The Making of CATALYST 2020 Management Consulting Conference: Lessons Learned

By: Craig Mackay & Bernie Uhlich

Thanks to all our members, speakers, guests, non-members and new members who participated in the Catalyst 2020 Management Consulting Conference. To deal with the obstacles, challenges and opportunities presented by the COVID-19 constraints, we quickly pivoted from the initial Live format conference, to one that was totally virtual.  As a result of the format shift, we successfully attracted over 200 management consultants, CMCs, members, non-members, speakers, panelists, students and sponsors.

Achieving the Goal
You do not pull off a three-day conference with 12 sessions, 9 speaker sessions, 3 panel discussions involving 12 additional speakers, live musical interludes and a networking night without having a dedicated team of planners and organizers. The conference was produced by our CMC-Ontario Institute in partnership with various Provincial Institutes and our National Office. Our core team comprised of 1 staff member and 4 volunteers, one from the GTA Council and 3 from the Ontario Council.  Three staff members from the National Office also helped out in the last two months prior to the conference with the marketing, registration and operational logistics. 

Our goal of this conference was to deliver value to members and grow our base of members, renewals and students in spite of the disruptive obstacles resulting from the COVID-19 situation.  We succeeded on all fronts!  

Because of the tireless efforts of our creative conference committee, we delivered a solid program across a broad range of topics for consultants including Big Data, How-tos - Tips and Techniques, Cybersecurity, Sustainability and Social Responsibility, Social Media Marketing – Personal Branding, Future Trends, Organizational Change, Cloud Transformation, Design Sprints, Innovation, and Artificial Intelligence.  Including some of our CMC/FCMC members, speakers were world-class including top executives from HP, IBM, Microsoft, among others. Read more about the best practice takeaways from the sessions here

To enhance the experience and get as close as possible to a live event, we managed to incorporate a Networking Social Event that was a lot of fun and stimulated much member engagement and interactive dialogue; as well we successfully experimented with musical artist interludes – which proved to be a highlight of the show.  Success was enhanced by our Sponsors who contributed to both the speaker program, musical interludes, networking event and enabled participant engagement via the online WHOVA platform. 

From the feedback survey it is clear we hit a home run.  Results indicated 49.5% were Very Satisfied and 42.5% were Extremely Satisfied.  

Lessons Learned from Producing this Conference
Thank you for your constructive feedback in our survey.

Will we do it again next year?  A lot of people have expressed an interest in seeing this done on an annual basis.  98% of survey responders said they would attend a virtual conference like this again, and 80% stated it was good value for the money.  So, in conjunction with our prospective partners, we will look at this possibility. 

Production Tools
For this event, we piloted integrating several new tools and approaches to making this a successful virtual conference.  Tools included Zoom for the presentation and network dialogue engagement; Our new website infrastructure for promotion and links to registration; Eventbrite for the registration process; and the Whova App platform to support pre-event, during event and post-event marketing, promotion, sponsor engagement and visibility, participant engagement and delivery of the post-event presentations and videos.  As many of you consultants are aware, integration points and use of 3rd party Apps add complexity (read cost…) which may impact a seamless user experience.  Based on our limited budget – we did the best we could to make it as seamless as possible.

Integrating the Whova App in conjunction with Zoom had its challenges.  Some found it confusing and some found it easy to use, those folks were split at 30% each.  It turns out that 36% found the Whova App good for networking, which was the main reason we incorporated it into the plans for the conference.  It added an extra aspect to the logistics, but having the Technical Open House for participants the day before helped rectify some of the Whova App difficulties.  Although we were skeptical of the value-add vs. additional complexities of using Whova at first, we pushed for a Plan-B to make sure all attendees could get in directly via a Zoom link.  In the end we believe it added another element of excitement, mobility as well as another point of access and interaction -- so we will give it a 7 out of 10.  When Whova gets the Zoom polls properly integrated into the next version it will be an improvement.  Our work-around on day two was to re-enter all the polls in the Whova chat for people to see and respond to.  This made a huge difference in responses and overall chat activity.  (Yes, we huddled after day 1 assessed the first day, made some changes and forged on).

A key feature of the Whova solution is the ability for attendees to go back and re-play the various recorded sessions and view the presentation materials.  These are available now to all attendees until the end of January, some a bit longer when our license expires. 

Another production hurdle was the need to have one session end, while preparing for the next one right after as well as hosting a musical interlude.  To make this happen without stop-and-go interruptions, we used alternating Zoom accounts so we could stagger the musical interludes.  One account was the Zoom Webinar account (which also allows for “panel” formats) and the other was the Zoom Meeting account (which is better for chats & breakout networking).  To handle our growing registration volumes (a good thing), we upped our respective capacity to 500 and 300 attendees early on.  Even with these features, Zoom alone might have been boring, or the same old same old, so the Whova App despite the challenges definitely added a flair of anticipation and intrigue.

Conference Topics
The choice of topics and speakers was an effort based on member surveys, as well as on topics raised by the initial Conference Committee. These were then integrated into topics selected by the team of five to stage topics that were across various disciplines and would be of interest to independent consultants, as well as to those in larger consulting firms and/or working with larger enterprise type clients.  So, if we did not please everyone with every session, well that was bound to happen.  But, we are pretty sure no matter your background or area of expertise, every session had some nuggets of knowledge. 

In general, we had great support from our sponsors and our partner community. Lead-time and the ability for prospective sponsors to rally their internal support to fund sponsorship was a challenge. In future we hope to engage sooner with a broader range of sponsors in various sectors affiliated with our target market of conference attendees.  An annual event might make it easier to line-up sponsors and present a larger value-add opportunity as well as provide a larger lead time.  But, sometimes an excuse is just an excuse.  When that happens, take it in stride and move on, as we did and this will improve our approach to sponsor engagement going forward.  

There comes a point with the planning and executing of a large event of this nature when the KISS, Keep It Simple, rule had to be applied.  Weekly meetings with the Conference Committee and weekly meetings with the Joint National Office team were key to keep the wheels moving forward.  Bringing in a social media marketing person to work Facebook and utilizing our own staff and internal resources to work LinkedIn were also major new areas of outreach.  It takes time to build a following and leverage these channels – this is something we need to get much better at.  We were successful in incorporating speaker video’s and other marketing messaging, but our marketing and use of social media was still not as impactful as it could be.  We did learn however that the dollars one can spend on social media can be incredible – and needs to be very tightly focused to ensure the desired result.  Hence, it is important to keep a tight control of this - which we did.  We had a small budget here and for the most part stuck to it. 

Reaching out to non-members is an ongoing issue for all associations looking to grow and for all companies looking for new business.  The current COIVID pandemic environment and the changing demographics on how humans interact have made it significantly more difficult and complex for marketing initiatives.

Effective, targeted and integrated marketing both at the personal, local, provincial and national level remains a problem, challenge and opportunity for many of us going forward.  From the positive feedback and the two sessions in the conference that dealt with the Internet and social media we were able to gain appreciation and additional lessons learned to help us get better at this. From our survey feedback: Bridging the Digital Divide feedback results indicated that 77% found it Relevant or Extremely Relevant; and Creating a Personal Brand received the highest praise where 65% of attendees found it Extremely Relevant and 25% found it Relevant - a combined positive feedback of 90%.

There were other great presentations and surprises - check out the recordings on the Whova App.

It may be of no surprise to some, but planning, organizing and running a virtual conference is not less effort than a physical on-site conference, in fact it may be more of an effort.  Having a Plan B is critical - a last minute power failure from the home of a speaker could cause them to not make the event, so we had back up speakers and sessions we could flip to in an instant.  Further, the technology is also much newer and rehearsals for most speakers were required and this proactively fixed a lot of potential glitches and handoff alignment issues before they could happen.

Several positive highlights are worth noting; the virtual conference was attended by members from all across Canada, no hotel costs, no flights.  We intentionally set the times so that all members could attend.  The member engagement and interaction was wonderful and it showed us that we have an amazing diverse, talented and professional group of members.  People you can refer colleagues to and / or interact with to enhance your business or career.

If you want to help plan for a conference next year step right up and throw in your hat, we have a good template from which you can build on.  We are looking forward to continuing our networking with you as we work to increase member engagement and elevate the profession.

Thank you to all who made this terrific event a great success. A reminder to check out our best practices recap to learn key takeaways from the event presenters


Craig Mackay, FCMC is President, CMC-Ontario and Vice President of Nortak Software, responsible for Information Solutions.  Craig is also a Management Advisory Service (MAS) consultant recognized by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) and the Canadian Association of Management Consultants (CMC-Canada).

Bernie Uhlich, CMC is a tenacious Global Supply Chain & IT Transformation Executive and Certified Management Consultant with over 30 years experience helping companies lead and deliver game-changing, breakthrough transformational change results by aligning their Supply Chains and IT with the business, customers and partners to achieve operational excellence.