For a niche software company, the user group conference is especially precious for its product feedback, client education, and relationship building. But for Calgary-based InSystems Technologies, like so many other companies around the world, those business opportunities took a back seat on September 11. The machine in motion to produce InSystems' mid-October user conference suddenly came to a screeching halt.

“After the terrorist events, the next 48 hours were just focused on what was going on in the world: Are family and friends safe? Are co-workers alright? We had customers in the [World Trade Center] buildings,” says Andrew Jackson, senior vice president of marketing for InSystems, which provides relationship management software to the financial services industry. “Toward the end of the week, we started to think about the impact on our business and this meeting.”

Jackson's instinct was to take his cue from the customers. “Since our meeting was about a month away, if our attendees wanted to continue with the meeting, we were prepared to do that,” he says. It didn't take long, however, to realize that the 10th annual Connect conference booked in Tucson, Ariz., didn't have a chance. While InSystems executives had planned to wait a few days before contacting customers, customers began to contact them. “They would say one of three things: I'm not interested personally in traveling at this time; I no longer have the budget to do this; or third, that their company had issued a complete ban on nonessential travel,” Jackson says.

“People were thinking, ‘Do I want to spend four days in Tucson given everything that's going on in the industry?’” says Jackson, noting that the insurance industry is expected to be one of the hardest hit, paying out billions in claims for property damage, loss of life, and business interruption. “The momentum we had behind the event not only stopped, it reversed,” he says. “It reached a point where we thought, this is not going to be a viable event. No one wants to go to an annual user conference that only has a handful of people. It misses the real point of it.”

Don't Lose the Connection

While hope for the Tucson meeting quickly crumbled, another idea began to take shape. “We began to ask: How can we find an alternative? We didn't want to just not have a user group meeting this year. They're very important to us,” Jackson says. “What if we did a virtual event?”

InSystems had some experience with online events. The company uses them for internal training, but had never created one for customers, never mind an online user group conference with just 3½ weeks lead time.

In early October, Jackson was working flat-out putting the pieces in place. “We have more to do right now because this event is virtual than if it were physical. We're working around the clock.” Using the technology of Mountain View, Calif.-based PlaceWare Inc., InSystems plans to mimic the original four-day event as closely as possible. “We'll have a condensed schedule of approximately two hours per day over four days,” Jackson says. “For webcasts, people don't want to sit for eight hours, but they will come and watch for two hours [and] then pick it up again the next day.”

The dates will be the same (“We figure people have already blocked out the dates,” says Jackson), and many of the original speakers are lined up as well. “We'll have the speakers from our company, obviously, but what's been great is the support from our customer speakers and our industry speakers. For example, we work for an analyst group called the META Group, and [vice president] Judy Johnson, who is doing our keynote, has agreed to do it in this new format. I won't disclose all the financial arrangements, but she has been extremely generous. We're grateful for their understanding and support.”

The support is especially welcome. Not only is InSystems facing steep hotel cancellation penalties in Tucson (see sidebar, at left), the online event is free. For the Tucson conference, InSystems could have counted on collecting an $875 registration fee from each of its 100 to 500 attendees to offset costs. But knowing that attendees had already booked rooms and flights to Tucson, charging for an online event didn't seem viable. Beside, the value of the event was still unproven.

Attendees will hear presenters live via a telephone audioconference while watching PowerPoint slides online. They'll ask questions via e-mail. “Given the fact that we're pulling this together in three weeks, our principle is to keep it simple. We were interested in something that could be effective and low risk,” says Jackson, who will moderate the event and is rehearsing with speakers to help them prepare for the online format.

Not a One-Off?

Not every customer was happy with InSystems' decision, especially at first. “When we announced it [the change from live to online event] exactly one week after the attacks, we had the full range of responses. More people were very supportive and understanding, but there were some who were very disappointed. I think they were struggling with how our lives personally and professionally will change as a result of these attacks.

“But even those individuals, after another week had passed, came back and said, ‘This was the right call. Before, my company could only afford to send one person; now I'm going to have six people sit in.’” Music to a marketer's ears. “Our numbers are higher now — significantly higher — than what our live numbers were,” says Jackson. “From a marketing perspective, the more customers we get to communicate with, the better, so if this really works, this might not be a one-off. This might be a new trend for us.”

With the online meeting still a couple of weeks away, Jackson was already looking to a future with more online meetings. “There is still an importance to face-to-face meetings, but there are different alternatives to achieving an event's objectives,” he says. “We may have more regional events, maybe a traveling region-to-region mini-event. Another idea is to empower users to have their own events, and provide tools to support them. We're going to consider a range of options.

“In the past, we never thought twice about getting on a plane,” he says. “Now, we think twice, and then some.”

A Costly Cancellation

While most hotel chains had liberal cancellation policies for events scheduled in the weeks immediately after the terrorist attacks, that grace period didn't necessarily extend to October events. For InSystems Technologies' user group meeting, the cancellation may be very costly.

“Our dealing with the property has been very problematic,” says Andrew Jackson, senior vice president of marketing. “I'm very disappointed, but it was one of the risks that we agreed to take on when we made this decision [to cancel].

“Some chains, such as Hilton, have established a clear corporate policy, which for meeting planners is probably really helpful in a crisis time like this. For other chains, as we found out in dealing with Starwood, there wasn't a clear policy other than, ‘Talk to your local property.’ I heard stories from other meeting planners that their property was very lenient. Our property happens not to be very lenient.”

There is a lesson to be learned here, says Jackson. “When meeting planners are evaluating properties, they should consider the value of a centralized policy authority in crisis times” versus handing that authority to individual properties. “I understand that they have a business to operate,” he says, but “not all parties are [looking for] the scenario that is the most acceptable to everybody.”

Jackson has made his career as a tech company marketing exec, but after dealing with this meeting cancellation, he has some advice for marketers on the hotel side: “People's perspectives and brand values are established more than ever during times of crisis,” he says. “Be aware of the way you deal with people and the process you go through and the messages you're sending.”