Back in 2019, fresh from the excitement of the New England regional conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I said YES to a very important commitment: to step in as co-director and help plan and run the spring conference for 2020 and 2021.
Little did we know back then that the world was about to be hit by the COVID pandemic, with all its devastating ramifications.
It takes time to plan an in-person conference with as many moving parts as ours — from workshops to critique sessions to sit-down meals for almost 700 attendees. By the time 2020 arrived, we had most of it done. Registration opened amid growing concerns about global health, but we shrugged off the whispers — we’d be fine, right? This wasn’t going to impact New England.
And then, in March, everything began to shut down. We all watched in horror as the death toll worldwide began to rise. This was big; so much bigger than our concerns over a weekend event. By April, it was clear that COVID was everywhere, and that the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Even if state mandates hadn’t done the job for us, there was no way we would have put our members at risk. There was nothing we could do except cancel the conference. A few people mentioned moving online, but it was far too late by then to shift a huge event to a virtual platform. We honored the agent/editor critiques that had been booked by holding an online critique day but postponed the rest of the planned activities.
After a hasty phone meeting, my co-director Casey and I agreed to stay on an extra year. To run the 2020 conference in 2021. Because back then, we still thought COVID would be solved by the end of the year, maybe even by summer.
We all know what happened to the rest of 2020. Infection rates dipped, then rose. New strains emerged; studies and data brought terrible insight on the aftereffects of coronavirus. Death numbers worldwide kept climbing. The race for a vaccine was on, and masking up became a permanent and no longer temporary measure. By October, it was clear that there was no way we could plan an in-person event for 2021, due to the amount of time it takes and the uncertainties ahead. We made the call and emailed our membership and our faculty: 2021 was going virtual.
So, how to plan an online conference? How to turn our Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey into a spark of light at a dark and difficult time?
First of all, we polled the faculty of our canceled 2020 event to find out who was interested in doing a virtual version of their workshop. We had already decided we would do a streamlined event — there was no way we could attempt the almost 70 workshops we usually do at the in-person conference. There would be no critique sessions; the New England SCBWI already holds 4 virtual agent/editor critique days throughout the year, so there was no reason to add to this. And we would have to cut a lot of the side events that have become tradition, like illustrator challenges and the pitch practice party. We knew what we DID want: to provide a weekend of craft and inspiration, something that would help boost creativity during a time when a lot of writers and illustrators are finding it hard to produce work.
We were delighted to hear back from 21 of our faculty, who came up with alternate versions of their workshops for us. We decided to add ask-a-mentor sessions in place of the agent/editor critiques, and we tossed in an Open Screen to substitute our traditional Open Mic night. We kept the two planned keynote sessions with Padma Venkatraman and Mike Curato, but changed the Friday night opening event to a Conversations with Two Legends, with Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, to be moderated by Heidi Stemple. And we came up with the idea of keeping a dedicated Zoom meeting open throughout to double as reception desk for issues and a social space, with themed breakout rooms for drop-in mingling.
By the time mid-April 2021 rolled around, we were set. We had our platforms prepared, thanks to Assistant Regional Advisor and tech goddess Christy Yaros. We had our programming in order, thanks to my co-director Casey Robinson. We had our Zoom hosting and moderating volunteers lined up and waiting (that one was my job!). And we had our Regional Advisor Kristine Asselin to do all the number crunching and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic wizardry. We were ready to make Finding Joy in the Journey a virtual reality.
<See also Part II: virtual goes live>