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Conference Management in the COVID-19 Environment

The EvoLLLution | Conference Management in the COVID-19 Environment
Although travel is cancelled for the unforeseeable future, conferences can still be held—and at a large scale at that—and still remain effective and efficient.

Travelling in 2020 has been cancelled for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean conferences have to stop. Along with webinars, conferences provide colleagues, students and community members valuable information and education that they don’t usually see at home. With the right system in place, conferences can be just as successful and easy to manage, even in the remote environment. In this interview, Peg Hanssen discusses the continuation of conferences and webinars in the remote environment, how they can be effective and the benefits of providing these events during this time.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How many virtual conferences have been hosted by the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry since social distancing guidelines came into effect?

Peg Hanssen (PH):  During March, April and May, we offered a total of 17 webinars attended by dental professionals worldwide. 15 of them were free webinars, two were paid webinars offered at a reduced fee to help laid-off dental professionals experiencing financial difficulties due to COVID-19 mandated shutdowns.

Evo: Were these events that you’d previously planned that had to be transitioned into a new modality, or were they built from scratch to be responsive to the environmental change?

PH: As soon as the shutdown was mandated, we developed 15 free webinars from scratch. We knew that we needed to do something to help our customers during this time, allowing for staff training while offices were closed and completing continuing education courses online.

Initially, one of our May events was supposed to run as a live session and be broadcast simultaneously via Zoom. Due to the shutdown, we transitioned this course to a live, reduced fee, online teleconference.

Created specifically to address dental offices reopening once the mandate was lifted, the second reduced fee webinar was developed: “Returning to Work in the Era of COVID-19: New Realities in Infection Control.”

Evo: Were you offering credentials upon completion, like certificates of completion or attendance credentials?

PH: We provide certificates of completion; our conferences do not offer university credit but are for professional development and re-licensure requirements only. We send individual certificates of completion to our participants within 48 hours of the webinar. The process takes up a significant amount of staff time, but we feel it enables good PR. Individual certificates are created as a Google document and included as a PDF attachment sent via email by a member of our team.

Evo: Have you historically run a lot of virtual events, or is this really new territory given the situation we’re in today?

PH: Three years ago, we didn’t offer virtual events. Our new director set a goal to provide both live, in-person training, and simultaneous Zoom webinars. The intent was to serve a broader market, especially out-of-state dental professionals in underserved areas who found it difficult to travel to the Twin Cities to attend our courses. Meeting this goal turned out to be exceptionally fortuitous. We had the technology and the process in place to offer webinars before we found out that we would have to convert solely to virtual events.

Typically, our biggest strength as a university-based continuing dental education provider is our hands-on courses. These courses allow our participants to work with equipment and materials, whether on a dental model, typodont or patient. We’ve been unable to run a hands-on course since the social distancing guidelines have been implemented and anticipate that we will be able to run very few in the coming academic year. We have to consider social distancing guidelines for our participants, and we’re also faced with limited access to clinic and lab space in the dental school. The dental school’s primary focus is to train students, and this pandemic restricts our access to training spaces due to the 6-ft distancing rule.

We also have to consider that our customers come from all over the world and what could happen if one of them brought a COVID-19 case into the school and shut down operations.

There are many factors we’re facing in the current environment that are likely to leave us in the virtual market for the next academic year.

Evo: What is the responsibility and some of the benefits that an institution might gain from taking the lead on offering these free events and webinars to folks that need them in your professional scope?

PH: From our first webinar in March to our May COVID-19 conference, we’ve seen a lot of new traction come out of the virtual events we offered. We have reached over a thousand new customers who can become paying clients for future CE courses. Not only was offering free CE webinars good PR for us, but it was also good PR for the school and a way to promote the faculty who presented these programs.

We also created free training opportunities for School of Dentistry employees, allowing them to complete training and development as well as fulfill CE requirements while they were no longer able to work in the clinics. Our CDE Anytime online training courses were opened to School of Dentistry students to help them fulfill academic requirements while having to work and study from home.

This business model provided vast amounts of exposure to useful information at a time when dental offices and staff were struggling. People were looking for ways to stay engaged and not spend additional money (either personally or through the business). For students, it was about exposing them to what CDE can do for them throughout their careers.

It was a win-win all the way around. I’m glad we did it and invested the time and effort in the tremendous amount of work it took to pull off 17 webinars in three months.

Evo: Have you observed any major differences in launching and managing virtual-only events compared to the in-person events that you’ve historically ran?

PH: We haven’t, no. We use the Conference Manager module in DORS to allow our participants to register online and to allow us track attendance. We can pull lists of attendees and import the data into MailChimp, using MailChimp to send email reminders, announcements of upcoming training opportunities and final details on how to log in and join the webinar. That part of the process hasn’t changed.

We run all of our webinars through Zoom, using the university’s technology license. For several of the webinars we ran this spring, our numbers were over the university’s license limit of 500. We contract with a media company that runs the Zoom technology during webinars and used their license for up to 1,000 attendees, allowing us to increase our attendance limit to 1,000. This was huge for us.

To enhance our processes for virtual conferences, I’m currently working on how to use the conference manager to download a list of participants and import the information into Zoom. The goal is to streamline the registration tracking process versus those who attend the program. 

Evo: How effective has the conference manager tool been in supporting the operations around launching and managing the events that you’ve done over the last quarter? 

PH: The most significant benefit is the ability to copy a conference. Many of the conferences offered this spring had the same number of credit hours, types of participants and registration packages. All I needed to do was change the title, date and internal financial accounting information. It saved a tremendous amount of time.

Evo: How important is it that customers had a seamless experience in this free engagement to make sure that when the opportunity comes up to work with them again, to make sure they actually convert?

PH:  I don’t think there’s any difference between free and paid registration. Our level of quality and our level of service is the same, regardless. It’s who we are, and it’s what we do—and it’s the standard that we hold ourselves to. I would say it’s critically important from the day when someone contacts us that their experience is exceptional until the end.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about your experience managing and launching all of these offerings of the last few months?

PH: I could not have done it without the CDE team and my DORS colleagues at the U of MN. Our department experienced some challenging times as everyone transitioned to working remotely. We had to react quickly to the need to cancel all of our live courses and develop the new webinars. The DORS team at the UMN was extremely supportive and understanding of the difficulties we faced and the challenges we overcame. They were integral to our success, and I can’t thank them enough.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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