How One Association Fine-Tuned Its Virtual Meeting

The International City/County Management Association created its Virtual Annual Conference as a way of reaching members who face increasingly restrictive travel policies.

For some organizations, a digital component to a live meeting is a nice-to-have — a good sponsorship opportunity, or maybe something new and fun to try out. For the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), it’s a must-have, because most of ICMA’s 9,000 members are local government managers who since the financial crisis have faced an ever-tightening set of travel restrictions.

“The impetus behind the whole thing was the economy,” said Julie Butler, CMP, DES, ICMA’s manager of conference programs and exhibits. “We had one of our best-attended on-site conferences in 2008 in Richmond, Virginia, and then the economy just went south.”

The following year, ICMA’s Annual Conference was being held in Montreal — presenting a challenge for the organization’s mostly U.S.-based members, many of whom worked in communities where budgets were shrinking and no-travel policies were being enacted. “We were like, well, we still want to bring this professional-development opportunity to our members. How can we do that?” Butler said. “It was intended and it still is intended as a member benefit.”

That means a hybrid meeting that has evolved and grown steadily since ICMA introduced it in 2009. Eighty-four people registered for the first ICMA Virtual Annual Conference, which offered two keynotes and 20 education sessions, presented live, complete with video and PowerPoint. “We started with a technology where the presenters had to submit their actual presentation, their PowerPoint, no later than three days in advance,” Butler said. “And then the [hybrid] company would literally sit in the room as the presentation was going on and forward the slides. It wasn’t very efficient…. You had people sitting at home who were looking at the PowerPoint that was not really syncing with what the presenter was saying because the presenter had made changes.”

In 2011 ICMA’s platform tied the virtual broadcast directly to each presenter’s computer, meaning hybrid participants could see the most up-to-date version of the on-site PowerPoint. That year, 131 people registered for the Virtual Annual Conference, which offered four keynotes, 12 sessions with full video, and nine sessions with audio.

Since then, ICMA has continued to tinker with the program. With the economy improving, virtual attendance at ICMA’s 2013 Annual Conference in Boston dipped below 100 as on-site attendance hit record levels. For this year’s hybrid, tied to the Annual Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, next month, ICMA is offering free listings for all exhibitors, a live web chat with ICMA’s executive director, and programming from ICMA TV, which covers the conference on site.

The registration fee has fluctuated — as high as $399 for members and $499 for nonmembers, to this year’s low of $199 for members and $299 for nonmembers. “We know that it’s not going to be our moneymaker, so that’s not our biggest concern,” Butler said. “But we have sometimes struggled even to break even, and so our main questions are, is it marketing, or is it the prices, or is it just the demographic of our members?”

The DES Effect

ICMA’s Julie Butler is serious enough about digital programs that she was one of the first meeting professionals to earn the Digital Event Strategist (DES) credential from the Virtual Edge Institute. “I realize that virtual/online meetings will not go away. If anything, they’ll become more prevalent,” Butler said. “I think it’s an important professional responsibility to stay on top of current technology, and this was one way to do it.

“I also felt like everything I knew, I knew because of my own experience, and that I could be missing out on important information and better ways to do my job. If you don’t continue your professional development, you’ll be left behind.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.