Virtual advocacy events are more affordable and accessible, which means a broader, more representative base of member advocates can participate. One association plans to take the best aspects of its recent virtual event and integrate them into in-person events going forward.
Spring is advocacy time in DC, when association members come to Capitol Hill to tell their stories directly to members of Congress, urging them to support policies that will help their industries and professions.
The draw of these grassroots events is that they give members multiple ways to connect and network in person. When everything moved to virtual, the challenge was how to pull together key elements of in-person advocacy into the virtual setting. It turns out there are several upsides—for associations, members, legislators, and more—to virtual advocacy events.
The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) was fortunate to hold its advocacy event in person last year just a week before everything was shut down because of the pandemic. This year, its Government Affairs Conference (GAC) was virtual for the first time, and it had advantages that CUNA plans to leverage in the future. Top of the list? A more diverse group of participants. The lower cost of the event and lack of travel expenses meant members who had never had the opportunity before could engage.
“As a trade association, when we are talking about advocacy and wanting to get people engaged, the more people and the more diverse the people are to tell that story to their respective legislators, the better,” said Todd Spiczenski, CUNA’s chief products and services officer. “It’s a win-win.”
This year’s GAC had more than 3,500 participants, 140 vendors, 114 sessions, and 7,000 resource downloads. The conference boasted 670 roundtables, which spurred 36,000 connections among participants and 21,000 chats. Another advantage of a virtual conference? “It’s probably a lot easier to find somebody in the virtual world than in a 6,000-person auditorium,” Spiczenski said.
CUNA made sure there were multiple avenues for participants to interact with each other, staff members, speakers, vendors, and partners in the exhibit hall. They saw a high level of engagement right away at a pre-conference event, which drew 1,000 participants. The “soft launch” allowed them to get acclimated to the new virtual environment before the curtain went up on the main conference.
“Now that people see how functional the technology is and how easy it is to use, there will be more of a demand from members who say, ‘Hey, if I can’t be there in person, I need to find a way to be able to connect virtually,’” he said.
Scheduling Hill visits with legislators is notoriously difficult and time consuming, but the virtual environment eased that process for CUNA. More than a dozen lawmakers joined the event either live or through recorded messages. Some Hill visits took place before the event, which lengthened the amount of time available to Spiczenski’s team to coordinate the meetings. Added bonus? The flexibility increased the likelihood that participants would meet with legislators rather than their staff members.
As for 2022 and beyond, “there will be a role for the hybrid,” Spiczenski said. “I fully expect that we’ll be taking the best of what we’re doing this year in the virtual environment and continue to do that when we’re meeting in person as well.”