“Every Doula Everywhere” wasn’t just the theme for DONA International’s first virtual conference in 2013.  Because it was a virtual conference, each of DONA International’s 6,000  members throughout the world could  attend.

For an organization with a long history of in-person conferences and  members who work in a “high touch” industry,  moving to a virtual platform was a big step.

“At our first conference, I held my breath – and  then  I was surprised and  delighted,” said  Sunday Tortelli, past president, DONA International.  “And for our second conference in 2015,  I didn’t hesitate and  our members really accepted it,” she  said.

“Not only did we have  great attendance in 2013,

more than  half were first-time attendees.”

— Virginia Rivenbark,  president-elect, DONA International

Benefits

Hosting  a virtual conference saved money  and  allowed DONA International to reach more people than  with its in-person conferences.  For example, in 2012,  DONA International’s in-person conference was held in Mexico and  attracted about 200 people. In 2010 and  2011, about 250 members attended each of the conferences. While about five percent of members attended these in-person conferences, 100 percent of the membership paid for the conference because the organization funded it.  In short,  DONA International was losing  revenue on these in-person conferences.  Each  of DONA International’s two virtual conferences netted the organization $40,000 – that’s a total of $80,000 to its bottom  line!

“Not only did we have  great attendance in 2013,” noted Virginia Rivenbark, president-elect, DONA International, and  a 2013 conference organizer, “more than  half were first-time attendees.”

Even with the cost-savings to the organization and  to members (who didn’t pay hotel or airfare because they participated from the comfort  and  convenience of their home  or office), some members were still disappointed with the idea  of a virtual meeting. They missed the camaraderie and  networking of the in-person events. But given  the nature of a doula’s  job, where  she  is on-call  for lengths of time, traveling  or leaving  for extended periods takes her away from clients  and  can  hurt business.

“With a virtual conference, we premiered the sessions ‘live,’ but attendees were able  to participate in the sessions at their convenience for the following three months,”  said  Tortelli.  Another advantage: often, conferences have  concurrent sessions, which means that participants have  to choose which sessions to attend. The format of a virtual conference provides flexibility for participants to take all sessions. To add interactivity and  boost engagement, several presenters hosted chat  rooms  following their pre-recorded session to field questions (which had  the added benefit  of making participants feel more connected). And because adult learners have  different learning styles, the conference included content in a variety of formats  to pique and sustain interest.

It’s clear  that virtual conferences benefit  members (and organizations).  But how do sponsors react?

“At our first conference, I held my breath –

and  then  I was surprised and  delighted.”

— Sunday Tortelli, past president, DONA International.

“Vendors  and  sponsors were attracted to the concept because of the direct  interaction and  engagement possibilities with our members,” said  HeatherGail Lovejoy, president, DONA International.  “While our sponsorships were lower with the virtual meetings, it’s still a new concept for us (and  for many  sponsors) so we are looking at strategies to increase sponsorships,” she  said.

Encouraging Member Participation

Transitioning members to a virtual conference when they look forward to connecting in-person can be challenging, too.

“We were just really honest with our members about the rationale behind virtual meetings,” said  Lovejoy.  “We made a dollars  and  cents argument and  reiterated that we are an international, educational organization and  we want to be accessible to our members,” she  said. “That was the thinking behind ‘Every Doula Everywhere.’”

DONA International leadership is evaluating how frequently it will host virtual conferences. Yet with the success of both virtual conferences, one very important tradition was missing: at the end  of each in-person conference, participants form a closing circle  and  sing “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant Us Peace”).

How would DONA International maintain  this very in- person tradition at virtual conferences?

“We didn’t want to lose this lovely tradition of all of us coming together in song,”  said  Lovejoy.  “So we asked our members to record themselves singing – some sang individually and  some sang in groups – and  send in their files which we combined into one virtual choir,” she  said.

And this virtual choir provided a high-touch, traditional close to the virtual conference.

“It made it feel like a DONA International conference,” said  Rivenbark.

Today,  DONA International pursues  both onsite  and virtual meeting strategies to meet  the needs of its global members and  constituents.

Eight Key Tactics for Great Virtual Conferences

  1. Work with an experienced vendor; make sure the vendor has  an excellent customer service team, available 24/7.
  1. Often, the vendor can provide support on presentations, audio and  video,  so that there’s variety in the content’s look and  feel.
  1. Allow presenters to record their session in advance, with your vendor.
  1. Create a system to monitor participation/ attendance (such as a test or quiz) to ensure that attendees are indeed participating. This is particularly important if the conference offers CE credits.
  1. Provide presenters for chat rooms/discussion after the recorded presentations.
  1. Explain the benefits and process of virtual conferences; focus on the positives!
  1. Allow for breaks between sessions and sufficient time for chat room discussions.
  1. Plan, plan and plan.