RVE 201: How to Plan a Conference in 4 Days

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In today’s episode, I wanted to share a raw conversation that Alyssa and I had earlier this year after having to cancel our in-person RV Entrepreneur Summit. This is a conference we’ve put on each spring since 2017 and it was set to be our fourth and biggest year yet. 

The event is really centered around bringing together this RV entrepreneur community together in person. Sharing ideas, workshops, and talks around how we’ve made an unconventional lifestyle work. It’s typically one of our favorite weeks of the entire year. Just being able to be around so many like-minded people and we always come away with a ton of energy and excitement for the coming year.

But this year was different.

RVE Summit just happened to be scheduled for the same week the CDC declared COVID a pandemic and the NBA and MLB were shut down and everyone was scrambling to figure out what to do next. Prior to this happening, we were paying attention to the news and if you remember that week, everything ramped up more than most people would have imagined.

To set the stage, the conversation you’ll hear in today’s episode happened a week after we canceled the conference and switched to a fully virtual event. We were sitting outside at our campground in the grass and you can hear some wind and the occasional plane flying overhead, but I wanted to share some of this conversation as I’ve had some distance and time to process this moment and I feel there are some lessons I’d like to share on today’s episode.

Specifically, I wanted to talk about:

  • How to communicate during a crisis moment (whether you’re talking to customers or attendees at a conference)
  • Parkinson’s law and how our work tends to expand to fill the amount of time available for it
  • Why hosting a virtual event was anticlimactic (for us)
  • And some of the specifics of the tools we ended up using to host our virtual event (if you plan on hosting a conference)

Oh, one thing I wanted to mention. The week before our Summit kicked off, I flew to Palm Springs to speak at a Winnebago dealer event. This was the Wednesday that Tom Hanks contracted COVID and basically everything spiraled downhill fast. Not only were we going to have a make a decision about canceling our conference, but we were having to do it 3,000 miles away from each other.

Right before we pulled the plug on the conference, I was at a dinner event with Winnebago and talking with the CEO Mike Happe. Everyone was starting to feel a bit uneasy about what was going on and I asked him what he thought about us continuing with our event. He essentially told me that we were in unchartered waters. None of us had ever had to deal with a global pandemic and we were getting so much information thrown at us so quickly. I do remember he explicitly told me:

“If I was supposed to an event next week, I wouldn’t.”

During this time period, we really didn’t have a clear set of action steps. We weren’t sure what the right decision was (though it’s clear and easy to see in retrospect, as it always is), we just needed to act. 

This moment was really a lesson in practicing making decisive action. I tend to be someone who sits and ponders and asks friends and gets council and makes decisions at a slower pace. Alyssa is the one to make fast decisions and take action immediately. I had to learn to move fast, knowing that there was a chance we would make the wrong call. But making the wrong call isn’t a good enough reason to not make a decision.

We had set up a private Facebook group for our conference communication and I wanted to share the note that I posted into the group during this time, as I felt it could help shed some light on what we actually had communicated to attendees.

I clicked post on this status from my phone right before hopping on a plane. I was so unsure of how everyone would respond and people being upset. We’d already had over 100 attendees arrive on-site for pre-conference events and so many people were already on the road heading to Alabama.

Would people be mad we canceled? Would they demand their money back and then some? Would everyone hate us?

The response was overwhelmingly positive, although everyone was rightfully bummed out, but very understanding.

The morning after we canceled we hopped on a Zoom with our core team (four of us) to create a master to-do list of items to knock out. This list is essentially everything we had to do in a 4-day window to replan our entire in-person conference to be virtual:

  • Confirming all our speakers would be willing and or able to shift their talk to a virtual one—specifically our three speakers who weren’t even on the continent.
    • We ended up having ⅓ of speakers pre-record their presentation, another ⅓ call into zoom to do it live, and another ⅓ come into the studio to speak directly on camera. This format ended up working nicely as it flowed more like a live actual event but with the buffer room of having pre-recorded presentations, which you basically hit play and then are able to run around behind the scenes do some work in the background.
  • Creating new sponsorship agreements for all of our sponsors as well as integrating them into the virtual experience in a way that would still be valuable for them (and then having more calls with all of them)
  • Picking a live streaming platform to use
    • We ended up using an actual platform called Livestream that is owned and integrates with Vimeo. Our attendees had access to a page on our Teachable account where it streamed and people could comment, ask questions and we could poll everyone watching. It worked really well from a live perspective.
  • Communicating with our attendees as quickly as possible
    • This was probably what I felt was one of the biggest takeaways during this time. I was posting 2-3 daily updates in our Facebook group and the key was that it can be better to over-communicate during a time like this with less information than wait until you have it all figured out. 
  • Removing copy from our website and updating it to reflect the announcement
  • Figuring out how we could potentially integrate some of our more casual meetups into a virtual experience 
  • Reaching out to all of our vendors to see if any of our deposits were refundable
  • Deciding how we would issue refunds
  • Drinking more wine than we had originally planned

Whew. So that’s how you plan a conference in a handful of days. This period was a good reminder of Parkinson’s Law, which is that the amount of work you do stretches to the amount of time you give to do it. We didn’t have more than a few days to pull everything together and couldn’t really afford the ability to second guess decisions. We just had to make them and then hope for the best.

Listen to the full episode for all the behind the scenes drama:

Takeaways

  • When a decision needs to be made, there won’t always be a clear answer (but you still need to act). Instead of taking time to figure out the best thing to do, we defaulted to “do the next right thing” and adapt if (when) we make mistakes.
  • Parkinson’s law: Work expands so as to fill the amount of time which is available for completion. We only had 4 days to replan an entire conference and were able to get it done. We didn’t have another option. 
  • You cannot over-communicate enough with customers (and in our case, attendees) during a crisis time period. 
  • If we don’t have problems, we make them up. There’s a difference between making up a small problem and actually coming face to face with a real one. It was a great reminder of when to be grateful for little problems that we make up for ourselves.
  • Be agile. One of the recurring comments we got in response to our shift was that everyone was impressed by the speed at which we were able to move and change. 

 

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