Advisor Virtual Resilience Series - Virtual Conference
This article continues the Institute’s new series on Virtual Engagement Leaders and recent virtual events to examine and learn from their design and delivery experiences. An event that merits review was when White Glove – an award-winning marketing company that specializes in the planning, managing and promoting of virtual educational seminars for financial advisors – recently transformed their very successful annual Host University Conference (Host U) into a virtual conference event.
Since the need has arisen to reconceive and reformat a firm’s traditional annual gathering - originally built to maximize engagement and provide hands-on education for clients - into a new virtual experience with similar outcomes, we decided to do a deep dive and ask Evan Kramer, CEO and Lara Galloway, VP of Product Management of White Glove to share the decisions they made and how they redesigned their annual event into their first virtual conference. We feel this sharing of hard-earned experiences can help financial professionals and industry vendor partners in reconceiving and launching their own annual virtual conference event.
Hortz: What was the time frame you took from idea to launch to transform your annual Host University into a virtual conference?
Galloway: The biggest thing was that we knew we needed to connect with our advisor clients in a time when there was so much uncertainty, so much turmoil. Our business was experiencing it, their businesses were experiencing it.
We knew information on virtual engagement would be timely and that it needed to be transmitted ASAP. So, from ideation all the way to execution was about four weeks, compared to the usual months it takes for us to plan an in-person Host U.
Hortz: What first steps and design decisions did you take in building your virtual conference?
Galloway: Our annual Host University conference has always been a well-received learning experience for advisors. And, quite frankly, we realized that we needed to share with them our transformation to going virtual because we knew it was going to be key to their transformation and success in going virtual. We’re all learning how to operate in this new environment and we might as well do this together. That was our primary design decision in structuring the virtual event.
Kramer: Because of my background in online learning and education, I knew that ultimately, we needed to keep things as simple as possible for the audience. Ironically, there is a hefty amount of thought and teamwork that needs to happen behind the scenes in order to create a simple user experience.
First, this meant ensuring our platform could support potentially thousands of advisors signing on at once. Second, we needed to identify the right tools and resources to create this simple user experience. This meant aligning our team. While some departments supported Virtual Host U in the same ways they did for our in-person Host U, other departments had completely new tasks. Part of preparing for this was training our staff and bringing in some new team members to support the overall shift to virtual.
The next core step was designing the agenda and the content in a way that would keep attendees engaged over the duration of four hours, as engagement is one of the biggest differences between a virtual and in-person event. The content and the presenters are really the bones of a healthy virtual learning experience. So, we needed to take a good look at what content we had readily available, determine how that would best complement our partner presentations, and then fill in the gaps with whatever content material we did not yet have that would best serve the audience. And then, of course, thinking of the transitionary periods that went on in between presentations – when you don’t prepare for breaks, it shows!
Hortz: How did you bring in so many industry leaders and solutions providers so quickly?
Evan Kramer: This was actually one of the easier parts of planning Virtual Host U, believe it or not. Between my network comprised of many movers and shakers I was able to introduce to White Glove after joining the company, and the network White Glove had already established over the years, it was not difficult to recruit our panel of speakers. So, it was really not so much about looking at the relationships but determining which of those people are evolving with relevant virtual experiences that would best suit the Virtual Host U agenda.
When it boils down to it, it is ultimately about surrounding yourself with the right people, both as a company and as an individual professional. No one can predict what changes life will bring, so establishing yourself and your company, and partnering with others, to proactively navigate times of change is huge. Virtual Host U was definitely a testament to how the law of attraction comes into play in business.
Hortz: How exactly did you work together with your strategic partners to design the educational content and a digital approach to stay relevant?
Galloway: This was a pretty natural process. Once the pandemic hit, White Glove and the folks who helped us deliver Virtual Host University hit the ground running with finding out how to effectively reach across the digital divide and truly connect without physical human interaction. By the time to plan for Virtual Host U rolled around, it was a matter of taking stock of the data and the most effective approaches we have all taken over the previous few months and compiling it into a digestible format for our audience – the advisors who would be taking this info away and applying it to their own businesses.
Ultimately, there really are so many good things that a virtual conference can do. For instance, virtual is so efficient at the transmission of knowledge and information. With Virtual Host U, the format was simple: we had a speaker, then a five-minute break and then a giveaway. Then the next speaker came on and we had that same groove. We were able to compress time and deliver Virtual Host U in four hours, whereas normally, this event takes a couple days.
Having to give up post-event dinners, multiple days of networking and back-of-the-room conversations that helped us build rapport was tough. Some things will never be able to be made virtual, but we are all at a point where we cannot focus on that right now. It’s challenging, be we must focus on all that virtual can do.
Hortz: What were the major obstacles and how did you solve for them?
Galloway: Number one challenge was technology. But I want to stress this: when dealing with technology or events, there are always going to be challenges and setbacks, so it is really a helpful mindset to just look at them as inevitable logistics rather than as challenges.
When we first started offering White Glove webinars, we were literally beta testing and learning how to operate the virtual platform ourselves. We did not have the luxury of time to test multiple providers and learn to become subject matter experts to make sure we could optimize the experience. Quite honestly, there were some very, very rough starts. We had some challenging events that did not go as well due to technical glitches driven by user error.
I thank goodness for our clients and those who tuned into our first few B2B virtual events, because we had a fair share of tech issues, yet our attendees had so much grace. They were very forgiving. For example, there was one webinar where attendees were stuck in the virtual waiting room for almost 20 minutes because of a tech issue, but they all stuck around! That’s A LOT of grace. This is one of those times in history when so many people, across various generations, can truly say, “we’re all in this together,” and this is so true on so many different levels, but especially, technologically. Everyone kind of gets it.
However, we didn’t want this grace to turn into a crutch or an excuse for user-error. So, we chose a platform for Virtual Host University that is widely used. We wanted to make sure the majority of the users could easily access it and were comfortable with it. Then we took it a step further, called that company and asked them to give us a consultant that could work with us. We then hired that individual on a contract basis to serve as our concierge for the event, just as we provide Concierge Support for our clients on their Webinars.
Even after gathering up all our virtual experience and solid practice, we were still nervous about the thousands of registrations Virtual Host U had generated. We had concerns that we would not be able to provide the experience we wanted. So, in hiring a consultant, paying an expert to do something that we knew had to be delivered at an expert level was really a decision we were glad we had made. We do not regret spending the money for that at all. It really helped us succeed.
Hortz: What did you learn in weighing out the benefits versus challenges of hosting a virtual conference and what advice can you offer us?
Galloway: My advice: do not fear the tech. Figure out the tech and you will absolutely benefit. And your audience is going to benefit from you going virtual, 100%. Also, operationally, our team was able to allocate so much valuable focus elsewhere. The amount of time and resources it takes to pull off a successful virtual event is a fraction of an in-person event. It was a very efficient use of our time and resources.
Hortz: How will what you learned in developing and executing your virtual conference influence the direction for the future of White Glove Host U?
Galloway: I swear the minute that we wrapped up Virtual Host U, our VP of Sales said, “Wow, this was awesome. Can we do it every quarter?” And of course, we can execute these more often than we could in-person conferences. The cadence and frequency are somethings we are still considering about this new opportunity.
Kramer: For me, the biggest takeaway was how much interaction plays a role in a successful event, whether that be in-person or online. The more interaction, the better. We did a lot of things right to nurture this interaction in this first Virtual Host U, like having walk-up music before each of the speakers came on and by having charismatic emcees; anything that will heighten the energy helps drive interaction.
Knowing how effective these techniques worked with our audience has just motivated us to take it to the next level throughout future events, both in-person and virtual. We will need to keep getting creative and finding new ways to make these events equally educational and entertaining. I have learned many things in my years of online education and one of the recurring things is that engagement is not stagnant. People get bored. That’s human nature. So, I highly encourage anyone hosting virtual events to stay on top of the latest trends.
Hortz: What were the main challenges in being a virtual presenter?
Galloway: So many presenters are successful because they’re able to feed off their audience. They make eye contact and read body language to get immediate, visual feedback. For me personally, I like to talk to people before going on stage and weave my experience at the in-person event into my story. So as one of the speakers for Virtual Host U, that was harder to do. In fact, I didn’t get to do it at all this time. All I had was a tiny little camera to look into. So here I am, trying to build rapport and relate to hundreds and hundreds of attendees through this little black speck…what a mindset challenge that was!
But this is the exact kind of mindset mastery that we are working with our advisors to develop, because this is how they WILL connect with their audience across a digital divide. While it is difficult to not wonder, “Am I establishing a connection?” or, “Am I really transferring the knowledge that I want to?”, when done right, with a little guidance, it is so possible!
Hortz: Any last thoughts about what you learned through your Virtual Conference event that you would want to share with financial professionals and other industry leaders?
Galloway: There is so much uncertainty in the markets right now and client questions are not going away. If anything, their questions are magnified right now. If you are a financial professional with expertise and advice, you are a helper. Do whatever it takes to overcome any limiting mindsets you may have about virtual vs. in-person events, get out there and connect with people. Because just as we saw with Virtual Host U, people will show up. People want the information you have and they are looking for it all over the place online.
If you can host a virtual conference, a virtual seminar or just a remote meeting, that tells clients and prospects that you are willing to meet them in an environment that lets them feel safe and comfortable. You will also benefit from learning a more efficient way to grow your practice.
I would also like to share with advisors that as we were working through Virtual Host U, we realized there was so much more knowledge we wanted to impart that just would not be possible to cram into four hours (the duration of the event). By talking through it with some of our strategic partnerships Frank Maselli and Advisorist, we wound up developing a whole new offering, which is a comprehensive service we are now launching called White Glove University, a membership service for helping advisors in their professional development and event execution.
We invite advisors to explore our offering which is not just around Webinars and virtual seminars, not just around modern marketing, but practice management and developing your entire mindset for our new business operating environment. It’s a trifecta of innovation that we are really excited about.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.