Despite the unexpected hurdle posed by COVID-19, The Consortium successfully executed its 54th annual Orientation Program & Career Forum this year while welcoming the largest class in the organization’s history — 532 students. The Consortium made the decision in April to shift the OP from an in-person event to a virtual one out of concern for all constituents.
“Transitioning from an in-person to a virtual conference was an adjustment for all of us, and we appreciated the flexibility and willingness of all of our constituents to still be part of this life-changing event for our students,” says Peter J. Aranda, III, executive director & CEO of The Consortium. “As I participated in different sessions, it was clear that the virtual nature of the event had no effect on the quality or the value of the content being shared.”
Engagement data from the event demonstrate that the virtual OP served as a valuable resource to students and corporate partners alike.
“The experience was certainly different than what our team had originally planned before COVID-19, but we all came away extremely impressed at the flexibility both The Consortium and the students displayed to keep it an engaging event for all involved,” says Ximena Roth, who works in Diverse Customer Segment Marketing at UPS.
As The Consortium’s most anticipated event of the year — where new MBAs are welcomed by their member schools, meet their classmates and peers, network with corporate sponsors and learn more about specific career paths — the OP is an important entry into b-school. Because of this, it was important to The Consortium to not only move forward with the event but to make sure the experience was on par with the traditional in-person event.
“We have learned over the years that OP means a lot to many,” says Janice Wells-White, vice president of program administration for The Consortium. “The relationships that are cultivated and the student engagement opportunities are invaluable, and students consistently report that OP is life changing. The event is also an important part of The Consortium’s value proposition. Students receive pre-conference career prep from schools, gain early access to employers and build long-lasting relationships with classmates.”
An evaluation of several products led The Consortium to select the platform that Wells-White says offered the most functionality, one called Intrado. With 20 years in the virtual event and webcast space, Intrado brought invaluable experience and a certain level of trust. “We wanted a platform that could support our career forum, but also the many concurrent tracks, breakout sessions and workshops that we deliver each year,” says Wells-White.
With Intrado’s help — and lots of planning and communication, as well as late nights and early mornings — Consortium staff were able to transfer nearly all of the in-person programming to the virtual platform, with a few exceptions.
“There were a couple of items that did not translate as well,” notes Wells-White. “In those instances, we were able to create new student engagement opportunities that were congruent with the virtual platform.”
The result was a robust online event and exhibit hall featuring live-video panel discussions with experts about different career tracks and industries, exhibit halls where students could learn about corporate partners and employment opportunities and school chats where they could connect with representatives from their school. Additionally, a networking lounge and a trivia game allowed them to make new connections and test their knowledge. Feedback from attendees, especially students, has been very positive, with many individuals sharing notes expressing their gratitude and detailing the value offered by the event.
“Our students reported that the organization of the conference was on point, especially compared with others that they have experienced — [with] clear instruction and site navigation,” says Lina Bell, director of diversity and inclusion at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. “They especially liked the ‘extras,’ like the Trivia Game. In fact, Rice Business took the No. 1 and No. 2 prize spots. Having that opportunity to [de-stress] and have fun while in the virtual environment was a positive.”
The online format — in particular, the individual space provided each corporate partner — helped spark as well as continue conversations, Roth says.
“By being able to reach out before OP started, we were able to continue quality conversations at OP as well as have introductory chats with new students to our virtual booth,” she says. “Having the ability to upload relevant documents and videos allowed us to advance the conversations quickly since there was often a good basis of knowledge before the student even reached out.”
Brittany Floyd, a member of The Consortium’s class of 2022, also found this feature helpful as it provided students in-depth information about employers. “Being able to access so much data 24 hours a day allowed us to really understand the company and roles [available there] so that when we did get a chance to interact, we could use the time to really dig deep and focus on information that wasn’t otherwise available to us,” says Floyd, who will join the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School this fall.
She says the range of communication options available via OP — such as private and group chats, phone and Zoom meetings and Google hangouts — helped “personalize the experience,” despite its impersonal nature. It also allowed students to speak with one or several company representatives at once. “What we missed out on with the in-person experience was made up for with what felt like unlimited access to recruiters,” Floyd says.
Another benefit of the virtual OP to students was the ease of attending and complete access to all sessions. “In person, students are asked to select one of three career tracks in the morning and one of three in the afternoon,” says Wells-White. “In the virtual environment, any session students missed or couldn’t attend could be viewed later ‘on demand.’”
This was one of many features that students appreciated, says Amy Mitson, director of admissions, recruitment and marketing at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.
“Our students loved being able to watch sessions live and return to other sessions ‘on demand’ when time allowed,” she says. “Alongside our Consortium class, I thoroughly enjoyed the speaker session on authenticity. Post-OP, I heard very positive feedback for the formal sessions as well as the more casual and fun sessions.”
Jen Daw, who works in University Relations at Fortive Corporation, says she found the company booth a great way to connect one-on-one with students. She was most impressed, though, with the individual sessions. “The panels were authentic and engaging — simply outstanding,” she says. “They allowed for large audiences and great follow up conversations after.”
Floyd was also impressed with the quality and commitment of the presenters. “It’s tough to sit at a computer all day, but I felt like all the speakers and panelists were incredibly knowledgeable, down to earth and very passionate,” she says.
For all of the benefits the virtual event provided, having close, personal interactions proved challenging for developing meaningful connections with classmates, Floyd says. “But my class is incredibly resourceful and was determined not to let this format keep us from sharing this unique experience with each other,” she notes. Floyd was charged with managing the class of 2022’s Instagram and is leading an effort to introduce incoming students to their new peers. “The student representatives also coordinated social events over Zoom — happy hours, meditation and yoga as well as live DJ sets to celebrate the end of the OP,” she says.
Mitson says Tuck also made an outside effort to engage with the incoming class. “Prior to OP, our class had connected so much, and had already worked on résumés and mock-interview prep for the Career Fair, that we used our school meeting [during OP] for a Consortium alum meet-and-greet instead of an ice-breaker or mock-interview session,” says Mitson, who expressed gratitude for the quality and content of the event.
“The Consortium team did an amazing job of leading us through unchartered territory very successfully,” she says. “Students, school staff, recruiters and sponsors were all able to connect through the virtual platform. Our students raved about career fair connections and will be arriving at school this fall with a refined sense of their career focus as well as a Consortium cohort they can lean on.”
Despite the last-minute shift in approach it caused, the pandemic ultimately forced The Consortium family coming together in new and meaningful ways, says Floyd.
“It’s such a dynamic time to begin an MBA program, and [the speakers] really empathized with us and made space for us to talk about how we were feeling and what each company was doing to make a path for candidates like us,” she says. “I am a big believer in the fact that people connect easier over common experiences, and I think this unprecedented time actually gave all of us a starting point to connect with one another in an authentic way.”