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.”