Compared to many other industries, the captive community is especially collegiate. Many of us know each other and usually see each other multiple times a year despite not being in the same city, thanks to the array of captive conferences held all over the world.
As everyone on the planet knows, 2020 is different.
One of America’s most popular captive events, the Captive Insurance Companies Association (CICA) conference, was scheduled for early March 2020. Hundreds of attendees were scheduled to fly to Palm Springs from all over the world when Covid-19 hit California. It was the first major outbreak in the USA and situations changed, as they currently still do, within a matter of hours.
On Thursday 5 March, just three days before the conference was due to start president of CICA Dan Towle and his team made the tough decision to cancel the event, in part due to the state of emergency California had been put under.
“We recognise that the timing of this decision may significantly inconvenience some of you, however, this decision was made out of deep concern for the health and well-being of our members, attendees, and all of our stakeholders as you are always our top priority,” Towle said in an email announcing the cancellation.
While CICA was the first captive organisation to cancel their conference, it would certainly not be the last. As the year continued numerous events were cancelled, postponed, or transformed into a virtual event.
The question for the captive industry now is: will conferences ever be the same, even post-Covid?
The Vermont Captive Insurance Association (VCIA) conference is one of the biggest captive events in the world. Held annually in Burlington, Vermont, it attracts over 1,000 attendees to what is the largest captive domicile in the USA.
This year, things were different. As the pandemic took hold of America it was evident to Rich Smith, president of VCIA, that the conference wouldn’t be able to be held in the traditional way. So his team pivoted to a virtual conference with only a few months to prepare.
“We made the decision in March or April, so we had four months,” Smith told Captive Review.
“It’s hard to overstate all the little details you have to convert from a live conference, and how it’s all the more complex.”
While VCIA went very well, Smith said that people watching from the outside may underestimate how much work is required.
While it seems that holding a virtual event may be easier than an in-person one, where you have to organise a physical space, catering, exhibition halls and much more, this really is not the case.
From choosing a virtual event platform, to coordinating live panel sessions, converting a live exhibition hall to a virtual one, and providing opportunities for delegates to talk to each other, the task is enormous.
Smith said that not only is it a lot of work for associations who plan the events, but it has a follow on effect for anyone attending the conference, including organisations with exhibition booths and delegates who have to get involved.
“It’s not only hard work from staff, but from all the folks who were involved. For example, the exhibitors. You couldn’t just sort of flip a switch. You had to create an exhibition booth online,” he said.
“Then there’s the converting all of our content, of our educational sessions to online sessions. That took a lot of effort by the folks who are involved, from the speakers and the coordinators.”
And, as the VCIA president pointed out, much of the work isn’t done by paid staff, but rather the captive community itself helping out.
“These are volunteers,” Smith said. “These are the people who we count on to provide us this great content that we can put out there for the industry. And they were all game.
“Obviously with the need to move from a live session to an online session, there is work coordinating the taping and being there for a Q&A while keeping the same energy that you would normally get at a live conference for this conference. That takes a little work.”
Another large event that has gone 100% virtual due to the pandemic is the Self-Insurance Institute of America (SIIA) annual conference.
Vice President of government relations at SIIA, Ryan Work said that the team had worked extremely hard on putting together the event.
“Our leadership head and our board have been looking at this for months and months because of what’s going on and had had decided earlier this year to move the virtually for obviously a number of reasons,” Work said.
“It really came down to looking at ways that we can continue to provide content and make it interactive while making sure that everybody is safe, but also everybody can access it.”
“We’ve tried to keep we try to keep notes of things that we learn, things that we would do differently if we were to do it next year. Obviously, we learnt a ton,” Smith said.
“And in terms of what it takes to put on one of these conferences and really to do a virtual conference with the captive lounge and the virtual exhibit halls, it takes a lot of time and energy.”
Smith said that while he is extremely happy with how the VCIA Virtual Conference went, he is still hoping that there will be in-person conferences next year.
“My hope is obviously next year that we this is behind us and we’ll be live in Vermont again and bringing all the industry here to Burlington next August,” he said. “But I also feel prepared that we can do the same thing next year if necessary.”
As successful as online conferences like VCIA Virtual have been, it is a truth universally acknowledged that they do not exactly replace in-person events.
Networking seems to be the main concern, as trying to find someone to talk to with on a long list of attendees or participating in a group chat isn’t the same as the casual, spur of the moment conversations you can have while getting coffee at an in-person event.
Virtual networking has been tried numerous ways at the many events that have been held online this year, but nothing can really replicate exactly that in-person experience.
For the SIIA conference, Work said they knew about the added difficulties of facilitating virtual networking, and were working hard to ensure it was as good as possible.
“I think one of the challenges is that people come to conferences for the content, but also to network and to look at business opportunities. And so we’re trying to replicate that as much as we can in a virtual space,” Work said.
Another issue is with attendance numbers. Virtual attendance at conferences seems to be smaller than in-person attendance, with people busy and not away from their work space like they would be at a traditional conference.
“We had about 665 people who registered and we normally get about eleven hundred,” Smith said. “So it’s a little more than half. We’d love to have gotten more, obviously the more the merrier. But I felt good with that group of people. And the other thing about it is the experience of those 665 people will only help us if we do this again next year.
“Based on conversations and observations we had with people who put on other events, we knew you lose attendance when going virtual. We saw one conference that because they flipped everything, they did it for free instead of charging people, their attendance ballooned. Which is an interesting way of doing it.”
While there have been issues with online events when it comes to technology and being at the mercy of your home wifi connection, there have been some benefits to going virtual.
Work said that for SIIA they attempted to ensure as little technological error as possible by prerecording some sessions and having them available in a library for people to watch when they can. This has meant SIIA can actually cover more topics than usual, giving attendees more choice and more expertise.
“Most of them will, in fact, be recorded ahead of time,” he explained. “And the good thing about that is that we can ensure that there’s not technology issues and that they’re in a library format for people to watch.
“And for that reason, we’ve actually added more conference sessions and topics than we normally would have because then people can pick and choose. We have obviously more time than just a three day conference to pack in that content.”
Back to normal?
In September the Alabama Captive Insurance Association (ACIA) held their annual conference – in person. The first in-person captive event since CICA had to cancel their conference in March, all eyes were on Alabama as they ran the event over two days.
Justin Law from ACIA said that one of the most important things for the conference to succeed was ensuring the association met CDC guidelines and made the event safe for attendees.
“We followed CDC guidelines,” Law said. “We were making sure that we had sanitation supplies in abundance, hand sanitiser. We had conference sponsored masks that we were providing for each attendee as they were checking in. We had temperature checks, we were maintaining social distancing.
“It actually turned out to be a very, very nice event. I think a lot of people really enjoyed being able to get back in person and be able to see their colleagues and really be able to catch up.”
ACIA was very happy with the conference, Law told Captive Review, and had an even better turnout than pre-Covid.
“We had roughly 100 attendees,” Law said. “About 60 of those were industry professionals. We had just under 30 risk management insurance students there, and then we also had some regulators there from the Alabama Department of Insurance, along with other states.
“Prior to Covid our numbers were usually somewhere around 65 to 80, somewhere in that range.”
Three weeks after the event, none of the 100 attendees had reported catching Covid-19 either, according ACIA.
One of the current popular topics of discussion is about hybrid options, doing part of a conference live at an event space like pre-Covid, and then also have options for people to watch online if they can’t attend in person.
However after organising both in-person events and now virtual, Smith said that he wasn’t sure about the concept.
“Someone asked me, well, what about a hybrid? And I will say it’s something we need to think about, but they really are apples and oranges,” the VCIA president said. “When we decided to move to online, it really meant converting everything to make it that experience a best experience you can have virtually.
“Really at this point. It’s hard for me to see how you could do both. I mean, certainly you could try to capture live sessions, recording them, then have people able to ask questions remotely as well as live in the room. But honestly, I think you lose some of that energy for the people online.
“So I’m not saying we wouldn’t do something like that. But this conference has been a big lesson. It’s almost like you can’t you can’t go halfway, you have to you can make a decision.”
Looking to the future
The questions remains: once the pandemic starts to subside will in-person conferences come back as big as ever, or will virtual events become more popular?
Smith has said that he is very happy with VCIA Virtual, but doesn’t know when in-person conferences will return. The 2020 experience however, made him confident that virtual events can work.
“I’m so thankful we went through this process because it really gave us it showed us we can do it,” he Smith. “We can put on a credible conference, people can feel good about coming to it.
“We can we can meet the goals of our organisation, which is provide not only top notch education, but allow people to actually network and talk to each other in the industry, which I think is so important.
“I feel confident certainly in VCIA being able to continue that, whether we go live or go back to a virtual event or maybe we do discover a new way to do it through some sort of hybrid.”