Professional Development in a Pandemic: How We Make Our Virtual Higher Ed Events Feel Real

Ashley SpainVice President, Enrollment MarketingFebruary 12, 2021
Ashley Spain and Raquel Bermejo
At RNLNC with my colleague Raquel Bermejo (right)

When I was an enrollment manager on campus, higher ed conferences were a critical part of my professional development. I attended events like RNL’s National Conference and Strategic Enrollment Planning Executive Forum along with numerous events from higher ed associations. The ability to hear from other campus practitioners or glean insights from higher ed experts triggered those light-bulb moments I would take back to campus. I also loved the ability to network and catch up with colleagues—those “hallway conversations” produced their share of good ideas. And it was great to celebrate an industry that changes the lives of the students we serve.

When I came to RNL a few years ago, I brought my attendee’s enthusiasm and appreciation for higher ed events to planning our RNL events. And those events have long and storied histories—the RNL National Conference stretches back 35 years, and we have held more than two dozen SEP Forums, not to mention numerous other workshops and summits. In July 2019, we had our biggest conference ever in Nashville, and I was looking forward to putting on an even better 2020 RNL National Conference in Chicago—the site of my first RNLNC as an attendee.

We know what happened next…

The COVID-19 impact on higher ed conferences

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, it caused complete disruption to the events industry. Forbes reported last spring that more than 83 million attendees to conferences, sporting events, and other events had been cancelled, postponed, or changed to virtual events. I remember the discussion we had about taking RNLNC 2020 virtual—an event that had attracted more than 1,600 attendees the year before. We knew it was the safe and correct decision, but it was so unnerving. Could we deliver the benefits of a higher ed conference, benefits that seemed dependent on in-person interaction, to a computer screen?

Delivering an award-winning virtual conference experience

The answer, to our relief and to the delight of those who attended, was a resounding yes! In July 2020, we successfully shifted the National Conference to a virtual modality that gave attendees a memorable experience and the ability to engage with the other 1,500 attendees, our vendor partners, and RNL’s enrollment experts. (My colleague Julie Bryant wrote a great blog on our first foray into hosting a virtual higher ed conference.)

RNLNC 2020 virtual environment
The networking lounge from RNLNC 2020, one of several digital environments that gave our virtual conference a real feel.
RNLNC 2020 Awards
RNL won awards from MUSE and Marcom for RNLNC 2020.

In fact, the 2020 RNLNC won platinum and gold awards from the international MUSE Creative Awards and a gold from the 2020 MarComm awards.

More importantly, we were proud that the attendees got so much out of the virtual conference. After months of campus shutdowns and isolation, the RNLNC experience allowed them to enjoy many of the things we value from a higher ed conference. We accomplished this by structuring the virtual event the way we would an in-person event, with sessions balanced by activities, entertainment, and time for networking. For instance, we had:

RNLNC 2020 swag box
RNLNC 2020 Swag Box
  • A “real” virtual environment. We brought Chicago to the laptop screens of our attendees, with panoramic Chicago backdrops in our conference rooms and Chicago locations for keynotes and morning virtual yoga sessions.
  • Live chat with our presenters during their pre-recorded sessions, so that audience members could interact with presenters the way they would at an in-person event.
  • A virtual exhibit hall so attendees could still peruse the latest innovations and solutions for higher ed.
  • An “Innovation Lounge” with TED-style talks.
  • An inspiring opening keynote from author Liz Murray.
  • Three exclusive musical performances from singer Katie Kadan.
  • A live improvisational comedy performance by The Second City.

Plus we also delivered swag to the doors of our attendees! People love getting free gifts from the events they attend, so we delivered RNL Swag Boxes to our attendees. It’s just another way to help people feel connected to the event even when participating remotely.

Oh the places we’ll go (virtually) in 2021—Pushing the envelope of virtual events

With the pandemic still making remote events the safest choice, our events will remain virtual through 2021. We also now have a fully dedicated RNL Event Center which we used for the virtual 2020 SEP Forum in December and will use for the forthcoming Graduate and Online Innovation Summit. But we’re also excited to announce two additional virtual events.

April 21: The RNL Senior Leadership Forum—Increasing enrollment knowledge to impact revenue

The shift to virtual events represents the broader digital transformation sweeping through higher education, and the RNL Senior Leadership Forum will tackle key topics such as:

  • The future of higher ed enrollment marketing
  • The next generation of student engagement
  • Strategies for digital transformation
  • Developing a strategic response to enrollment shifts

And to give you a great conference experience, we’ll have an Innovation Lounge for networking and learning about new enrollment solutions, RNL experts available for strategic chats, and of course a Swag Box delivered to your door!

July 7-8: RNL National Conference 2021Virtual Paris!

If we have to be virtual, then we can embrace the freedom that virtual brings and travel internationally for the 2021 RNL National Conference. The RNL Event Center will transform into one of the most iconic locations in the world, and we will do everything we can to bring you the Parisian experience:

  • Virtual tours of key attractions in Paris and nearby locations
  • Experiences to (literally) give you a taste of Paris.
  • Parisian-themed gifts in your RNL Swag Box

Plus we’ll have a full slate of sessions from nationally renowned experts and campus professionals, along with new research from RNL (2021 E-Expectations and a new University Family Survey).

Conferences need to be experiences—no matter how they are delivered

As much as we are happy with our virtual events, we miss in-person events like many of you do. Face-to-face interactions with so many wonderful attendees is something we hope we’ll return to in 2022. But much like higher education overall, higher ed conferences will likely incorporate the digital and virtual into future events.

How that will happen remains to be seen. However, what’s clear is that a virtual event needs to be an experience so that it is memorable as well as meaningful for attendees. I am proud of how we did that in 2020, and if you attended one of our events, thank you! I hope you’ll join us for the Senior Leadership Forum and for RNLNLC 2021. The events may be virtual, but the experiences will be real.

About the Author

Ashley Spain is an enrollment management professional who helps drive RNL’s strategy, research, and solutions for college enrollment, marketing and student success. She offers more than 10 years of experience in marketing and recruitment. Before coming...

Read more about Ashley's experience and expertise

Reach Ashley by e-mail at Ashley.Spain@RuffaloNL.com.

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