Going behind-the-scenes at the NFCA Virtual Convention

Going behind-the-scenes at the NFCA Virtual Convention

WHEN YOU take on a project that you've never done before, there's A LOT of uncertainty. Can we pull it off? What do we need to know to make it happen? How do we entice people to join us?

COVID-19 changed our world nine months ago by canceling so many softball seasons and giving coaches some unexpected (and unwanted) time off. Even with a vaccine arriving, it is expected to continue to affect our everyday existence well into 2021.

After the initial shock, we at the NFCA quickly decided it needed to pivot to online learning, not only to keep providing coaches with educational opportunities, but also to provide a place to gather and have a much-needed break from the worries brought on by the pandemic.

We all got very familiar — too familiar, possibly — with Zoom calls in 2020. But what would we have done WITHOUT Zoom calls? For those of us stuck at home for months at a time, Zoom gave us a chance to interact with our friends and colleagues, and really save our sanity in a very uncertain time.

Which leads me to the Virtual Convention.

The NFCA team, led by Executive Director Carol Bruggeman and the Board of Directors, spent countless hours and more than a few sleepless nights figuring out the answers to the questions, "Can we have a Convention this year? How? Will anyone attend?"

Well, the resounding answer to all three is "Yes!" How we got there had some bumps along the way, though.

It was an easy answer that we wanted to have a Convention. But would people attend if it wasn't in-person? So much of the Convention experience is the personal interaction — the social events, the chatting in the hallways with old (and new) friends, and being able to get your questions answered (in-person) in the ballroom and the exhibit hall. So, our team rolled up its collective sleeves and went about how to make that happen.

First, we looked into the feasibility of still having the Convention in Dallas as planned. For anyone who has gone, there is nothing like an in-person Convention to get you charged up about the sport and ready for the coming season.

Fairly quickly, our attention turned to how are coaches, exhibitors, special guests, and even the NFCA team going to get there and safely distance at an event that is built on being in close proximity to others. Would the host hotel even be open to guests, if they could somehow navigate travel restrictions and get there?

So, with much trepidation, but in the interest of safety for all, the only decision that could be made was to go to a virtual event. And that is when the real hard work started.

A lot of that responsibility fell on Director of Events and Convention Coordinator Michelle Vasquez. If you've met Michelle, or have just observed her handiwork by attending one of our Leadoff Classics, Coaches Clinics or the Convention, you know she is a stickler for details and precision. If it's not perfect, it's not right. She continuously goes above and beyond to ensure coaches have an exceptional experience at NFCA events. We have a lot of those kinds of folks on our team.

How does someone plan the details of an event without … well, knowing any of the details? That alone was a big task. Add on having to rely on an outside company we don't know (and haven't worked with before) to collaborate on our pinnacle event of the year, allowing others to help shape attendees' Convention experience, and the stress level goes through the roof.

There were an avalanche of phone calls and emails between Michelle and others on our planning team — including Director of Membership and Video Coordinator Joni McHargue, and full-time intern Saralyn Campbell — to make sure the virtual platform people were staying on schedule and would provide the experience we NEEDED them to deliver to our attendees. At the same time, Director of Education and Program Development Dr. Joanna Lane was taking the lead on choosing the Convention content, securing speakers, and creating the schedule — working hand-in-hand with our three front-line platform liaisons and everyone else to make sure the pieces all fit. And like any Convention, there were A LOT of pieces to fit together.

There were too many spreadsheets, post-it notes, and daily staff meetings to count to help coordinate every little piece of what attendees would see on Dec. 9-11. If I didn't already know what a terrific collaborative team the NFCA staff is, I would know for sure after experiencing the past nine months first-hand.

We knew there were things we needed to do live, but we also knew there'd be things that had to be recorded in advance. And we wanted everything to give you that NFCA feel — even harder to do with everyone at a distance. Joni spent more hours than she'd like to remember, or probably can remember, honestly, after putting that NFCA touch on every single video and segment attendees saw. All of us chipped in to help screen videos and provide edits if needed, but make no mistake: Joni powered all of our video content.

Saralyn was our point person with exhibitors, coordinating booths and answering ALL of the companies' questions and concerns over a virtual format. They know what they are getting with an in-person Convention, but would they get on board with us and have faith that attendees would interact with them in a worthwhile way (to generate sales)? We didn't know ourselves, so how could we assure them that buying space at this year's Convention was worth it? In the end, we hope they got a lot out of it, and our Digital Auction was the best it has ever been.

Like an in-person Convention, the graphics and branding you see are the doing of Director of Outreach and Creative Design Annie Gordon. That was a more important part of the experience than ever this year, with people joining us from their home or office. Our graphics helped tie everything together and provide continuity that was especially vital in 2020 when we couldn't actually be together. Plus, during the Convention, she helped make sure everyone was coordinated and helped Michelle make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be at the correct times.

We didn't have the mobile app this year, but Director of Publications Brian Stanley, was still heavily involved in making sure you had all the information you needed to enjoy your Convention experience. From making an easy-to-read schedule, to coordinating and writing bios for well over 100 speakers, to making sure NFCA.org had an array of well-organized resources, we couldn't have done it without him.

For the cheerful faces you're used to seeing at the registration desk, Director of Finance Jamie Hazel-White and Membership Services Assistant Paula Blumenschein, this was a VERY different experience. First of all, they didn't have to be anchored in one place from before sunrise to after sunset each day of Convention. But while you may not have seen them, they were both working just as hard as ever behind-the-scenes to make sure your Convention experience was the best it could possibly be, getting you registered and answering all of your questions.

And what can you say about our NFCA North Star Carol? In addition to keeping the Association moving forward despite unprecedented times, she was the steady hand motivating our team more than ever to reach new heights and set new benchmarks for what we can accomplish with Convention. Without her, anything we do would not be possible.

I think anyone on the NFCA team would say the hardest part of putting on a Virtual Convention is simply that we hadn't done it before. We plan for more than a year for each in-person Convention. It's a massive project for our staff of 11 to organize, promote, and pull off for well over a thousand attendees every December, even for a group that has now done many of these.

Despite all that, we were excited to be able to provide attendees with more than 120 speakers over the course of three days and 70-plus sessions — many of which were live — as well as an Exhibit Show that featured 73 enthusiastic companies.

We had some new features. The Down the Hallway conversations with coaches from other sports were well-received, as were double the Mentoring Sessions (this year presented by Republic Bank), a second Drills, Drills, Drills session, and a fun and competitive Trivia Night presented by NFCA Official Sponsor PGF. We even added some Q&A content to the program on the fly, after many coaches asked for it.

The Alliance Fastpitch sponsored our always-popular Fireside Chats, while Official SponsorsWilson and USA Softball presented our Grassroots and Softball Summits, respectively, and fellow Official Sponsor Sports Attack backed our clinic content throughout Convention as usual, and did its annual Junior Hack Attack giveaway.

Many coaches told us they were happy to have more than just the three days of Convention — either 30 days or lifetime access — to watch (or rewatch) the content this year. The ability to provide on-demand content gave attendees a chance to create their own personalized schedule during Convention week more than ever, not miss anything, and continue watching content in the days afterward.

Need to break up your day to help your kids with online learning or go run an errand? No problem! Having trouble sitting still for long periods of time in front of your computer, no matter how interested you are in the content? You can stop and come back to it! It was also a chance for coaches, maybe that have another job and couldn't attend Convention in the past, to join us for the first time.

We are not in the business of tooting our own horn, so let's just say we were relieved when everything went off pretty much without a hitch. Hopefully, the biggest issue anyone had at this year's Convention was having to refresh your browser so that the button for the speaker event you wanted to join showed up for you in the virtual platform.

I know I can speak for my NFCA teammates when I say we are humbled by the outpouring of support and recognition for our efforts in bringing this event to softball coaches, in a normal year, but especially during a pandemic when so many other things have been canceled. We didn't know if we'd get 200 or 1,000 attendees; it was just an unknown, doing Convention this way for the first time. So, to get almost 1,500 was pretty amazing, and a great example of the softball community's support of us no matter what their own financial situation is, or whether this Convention experience was going to be very different than past years.

It was especially rewarding to hear coaches were pleased (and a little surprised) by the level of interaction we were able to provide for attendees even though we were all many miles apart. We take great pride in what we do, and we notice each and every note we receive — good or bad — and strive to do even better next time, no matter how well something goes.

So, now that we know we can successfully pull off a Virtual Convention, what do we do now? Hope that it never happens again and look forward to our next 2021 NFCA Convention — in person — on Dec. 8-11 in Las Vegas.

We'll see you soon!

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