In-person conferences were key to networking — what now?

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There will be no cocktail parties, breakfasts, lunches and dinners at this year's annual convention for the Mortgage Bankers Association. Instead of industry folks traveling to Chicago as was planned, arranging meet and greets in the exhibit halls, participants will sit in front of their computers in homes scattered across the country, thanks to the precautions created by the pandemic.

The impact hasn't been limited to the MBA, which already streamed several other events, including the National Secondary Market Conference in May. Other industry trade groups and companies, including National Mortgage News and its parent company Arizent, have been forced to bring their gatherings to a virtual world.

These online conferences have had their share of foibles, most could be classified under the generic heading of "technical difficulties." But organizers and participants are also seeing benefits to having online events that might not be possible for live shows.

So if and when the world returns to "normal," the virtual conference is likely here to stay, in one form or another, industry insiders say.

Case studies

For years, the industry and its vendors have been conducting educational events online or in conference calls. But those typically cover a single issue.

Virtual conferences aim to draw the level of engagement with the audience that differentiates them from webinars, said Patrice Power, director of marketing at Calyx Technology. The mortgage technology provider recently had its annual user conference, which presented sessions based on product offering and user levels from beginner to advanced.

"We also added some of the bells and whistles of a keynote speaker on innovation, we had a lender panel speaking to what is the situation today and how to best work with the variety of lenders that are out there," said Power. "So it was more than just an individual webinar; it was three days of completely unique content each session, there was a lot of interaction, it had the feel of a live event."

But at past live events, there were more sessions that echoed the content at other industry meetings. The Calyx virtual event allowed for discussions that were differentiated from each other and from what’s been offered by competitors, Power said.

"The core of what our users want — they have enough of those kinds of experiences — they want to train their people," Power said.

A convention in the virtual space had another benefit, for Calyx and organizers of other such events: a wider ranging group of people are able to participate as compared with a physical meeting.

Because virtual conferences don't require travel, they are able to bring in speakers who for schedule or cost reasons, are not able to do a live show, said Don Curtis, the senior vice president of business development at OSC, a Breckenridge company. Besides attending conferences on behalf of OSC, Curtis is on the board of the California Mortgage Bankers Association, and was part of the planning for the group's recent Western Secondary Market conference, which took place on Sept. 23 and 24.

This conference is typically held in July at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in the Union Square area of San Francisco. Unlike a user conference, the Western Secondary, along with the MBA Secondary, which for many years has been held at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square in New York, are among the conferences where attendees, both registered and unregistered, come to make connections and discuss business.

"At a virtual conference, how do you do that?" Curtis said. "Because you don't have everybody going to a session, [in which] they're there seeing other people. So we talked about how we could have networking involved with a virtual conference."

To address the issue, the conference portal at CMBA's Western Secondary Market offered a radio button labeled networking.

Those registered were able to go in two or three days before the conference, see other attendees, a description of their company and job duties and their pictures if they were submitted. They were able to reach out to attendees at any time and ask to schedule a call before, during or after the conference.

"It also allows you to click on the video feature, so if that person is online and you wanted to do a video call with them, you can do that as well through the portal," Curtis said. "It allows someone ... see all the attendees and to pick and choose who you want to reach out to. And you can get the communication back and forth."

But from the vendor perspective, a key component to a conference is tracking attendee participation in the planned sessions. "But if you are doing a virtual for the first time, how do you gauge that?" said Jim Paolino, the CEO of Lodestar Software Solutions. "And then when you're trying to bring in an exhibitor, how do you say, this many people are going to be here, this type of person is going to be here and all of that?"

Still, Paolino had a good experience while presenting at NEXT, a technology conference for women in the mortgage industry, which took place from Aug. 23 through 25. While some things have changed in a virtual world for the vendor, a whole lot of things haven't, Paolino said, "and these opportunities are just what you make out of them."

The technical component was pretty easy, he said, noting that the format included prerecorded interviews and demos.

But the live interaction came in the form of a chat "and you're really not able to see the reactions of everyone in the same way. So you definitely miss those kind of organic bump-ins, waiting in line for food, waiting at the bar, those where maybe not a lot of business is done per se, but a lot of connections are formed," Paolino said. "And that's something that a lot of us miss about the conferences."

His traditional response to how successful a conference has been for Lodestar is "ask me in a month," once other attendees might’ve followed up after engaging with his company during the conference.

"And I still feel that way after this conference," Paolino said. "Whether something's virtual or not, you have to do your homework. You have to make sure you're in the right room in terms of a lot of people that are there, you have to follow up. You have to do all of those things regardless if it's virtual or not."

In the era of live events, those in the field had to be selective about participation. MarketWise Advisors CEO Jordan Brown noted between the cost and time commitment for going to a conference, he would have to pick and choose the ones to attend. Furthermore, while attending, most of his time is filled up with meetings, so he rarely, if ever, gets a chance to attend the conference sessions.

Attending a virtual conference, of which he has done several, including NMN's Digital Mortgage Conference in September, "has enabled me to really participate and listen it to a tremendous number of opinions and really get a flavor for what's going on in the sessions that I would not attended had I done the meeting in person."

However, on the negative side, "as a vendor within the space, I leverage the conferences as a touch point with both existing clients and new clients," Brown said. "While the marketplace was nice in terms of the ability to get demos, you really lose a lot of the networking and the personal contact towards the generation of new business."

Recreating the live experience

Still, some conference organizers did their best to try and recreate that exhibit hall experience.

There were two ways at the NEXT conference to interact, which Paolino said worked pretty well. One was the live chat, which allowed Lodestar to successfully engage people, he said.

"The other thing that we did is that we had a raffle prize; to have a chance to win the raffle you had to send us an email," said Paolino. "So people emailed from that and that was where we were able to get a number of follow ups as well." The raffle was encouraged by the NEXT organizers, he added. Such raffles are a staple of the live conference exhibit hall experience.

At Western Secondary, the California MBA had more than the usual number of exhibitors at its virtual event, said Curtis. The conference featured a scavenger hunt. If someone sits in on a session, they can see a code and get points for it if they register it; and the same is true with the exhibit hall. Furthermore all of the exhibitors are live online, with their own virtual meeting rooms.

"So we've got it set up just like, almost a real conference, where you can watch a demo, you can talk to the exhibitors, you can visit the exhibit hall virtually to see what they do and how they do it," Curtis said.

However, MarketWise Advisors’ Brown pointed out that if a vendor is not a participant in a virtual conference's marketplace, "it doesn't work at all" because you miss out on the face-to-face networking that occurs in the hallways, exhibit hall aisles and bars and coffee shops, during the cocktail hours and the like.

And the opportunity to speak with those that don't register for the event but come in just to take meetings is also lost.

"It's the trade-off for all of the positives here," Brown said. "Conferences are one of the key business development opportunities all vendors have."

Even when conditions return to pre-COVID normalcy, fully virtual conferences, as well as hybrid events, will likely have their place in the meeting calendar.

For Calyx, the user conference remaining a virtual meeting in the future is a matter of serving its constituents' needs.

Calyx’s adoption of a virtual conference was not COVID-19 driven, Power said. "We had started researching doing an online or virtual conference last year, because the feedback from our customers was that larger customers have dozens to hundreds of users and they could send, between the travel and the time away from the office, a select few to a physical conference." They wanted a more concentrated training event where more of their staff were able to participate.

Still, creating a virtual conference is "a lot from a planning perspective," said Power. "We expected a virtual conference, because you're not dealing with travel and hotels and all the logistics involved with a physical conference, we thought it would be much, much simpler. But it's not. The complexity of all the elements that you have to incorporate to be successful is as involved as an onsite conference."

The California MBA is looking at a hybrid model for some of its meetings, Curtis said, noting that in person shows do support hotels and jobs.

"I think we feel that a hybrid solution is a beneficial one because from this virtual aspect of it, we're seeing a lot more companies and people signing up and attending that normally would not go because they're in different parts of the country or it doesn't fit their expense constraints, etc.," he said "So we're getting a bigger reach for new association potential membership and exposure."

A hybrid solution allows for in-face activity, "which everybody wants and I think we need," but still the video portion allows for attendees for all across the country, he added.

From Paolino's point of view, the organizers have to be on the ball to get him to attend a virtual conference in the future. "To the extent that they can clearly explain the value and we're going to get from it, I would push that. Just like the conference in person," he said.

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