Who says satellite broadcasting is a budget-buster? The VFW's satellite meeting cost half as much as its road show - and drew triple the attendance.
How could the national leadership of the 2 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars deliver its training program to 9,700 posts around the country without breaking the bank? A "low-tech" solution in the past had been to fly teams of instructors around the country to disseminate the latest information on VFW recruitment, citizenship education, community service, and youth development programs. But the road show version of The Flying Squadron ended about four years ago, when training responsibilities were handed over to state chapters.
"We [on the national level] realized that in giving training to our state organizations, the program lacked in consistency of message, there just was no continuity," Assistant Adjutant General W. Benny Bachand says. "So we decided we needed to re-establish The Flying Squadron. But it had to be done in a way that members were hearing the same thing at the same time and from the same people."
Don't let Bachand's military title fool you: In civilian terms, he is senior vice president of programs, and, up to a year ago, he headed the VFW's meetings department. Now, many of the organization's departments report to him, including meetings. He has more than 15 years of meeting planning experience, and is the immediate past president of the Professional Convention Management Association's Heartland Chapter, Kansas City, Mo.
Bachand rejected webcasting as a solution for conveying training information for two reasons: Without widespread availability of broadband or other high-speed delivery, video and audio quality would not yet be acceptable. Moreover, the group's demographics was another consideration - typically, members are not wired.
Bachand knew he had his solution after reading about the National Video Communications Network, a business alliance between the American Association of Community Colleges and Hospitality Television (HTV), a full-service video production and satellite broadcast provider. NVCN provided an affordable, cost-effective way to resurrect The Flying Squadron via satellite broadcast.
Bigger Reach, Less Money Clients who use the community college satellite network can originate the broadcast from a location of their choosing or use HTV's studios in Louisville, Ky. Because he considered it a pilot event of sorts, Bachand opted to broadcast from HTV's Louisville studios. NVCN easily found 39 locations among its 850 community college receiving sites that suited the VFW's needs, some of them in rural areas of the country where it would have been difficult if not impossible to hold a live meeting.
The program, which was held July 29, 2000, consisted of two hours of pre-recorded material and a two-hour live segment. Using a toll-free number from each of the 39 broadcast sites in 30 states, attendees at each location were able to participate in a question-and-answer period. (The cost of the eight telephone lines at the originating studio was included in NVCN's package.)
As far getting the word out about the satellite event, "The national headquarters heavily promoted this event to our states headquarters, which in turn got the message out to local posts and members via state meetings and conventions," Bachand says.
He says the cost of the NVCN satellite program - $100,000 including production costs - was half that of The Flying Squadron road show, which involved flying the group to 16 different locations. And the satellite broadcast more than tripled the program's reach - the original Flying Squadron typically reached about 800 members; Bachand estimates that 2,500 attendees viewed the broadcast program.
Show Time Bachand was most concerned with how the membership would respond to the event. "Most of our members are not young people, and this is a whole new medium for them." But the response and feedback were overwhelming, he says, as was the interaction during the event. The phone lines were hopping during the broadcast, and if he had to do it over again, he would use more than the eight phone lines provided.
Another, non-technical, concern of Bachand's regarding each of the broadcast locations was the availability (and quality of) amenities at each community college site. Unlike a hotel or conference center, where these details are attended to, there is no conference service manager at an out-of-session community college. "The colleges did have fixed rental costs," Bachand says, "but my worries were food and beverage availability, could we bring in outside catering, those kinds of things. And again this is where NVCN stepped in and took care of it for us."
Next Time Around "We will definitely be doing this again this year," Bachand asserts. But with a few changes - minor ones. In addition to adding more telephone lines for the broadcast, Bachand will be more careful with the pre-recorded material.
"We had a couple of mistakes of a technical nature in the taped portion," he explains, "and although the two-hour pre-recorded segment and two-hour live Q-and-A segment were a good mix, in some respects we need to work in more break time. We had built in only 15 minutes, which wasn't enough."
In another departure from the first outing, Bachand says that the VFW will be looking to broadcast from the national headquarters in Kansas City, creating its own studio. "This would give us the ability to have more staff on hand to answer questions in the live portion of the broadcast," he says. "Too many of the ones called in that day went unanswered."
Bachand had six staff members and the elected national officers on hand at the July 29 event, clearly not enough, considering the response to the event.
"The other aspect that will work in our favor is that on the air, we can say we're live from the VFW national headquarters," Bachand says, "and that will make a difference because we'll make the connection to our leaders out there."
Bachand is looking forward to the next broadcast event, "and my advice to others is to just try it. I'm not sure satellite broadcasting would be out of the box for other groups, but for the VFW it was, because we're so traditional. . . . It made our attendees happy because they didn't have to travel [for the meeting]."
"Call us the Southwest Airlines of distance learning," says Lynn Fischer, founder and president of Hospitality Television, half of the National Video Communications Network. The other partner is the American Association of Community Colleges.
NVCN community college sites aren't the Ritz, but the price is right - about a third of the cost of the same satellite broadcast held in a hotel, says Carol Gilstrap, operation manager for NVCN.
The origination, or uplink, portion of the event can be based in either HTV's studios in Louisville or a location of the client's choosing. As for costs, Gilstrap gives this example: The cost of originating a two-hour program may be $15,000. The variable is the number of viewing sites, which could cost an additional $975 each. More sites would mean more attendees, therefore a better, reasons Gilstrap.
Fisher says the key to success and a good ROI for any NVCN satellite event is marketing and promotion. "Planners need a production partner they can trust," Fisher says, "so that they can put as much time as possible into local marketing, especially if there are many viewing sites. They should focus on getting people to attend. We'll take care of the technology."