Annemarie Pedersen, the executive director for AFAC said because the yearly conference takes almost a year to plan it was hard to watch it dissolve due to the COVID-19 restrictions so they decided to dive into the digital world and host it online.
"I think we (had) about six days to pull this one together so, I think we are a little bit nuts,” Pedersen laughed. “But we had all of the speakers lined up and sponsors and people who really wanted to get together and talk about all of this so we thought we’d look for a way to bring everybody together in a safe healthy way and virtual seems to be the option.”
AFAC has been a virtual office with staff members working from home since November so moving the conference to online was just a bigger scale for them.
“We have an IT guy that helps us with our normal day-to-day IT and so we have conversations with him about what the right system would be to have people come in and listen to these presentations,” Pedersen explained. “All of the speakers are in different locations — our keynote is in California, we've got someone in B.C., someone in Georgia — so you need to be able to connect everybody.”
In order to accomplish that they chose to use Zoom, an online conferencing platform that allows users to watch, listen, speak and type so they can still participate and network but in the comfort of their own home.
“We picked it because it required the least of the conference participants; you don't have to have a special program, you don't have to have a Gmail account, you don't have to have any serious knowledge of how to use technology,” she said. “You just have to click on the link and you're in.”
The online conference changed to one day instead of the two-day format originally scheduled, but still included announcing awards of distinction. Panel presentations are cancelled, but some of the panelists turned into speakers.
“We've been incredibly overwhelmed by the willingness of everybody to continue on in a different format,” Pedersen said. “Our main speakers said, ‘Let us know what you need, let us know when you need us, tell us what we need to do and we will do it.’”
The willingness to take part even extends to the sponsors of the event.
"Our sponsors (stayed) engaged to help us fund the cost of putting on the virtual conference and we're just really incredibly grateful and somewhat overwhelmed with the amount of support that everybody's given us,” she stated. “They're really kind of embracing this option and that's kind of exciting for us to see how excited everybody is about it.”
The underlying part of the conference is to bring a broad spectrum of people from across the livestock sector together to network and benefit from being together and talking about their issues and finding solutions.
"We want to make sure if we were doing something virtually that there might still be a component of that,” Pedersen explained. “And we think we have a system that will allow for that.”
Participants have the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers and speak to each other throughout the day.
“We are able to engage with each other as well in-between time so it's not going to be an eight-hour day of just listening to people talking to you from your computer,” she said. “We're starting with some kickoff welcomes and then a speaker at 9 a.m., a speaker at 11 a.m., a speaker at 1 p.m., speakers at 3 p.m. And then in between that is information, award presentations, and networking opportunities so people can chat on there with friends that aren't in the area or they want to check in with.”
The speakers covered such topics as ‘The value of constantly looking for ways to ‘Raise the Bar’ and the cost of allowing ‘bad actors’ to remain in the industry,’ ‘Working toward a more socially sustainable dairy industry’ and ‘Farm preparation in the face of COVID-19.’
Typically, the conference has 120 attendees and that was no different this year until the COVID-19 measures were enacted and just over 100 people still took part in the digital conference with about 80 people engaging with each presentation.
"We had about 100 register, so a lot of the same people throughout but some sessions it was 87, 86, 81 (participating)," Pedersen said. "Good ongoing engagement, as well we saw chats and engagements on the platform. We really had few technical issues and the girls managing it did a great job keeping everything going."
As to if this is a sign of things to come, Pedersen said it’s a possibility but she still prefers face-to-face contact over virtual reality.
"I think there's so much value in the in-person conference, I would hate to say that we would replace it. But we are certainly having a lot of discussions right now about how else we can use this and what are some other ways that we can broaden our horizons a bit on some of these things,” she explained.
Heather Stocking, TownandCountryToday.com
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