For One Planner, the Pandemic Was an Opportunity To Experiment

Michelle Hill is sticking with positive pandemic changes to help boost engagement at future North American Society of Trenchless Technology events.

To create innovative and interactive meetings post-pandemic, planners around the nation are raising the bar on productivity and capitalizing on the attendee experience. In Orlando, hundreds of planners have exceeded in this area, setting the bar high for both their peers and the industry. We talked to eight of these planners to learn how they combine lessons learned during the pandemic with tried-and-true best practices to create meaningful in-person experiences to re-engage attendees—and keep them coming back for more.

Our second “Planner of Productivity” is Michelle Hill, program director for the North American Society for Trenchless Technology (NASTT). NASTT is a niche nonprofit that promotes an eco-friendly and minimally invasive method of underground infrastructure construction through publications and educational events. Over 15 years, Hill has helped grow NASTT’s No-Dig Show into a mainstay industry event that typically draws 2,400 attendees and exhibitors. This April, Hill partnered with Visit Orlando to deliver a safe, in-person event—and found unexpected inspiration for future events in pandemic health-and-safety protocols.

VO: At the crossroads of green technology, construction, and city planning, trenchless technology is definitively interdisciplinary and innovative. Can you tell us how the No-Dig Show helps advance innovation in this specialized industry?

MH: Our industry is very small and niche. A lot of people have been working in it for many years and have stuck with it because they feel like they can be innovative. The networking that we do at our show is really important, and we’re trying to focus more on this moving forward. We enable our attendees to really connect and get to know each other, including through an auction, a gala, an opening breakfast, and a closing lunch. The sessions are amazing, but so is the time people spend after sessions. That’s where the deals get made and where education really happens. After the sessions, in the hallways—it’s a really organic way to do education.

VO: The past year has forced planners to be more creative to capture and keep attendees’ attention. How do you plan to use new tactics moving forward to infuse innovation into live meetings and allow for greater productivity?

MH: There are some things that we are carrying over to the 2022 show because they worked so well this year. We switched our pre- and post-courses to virtual last year. They are intense 8-hour courses—four hours, two days in a row. Those have been very successful virtually, so we’re continuing to do it.

We’ve had an app for a few years but really leaned into it this year for both health and safety reasons as well. Attendees used the platform to agree to terms and conditions and to get scanned in every day with their health-and-safety checks. Where we innovated, though, was the type of information we added to the app experience. We typically have more than 100 pages of exhibitor directories, session descriptions, promotional information, and blank pages for notes in a notebook that we provide attendees with. Our members are engineers who take notes in their sessions, so this has always been important to them. The notebook was the attendee giveaway, a great resource they could keep on their desks throughout the year and reference things.

This year, the app was their only way to get information. I thought people would miss the notebooks, but nobody even asked where they were. The app cut down costs and eliminated another touch point—it was the perfect replacement for the notebook. Plus, it’s greener and it’s easier to update things like session changes. Now, I’m very pro-app.

VO: What advice would you give to other planners about managing innovation? How can you continuously surprise and delight conference-goers while delivering the kind of content and activities that repeat attendees expect?

MH: I think we can get so bogged down in all the details that sometimes we don’t take the opportunity to really think outside the box and change things up and try things differently. After 15 years, I got comfortable. We have a great structure that works. People like it and it’s successful. But innovation is just such a big part of doing events. Because we changed so much this year, I’m going to be more open to changing things in the future. We have a lot more grace with ourselves. And we got a lot more grace from our members because of the pandemic. We embraced the changes—and then we got creative. My advice: Don’t try to change everything at once. Remember that, at the end of the day, if something new isn’t as good as it used to be, you can just change it back.

VO: Describe a few of the initiatives you and your team have spearheaded—no matter how large or small—to improve the live attendee experience.

MH: This past year, I took a look at my plans and came to the conclusion that we needed to do things differently. One example: speakers were only allowed to have 40 people in their classrooms—they normally have around 120—so we had them record their presentations and we offered an on-demand option. Those speakers weren’t just presenting for 40 people; they had the opportunity to present to the whole community when people registered. We also couldn’t have a traditional, indoor 400-person gala. But luckily, we were in Orlando. We worked with the team to plan an outdoor event and it was a huge success. We did an appetizer reception at the Hyatt’s garden terrace, which was really amazing. Finally, we do a lot of awards because we’re a membership association. Usually, our volunteer committees go around to the exhibit hall, visit booths, and listen to exhibitors’ pitches for our innovative product award. For both health and safety reasons, we didn’t want people in groups wandering around, so we had them do video pitches, which we put on our membership portal as a video library. This allowed people who didn’t get to go to the show to have a taste of it. I think it worked really well, and I’m hoping to do more that extends our reach throughout the year.

VO: What made you choose Orlando for the No-Dig Show?

MH: I will admit, last year I was pushing our board to go virtual. I just didn’t know if we were going to be able to do live events in 2021. But my board is made up of innovative industry professionals who said, “Just keep planning for an in-person event.”

I’m very thankful to Visit Orlando because they came in and without a doubt said, “We can do this.” That was a huge part of me being successful: having partners continually reminding me that we were working together, and that I wasn’t doing this alone. Our Destination Services Manager was on hand throughout the process helping us with everything from booking restaurant reservations to helping us find temporary work when two of our staff were unexpectedly not able to attend the day before the show.

They also connected me to critical partners when we needed them, including Orlando Health to help create our Health and Safety Plan for the show. The team worked with us to create the plan and then had a team of medical experts in the area review it. I don’t know if we would have been able to pull off a live event in another city. The Visit Orlando team was amazing.

This article has been provided by Visit Orlando.

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(North American Society of Trenchless Technology)