Let’s Get Virtual

Laura Laing

This year has been <insert pandemic pun/allusion/hyperbole/cliché here>!

I’m going to be real with you: I’m tired of the metaphors, the platitudes. I’m tired of turning negatives into positives. I’m just plain tired. And I’m guessing that I’m not alone. It’s tough to feel optimistic in the face of such uncertainty.

All signs point to another pandemic peak—a second or a third, depending on how you’re counting. That’s terrible news, of course, and it signals that this “new normal” that the scientists were touting nine months ago is a reality. This week, I purchased a standing desk and a walking treadmill, because I won’t be getting back to normal exercise for a while. I’m about to cut out and sew another collection of cloth masks. And ASJA just announced that our 2021 annual conference will be virtual.

Honestly? I’m very glad for that last bit of news. Three months ago, our conference chair, Kristine Hansen, was planning two annual conferences for 2021: one in person and the other virtual. The idea of having to prepare for both possibilities was overwhelming, but with so much uncertainty, there simply wasn’t another option.

Luckily, ASJA’s management company, Kellen, negotiated a truly remarkable deal with Marriott. We were able to cancel our reservations with the hotel with zero penalties. Suddenly, Kristine’s work was cut in two, and her team can get started on planning the conference virtually.

This is good news for a lot of our members who cannot travel to New York City because it’s too far away and too expensive. Several attendees of the 2020 virtual conference hadn’t been to an ASJA conference in more than five years—and one person attended for the first time since 2006! A virtual conference also means that we can bring in experts from around the country who wouldn’t normally be able to appear on a panel or as a moderator in NYC.

In the coming months, you’ll get lots of details about our 2021 conference. We’re building on the success of our 2020 event, plus implementing some changes based on your and our staff’s feedback. Here are some of the things you shared with us in the 2020 conference survey.

“The content was good, but the other main reason to attend a conference is to interact with other participants, and this wasn’t part of the online conference.”

Networking opportunities were certainly missing from our 2020 virtual conference. During the sessions, participants were able to share ideas and ask questions in Zoom’s chat feature, and Snack Chats allowed for virtual conversations in smaller groups. But these were a far cry from the cocktail hours and impromptu meetings between sessions available at the in-person conferences. In the spring, we’ll offer a variety of networking opportunities for our attendees.

“We should be doing things like this every month!”

Yes, we should! And the last six months have demonstrated that we can. Outside of our annual and regional conferences, we’re developing plans for monthly virtual education sessions on a variety of topics, from sensitivity readers to advanced social media training to becoming a writing coach. We’re resting up a bit after a busy three months, but look for virtual content coming in November and December. (Including “Learn from the Best,” a webinar featuring four winners of our Crisis Coverage Awards: COVID-19 Edition, in conversation with awards chair, Janine Latus on November 18, 3:00 – 4:30 p.m. ET.)

In January, we hope to launch a brand-new virtual education program, and we’re looking for someone to lead this project.

“Waaaaay too many emails!”

Our staff completely agrees. We had to get our 2020 virtual conference up and running quickly, which meant that we couldn’t implement programs that would have made registration and tracking of session links much easier. By making the decision to go virtual now, we can take advantage of programs that will streamline registration and emails.

“At an annual conference, you’re usually torn between sessions you want to attend. This way, you could be at ALL sessions you felt might be valuable to you.”

Even though all of our sessions were recorded, it’s nice not to have to make choices between sessions scheduled at the same time. With our virtual conference in 2021, we’ll be able to schedule sessions so that they don’t overlap. If you purchase the full conference, you can attend each of the sessions as they happen.

And we’ll continue to offer recordings of the sessions. Eventually, these recordings will become part of ASJA’s educational hub, available to members for free and to non-members for a fee.

“I also liked the fact that the schedule was predictable: I knew that most every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I should block out [time] for the conference.”

With the pandemic, so little is predictable these days. You told us that you appreciated appointment learning. This schedule helped you manage your calendar—even just a little bit—at a time when timing is everything.

“New information and new voices are needed and welcomed.“

This feedback is evergreen, regardless of whether we gather in person or online. Kristine and her team of content-track coordinators are planning sessions based on new ideas and with new-to-ASJA moderators and panelists. If you’ve moderated or served on a panel in the recent past, we might ask you to take a break. This way, we can introduce new (and more diverse) voices to our conference attendees.

And by going virtual, we can invite experts from all over the world to offer their insight. We’re excited to develop new sessions with new-to-us faces.

Lastly: our Client Connections team is hard at work developing a very special TeleConnections program for the spring. If you’d like to volunteer for this effort, co-chairs Jeannette Hurt and Erin O’Donnell would love your help! In addition, if you know of an editor, publisher, or literary agent who would be a good fit for TeleConnections, please share those contacts! (Certain volunteers will receive the full 6,000-person Client Connections database to use for marketing and pitching. So get in touch with Jeanette and Erin quickly!)

Sometime in the next few weeks, Kristine Hansen will announce the dates of our conference, and registration will open in December. Keep your eyes peeled for these details.

I don’t think we can thank our members and volunteers enough. You all helped ASJA produce a successful 2020 virtual conference, at a time when everyone was strapped for time and resources. I have no clue what our “new normal” will be, but we’re excited to bring you another virtual conference in the spring!