Every Spring, the Ohio Beverage Association holds a state Legislative Day. We bring our members to Columbus to meet with their state representatives and senators. Most years, we manage to secure appointments with over 98% of the Ohio General Assembly. The day is long but always worth the effort and energy spent to share our industry’s leadership story. We held our 2020 event just a week before Ohio’s emergency health order effectively shut down meetings and travel. We got very lucky.
Faced with the decision to cancel our 2021 event or hold it virtually, our board of directors choose virtual. We worked to “right size” expectations including number of appointments, member participation and how Zoom fatigue factored into both. With lots of preparation and help, we held our Legislative Day March 24 on Zoom.
Now that I have caught up on sleep and sorted through my notes from the event, I offer a few tips and observations for anyone considering a virtual advocacy event. Please understand that we did this without hiring a vendor to manage or host the platform. True DIY adventure / madness.
Understand Virtual Platform Features
We used Zoom and spent consideration time exploring features we do not normally use and adding a few for the event. Zoom breakout rooms made it possible to simulate the usual small in person meetings of past events. The breakout feature also allows you to preassign people to breakout rooms. Use this.
And depending on your attendance, you may want to buy a large meeting add-on or check with the virtual platform to make sure it can handle your crowd. It is worth it to be sure. Use the webinar feature to help your attendees get comfortable before the actual event.
How People Register and How They Show Up Matters
Make very sure your attendees use the same email address to register for your event that they use to log in. We knew this going into it, but the challenge of finding registrants who did not do this was intense. Remember you diligently preassigned everyone to breakout rooms so this disparity can result in a frantic search for the person’s identify and their breakout room.
And on a related note, we discovered that not everyone has enabled their names to display on screen. You may have to decode the identity of “popman87”. Do yourself a favor and ask attendees to use their actual names on screen (looking at you “popman87”) before the event.
Identify Group Leaders
We asked our members to choose group leaders so that conversation could flow more easily once their legislator arrived in the virtual breakout room. This worked well and sidestepped people talking over one another.
Be Realistic About Tech Skills of Attendees
We produced a video that told our industry’s leadership story. The plan was to have each small group play the video for their legislator and then begin a “live” discussion on some of the points made in the video with a focus on local efforts.
In retrospect, we overestimated how comfortable our members were with finding and using the video link. Halfway through the day, we began proactively putting the video link in the chat box and offering to start it for them.
If I had a do-over, I would still do the video but make sure everyone practiced and was more comfortable. And still planned for help getting the video started. It was a lot to balance for attendees who were a bit nervous or who had broadband connection challenges.
Tech Support is Essential
Again, we did not hire a vendor to manage the day, so I arranged for volunteer help. Our volunteers had great experience with a virtual conference and were invaluable to us. They moved attendees into preassigned breakout rooms, figured out identities (“popman87”), reassured legislators who were running late, placed legislative aides filling in as last minute replacements into the correct breakout room and played the video for groups having difficulty.
Aside from thanking them repeatedly, I advise feeding them well. And offering to help on their next event. The association world is a great community and full of people willing to help. Looking at you, wonderful people of Ohio Physical Therapy Association! And for planning advice, watch webinars on virtual fly-ins or talk to colleagues who stepped bravely into that arena.
Give yourself and others lots of grace. Mistakes will happen. A Zoom meeting is not the same as a warm in person meeting, but it is still a valuable experience. We never miss the chance to talk with legislators because we know sharing our leadership story is important and relationships matter.
Thank you to all the legislators, legislative aides, OhioBev members, OhioBev board leadership and Riffe and Statehouse friends who helped distribute our gift bags (no virtual substitute for delicious beverages). We truly could not have done it without you.