One & Done
NGAUS hosts a conference it never imagined and hopes won't ever happen again
Retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, the NGAUS president, may be able to add a new job title to his professional resume. In addition to Salesman, Army Engineer Officer and Chief Executive Officer, he now could include Television Executive Producer.
He certainly has undertaken many of the elements of that job in recent months.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced association leaders to cancel this year’s 142nd General Conference & Exhibition in Boston, there was no hesitation — the gathering would shift to virtual. They did not want to wait until next year to update their legislative agenda or hear from a new batch of service and National Guard Bureau leaders.
It was also an election year and the association conference has hosted at least one of the major-party nominees for president in every election year since 1992.
Virtual events can take many forms. The range begins with small meetings on a collaboration platform and extends to complex, made-for-television productions, such as the 2020 NFL Draft in April or the recent national political conventions.
Robinson thought the NGAUS conference rated something closer to the latter.
“A Zoom or Teams meeting wouldn’t work for the size of our audience or the caliber of our speakers,” he says. “The event deserved better. The membership deserved better. Our plan was to conduct a first-class, livestreamed event with the look and feel of our traditional conference.”
But the association did not have the required equipment or technical expertise. It also lacked an online platform that could accommodate up to 3,000 online attendees. The NGAUS website couldn’t handle the traffic. Some outside help was needed.
NGAUS hired Pathable, an industry leader in virtual events, to provide the online platform. And after reviewing local audio-video production companies, it contracted with Projection from Springfield, Virginia, which handled AV at the association conference in 2016 and frequently works with Pathable.
Projection’s cameras and audio equipment along with its operators and hands-on producers enabled NGAUS to transform a room in the National Guard Memorial into a television studio. And the Pathable platform provided the place on the internet where registered attendees could tune in.
The tools and technology in place, the association staff booked guest speakers and developed a detailed show agenda and scripts. They did so while going to school on virtual events through webinars and researching best practices in the suddenly burgeoning virtual meetings industry.
“What we kept hearing is, you can’t run your sessions like you would for an in-person event,” says John Goheen, the NGAUS director of communications who has managed conference business sessions for several years.
“People’s attention just isn’t the same,” he says. “That means your sessions have to be shorter and more tightly managed. It’s a TV production. At the same time, our audience has come to expect certain items in the agenda and a certain style to the proceedings.”
The association staff used the Capitol Summit in July as a rehearsal of concept. The event normally brings company-grade officers nationwide to Washington, D.C., to see how the legislative process works. This time, NGAUS brought the program to them.
“Attendees and presenters were both surprised by the quality of the studio and the production,” says retired Col. Mike Hadley, the NGAUS legislative director. “That’s when we knew we had the concept right.”
The staff fine-tuned things in the weeks leading up to the conference. There would be four 90-minute “professional development sessions” over two days, Aug. 28 and 29. The speaker list grew to include four members of Joint Chiefs of Staff, former Vice President Joe Biden and the new directors of the Army and Air Guard. All but Biden spoke from the temporary studio, to a live audience that COVID-19 restrictions limited to mainly production staff.
(As always, the association invited both the Republican and Democratic nominees for president.)
There was also a Roll Call of States. Every state, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia submitted a 30-second video to cover their portion.
“Fifty-four states and territories, 54 different approaches,” says Michele Mahoney, the NGAUS director of membership and marketing who worked with state and territory association executive directors to get the submissions. The last one arrived just hours before the Roll Call.
Massachusetts got the nod for best video in a poll on the online platform, which also featured games and a virtual trade show with 89 exhibitors. The platform also enabled attendees to submit questions to the speakers. Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, the NGAUS chairman and the event’s presiding officer, moderated the Q&As.
But the platform had limitations. For one, it only allowed attendees to participate via their keyboard. Technology permitting hundreds to converse virtually is not readily available. That meant business subject to floor debate, such as elections or the consideration of changes to the bylaws, had to be pushed to next year.
Debate is also required to develop the resolutions that provide the foundation for next year’s legislative agenda, but the staff devised a workaround. It set up a side webinar that enabled the roughly 100 participants (two from each state and territory) to debate and approve 87 of 89 submitted resolutions.
Pathable data indicates that more than 2,500 people tuned into the conference, says retired Lt. Col. Robert Jakubek, the association chief of staff and conference coordinator. Some states held viewing parties. Individual registration was $18.78, which helped defray the cost of the event. Seventeen corporate sponsors combined to cover the rest.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way the staff came together and put on this conference, especially during a pandemic,” Robinson says. “We also learned a lot. Some of it we may be able to incorporate into future conferences.
“But this can’t compare to the event we would’ve had in Boston or will have next year when we gather in person in Charlotte, North Carolina,” he adds. “When it comes to virtual conferences, I hope we are one and done.”
All of the major speeches and the Roll Call of States are available at www.youtube.com/user/NGAUS1878. The virtual trade show on conference platform will remain open to registered attendees through August 2021.
The author can be reached at [email protected].