It’s a fabric, of anyone in any form or shape touching this issue. So, there’s a lot of energy. We wanted this to be engaging, so we took all their voices and they became part of the equation.”
“One of the reasons the quick pivot to online worked was because we were in constant contact with members and attendees via email, online, and over the phone,” Singer said. “We addressed questions and concerns about the on-the-ground event and then the online event, highlighted the amazing aspects of the virtual conference, and were able to overcome anticipated issues about presenting and attending online.” They didn’t plan it this way, Singer added, “but having Colleen and I presenting live for five weeks together likely helped attendees feel more comfortable during the opening plenary because they were used to seeing us online.”
Although they looked at other options, AAS settled on Zoom to broadcast sessions, the same platform that Singer has used for teaching. He knew that Zoom could deliver content, host an interactive chat, and record sessions for people to watch at a later time, he said. And although Zoom has advanced features, “I knew enough to say, ‘Look, for our virtual conference, we can’t use breakout rooms. We can’t use the poll feature,” he added. “That doesn’t mean that other people can’t use them — we just didn’t have time to figure out how it was going to work.”
Along with high attendance at the education sessions, the platform’s chat box stayed highly active throughout the conference. Unlike face-to-face conferences, where you might get shushed for making a comment to another attendee, “people were engaging in the chat in real time about the content, sharing resources, sharing feedback, sharing links, expressing their opinions, engaging with each other,” Singer said. “You cannot do that in an on-ground live conference.”
Speakers: ‘What Works Best for You?’
AAS brought the practice of transparent and open communication into virtually all aspects of the meeting. When Singer and AAS20 staff reached out by email to speakers to give them the option participate virtually during the conference, they also — aware of the demands that the pandemic is making on everyone — made it clear they could decline, “no questions asked,” Singer said. They gave speakers the option to record their presentations to be included in an on-demand archive. Almost everyone said yes to the live event, Singer said, and many of those who said no declined because there were working on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Sponsors: ‘What Can We Do to Make This up to You?’
Just as they had when talking with members about canceling the live conference, AAS laid all of their cards on the table when talking with sponsors. “We told them, here’s the situation. We know it’s not ideal — you won’t get that person-to-person interaction. What can we do to make this up to you?’” Among the solutions: sponsored backgrounds during sessions and on slides during breaks, as well as messages that were read by sponsors during sessions.
One of their selling points was the fact that AAS would continue to add content after the end of the conference, which translated into more visibility for sponsors, Singer said. The association is also talking with sponsors about Zoom follow-up meetings, as well as mailings and co-branded emails to AAS membership. All of their efforts worked: AAS didn’t lose a single conference sponsor.
Attendees: ‘What Can You Pay?’
AAS also communicated with members about what it would charge for the virtual conference, knowing that some members may have lost jobs or be uncertain of their future employment. At the same time, “We didn’t want to undersell it or diminish the reputation of the conference,” Singer said.
AAS ran a small focus group, asking for help to determine the point at which the registration price became a budget breaker, he said. The in-person conference price averaged $500. For the virtual conference, AAS settled on a $159 base price, which could be bundled with membership — the association added 160 members during the conference.
Anyone who signed up for the conference before it began or while it was underway received the equivalent of an early-bird registration price — they won’t pay any additional fees for content that is added, but the association will charge more for those who sign up now that the conference has concluded, Singer said. The content is collected in what AAS named “The Virtual Academy,” which will continue to grow, he said.
There were some elements of the meeting that worked so well online, they may become standing features of the AAS conference going forward. One was a virtual poster presentation, which allowed every poster presenter to upload a PDF of their poster, along with an abstract and headshot, and viewers could ask questions and comment.
Another was the association’s annual member meeting, mandated by the bylaws. Compared to previous iterations at the face-to-face conference, the virtual version was a “love fest,” Creighton said. People showed up, she said, and they were engaged. The chat function made it easy for people to ask questions that they may not have been comfortable asking in person, she added. “We were able to have a member meeting that was accessible, that shared important information that everybody needed.”
Another benefit was the number of people who participated internationally, including suicidologists from Latin America and Thailand, Singer said. “At the end of the conference, somebody made a comment in the chat box, saying, ‘I’ve been attending for the last two days from Mexico, and I never could have attended because of the visa and the immigration policies that your country has.”
“Hopefully, 10 years from now, the video platforms are going to be so much more advanced that we’re just kind of going to laugh at this,” Singer said. “But for right now, it’s an amazing experience. I think the biggest complaint that we heard from folks was that I didn’t get my steps in because I was online sitting in a chair watching video for 13 hours.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.