Every church that hosts a conference has had to re-imagine what is possible in the past year. Can we fit everyone into a Zoom call? Will we be able to meet in small groups with true quality and intimacy? If we do it on Facebook, will there be a valid sense of community, or will it be another Covid-era pale shadow of the in-person alternative?
In March, Rev. Sharon Moore and her team St. Andrew Sister's Conference rolled out their multi-day event on the Altar Live platform. The 175 invited guests, all of them new to Altar, felt this was the next best thing to being there.
From the onset, Rev. Moore indicated a desire for a platform for that was "visually alluring" Most everyone on the team was leaning toward Zoom for the Sisters Conference, but Rev. Moore was adamant: "People use Zoom for work, for meetings, family reunions etc. We need something different that is a departure from what everyone is using daily."
Latoya Swagerty, the Audio Visual & Technology Chairperson of Women's Leadership Team for the SISTERS Ministry, was the only one on the team that felt that this was even possible. She took the ball and ran with it, and discovered Altar Live. Her excitement about the platform was contagious, and the team began discussions with Altar to see if the platform could support a full-agenda conference, and not just a Sunday worship service.
They chose Altar Live. With a little imagination, they created a fully interactive conference that will be memorable well beyond the pandemic.
1. A single online venue
The leaders considered using multiple media site to have the greatest reach -- Facebook and YouTube, and/or Zoom, in addition to Altar, so attendees could have a familiar path to watch content.
However, this conference is about so much more than just watching; it is about connecting. The leaders wanted critical mass of attendees together, not distributed across platforms with each person watching alone by herself. By conducting the entire conference in Altar, they could be sure to bring people together.
Even though the entire crowd of attendees would be new to the Altar platform, the leaders had a strong sense that people would quickly or gradually begin to understand that they were attending something much more than just a social media livestream event.
“If we didn’t have this app, we would just have people watching on YouTube and they couldn’t engage."
-- Latoya Swagerty
2. Multi-modal participation
For a 2-day conference, people need a variety of meeting modes to maintain attention and presence. They can’t always be watching video, or always meeting face to face. The St. Andrew Sisters Conference flowed back and forth between styles of participation: watch a keynote presentation video without interruption; participate in a general chat session with everyone; create a private group chat for more personal questions, comments and sharing; spend face-to-face time together during keynote sessions in rows of 2 and 3 and 4; allow for free time on screen and away from the computer.
3. Direct, personal access to speakers
There were several keynotes delivered by multiple speakers. The event included ample time for a Meet & Greet with Presenters. Each speaker had a specifically named table in the Lobby where she would sit, and attendees could join her in small groups to share their impression of the talk, ask follow up questions, and make new connections.
4. Intercessory prayer
This was not just any conference, of course, but also a spiritual retreat. The leaders carved out time especially for intercessory prayer. The women gathered in pairs and groups of three for face-to-face, out-loud prayer.
5. Free time to mingle
As with any conference or retreat, attendees need time to wind down, relax, and enjoy a cup of coffee and some unstructured time with old friends and new acquaintances. The agenda included mix-and-mingle time where participants could simply migrate from table to table in the Lobby.
In fact, this was perhaps the biggest surprise to the conference organizers -- they kept the conference open for an extra hour after its scheduled end because so many women in attendance were still making connections with friends they had not seen since before Covid.
Bonus: Shopping Bazaar
To help defray the cost of the conference, the organizers got creative with the platform to assemble an online shopping experience. During two scheduled breaks, attendees could join an event that included a self-paced video that showcased a wide variety of gifts, self-care and household items available at a special discount at an online merchant. The women could watch the video on their own, or sit together and share ideas or hints with their friends.