In response to the COVID-19 pandemic Studio Art Quilt Associates opted to convert our annual conference scheduled for March 19 to 22, 2020 in Toronto to a virtual conference. This decision was made on March 6 giving us a little less than two weeks to work through the details of going virtual.
SAQA is an international organization of more than 3,600 members dedicating to promoting the art quilt. I’m the incoming president and was excited to rise the unexpected challenge of organizing a virtual conference for the organization for the first time. I’d like to share how we did it and the lessons we learned.
Experience in place
We’ve been using Zoom for four years so our staff is proficient and many members are comfortable with the platform. We also have other data management systems in place which were important for streamlining tasks. We also have an excellent Special Events Committee made up of volunteers who plan our conferences. The combination of skilled, dedicated, and experienced staff and volunteers was essential to the success of converting from an in-person to a virtual conference.
The success of the conference is due to the willingness of the team to take on the enormous task, dedicate tons of additional time, think creatively and feel confident about the potential for success.
Once the decision was made, we communicated with registered attendees, encouraged them to cancel reservations, and announced our preliminary plans to move the conference online. When the revised plans were set, registered attendees received an email offering them the choice to convert their original registration to the virtual event, receive a partial refund and attend the virtual event or a full refund and not attend the virtual event.
Another email was sent to all SAQA members offering an opportunity to register for the virtual event even if they had not planned to attend the original Toronto conference and 131 additional members opted to pay to register for the virtual conference. This was one of the biggest benefits of moving to a virtual format. Many members were able to attend our conference for first the first time including members from all over the world for whom travel to North America is prohibitively expensive.
SAQA members also understood the potential financial loss to the organization and many opted not to receive full refunds and others donated funds to cover additional costs.
Working with presenters
We contacted all of our presenters and asked them to consider doing their presentations virtually. Most agreed. Some didn’t have the technical capabilities. Some didn’t feel their content would translate virtually. We recruited some new presenters to fill the gaps in the schedule.
Conference attendees on Zoom wave at one another.
We used two Zoom links for the entire conference. We used a webinar link for presentations and a meeting link for interacting with all attendees. When using the meeting room link, all attendees could stream video and audio, though those could be controlled by the host as needed (like when someone doesn’t realize they weren’t muted and their dog was barking).
Meeting room planning
We had the meeting room link open during the lunch break between presentations and for two hours each evening of the conference to create an environment for networking, conversation and getting to know other attendees. The conference committee prepared several discussion questions ahead of time. The host shared the discussion question with the whole group then sent attendees off to Zoom break-out rooms in groups of about 10 for 20 minutes. Key volunteers were asked ahead of time to moderate the breakout rooms, making sure everyone had a chance to comment and keep the conversations going. The breakout rooms felt surprisingly intimate. We also spent some short periods of time all together in one giant meeting room with all attendees — about 170 people at most. That was fun and gave us a real sense of being all together at the event.
All presentations were recorded and will be available to registered attendees through the end of June. So if an attendee was unable to watch during the live conference period, they could still access the content later. The meeting room sessions were not recorded since those were more personal, casual and attendees had not given their permission for the sessions to be recorded.
A practice run with all presenters was important to make sure they knew how to share their screens and manage audio and video. Presenting alone from a studio or office is very different from presenting to a live audience. We wish we would have encouraged presenters to think more about this ahead of time so they could adjust as needed. Using the chat and survey functions on the Zoom platform can help involve the attendees and requires planning ahead with the tech support person.
Ahead of time, presenters sent a file of their slides to our tech team to use as backup in case the presenter was unable to show the slides on their own. In a few cases, the back up was used because of the presenter’s unstable internet.
Each presentation had at least two tech support people in addition to the presenter. One introduced the speaker and acted as a moderator for Q&A that followed the presentation. Attendees could type questions into the Zoom chatbox, then the moderator selected some and read them to the speaker after the presentation. The other tech person managed the recording, answered tech questions that came up in the chat, and controlled video and audio streams as needed.
Sometimes audio, video and consistent streaming connectivity were not perfect. In general, it was pretty good. These problems had the potential to exist even if we’d had more time to plan or practice.
It was the combination of excellent presentations and the positive energy and interactions in the meeting rooms that made the conference successful.
It’s important to consider all the factors at play in this particular moment that made our conference successful. We definitely benefited from the fact that everyone was at home and eager to find new ways to connect with people during the pandemic.
“Pay Attention” by Susie Monday
“Jaded” by Mary Pal
“Give and Take” by Lorraine Roy
Another part of our annual conference is an in-person silent auction of small artwork that occurs during the final dinner banquet. A dedicated team researched online auction options, uploaded 260 pieces of art to the platform Bidding Owl and sent out instructions for how to bid virtually. It was essential that all the information about the auction pieces was already organized and could be easily merged onto the online platform.
The auction was open to anyone, not just conference attendees and was super successful, breaking all previous auction records. We shared information about the auction on all SAQA social media channels and reminded attendees about the auction throughout the conference. This may have accounted for the increased interest and higher bids. It’s also possible that buyers felt they could use the money they may have spent in Toronto on the auction instead. SAQA is considering how to use Bidding Owl again in the future.
One challenge we faced was the amount of screentime a virtual conference requires. Most attendees did not attend every presentation and meeting room session. (This is likely true of in-person conferences too.) It was a challenge to balance offering lots of great content within the confines of the conference schedule while still including enough breaks for people to log off, move about and get refreshed.
I’m proud to say that SAQA’s first virtual conference received rave reviews and the organization is thinking about how we can use this structure again in the future.
Deborah Boschert is President of Studio Art Quilt Associates. She’s also an artist, author and teacher creating art quilt collages incorporating layers of fabric, paint and stitch. Her art quilts have been exhibited in quilt shows and art galleries throughout the United Sates and internationally. She is also the author of Art Quilt Collage: A Creative Journey in Fabric, Paint and Stitch. Find her online at DeborahsStudio.com.