Conventions Amid a Pandemic

Two state associations held successful virtual events in 2020.

In a year where, for months at a time, group gatherings were limited to less than a dozen people, hosting a statewide convention might have seemed impossible. The American Institute of Architects, Iowa Chapter (AIA Iowa) and the Iowa Association of REALTORS® (IAR) both proved that assumption wrong. These statewide associations were able to hold their regularly scheduled annual conventions but in an irregular fashion.

“Right up until late July, we were hoping to find a creative in-person alternative,” says Amanda Nagle, Chief Operating Officer of IAR. “We explored different venues, different scheduling structures, but at the end of the day, it was evident that the best course of action was to host a virtual event.”

AIA Iowa’s Jessica Reinert echoes that view. “Our leaders decided to transition to a virtual event in late May,” she says. “Our top priority throughout this pandemic has been to continue to provide members with the benefits they expect but in a manner that protects the health and safety of each member.”

In fact, Reinert says AIA had to quickly pivot the annual spring conference as well, accomplishing that shift in less than two weeks’ time. “That went extremely well, and we received a large amount of positive feedback from that experience,” she says.

Nagle says the REALTORS® event came together as well as it did because the association had several months to adjust to virtual programs. Members had adapted quickly to the day-to-day requirements of virtual meetings and business practices. “Our industry never shut down, even when so many other businesses did,” Nagle says. “We had to make sure that as an association we offered the same dedication and responsiveness to the situation.”

For a business that is founded on personal relationships, transitioning to a virtual event brought multiple challenges. Fortunately, high-caliber national speakers were already on board.

“We were very lucky. Every single instructor who had signed on to speak at the convention was able to shift to a virtual structure and still participate,” Nagle says.

“We haven’t had to cancel a single program thus far. All AIA Iowa events have been transitioned from in-person to virtual,” Reinert says. She says the fact that the spring conference had to shift to virtual so quickly was actually a plus. “The AIA Iowa Convention is a much larger event, so hosting the Spring Conference virtually gave our volunteers and staff the confidence to feel comfortable transitioning our annual convention as well.”

The association began researching available technologies that would suit its needs and budget. In addition, Reinert says the group sought options that were manageable for a small staff. “From there, we reassigned roles for our Convention Committee volunteers as well as staff tasks and responsibilities to match the technology we had selected.”

Both groups had to assess their usual convention activities and make adjustments to suit the virtual setting.

“We modified a few of our sponsorship opportunities to better highlight companies within the virtual format. We actually garnered more sponsorship this year in comparison to years past. We were so appreciative of that!” Reinert explains.

“Since we weren’t able to get to know the sponsors in the same way we do at our in-person events, we ran little promotional commercials between our virtual sessions,” says Nagle. “It was a 180-degree turn from the expo hall we usually have with pens and giveaways, plus king-size candy bars. I missed those,” she jokes.

Reinert says, “Using creativity and technology, the only activities that technically didn’t take place were those directly related to food, such as our lunch and cocktail parties.” AIA was able to offer Grub Hub gift certificates to early registrants. Programming that typically occurs during meals still took place, just in a different fashion.

Ultimately, however, both Reinert and Nagle say the learning experience and the feedback from participants have given them confidence for future events. Elise Goodmann of Pigott in Des Moines told Reinert afterward, “Kudos on such a fantastic virtual event! The convention was such a nice way to reconnect with industry partners despite being physically distant.”

Nagle received similar praise. “We lost the benefit of being physically together, of networking in person. But we were able to provide every educational event we had planned. We held an online auction for our REALTORS® Foundation. And many of our classes actually had significantly more participation than normal.”

Nagle says the experience revealed ways IAR can even better serve its members. “As a statewide organization, hosting a virtual convention has opened this portal that allows opportunities to educate and participate with members who have not always been able to attend in-person events.”

While not ideal, the virtual event also taught that both staff and volunteers are much more adaptable than anyone realized. “We can shift quickly so that everyone can participate,” Nagle says. “We’ll never opt for a 100% virtual event if we don’t have to, but a hybrid model definitely makes sense and may even allow us to serve our members better.”

Reinert agrees. “We’ll continue to host both in-person and virtual events in the future as we have in the past. The only change is that we may do more of them and in a more complex way. We continue to research ways to offer hybrid and recorded events so we can serve our members best.”