How Thrivent Financial Launched a Hybrid Event

Pictured: Thrivent Financial’s Steph Pfeilsticker.

Photo credit: a MEETINGSNET article on Thrivent’s hybrid event.


Steph Pfeilsticker, Senior Event Planner with Thrivent Financial in Minneapolis, was recently featured in a MEETINGSNET article on Thrivent’s National Sales Meeting (NSM). Thrivent Financial is a not-for-profit financial services membership organization. Inspired by a presentation from Bruce MacMillan, MPI CEO on the future of meetings, Steph made a point to put MacMillan’s suggestions to work. She provided the planning, justification, execution and delivery of Thrivent’s first-ever hybrid sales meeting, combining their traditional face-to-face meeting with a digital extension.

What follows is a Q&A with Steph, conducted over email.

Q: Tell us about Thrivent Financial, including your role there?
A: Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is a Fortune 500 not-for-profit financial services membership organization who serves its members by helping them achieve their financial goals and give back to their communities. I am currently designing a group at Thrivent to offer virtual and hybrid event services to the organization.

Steph, upon hearing of hybrid events: “I was hooked!”

Q: What inspired you to take your event to a hybrid format?
A: I attended MPI’s CMM (Certification in Meetings Management) program in October 2010. Bruce MacMillan, MPI CEO, welcomed the CMM class and spoke about the future of meetings.  He showed You Tube clips of SAP and Cisco’s hybrid events. I was hooked! I asked myself how I could use hybrid technology at Thrivent. I quickly realized that we needed to extend our reach to more field members at our annual National Sales Meeting. A hybrid event was the answer!

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Q: A MEETINGSNET article noted that you wrote a 46-page business plan for your hybrid event. Tell us more about that?
A: When presenting to leadership, it is important to speak the language of business. My business plan was a tool that I used to communicate to our leadership that I was competent to manage the organization’s first hybrid event at our premier event, the National Sales Meeting. Additionally, I stated my business case loud and clear. We are not offering a virtual stream to save money. We are doing it to give our financial representatives the resources to increase their production. I pulled data from previous events and uncovered that those who attend the NSM significantly increase their production in the three months after the NSM over those who do not attend.

“Measurement is essential for virtual and hybrid meetings.”

The business plan, divided into three sections, included marketing, operations and financials.  The marketing section included research from our field members demonstrating the need for virtual events as well as the following analyses:

  • Environmental
  • Geographic
  • Competitive
  • Market Potential
  • Services Differentiation
  • Position within Marketplace
  • SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats)

In addition to the analysis, I also defined our marketing strategy, positioning approaches and how we were going to determine ROI. Measurement is essential for virtual and hybrid meetings.

The operations section included the following:

  • All partners for the event: virtual platform and streaming, consultants, virtual emcee, internal production staff
  • Complete event schedule which included all virtual-only content was indicated
  • Organizational chart
  • Job descriptions

The financial section included the following three years of financial statements:

  • Statement of Cash Flows
  • Balance Sheet
  • Income statement

Q: Tell us more about your event’s 44-page Idea Notebook?
A: For the face to face event, the attendees had a notebook to write down ideas from each session. I adapted that idea for the virtual audience by including a minute by minute schedule for the virtual stream.  It still included notes to write ideas from each session. Since this was a virtual event, you might expect that I emailed a pdf of the materials to the attendees.

However, there is value in having something tangible for the event. I printed and mailed out the notebooks to the attendees. Attendees rated the notebooks highly and said that it made them feel more a part of the event.

Q: Should every hybrid meeting have a virtual emcee?
Related post: Why Your Hybrid Event Needs a Virtual Emcee
A: Yes, I believe that all hybrid events must have an emcee to connect the virtual audience with the energy of the live venue. In order to create a “television-like” environment, we need the emcee to welcome those remote attendees in.
We understand that a virtual experience is not the same as physical participation in an event, so I also create virtual-only content for my virtual audiences. This includes post-speech interviews with speakers where the virtual audience can ask questions. Also prepared is pre-packaged content designated for that particular audience.  The emcee can very easily facilitate the dissemination of this information.

Q: You found that the RFP process leads to a lot of apples and oranges. How can vendors improve on the process?
A: Ultimately, some sort of standardization needs to take place for virtual planners to better compare virtual platform providers.  When planning my first hybrid, I was challenged when comparing RFPs because providers seemed to put their profit in different areas. I couldn’t easily compare particular line items. There was also a huge gap from the lowest bid to the highest for seemingly the same service.
I think the market needs to spend time educating virtual planners during the RFP process. The time upfront will pay off in the long term as the planner’s comfort level with the provider increases, so does their interest and ability to use the technology to its fullest.

Q: How do you define and measure ROI for the Thrivent National Sales Meeting?
Related: Live Webcast on March 13, 2012 on Online Event ROI
A: The primary business reason for incorporating a hybrid element into the NSM was to give our financial representatives the knowledge to increase their sales production. Based on research I performed with past NSMs, I documented that NSM attendees raise their production over those that do not attend the NSM in the three months following the event.  This year’s data is currently being tabulated so I do not have the ROI for this year as of this date.

Q: Do you think mobile apps (in the hands of on-site attendees) have a role in hybrid meetings?
A: I think giving attendees tools to engage is always the right answer. The ultimate success would be for the onsite attendee to be able to network with the virtual attendees utilizing mobile apps.

Q: What online resources do you rely on to stay current on hybrid meeting technologies and practices?
A: I follow brilliant hybrid event people on Twitter and am a member of several virtual event related LinkedIn groups. We have so much more information as a whole than we do alone.

Q: What does the future hold for hybrid meetings?
In the future, in lieu of saying “Are you attending,” we’ll say “Are you attending virtually or physically?”
A: Hybrid meetings allow planners to cast a wider net to attract attendees. With the heightened availability of technology, attendees are looking for ways to make the most of their time. By allowing hybrids to be a solid distribution channel, we are increasing the dissemination of knowledge and that grows business. In the future, in lieu of saying, “Are you attending XYZ Meeting?” I think we’ll say “Are you attending XYZ Meeting virtually or physically?”

About Steph Pfeilsticker

Steph Pfeilsticker Photo

Steph Pfeilsticker has 14 years of event, incentive and trade show management experience with non-profit organizations, associations and corporations. As Senior Event Planner with Thrivent Financial in Minneapolis, she plans incentive conferences, field events and has a passion for virtual and hybrid events.

Most recently, Steph designed and produced Thrivent’s first hybrid National Sales Meeting.  Determined to show how virtual events could not only save money, but make money, she communicated this value to organizational leadership to bring the hybrid meeting to fruition.  As a result, Steph is now designing a Virtual Strategy Group to offer virtual and hybrid event services to the organization. Steph holds a bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University and an MBA from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.


Post contributed by Dennis Shiao