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Hosting an Internet conference.

A first-time Internet conference linking Rotary scholars offers lessons in organizing an online forum.

When Rotary International, Evanston, Illinois, wanted to link constituents around the world in a half-day conference, it turned to - what else - the Internet.

Rotary International provides grants for study abroad, each year sending approximately 1,300 college-age students to study in a country other than their own. The organization wanted to find a way to tap the power of the Internet to keep Rotary scholars and scholarship alumni "in the fold," inspired and connected to the organization and to their counterparts studying in other parts of the world.

In April 1998, Rotary conducted its first Internet conference to celebrate its half-century of providing educational programs. The four-hour global online forum linked 600 Rotary scholars studying in 30 countries in addition to 200 scholarship alumni, Rotarians, and members of the media.

Students attending the virtual conference registered via password and created their own Web page, complete with a photo and stories about their experiences abroad. Web pages were accessible to conference registrants two weeks prior to the event. On the day of the event, scholars visited tire site's futuristic-looking lobby to meet and greet, pick up a conference agenda, watch a videotape about the scholarship program, and download a souvenir booklet if they wished before venturing off to the plenary sessions.

A pre-conference questionnaire allowed students to identify topics for hour-long chats moderated by Rotary alumni. Rotary's three main forum sessions covered world conflict and resolution, challenges facing developing nations, and scholarship and volunteerism in the 21st century. In addition, students commented on a host of other global topics via bulletin or message boards.

Organizing the conference

As with any first-ever event, organizing the online forum was more complicated than expected - even with the help of a technical consultant, representatives from Ichat Software, and an Internet service provider. Based on Rotary's experience, here is a summary of steps involved in hosting an Internet event.

1. Evaluate in-house capabilities. Consult with MIS (management information systems) and Web staff to determine the existing level of Internet event expertise. The technical person coordinating a live Internet event must have excellent interpersonal skills - not just "techie" skills - and ideally be familiar with chat-based events.

Creating Web pages is only one small part of conducting an event like this. Most of the work involved in creating a Web site is done before anyone ever sees it. When the site goes online, the webmaster has the luxury of being able to change the look and feel as often as he or she wants. A live chat event requires significant upfront work as well as ongoing, "seat of the pants" decision making.

Conducting a live Internet event like Rotary's completely in-house requires a webmaster to devote at least 25 percent of his or her time over the course of six months. This time frame takes into consideration a steep learning curve, which exists even for Web-savvy staff. Complicated chat software must be mastered, program elements developed and tested, advance promotional notices regularly sent out, and any surveys or advance information-gathering forms uploaded. In addition, as more is learned, more possibilities emerge, resulting in new event features constantly being added.

If an organization decides it lacks sufficient in-house expertise, Web staff can still play a useful role as members of the coordinating team and in training moderators and other staff. Some organizations may find it necessary to hire a technical and design consulting team. Ask colleagues and friends for recommendations, check listings in the technology section of the daily newspaper, or contact the local Chamber of Commerce for names of Web design companies. Reference checks are essential.

MIS and Web staff also need to determine if the organization has sufficient in-house server capacity to carry the event. If it does not, a local Internet service provider becomes necessary. To reach this decision, make a derailed list up front of desired program elements. Rotary's features included video, audio, password access, animation, and Web page creation, in addition to chat and message boards - a wish list that mandated working with an Internet service provider.

2. Develop the concept for the program and establish goals. The more ideas, the more dynamic an event can be. Appoint a small interdepartmental event committee and team leader to brainstorm, hire and manage consultants (if needed), coordinate participant and media outreach, and oversee event logistics. Limited staff time combined with the lack of in-house expertise on live Internet events and chat software convinced Rotary to hire a technical consultant.

It's also a good idea to set specific goals and ways to tell if the goals were met. Rotary set two informal objectives for its online global forum, which was understood by all to be experimental from the beginning:

* Build a sense of community among scholars.

* Conduct a distinctive event with the potential of attracting media attention and heightening awareness of Rotary's scholarship program.

Several factors indicated success in meeting these goals, including registration of 600 students, positive scholar and alumni feedback, and error-free progression of the conference.

3. Select chat software. Just as word processing software enables a personal computer to produce and modify documents, the Internet also requires software to achieve Web-based communication. While a number of companies distribute chat software, Rotary selected Ichat, Austin, Texas, on the advice of its technical consultant, who gave the company high marks for its level of experience and technical support. The company lived up to its reputation by providing assistance on critical aspects of the project when things weren't working out.

Ichat is also easily customized and offers a vast array of chat and message board features. An essential element for Rotary was Ichat's ability to restrict access to the event site to a group that would be assigned passwords. Buyers own the rights to lifetime use of Ichat, which cost Rotary $4,000.

4. Design the event. Once the in-house team, any consultants, and an Internet service provider (if needed) are in place, it's time to begin designing the event. Rotary modeled its thrum on an actual conference complete with the following:

* an audience - the scholars and their personalized Web pages;

* plenary sessions - taped audio of speakers;

* hallway networking - instant message features that allow participants to engage in private conversations;

* breakout sessions - chat rooms; and

* feedback - electronic surveys.

5. Evaluate the event. Schedule a debriefing session with the coordinating team and consultant - if one is employed - following the event to identify what went well anti what might be changed in the future. Rotary also subsequently debriefed with its entire scholarships department.

Anticipating future changes

Because Rotary's online event was a first for the organization, the learning curve has been steep. Briefly, following is an overview of what Rotary will do differently if it decides to host another Internet conference in the future.

* Hire a consultant with a proven track record in organizing Internet events. A consultant's learning curve is costly and can consume valuable staff time. Identify a technical consultant affiliated with a Web design team to ensure synergy and cooperation throughout the process.

* Take into account the variety of hardware and software that will be used by participants. Design the site to be accessible to the largest number of participants. It may be necessary to sacrifice a more dynamic site environment for one that is easily reached by participants. For example, many of Rotary's scholars were unable to download the necessary software to view the scholarship video.

* Hold the event during an extended period of time rather than a portion of one day. This method will better accommodate time zones and enable more people to participate.

* Keep the organization's departments fully informed throughout the planning process to share the sense of ownership and stake in the outcome of the event.

* If operating in a multilingual environment, consider translation requirements early on to enhance the outreach of the Web site and encourage greater interaction among participants.

* Finally, if an event goal is media outreach, start selling the event 8-10 weeks in advance, a strategy that takes publication deadlines into account. While an Internet conference certainly is high-tech news, don't limit media outreach solely to this audience. Develop news releases that focus on human-interest stories relating to the participants as well as on special interests (e.g., education, health care).

Most technology reporters are far more interested in how business is being conducted or will be conducted online. Interest is not as high in not-for-profit uses of the Internet, even though Rotary's event was, in many respects, extraordinary. According to Ichat, only about 10 percent of users combine the number of features in one event - audio, video, chat, message boards, pre-assigned passwords, pop-up survey questions, instant messages, and so forth - that Rotary did.

Rotary's online forum was well-received and laid a solid foundation for future Internet events. The organization is considering ways to build on the forum by creating interactive uses of its Web site. Weekly or monthly chats, ongoing bulletin boards, and live Internet guests and discussions are just a few of the options now trader consideration.

Perhaps the enduring value of the conference can best be summed up in an e-mail message from a Rotary alumnus: "Thanks Rotary, for using the latest technology to bring us together."

Pam Smith is public information manager for Rotary International, Evanston, Illinois. E-mail:
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Author:Smith, Pam
Publication:Association Management
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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