The Ballad of the 2020 Annual Conference

Ahh, 2020. Say what you want about it, but it hasn’t been boring. Midwest Chapter was one year into planning our 2020 annual conference, which was to have taken place in October in Bloomington, Indiana, when the COVID-19 pandemic crashed into all our lives. In the early pandemic days of March and April, it seemed like things were changing daily. As the Annual Meetings Chair for Midwest Chapter, I was nervously thinking about all the planning we had already done for the fall, and about the high-liability contract we were in with the conference venue. It began with me thinking “everything will probably be back to normal in October so an in-person conference is probably fine, right?” to “THINGS WILL NEVER BE NORMAL AGAIN AAAAAAAGGGGHHH!!!!” 

Once it became clear that COVID-19 wasn’t a momentary bump in the road and that an in-person 2020 conference in Bloomington wasn’t viable, Midwest Chapter halted the in-person planning and shifted our focus to solving the immediate problem of hosting a 2020 annual conference during a pandemic. The decision to cancel Midwest’s in-person meeting was made by the conference planners and the Executive Board in April 2020. The Bloomington venue was great to work with and agreed to move our dates forward a year, to October of 2021, without any financial liability. The 2020 Bloomington planning committee graciously agreed to pause the planning and pick up again later, so as to not waste all the work that had already been done.

Now that we weren’t holding an in-person conference, the logical next step was to plan a virtual conference, but we had never done that as a chapter. Early planning for a joint Midwest/Midcontinental Chapter in-person annual conference in 2021 was already underway, and in a stroke of luck, Midcontinental Chapter was already several months into the process of planning their regularly-scheduled biannual virtual conference in October of 2020. The two chapters chose to leverage the existing relationship and collaborative spirit, and Midcontinental invited Midwest to join their virtual conference for 2020, less than six months before the planned event. 

Midwest Chapter members quickly stepped up and volunteered for various committees and leadership roles. See the full list on the conference site. Although a relative newcomer, Sarah Jane Brown bravely volunteered to be the conference co-chair from Midwest Chapter, and she provided excellent leadership and representation for our Chapter. Both chapters adapted quickly to merge existing conference plans and develop a new roadmap for the 2020 conference

In addition to combining committees and volunteer groups, the two chapters expanded programming to represent both chapters’ interests, and sought out robust technologies to support a larger group. The combined conference was much more complex than what Midcontental had initially been planning, so we were all in uncharted territory. Additionally, each chapter has distinct bylaws, funding rules, and conference practices that required coordination and compromise to create a successful joint virtual conference in a condensed time frame. 

A decision was also made to significantly reduce the cost of attendance (charging only $25 for registration) and open the invitation beyond membership of the two chapters in order to provide an engagement opportunity to the broader profession.

So, how did it go?

Since it was such a short turnaround and we’d never done it before, I would have been satisfied with “it wasn’t a total disaster.” Happily, we did much better than that. The result of this collaboration was a successful conference that engaged both chapters, and the creation of a robust framework for joint or single virtual conferences that each chapter will be able to utilize in the future. The experience with this successful new model is especially useful for Midwest Chapter, which has been examining its annual meeting model and looking for ways to increase accessibility, both in terms of travel and costs, to members distributed over the chapter’s large geographic area.

In addition to making this quick change out of necessity due to the pandemic, the change in format made the conference more affordable and accessible to a wider swath of membership as travel was not needed. The online format also made it possible for the planning committee to draw from a larger pool of extremely talented presenters and panelists that would have otherwise been unable to travel to an in-person conference, therefore affording members from both chapters the opportunity to learn from nationally recognized voices on timely and relevant topics. 

Feedback has been critical in helping us understand what elements of the conference were most successful and where we can improve the virtual experience in the future. The conference evaluation responses showed that attendees were highly satisfied with the conference overall. Nearly 95% of respondents indicated that they were satisfied with or very satisfied with the conference programming, and 97% indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the conference technology, accessibility, and logistics. Thoughtful feedback and engagement from conference participants has helped shape our reusable model for virtual conferences in the future. 

The virtual format was more economical, thereby allowing more members the opportunity to participate and pursue CE credit. Midcontinental and Midwest held a joint conference in-person in 2016 and the registration totalled 147; registration for the 2020 event was 249. This significant increase in the number of attendees is an indicator of expanded accessibility. Members were able to attend and engage with the conference without the burden of travel, allowing them to attend to the ever-changing professional and personal responsibilities as needed. The online conference also allowed for participants from a much larger geographical area than is possible for most in-person conferences. The conference accounting isn’t quite finalized yet, but Midwest Chapter will likely make a few thousand dollars in profit from our portion of the proceeds.

What’s next?

Work is still being done to make the recordings from the conference available to attendees, and the final report is being prepared. The co-chairs were all pleasantly surprised (read: shocked) at how well things went, considering the innumerable opportunities for things to go wrong. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but we learned SO MUCH and have a wealth of information and ideas to pass along to planners of another virtual conference. As someone who admittedly was Team In-Person Conference Only in pre-pandemic times, I am now wholly on board with a virtual conference as a viable alternative, especially when we can apply what we learned to improve the social experience next time.

And that’s good, because, in news that will probably surprise no one, 2021 is plagued with uncertainty as well. We have been gathering data and weighing options to help us make a decision about what our 2021 conference will look like, with the goal to make an announcement and start planning by January. Stay tuned, but hopefully you can rest in the confidence that even if we can’t get together in person right now, we can still provide an enriching, engaging conference experience for Midwest Chapter members.

I continue to be dazzled by and grateful for my colleagues in Midwest Chapter. Thank you all for helping our conference to be a success, and for your tireless spirit of innovation and collaboration. Actually, tireless might not be quite accurate, because I can confirm that the planners are all still very tired. Nevertheless, we persist!

Submitted by Liz Weinfurter, Annual Meetings Committee Chair; Co-Chair, Joint Midcontinental/Midwest Chapter MLA 2020 Annual Conference

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