March 13, 2020

On Changing the Format of Our Annual Conference

Thirty-nine years ago, we held our first annual conference. We had 175 attendees, including my uncle Bernie. Last year we sold out at over 1,900; this year, we were on track to sell out even sooner at over 2,000. The conference is one of the most important ways we help make employee ownership grow and thrive. It is also over one-third of our annual revenue and provides most of the profit we use to support all the other work we do, such as research and outreach, that is essential to employee ownership but does not generate revenue. We devote approximately the equivalent of three full-time staff people per year to the event. I know many of you really look forward to the conference every year, just as I do. One of my favorite spring rituals is checking in each day on how many new registrations we are getting and looking forward to reconnecting with all the inspiring people I have gotten to know over the years, as well as meeting so many new ones. I come back reenergized for another year, and it is part of why I count my ongoing role as a pretty much full-time volunteer for the NCEO as an extraordinary blessing.

So it was truly painful to have to cancel the in-person conference. Because Minnesota had not yet been very affected at the time we made the decision, we could have held off. On Wednesday, I was calling lots of speakers to see where they stood on the event, and every single one said they were planning to come and excited, with some of them saying they were getting special exemptions from corporate travel rules. But for the last few weeks, all of us on the staff had been grappling with what was the right thing to do. I know many of us had sleepless nights. By Thursday morning, when we gathered the people involved in the meeting, we all knew there was only one responsible choice, only one right thing to do.

We had been thinking in general terms about what a virtual meeting substitute would look like and had a pretty clear concept. We are all working very hard right now on the specifics, getting lots of good advice from people with experience. I have already spoken to a number of people who are excited about the idea. Our meeting staff, Ivette Torres and Jordan Boone, are doing amazing work.

This change will have a major impact on our budget. Part of our vision has always been to be self-sustaining. Our staff has worked hard, and often made sacrifices, to build the reserve we will use to cover this, but now we will need to rebuild it. I hope members can understand why we are asking those who do not want to attend the virtual event to consider donating their registration fee to the NCEO. However, we know that many of you are struggling in this turbulent economy, and we completely understand if that is not feasible. I think you will find the event very useful, though, and well worth the investment.

These are very difficult times for all of us. As the experts all say, we will see the other side of this. The employee ownership community survived prior crises by showing how much it cared for its employees, customers, and communities, and I know that will be the case now too.