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The ISBL National Virtual Conference – case study

The ISBL National Virtual Conference – case study

Unleashing Potential (in a virtual world) - Candice Kass, Events Manager 

Every year, school business professionals (SBP) from across the UK descend onto Birmingham for the national conference. It attracts over 300 attendees, 90 exhibitors and takes place over two days with a pre-conference networking event hosted by our sponsor and a gala dinner on the last night. It is the one time when SBPs can get together and talk through the year’s challenges, that was all about to change….

The venue could no longer host our event due to the Crowd Density Model (CDM) dictating our numbers and, along with the lack of confidence within the sector regarding attendance at physical events, we had two options, cancel and forget about the whole thing or think of a suitable model to move to a virtual conference?

The outcome, a nerve-wracking move to a virtual conference with six weeks to plan!

So, we sat down (all three of us) and discussed the challenges we knew we would face during the weeks ahead:

  • Getting exhibitor and sponsor buy in – “What will my ROI be if I can’t actually speak to anyone?”

  • Getting buy in from our loyal attendees – virtual being an alien concept, “I don’t understand how I will be able to collaborate virtually?”

  • Getting buy in from our workshop presenters – “what do you mean live and on-demand with Q&A?”

  • Convincing our headlines speakers it was still worth their time – “I’m not sure I can run my session live on that day and how?”

  • Convincing our production team we could turn it around in six weeks – “Six weeks!”

The challenge was real, we had to move fast!

What steps did we take?

  • We were realistic about our budget and how this would impact the bottom line – some costs would remain the same and we had to account for this.

  • Reduced both the attendee and exhibitor package costs to reflect the move to virtual.

  • Minimised the number of exhibitors we wanted with an online presence to add value to both our attendees and them – we already had 20 exhibitors signed up for our physical event, we just had to make sure our value proposition fit with their own objectives – there were a lot of discussions.

  • Modified the sponsor proposition to include brand recognition, seminar sessions, pre-event communications. We spent a considerable amount of time in discussion with them to ensure they received the same value as the physical event.

  • Built in supplier sessions within the programme for our exhibitors so they had direct exposure to the attendees.

  • Spread the programme over 4 short days with a headline speaker at the end of each day.

  • Divided the workshop sessions between live and on-demand content so attendees could benefit from both.

  • Created a conference ‘welcome pack’ that we sent to all attendees before the platform went live to maintain the same level engagement and tangibility as a ‘physical’ element.

  • Organised a pre-conference virtual networking event hosted by our sponsors with cocktails sent to attendees before the event so they could still feel like they were there in real time.

  • Worked with our production company to build a bespoke platform to incorporate the event brand. We wanted the look and feel to be consistent across all channels, in the same way we would for a physical event.

  • Created a strong social media presence to get attendees engaged and to build a conversation around the event.

  • Ensured our sponsors and exhibitors were at the forefront of those conversations.

The numbers

  • One pre-conference virtual networking event

  • Four days

  • Four headline speakers

  • One panel discussion with one speaker beamed in from Australia

  • Six sponsor seminars

  • 18 supplier sessions

  • 16 workshops (live and pre-recorded)

  • 54 rehearsals

  • 20 exhibitors, and seamless technology of all our content, including our live sessions!

The lesson

  • We reached an audience we wouldn’t normally with a physical event, which meant some SBPs were able to attend our conference for the first time and will be looking at returning in 2021.

  • Attendees were engaged and connected in a different way to a physical event, there was no hierarchy or cliques. We had a 90% engagement rate across the platform over the four days.

  • Our headlines speakers stole the show and literally had everyone on the edge of their seats – make sure your speakers understand the audience and are able to connect with them through their own experiences.

  • Building relationships with suppliers, speakers, exhibitors and attendees is key to any successful event – no one wants to feel like just a number.

  • Being transparent, honest and keeping the conversations open during the planning stages and during the event will prevent any surprises later.

  • Content is in fact ‘king’ – this was the top priority over and above a ‘whizzy, smart’ platform. If attendees aren’t buying into the content, they won’t be engaged with the rest of the event.

  • Keep it simple – our platform was easy to navigate and this kept our attendees coming back each day.

This event was challenging but it has taught us so much about our audience, our exhibitors and what can be achieved by a small team of passionate and dedicated individuals.

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