Every November, Thrivent Financial invites financial representatives to its National Sales Meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The meeting is critical, allowing the company to deliver messaging and motivation for the year ahead, education for reps to grow their businesses, and opportunities for peer-to-peer sharing and relationship-building with executives. It’s all designed to help attendees boost production—and it works.

All reps are invited, with travel and registration expenses reduced or eliminated for those at certain qualification levels. But only 40 percent of the field attends. So what about the other 60 percent who are not getting the education, motivation, and corporate messaging the annual meeting delivers? Steph Pfeilsticker, CMP, CMM, senior event planner, thought about that, and hit upon a big idea.

Inspired by a presentation she’d seen on hybrid meetings, she pitched adding a virtual component to Thrivent’s National Sales Meeting as a way to reach the reps who didn’t come to the meeting in person. “The business case was to give our financial representatives the tools to grow their business,” she says.

The result? Of the 1,300 potential remote attendees, she attracted an amazing 450 registrants. Of those, more than 300 stayed with the programming from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. for two days. “We were thrilled to see West Coast reps online at 5:30 a.m. because they didn’t want to miss anything,” Pfeilsticker notes. With that kind of response, the success of the venture was immediately clear. Of course, that success was more than a year in the making, and not without challenges.

“At first I was reluctant to add the virtual edition to our National Sales Meeting,” says Bill Idzorek, director, field development and consulting, and chairman of the National Sales Meeting. “In my mind it was added cost with an uncertain return; however, as planning proceeded I became more comfortable with the idea, and the final results well exceeded my expectations. The virtual edition to the 2011 NSM allowed us to expand the number of participants by over 40 percent in a highly effective and cost-efficient manner.”

A Hybrid Meeting Business Plan
Pfeilsticker knew she was going out on a limb, so she supported her idea with a lot of homework. “I wrote a 46-page business plan to answer every possible question and did three months of research before I stepped into Dan’s office,” says Pfeilsticker. (Dan Young, CMP, leads Thrivent’s event planning department.)

The business plan covered three main areas: logistics, marketing, and costs. Pfeilsticker breaks it down:

1. Marketing—“The marketing section presented evidence that could unequivocally ‘sell’ the project. I included production data on reps who attended versus those who didn’t attend to clearly demonstrate the business need for a virtual element. I also presented several analyses including geographical attendance, SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats], market positioning, and market differentiation. Marketing strategy was another significant focus. Defining our target market, marketing segments, and marketing mixes were essential to allowing the ultimate decision-maker to understand who could best use this new medium of education. I also outlined our marketing objectives and the timelines for marketing efforts.”

2. Financials—“Three years of financial data was included in the plan in the form of income statements, statement of cash flows, and balance sheets. A break-even analysis showed minimum needs for participation to pay for the event. While complex, this is essential information to show your stakeholders that you understand the financial impact of adding a virtual event.”

3. Operations—“The operations section detailed the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the virtual meeting. Team members such as the technology partner, virtual emcee, technology consultants, and the audiovisual production team were identified in an organizational chart. I also showed how all of these partners would work with one another.” The plan also covered the expected outcomes. One common concern with hybrid meetings is that live attendance will decrease. Why attend, the thinking goes, if you can get the content by sitting in your own office? In fact, says Pfeilsticker, virtual components often drive attendance at live events. So she made that one of her goals: By showing nonattendees what the face-to-face meeting is like—letting them hear the buzz, experience the content, and see some of the action—she hoped to inspire the remote attendees to want to attend in person in future years.

She’ll know for sure whether that goal is met next year, but here’s what she already knows: In a follow-up survey, 51 percent of virtual attendees said they are likely to attend future National Sales Meetings in person. “We were thrilled,” says Pfeilsticker, adding that she received many e-mail messages from virtual participants who said they hadn’t known that the meeting had such high-quality content and speakers. It was eye-opening for them. Thrivent charged a nominal fee of $49 for remote attendance. “We didn’t want it to be free,” Pfeilsticker says. “We needed to show a value.”

Know Your Audience
She needed to deliver value as well, which is why the virtual event involved more than just broadcasting keynote speakers into the ether. Pfeilsticker and her team carefully chose live-streaming content that would appeal to the target virtual audience, and made sure the remote viewers got some exclusive content as well. Traditionally, the financial reps who don’t attend the live event also don’t qualify to attend Thrivent’s other field conferences. Therefore, Pfeilsticker offered them breakouts that focused on business fundamentals and selling skills. (Four of the 12 live sessions were part of the virtual event.)

She also created an Agenda and Idea Notebook and sent it to the virtual attendees ahead of time. This 44-page book included a minute-by-minute schedule of the always-on virtual program. “It was like live TV. There was never a black screen,” Pfeilsticker explains. When a general session or breakout session was not being streamed, virtual attendees were seeing exclusive content, such as their virtual emcee interviewing speakers or Thrivent Financial executives. There was also a chat room, with topics scheduled throughout the day. The second half of the book included speaker bios and presentation outlines, along with plenty of space for the virtual attendees to take notes as they watched the broadcast.

Pfeilsticker hired virtual emcee Emilie Barta as the presence connecting remote viewers with the live action at the convention center. She gave Barta a crash course on Thrivent Financial’s history and mission as well as a primer on its jargon in order to prepare her to speak with executives. She even taped a sign with a couple of key catchphrases onto the camera so Barta was regularly reminded to drop them into her interviews.

“This was very important. She’s in front of your whole field, so you want her to appear to be an employee,” Pfeilsticker explains.

The company expects some sales results at the end of February, and Pfeilsticker expects that those numbers will provide more evidence that adding the virtual component to the National Sales Meeting was a wise investment. But NSM Chair Bill Idzorek is already a fan. “The virtual edition set the 2011 NSM apart from past sales meetings and raised the bar in terms of the overall quality and the sophistication of the event,” he says. “Going forward I can’t imagine a National Sales Meeting that does not include a virtual edition.”

7 Best Practices for a Hybrid Meeting

Steph Pfeilsticker, CMP, CMM, senior event planner, Thrivent Financial, hired consultant Samuel J. Smith, founder of Interactive Meeting Technology, to guide her through the process of creating a virtual program for remote attendees that would mirror the face-to-face Thrivent National Sales Meeting November 7–9, 2011, at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

With a virtual program, “you are daring attendees not to be distracted,” Smith says. And with just the attendees’ computer screens to work with, you need to think hard about how to avoid a remote experience that resembles bad local-access TV. Smith’s tips:

1. Think “live TV.”If theater is the metaphor for face-to-face meetings, he says, live TV is the metaphor for the virtual portion of a hybrid event. Imagine sporting events such as the Super Bowl, or awards shows like the Oscars. “There is always a host who connects with the audience and creates continuity,” says Smith. The hosts use breaks in the action—half time, for example—to offer analysis and additional color or content. Live TV, Smith adds, is also “a reference point” for the audience. If you model live TV, you’re offering something they’re used to consuming. They get it.

2. Give your virtual attendees custom content.Thrivent created an Agenda and Idea Notebook solely for remote attendees, and mailed it out in advance of the event. “It’s a tangible way to make them feel that they are an important part of the event,” Pfeilsticker explains. “It also served as a keeper for ideas they collected throughout the event that could grow their business.” In addition, Thrivent created six hours of exclusive programming for online attendees. This content included speaker interviews, interviews with leaders, sales program overviews, and training videos.

3. Hire an emcee for the virtual audience.Thrivent Financial hired an emcee, Emilie Barta, who was set up in a studio at the live meeting but focused specifically on the virtual audience. “An emcee connects the virtual audience with the activity at the live event,” Pfeilsticker says. “When there was a break at the convention center, the emcee would interview an executive or ask a general-session presenter questions that had been submitted by the virtual audience. This gives the virtual audience a voice and greatly increases engagement.”

4. Make communication two-way.Create the ability for attendees to become participants in the event. If you ask attendees to take a poll or ask a question, be sure to give them feedback. Show the poll results, or ask their specific questions right away, Smith advises. “Attendees love it when you use their questions or ideas and give them credit for it. So be sure to say their names on camera.”

5. Coach speakers and facilitators.They should occasionally look at the camera as well as mention the virtual viewing audience. “The more specific the references you can make to that audience, and the more the integration between the face-to-face and the virtual, the better,” Smith says.

6. Use multiple cameras.Again, Smith suggests taking a cue from live TV: Multiple viewing angles create impact and make the remote audience less likely to tune out.

7. Create a hybrid team.The best practice is to assign a separate team to the virtual event, says Smith—a team that is focused on the needs of the virtual audience. If the planners of the face-to-face meeting work on the virtual component as well, the tendency is for the live event to take precedence.

10 Lessons Learned by Hybrid First-Timers

Now that she has her first hybrid National Sales Meeting behind her, Thrivent Financial Senior Event Planner Stephanie Pfeilsticker, CMP, CMM, has reflected on the challenges of extending the impact of the live meeting to hundreds of additional financial reps. Her top lessons learned:

1. An RFP for virtual platform providers is complex. “This was the most challenging piece,” says Pfeilsticker, who ended up sending two rounds of RFPs to companies that would provide the online structure for the meeting’s virtual component. What she got back were apples and oranges: Companies charge differently for their services and have very different capabilities, so it took several conversations with each company just to learn what they could offer. “I suggest asking a lot of questions and presenting specific scenarios to be sure you understand what you are receiving for what dollar amount,” she says.

2. Make it easy for viewers. Work with your platform provider on how to set up your most important “rooms”—that is, where the remote attendees will navigate on their computers to experience the meeting. The most visited rooms are the auditorium (for the general sessions), the breakout rooms (for the educational sessions), and the resource center (for access to presenters’ PowerPoint slides). But Pfeilsticker discovered that the chat room was buried in a drop-down menu. “If it’s important, it needs to be visible.”

3. Get team buy-in. Thrivent’s core team for the virtual component of the 2011 National Sales Meeting was Pfeilsticker, consultant Sam Smith of Interactive Meeting Technology, an audiovisual producer, and the meeting sponsor. “But there were several other jobs that needed to be done,” Pfeilsticker notes, such as design work and other creative elements. “Many people were excited to work on this and to be a part of it prior to the event. However, our live meeting is all-hands-on-deck already, so to add this to the workload was difficult.”

4. Share the goals. For the core team, the virtual component and the needs of the virtual audience quickly become second nature. “But for others, who are not so fluent in that realm, you need to regularly remind them of the purpose,” she says. “For example, others would refer to breaks at the live meeting as ‘filler time’ for the remote audience. I had to remind them, no, this is the place to be strategic. What content can we offer here that can help grow the financial reps’ business?”

5. Sell and resell. Have confidence in what you are doing, and keep selling the project, Pfeilsticker advises. “There will be some resistance based on fear. But I was passionate. I knew we could reach hundreds more representatives.”

6. Ask questions. The vocabulary surrounding a hybrid meeting will be new to most meeting planners. Always ask your audiovisual and production partners to clarify unfamiliar terms and concepts.

7. Educate yourself. Look for resources from the Virtual Edge Institute, from Meeting Professionals International, and from your peers.

8. create your lines of Communication. “This is especially important on site at the event,” Pfeilsticker says. “Determine the chain of communication ahead of time. Your audiovisual producer should have an open line of communication to the live meeting producer to communicate when the live event is starting so that the virtual team can prepare to stream. The key is that not every member needs to have a communication device.”

9. Create a knowledgeable team. Think through how everyone will have to work, and what specific information each team member will need. Flow charts are helpful to explain team members’ functions.

10. Plan for thorough testing. “On the Sunday before our event, we had a list of things to test. But there are certain tests we were unable to run because of the provider,” Pfeilsticker relates. “Some Day 1 issues could have been prevented if we were able to test everything. I wish I had pushed them harder to perform certain tests or asked the provider to test well in advance.”