“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
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