Blind Bargains

5 Considerations for Running a Virtual National Convention during COVID-19

Today, the National Federation of the Blind announced that this year's national convention, originally held in Houston, will now be held in a virtual format. The American Council of the Blind made a similar decision last week. But what exactly will this mean?

Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 has caused us to quickly adapt to a world without face-to-face interactions. That has led to hundreds of virtual discussions, remote meetings, and Email chains, but a national convention is much more than a large meeting, and the challenges that will be in front of NFB and ACB as they determine how to best stage a virtual event are numerous. Here's a few considerations that immediately come to mind.

1. Attendance May be the largest Ever

Conventions are attended each year by thousands, but they can be expensive, and often cost-prohibitive for people to attend. A week's worth of travel, hotel rooms, and meals can easily reach $1,500 or more depending on personal and family preferences. With no travel necessary, this barrier is essentially eliminated. in addition, NFB has announced that registration for the convention will be free.

This may very well lead to more people attending at least some part of the convention than ever before. Notice I said some part. While it's easy to imagine the total number of participants to be higher, the number that will choose to sit through a general session or longer meetings may be lower. Many others may choose to use sessions and other speeches as background material while they do other things.

I would also expect for there to be a lot more crossover, in other words, people attending both conventions. The virtual formats will allow for a variety of ways to participate. People may think much less about their affiliation with either organization and more about the topics of the individual events. ACB is having their convention first, and if ACB and NFB feature speakers from the same company or organization as often is the case, ACB may have a leg up here by hosting a week earlier. NFB may have an additional challenge to keep events relevant and provide a unique program to its members and guests. Conversely, if ACB decides to charge for convention, NFB may benefit from offering free registration.

2. It's Going to be a Logistical Behemoth

NFB and ACB have lots of experience in planning large events, but hosting a convention for thousands remotely is a rather new challenge. The NFB hosted a live presidential release last week which was shared with several hundred people, which perhaps is a taste of what's to come. The typical Zoom meeting isn't designed for such a large group. In fact, Zoom’s large rooms are advertised as being available for up to 1,000 people, which may not be enough for a banquet speech or other large event. In addition, Zoom's audio quality is often subpar, and is not ideal for large, 1-to-many, events.

Google, Apple, and other large organizations have streamed their in-person conference’s for years, while others have found ways to provide high-quality audio and video to a large crowd. Perhaps, instead of a $50,000 sponsorship, one of these companies can help to manage the logistics of delivering content to a large audience in a format that is both understandable and manageable. I don't think Zoom is that solution, especially for large sessions. YouTube Live would allow for higher audio quality and for managed presentations, though a way for questions to be submitted would be needed.

Speaking of large crowds, crowds breed trolls – people who show up with the single goal of ruining the event for others through verbal, visual, or other disruptive tactics. In person, it's easier to manage someone that tries to disrupt a room, but in an online format, there are many more ways for trolls to manifest themselves. NFB and ACB will need to find a balance that allows for active participation from members and guests while keeping out undesirables

3. Exhibitors and Small Business will Take a Hit

Speaking as a small business owner myself, the two biggest sales periods of the year for me are during the holiday season and national conventions. Now, one of the two has been wiped out, and while I know both organizations will be providing ways for companies to virtually show off their products, it's just not the same as doing a demo and selling in person. We are already providing technical demonstrations through Zoom and other platforms, and I'm not convinced that a convention can provide other ways to promote outside of more virtual demonstrations. On the organizational side, the normal rates that are charged to exhibitors are not sustainable given the lack of face-to-face time. Companies which have mastered technology may have a virtual leg up when it comes to leveraging the conventions for sales and customers.

There are others who are small business owners, makers, or entrepreneurs that derive a major part of their income from national convention. The ACB has a marketplace area outside of their General Session designed especially for these small businesses, so that is revenue that is lost and difficult to replace.

4. Elections will be Altered or canceled

The ACB constitution stipulates that elections must be held in person. NFB would be reelecting its president this year. Organizations will need to balance following their constitutions while operating under rules that make sense for the current context in time. This will also directly impact divisions who elect their leadership at convention. Do the previous members stay on? If so, then for how long? Will there be in-person elections as soon as feasibly possible, or will the incumbent gain an entire additional term? It may be possible for divisions and other smaller groups to hold a virtual meeting to elect their leadership, but this is uncharted territory, and a contingency that most constitutions do not address.

5. Adapting and Readjusting will be Key

Finally, it would not be surprising if there are some major challenges faced by ACB and NFB during the conventions, especially when trying out new formats for the very first time. Some members lack access to technology, or are uncomfortable participating using an online platform. The key will be for both the organizations and membership to quickly adapt on the fly, be flexible, and understand that we are living in a very different time. This may be one of the most memorable convention seasons ever and I commend all who are going to be working on making this all happen. Perhaps by July, we can gather with some close friends and enjoy each other's company without worry, while taking in some of the events. And hey, look on the bright side. You can choose any banquet meal you wish, and it likely won't cost you 75 bucks.

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J.J. Meddaugh is an experienced technology writer and computer enthusiast. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a major in telecommunications management and a minor in business. When not writing for Blind Bargains, he enjoys travel, playing the keyboard, and meeting new people.

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