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"We did see a big drop-off in sponsors and exhibitors saying, 'Well, I don't want to do this. I don't want to do a virtual thing.' Now they're actually calling us back."

Nicole Hodson is the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.  In this interview, she shares how her team has made a rapid transition from putting on a physical conference to running a remote one.

Connect with Nicole on LinkedIn
HealCon
The National Association of Nutrition Professionals

Key Takeaways

  • Getting buy-in on switching to virtual was relatively easy for Nicole because continuing education credits needed to be available for their members and the conference is a primary mechanism for them to get that education.
  • Rather than using attending and engagement as a qualifier for CE's, NANP is running free quizzes post session.
  • Nicole made the switch to virtual after people had registered for physical.  But she was able to retain more than 75% of the previous registrants by looking for ways to provide value- like free access to session recordings.
  • The change in environment has more members pursuing online education in general- it's one way people are using their downtime and NANP has seen an uptick in buying online training for certification.
  • Nicole took a cost reduction approached to pricing, subtracting out things like meals to arrive at a final price she thought was still valuable but could support NANP ($300.)
  • For people who asked for refunds, she also offered roll over to next years conference as an option.
  • There are some real cost benefits to a virtual conference, but she thinks for the first one, they'll come in about even as a physical conference because of the time invested in building the new systems and learning the applications.
  • NANP is replacing the expo hall with a set period of time of 30 minute sessions where exhibitors and sponsors present and take questions from attendees.  On the attendee side, Socio awards them points for attending the sessions and they go into a lottery for gift donations.
  • Initially, they had a hard time finding sponsors, but this has changed as marketing channels everywhere have dried up and sponsors are now very interested.
  • To build engagement, Nicole is planning on training attendees on how to connect with each other over Zoom as well as having set periods of informal chats for student members.
  • Another creative way Nicole is building engagement is by asking attendees to take selfies with a conference specific t-shirt.  This will have points associated with it as well.
  • Nicole recommends to be open minded and listen to your team.  It's a whole new world for events and requires some openness and flexibility.

Resource List

Full Transcript

Heal Con, a National Association of Nutrition Professionals event

HealCon

John Hooley:
I'm John Hooley. I'm the president of Resurgent. I'm here today with Nicole Hodson, a jazz vocalist, a passionate cook, and the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Nicole Hodson:
I'm happy to, John. Thank you.

John Hooley:
What's NANP look like? What's your membership look like?

Nicole Hodson:
We have approximately 1,300 members. We're a professional business league for holistically-trained nutrition professionals.

John Hooley:
Cool.

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah.

John Hooley:
Right now, like many associations, you're facing changes because of the COVID-19 virus, and you're transitioning some of your events to remote, right?

Nicole Hodson:
Yes. We host an annual conference every year. It's actually coming up at the end of this month, the last weekend of April, first weekend of May, so we've had to pivot to an online or a virtual event in a very, very short period of time.

John Hooley:
How's that gone?

Nicole Hodson:
Well, it's been a huge learning curve, but I have a tiny and mighty team who's really very creative and inventive. We're fortunate in that we're a virtual association anyway, my team. We don't have a brick and mortar shop, so to speak. We're all over the country, and we all work in a remote setting, so we're used to a virtual experience ourselves. From that perspective, I feel grateful because I know that there are a lot of executive directors who are not used to this kind of a working environment.

John Hooley:
Right, yeah.

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah. From a technological perspective, it can be a bit of a challenge. For us, our biggest learning curve has been that we are using a conference app for the first time, which we were planning to do anyway, but with the transition to virtual, the app became incredibly more important than we had originally intended it to be.

John Hooley:
Yeah, I bet. What's the app?

Nicole Hodson:
Socio.

John Hooley:
Socio. Why were you guys looking at it before this whole thing started?

Nicole Hodson:
Well, we came to realize that there are some of our members who enjoy that kind of experience, the virtual experience, so we wanted to be able to play to that and provide them an environment to experience that, and there was some flexibility with an app that we didn't have. For example, changes to a schedule that we wanted to let everybody know about, we can push that out through an app. Notifications about events or little breakouts that were happening where we could socially connect with people in one place instead of over a number of different social channels, the app could do that.

Nicole Hodson:
There were some attractive pieces to it anyway for us. Because we're nutrition professionals, the food at our conference is very, very important, so being able to publish a menu that people could literally look at while they were standing in the buffet line to see what the ingredients are in each dish, that's a wonderful thing instead of having to print it and give it to people. There were just a lot of benefits that we were already looking at with the app.

John Hooley:
Okay. Am I correct in understanding that, before, you were looking at using Socio to augment the physical experience?

Nicole Hodson:
Yes.

John Hooley:
Okay. Have you run remote-style events prior to this conference? I think it's called HealCon. Is that right?

Nicole Hodson:
It is. HealCon, yeah.

John Hooley:
HealCon, yeah. Have you run remote events prior to this, maybe smaller ones?

Nicole Hodson:
We have not. We do host monthly webinars through Zoom, but in terms of a large event or any kind of event, we've never done anything like this before.

John Hooley:
This is a real trial by fire.

Nicole Hodson:
Complete trial by fire, yes.

John Hooley:
What's the general feeling within your staff? Are people excited by it? Are they intimidated by it? How do you feel about it?

Nicole Hodson:
Honestly, we're kind of invigorated. The whole experience, from beginning to end, has been so interesting because, immediately, we had to really tap into our individual creative juices. Now it feels like the spigot, but you're going to have to figure out how to turn it off a little bit at some point, not quite yet. We're not there yet. Everybody's very excited and, especially, right now, with what's happening in the world, we're finding that the little tiny wins are worth so much more than they would have been because things are so bad that any one little... We brought in a sponsor today, and it was like I felt like getting up and dancing around my desk, so...

John Hooley:
Congratulations. That's great.

Nicole Hodson:
Thank you.

John Hooley:
How was the decision to switch? Because a lot of associations, I think, a lot of societies are looking at their conferences and sort of hemming and hawing a little bit and being like, "Should we make this change? Is it going to get better? Should we just cancel?" What was it to make that decision? How was that?

Nicole Hodson:
For us, I really truly felt like we didn't have an option. We're a very small association with a relatively small budget. Our annual conference represents so much of our annual income that the idea of having to just stop the whole thing and not have anything in its place, for me, wasn't an option. We never even considered it, to be frank with you. It was, "Listen, if this is going to happen and we can't do this, we're just going to pivot to virtual." It was a conversation we started having as soon as we started seeing things like... We're here in California. As soon as we started seeing shelter in place and those kinds of things, we didn't even consider canceling. It had to be virtual.

John Hooley:
Yeah. HealCon's really close, so I imagine there was some pressure to, "Let's make a decision."

Nicole Hodson:
It was very dicey there, absolutely, because we had a contract in place. We needed to make sure that we weren't going to have any fiduciary responsibility associated with that, so as soon as we did get the shelter in place, that it had to be a very quick decision, yes.

John Hooley:
Did you have to bounce it off a board? Did you have to get people...

Nicole Hodson:
Yes.

John Hooley:
People's buy-in?

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah. I had to go to my executive board and explain what was happening. They were very, very supportive of pivoting to the virtual. Our organization provides continuing education units for our event. Our members need those units to be able to renew their membership each year. The educational component, we just didn't want to leave people in the lurch. Our speakers, our sponsors, our exhibitors, we really wanted to continue to provide an experience for them.

John Hooley:
That sounds like a good scenario. You're incentivized to make it happen because your revenue is coming from it. Your board's incentivized to make it happen because they represent the membership who needs this. Your membership wants it because they need it.

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah.

John Hooley:
That makes it a lot easier to make things move forward.

Nicole Hodson:
Yes, yes.

John Hooley:
Did you already have registrants for a physical conference?

Nicole Hodson:
We did. We did, yes.

John Hooley:
What was the impact of moving to virtual? How did people respond to that?

Nicole Hodson:
When we moved virtual, we actually reduced the price quite a bit for the conference, and then we also threw in some things for free. The way that we're handling our continuing education units... Live in person, we would have a QR code that we would scan on the badge, and then we would provide that number of continuing education units after the event was over.

Nicole Hodson:
With this event type of event, we can't really guarantee engagement, so what we've asked our speakers to do is provide us with a quiz that we're then putting into a testing environment, and we're providing that for free. We're providing recordings of all of the sessions for free. We've tried to add value to be able to retain as many of our attendees as possible. I think that, when all is said and done, we're probably going to retain about 75% of our attendees.

Nicole Hodson:
We're providing the option for refunds between the difference of what they paid originally versus what we're charging now, and they can either get that money back or they can roll it over into other services or products or into next year's conference registration. I'm really very happy with what I'm seeing in terms of the number of people who are opting to roll those dollars over into other things with the association.

John Hooley:
That's a very interesting option. It's a very smart way to approach it, I think. In terms of why people are rolling it over, why they're open to rolling it over, is it because they know they're going to spend the money anyway? Is it because they're trying to support the NANP or this is the time to be supportive? Combination?

Nicole Hodson:
Well, what's interesting is we also offer a board certification exam. We're finding that people have a lot of extra time on their hands now, and a lot of those dollars are being rolled into buying the application for the board exam and buying the board exam. I think people are taking advantage of this downtime to study. That's actually where we're seeing a lot of the dollars are going into our board exam.

John Hooley:
Okay, so they're getting their education credits knocked out. They're rolling it right into the board exam and keeping on with the learning.

Nicole Hodson:
Yes.

John Hooley:
What was the price change? What did you start off with for the physical event, and where'd you end up with the virtual event?

Nicole Hodson:
Well, we had a variety of price ranges. We had a preregistration price, an early bird price, a regular price. There's a member price. There's a non-member price. We had all kinds of different prices. I would say the average refund is around $300.

John Hooley:
Okay. In terms of members going to the virtual conference, what's that price point at right now?

Nicole Hodson:
299.

John Hooley:
299? Okay. To you, does that price feel right? I know, when you make this sort of pricing decision, it's seems sort of... There's not anything to anchor it. It's not arbitrary, but there's no... If you haven't done it before, this is the first time. You don't know what the value is. You don't know how people will respond. There's no other models. You think that that was the right price point to end up on?

Nicole Hodson:
I think so, and because of everything that you just said, you're right. How do you value something like this? We really had to look at what we've offered in the past and how we could value that and kind of back into it, in a way.

Nicole Hodson:
At our conference, we provide five meals, full meals, plus a reception. The meals are all organic, locally-sourced. They're not inexpensive meals. A big portion of what we've traditionally charged for has actually been the food and beverage. When we pulled that amount out, we still needed to compensate our staff for their time, make sure that we have everything that we need on our end technologically to pull this thing off. We hope that we've done a good job in pricing it. Of course, time will tell, hopefully.

John Hooley:
Right, yeah. I think a big change like this, if you don't have an existing model, a lot of it, you start somewhere, and then you optimize. You say, "This was too much or too little," and you work your way to the right.

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah, yeah.

John Hooley:
In terms of the costs, how do the costs look compared to running a physical conference? Because there's a huge amount of work? Like you said, the meal preparation.

Nicole Hodson:
Yes.

John Hooley:
How are the costs changing for you?

Nicole Hodson:
I mean the costs went way, way down for us, of course, because we're not paying for meals, we're not paying for travel. There's so much that goes into just even getting our supplies to the conference for our staff to use, not having to buy badges. The list goes on and on and on. From that perspective, we're looking pretty good.

Nicole Hodson:
That said, we've done a lot of refunds, of course, so we didn't feel that we could charge our sponsors and exhibitors the way that we had for a live event, so we did a lot of refunds or rollovers for next year for that as well. We'll see, at the end, where we land.

John Hooley:
Where it comes down?

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah, yeah.

John Hooley:
What about in terms of the work of your staff? Is it more work to run a virtual or is it more work to run the physical? About the same?

Nicole Hodson:
I think, this year, because we have never done anything like this before, it's almost going to be a little on the even side, probably not fully. I don't need to engage my entire team for that entire weekend, and I don't need to pay for them to travel to where we're going. From their time perspective, it's not as much of a commitment.

Nicole Hodson:
That being said, there's been a big learning curve on the technology side. Everybody's spending a little bit more time understanding Socio, understanding how their part is going to play. We're in the throes, right now, of trying to figure out what is our expo game going to look like, and how is it going to work? We're having to develop a webinar for our members to show them... our attendees, to show them how to engage with the app. We're spending time doing things that we normally wouldn't do, but then we're also not spending time and money on things we normally would do.

Nicole Hodson:
We're not printing a program. It's going to be a PDF, so that doesn't need to go outside to a print shop, come back for proof, and then go back out for print. You know what I mean? So...

John Hooley:
Yeah.

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah.

John Hooley:
Yeah, that makes sense. I could see there are some startup costs, right, and the true costs really won't be known until you do it the second or third time.

Nicole Hodson:
Yes.

John Hooley:
In terms of the trade show, you mentioned you're using a game app to do that. Is that right?

Nicole Hodson:
Socio actually has a gamification aspect to it. We're just trying to figure out what kind of a game we want to have. The system has the capacity to provide points to attendees for certain things.

Nicole Hodson:
What we've done with our exhibit time is we have a three-hour chunk of time on the first day of the conference that we've traditionally referred to as an icebreaker where we would normally send people into the expo hall to meet with our exhibitors. We're taking that period of time, and we're breaking it up into half-hour sessions. For each of my team members who has a Zoom license, they'll host a meeting for our sponsors and exhibitors. In that meeting, the sponsor or exhibitor can show a video about a product or their services, and then they'll be able to answer questions from our attendees who go into that meeting. That's how we're handling our expo hall and-

John Hooley:
So it's-

Nicole Hodson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative)?

John Hooley:
It's almost like an industry session. They're allowed to advertise or do whatever they want within that period of time, but...

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah.

John Hooley:
Then, on their side, somebody attends that. They get a gamification point similar to how they would go in the expo hall and give somebody their business card and, say, like, okay, now they've done that. They're in for the lottery or some sort of reward or...

Nicole Hodson:
Yes. Yeah.

John Hooley:
Okay.

Nicole Hodson:
We already have gift donations. We've got companies that are very excited to get their products out to people. For the winners of the game, we already have prizes and gifts that we'll be sending them.

John Hooley:
Nice. In terms of difficulty in bringing on people to the trade show on that side of things, has that been a harder sell? Has it been the same?

Nicole Hodson:
Well, it's been an interesting experience because, when this all first happened, we were in the throes of even just trying to figure out what we were going to do. We did see a big drop-off in sponsors and exhibitors saying, "Well, I don't want to do this. I don't want to do a virtual thing." Now they're actually calling us back. I think that the reality of our global situation is starting to hit them, and they're starting to realize that if they don't participate in at least a virtual experience, they're going to miss out on the opportunity to get their products and services in front of people period.

Nicole Hodson:
I think that the reality is really starting to set in. Like I mentioned earlier, we got a new sponsor today. I honestly wasn't sure we were going to get anybody new, so seeing that happen is really telling me that people are coming around and saying, "No, listen, we got to do something."

John Hooley:
It's really interesting because it's similar to you and your staff. People are having to get creative, and so the landscape has changed, which means that there is less opportunities, but there's also new opportunities to replace the opportunities that you've lost. It seems like the sponsors and exhibitors might be cluing into that and looking for ways to reach people.

Nicole Hodson:
Yes, absolutely.

John Hooley:
That's great. In terms of engagement among attendees, do you have anything planned for that? Because in a real conference, in a in-person conference, not a real conference, they're both real, but in a physical conference, one of the big draws is you see your friends that you haven't seen in a year. You exchange knowledge, what's working, what's not work working. Have you a plan in place to replace that? Do you think you can?

Nicole Hodson:
We do have a plan. We have a, really, kind of a twofold plan, at this point, and we're working on some other ideas too. We have a lot of students, nutrition students who attend our conference. At our physical conferences, we have a student ambassador, and she has a whole team of people who volunteer their time to talk to students about the industry and how they can mentor them and help them, what kinds of questions they have.

Nicole Hodson:
Because we won't be in person, we're going to be setting up our student ambassador and her team with Zoom meetings throughout that weekend so that students can go in and just ask questions or just meet people. It won't be in a webinar setting where they can't share their video. It'll be in a meeting setting where they can share video and they can actually see one another. I think that's very, very important for them.

Nicole Hodson:
For our other attendees, that webinar that I was talking about where we're going to teach people how to use Zoom, that's going to be a big, big focus of how you can connect with your friends and chatting with them and sharing pictures with them. We sell a conference-specific t-shirt every year. We're going to ask people to take selfies and post them and share them with one another, and we're looking at other creative engagement ideas.

John Hooley:
That t-shirt, is that going to all attendees before the remote conference starts or...

Nicole Hodson:
It will be, yeah. It's a fundraiser for us, so we have been selling it for a few weeks now. Once the campaign is over, they'll ship the t-shirts to everyone. They should have them about a week before the event. I think we're actually even going to roll in the selfie and the t-shirt into the game. You get points. If you take a picture of yourself in our t-shirt, you're going to get 500 points or something like that toward the game, so...

John Hooley:
Nice.

Nicole Hodson:
Yeah.

John Hooley:
For the students and those topics you're doing throughout or the sessions you're doing throughout the conference, are there topics for those sessions? Is it, "We're going to have a discussion about X at 3:00 on Tuesday?"

Nicole Hodson:
We're still fleshing that out. Traditionally, we host a couple of hours worth of round-table discussions. This year, we were planning a panel discussion. We felt that this type of environment might be a little challenging for a panel, so we're still trying to figure out if we want to just take those topics and do what you just said, split them out and just have one half-hour, 45-minute session about this one particular topic and then do that throughout the conference.

John Hooley:
Okay. Okay, I think we've covered all of the questions I can think of. Is there anything that you would say in terms of something that you weren't aware of or something you would recommend to somebody facing this situation?

Nicole Hodson:
To someone facing this situation, I would say just be open-minded because it's a whole new world. You have to really listen to your team. They'll have some great ideas. Be open to the ideas and just try and figure out how you can make them work. We're not 100% there yet. We're still working on it ourselves. In a few weeks, we'll maybe have the answers, but for right now, I would say just be open-minded and flexible. We have to be nimble at these times.

John Hooley:
I like that. That's great advice. I was talking to somebody who directs a food pantry. She told me what she called AJ's rule, which is you have to be flexible or you're going to get bent out of shape.

Nicole Hodson:
I like that.

John Hooley:
It's good for where we're at right now.

Nicole Hodson:
It is. It is, absolutely.

John Hooley:
All right, Nicole. Well, thank you so much for sharing your experience and what you've learned so far with everybody.

Nicole Hodson:
Thanks, John. Thanks for having me.