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Don’t let the flame of the Rotary conference fade

Don’t let the flame of the Rotary conference fade

This time of year is District Conference season for Rotary clubs. However, COVID-19 has meant many have had to revert to an online format. But have they worked?

Rotary District 1200, which covers Somerset, West Wiltshire and West Dorset attracted some eye-catching speakers and a good audience online. Here’s how they did it.

When District 1200 District Governor Rory O’Donnell and his conference committee determined their conference would be different, little did they know how prophetic this would be.

And, as many other Rotarians are finding out, including Volunteer Expo, the event ended up being planned twice over.

Venue and speakers were cancelled, deposit refunds had to be negotiated, promotional materials were rendered defunct, dealing with sponsors – it took a bit of wrapping up.

Rory, from Taunton Vale Rotary, has long believed that conference should be outward-facing and a recruitment tool for Rotary.

Sophie Banham seaker

Rory, from Taunton Vale Rotary, has long believed that conference should be outward-facing and a recruitment tool for Rotary.

It should aim to attract Rotarians to an event whose numbers have been dwindling annually, so the enforced virtual world is now offering us an opportunity.

On we ploughed through risks and rewards, gains and losses, with the dogged determination which embodies the spirit of Rotary!

Our initial enthusiasm for a digital District Conference morphed into a controlled panic as the enormity of the task in-hand dawned on us, with the realisation that this was going to be far more complicated than a face-to-face event.

Traditional conference? A few speakers’ friends; someone to monitor the House of Friendship; parking attendants… not to undermine the huge amount of work it takes, but we know the traditional roles and stressors.

Virtual conference? Chat facility monitors; admitting people throughout the day; training videos for speakers on how to best play their videos; basic skills training video on how to visit breakouts, admit people, and boot them out should we be ‘zoom-bombed’; a blended offering of live and pre-recorded; Covid-compliant pre-event filming with permits; decisions on whose videos were to be shown given the effort some had gone to – and professional editing of the mobile or laptop footage.

It should aim to attract Rotarians to an event whose numbers have been dwindling annually, so the enforced virtual world is now offering us an opportunity.”

IT support was as essential. White Knight Marketing lived up to their shining armour name, taking on a plethora of roles, including on-the-day hosts, co-ordinators and venue.

Platforms were explored: some were clunky and complicated, one was sophisticated and priced as such and we decided it would not have been an appropriate budget spend.

So, on the basis that many Rotarians had come to grips with Zoom, we decided to stick with that. Better the devil you know.

In the end, it proved to be a suitable platform for our needs. Neither slick nor snazzy, but effective and certainly affordable at only £62 for the upgrade to participant numbers.

A district conference should aim to attract Rotarians to an event whose numbers have been dwindling annually, so the enforced virtual world is now offering us an opportunity.

Much of Taunton had recently experienced an hour and a half cut to the electricity supply. So we had a back-up plan and, and, in a great example of inter-district collaboration, District 1150 Rotarians in Wales were ready to step in at a minute’s notice.

They had an outline of pre-planned intros and thanks-yous in readiness should we all go down with Covid-19, or Somerset implode and they needed to take over.

What could possibly go wrong?

Now, how to persuade Rotarians to join a virtual conference when many people are zoomed-out? And how to attract non-Rotarians to join our showcase of Rotary projects?

Bribery! Make it totally free-of-charge! Our feedback told us that 20% cited cost as one of the reasons for participating.

The downside was that if the event was free, there may be no emotional commitment to attend with a drop-off in numbers.

In the end, we had 380 registrations with 98% attendance – with many more viewing on the day, and post-conference via our website.

Social media posts in the weeks leading up to the event were linked to key events such as Rotaract or World Water Day, but also topical opportunities too.

In the end, we had 380 registrations with 98% attendance – with many more viewing on the day, and post-conference via our website.”

Almost immediately, press responses came. Two radio stations rang up, one to dispel the myth that Rotary is a cult! There were two requests for magazine articles within half an hour of our first blitz, plus a general buzz about the humour we were deliberately using.

Now Rotarians know how to have fun – but we don’t all share the same sense of humour. A risk worth taking, and not one size fits all – but isn’t that modern Rotary’s ethos? Analytics of spikes in interest after each post fed into our evaluation and underscored the value of social media.

The wheels of co-ordination and co-operation rolled throughout the ‘Caring for our World’-themed day itself, and a T Rex successfully shared the main stage with a wind-farm scientist, reformed criminal Simeon Moore, and Eddie the Eagle.

Of those who attended, 16% were non-Rotarians, 7 people were in the ‘Join Rotary’ breakout room, with 13 others provided email addresses to find out more – so a key objective was achieved.”

Live chat and evaluation feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

And what of our outcomes? It had a commendable carbon footprint – no-one had to travel, and they could watch in their PJs without judgement.

Of those who attended, 16% were non-Rotarians, 7 people were in the ‘Join Rotary’ breakout room, with 13 others provided email addresses to find out more – so a key objective was achieved.

Thirty per cent said more than one person viewed the conference with them – one person reported five at the screen. Two per cent were under 18 and 86% said they planned to watch part of the conference again afterwards on our legacy website https://district1200.co.uk

Further research showed that 85% of the Rotarians said they were likely to show a presentation from our YouTube channel at a club meeting and 14% would prefer a virtual conference in the future, 27% a blended virtual/face-to-face approach, 25% a one-day event, 14% a weekend, and 20% with no preference.

Among the comments were:

  • “Made me proud to be a Rotarian.”
  • “It re-invigorated my interest in Rotary.”
  • “As a visitor, it opened my eyes to the reach of Rotary.”
  • “The live question and answer sessions were a bonus – when they take place, rarely, at a traditional conference, it takes ages with a roving microphone.”
  • “I didn’t think you could or should do it. I was wrong.”

So hats off to all the District Governors who have managed to deliver a virtual conference this year, and good luck to those incoming, who may or may not have to embrace the virtual world again.

Based on this logistically challenging year, our advice is take chances, try new ideas, use it as a tool to inform and recruit non-Rotarians, and don’t let the Rotary conference friendship flame fade.