Vermont Captive Group Readies for August Virtual VCIA Conference

The word event on a cellphone screen with starburst and stars in blue background

July 19, 2020 |

The word event on a cellphone screen with starburst and stars in blue background

As Vermont Captive Insurance Association (VCIA) leadership wrestled this spring with how to move forward with its annual conference, thoughts turned to presenting something that addresses pandemic realities while providing something as close as possible to the usual conference experience.

Ultimately, VCIA announced in April that this year's annual conference August 11–13 would be conducted as a virtual event.

"In some ways, having to make the decision when we did, even though it was tough, it gave us a little breathing room to say, 'OK, we're going to do this, this year,'" said Richard Smith, VCIA president.

"We all wanted to do [the in-person conference], and we were hopeful that things would progress more quickly in terms of opening up," Mr. Smith said. "But there was just a point, I'd even call it a tipping point, at which we said we either have to make the decision now or we'll be stuck trying to pull something together that just won't be as robust as we would've wanted it to be."

Ultimately, VCIA used the time that the early decision afforded them to plan to present a virtual conference that would give people as much of the feel of a live event as possible.

With a number of captive insurance association conferences canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's 35th annual VCIA meeting—though virtual—will be one of the first captive events since the pandemic shutdown.

"I got a little pushback," said Mr. Smith. "But I would say that most members and the industry as a whole were very supportive. I got folks reaching out to me, saying, 'You made the right call.' I know now it's pretty clear, but, even then, they were saying, 'You made the right call.'"

VCIA's online gathering will offer both prerecorded and live presentations as well as areas where attendees can arrange meetings, ask questions, and visit a virtual exhibit hall.

"Not only do we have the sessions, but there's a 3D virtual exhibit hall that you can 'walk through' and see the booths. You can go into a booth, and it opens up, and there's a video or information," Mr. Smith said. "We have the captive lounge, which gives folks a chance to just connect outside of the educational sessions. Folks can either connect in the lounge or take it offline, but just like a conference you want to create as many of those intersections as possible."

While the virtual VCIA conference might not offer the opportunities to meet over dinners in downturn Burlington that the traditional gathering would provide, there is a flip side in the chance to take advantage of more of the educational sessions than an attendee might be able to experience at the in-person event.

The conference is offering 21 sessions with certified professional education (CPE) credits. Conference-goers will be able to not only attend those sessions as they're presented but also take advantage of them for a period of time afterward while earning the same CPE credits.

"When we were talking to not only our board but others in the industry, when we mentioned the CPE, they said, 'That's incredible. For the price you're charging, that's a great opportunity for folks,'" Mr. Smith said. "We realize now that this really was a piece of the conference that got people's attention."

In addition to the conference sessions, Dr. Robert Hartwig, clinical associate professor of finance and director of the Risk and Uncertainty Management Center in the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, will provide a keynote presentation. Dr. Hartwig is a former president and economist for the Insurance Information Institute.

"With everything that's happening—even before COVID hit we were seeing a hardening market and captives responding—so hearing what he has to say about where the economy is going vis-à-vis the insurance world is going to be very enlightening for people," the VCIA president said.

Approximately 50 exhibitors are set for the conference's virtual exhibit hall. While down from the 90 or so exhibitors the VCIA conference usually attracts, Mr. Smith said he's happy with the turnout for this first virtual conference.

"Honestly, I was extremely happy about it," he said. "For our members and the folks who have exhibited in the past, this is a bit of an experiment for them. Most of them have not exhibited in a virtual conference. I think they've given us the benefit of the doubt and stepped up, and we truly appreciate the support."

VCIA will provide incentives such as games and points to encourage conference-goers to visit the exhibit hall. "We're hopeful that once they're in the hall, they'll say, 'This is interesting. This is very helpful for my organization and myself,'" Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith admits that for the VCIA staff and conference committee volunteers, shifting gears to this virtual format has been challenging.

"It's definitely stressful. For the last 30-plus years, the conference has been something the organization had gotten extremely good at putting on," Mr. Smith said. "Not that there weren't hiccups, but things ran like clockwork."

In contrast, preparing for August's virtual conference has been a bit like "flying the airplane and fixing it at the same time," he said. "We still have to go through the same process of putting the panels together—of course, we have a terrific team of volunteers among our members who do that on the conference task force—but we also had to learn as a staff and the members working with us to do it virtually. It's definitely a steep learning curve.

"We are excited because we think this is a new way of presenting materials, and maybe we can reach a bigger audience," Mr. Smith said. And, whatever happens with the pandemic, there likely will be shifts in the way business is done in the future with more people working remotely and perhaps a shift in the way conferences are presented, such as a hybrid format that allows conference-goers to choose between attending in-person or virtually.

What VCIA is learning through the experience of presenting this year's virtual conference should ultimately benefit both the organization and the captive insurance industry, the VCIA president said.

Mr. Smith said he's heard from others in the industry seeking to learn from VCIA's experience in developing the virtual conference. "I'm happy to share our experience," he said. "It's very heartening. I feel the industry is behind us and wants us to succeed."

As an example, Mr. Smith had conversations with Daniel D. Towle, president of the Captive Insurance Companies Association (CICA), which was one of the first organizations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic when it was forced to cancel its annual international conference in March. CICA has since been presenting conference sessions as a webinar series. "I was grateful that Dan shared his experiences of having to cancel their conference," Mr. Smith said.

He suggested that the industry's support for VCIA's efforts this year as well as the organization's willingness to share what it's learning with others is an example of the collegiality often on display across the industry, even among competitors.

"That's one of the things that makes the captive insurance industry a wonderful place to work, that feeling like you're part of a larger team, even if you might be competitors in certain areas," the VCIA president said. "It really makes it a great industry."

In August, the captive insurance industry will have the opportunity to come together again—if virtually—for VCIA's 35th annual conference.

Registration for the 2020 VCIA Virtual Captive Insurance Conference can be found on the VCIA website.

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July 19, 2020