This was first published in The Collectors Club Journal. We wanted to share as its a great documentation of going Virtual and pivoting a club when the pandemic first hit.
Wednesday, March 4th at 6pm saw a program given by Patrick Maselis, RDP at our Club house. The topic was The Medallion Issues of Belgium 1849 – 1866. The Club house was filled. The presentation a thoroughly excellent. As you would expect. After Patrick’s talk we strolled over to a local restaurant for dinner. A very good dinner indeed. The table conversation was engaging, in keeping with the company. The Collectors Club at its very best.
In the week that followed, the news reports started to sound bad, very bad. What had been a single case associated with a gentleman from New Rochelle was spreading. Spreading very quickly. We did not know what it really was. The doctors did not know how to treat it. The hospitals were starting to see a dramatic uptick in cases. The city was getting sick.
The city was a war zone and it was no longer deemed safe. We, in the New York metropolitan area, were at ground zero, again, but this time it was a disease and not 757s slamming into the World Trade Center.
On Friday March 13th, we made the decision to close our Club house. Had we waited a few more days there would have been no choice. The state and city both mandated closure.
Our next scheduled program was set for March 18: cancelled
The program after that was scheduled for April 1: cancelled.
We canceled all meetings in April. Then May. Before long we knew that the rest of the year was going to be wiped out.
It was then that we made the decision to bring our programs to a virtual medium.
Easier said than done.
There were many issues to be considered. You just cannot bring a program to a virtual medium such as Zoom and expect it would “fly”. There were a myriad of questions:
This was the first fundamental issue: “how do we let people know what we are doing?”. Without communicating to our members, our audience, it would be like one hand applauding in a deserted forest. How could we let people know about this?
We do indeed have a website, but a website is not a proactive mechanism for communications. It is reactive, people have to know to go there to read and observe what is new. We could not rely on that. We needed to reach out to our people. Problem: our email capabilities were extremely primitive and limited to very simple plain text messages. Not very appealing.
In very short order we implemented a very commonly used mass emailing marketing tool. And in a near miracle of speed and dexterity, our VP & CTO, Joan Harmer, was able to get it up and running with all the email addresses we had for our members. An utterly amazing feat. Breath taking.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, we looked at how other organizations were reacting. We noted that the Metropolitan Opera was offering free access. One opera recording a week. Each week a new opera. Free. The thought occurred that if this was good enough for the Met maybe it was good enough for the Collectors Club.
Based on this “precedent” we started to post past program videos onto our website. Out in the open, available to anyone. A new video every week or so. Given all the stamp shows being canceled and the dislocation in people’s lives, isn’t this the least we could do? To let people know about this, we posted this news on a couple of philatelic bulletin boards.
Now, if we were prepared to post previously restricted video out in the open, what about current material, the live events, the programs themselves as they were virtually delivered? If someone wished to attend a live program in the Club house, they were free to walk off the street and be there. We do have a pro forma requirement that limits people to 2 such events without joining but this policy wasn’t always applicable and maybe not always enforced assiduously.
This matter was discussed with our Board and there was universal agreement: our virtual programs would be available to the entire philatelic community, members or not. Isn’t this really the least that we could do? Isn’t this really in the spirit of what we all stand for?
But, to reach people, beyond those who were members, how would we reach them? A number of philatelic organizations agreed to help us spread the word. The APS has been steadfast at our side. Notices for our programs appeared in their weekly emails week after week. The USPCS, AAPE, US Stamp Society all sent emails to their members on our behave. We also prevailed upon a goodly number of major auction firms to support our efforts: Rumsey, Siegel, HR Harmer, Kelleher, and Harmer International were all truly our partners.
A word or two regarding our commercial partners. Perhaps the most valuable asset an auction house has is its client list, its email list. We all know, too many emails, off to the junk folder, or even worse, unsubscribe. The auction firms had nothing to gain and something to lose. We are truly grateful for their support.
With all this support and more, our email list grew. It now stands at almost 4 times from where we began.
But still, a whole host of issues remained. What would a virtual program look like, how would we run it. How would people log on, how, how, how? Someone had to be the guinea pig and the Club’s president volunteered to go first, he had a presentation ready to go that had been given to a largely empty room at StampShow in Columbus. It was a quick matter to dust it off.
Wednesday, April 13th at 6pm we hosted our first virtual program, “Introduction of Decimal Postage in the United Kingdom”. The video of this event is available in our video archive and it is clearly rough around the edges, but the principle was established. We proved we could create a viable and effective mechanism for a virtual program. More importantly, people came and stayed to the end of the program.
We became committed to putting on virtual programs. Our programs chair, Steve Reinhard managed to quickly re-configure the program schedule to reflect our new found virtual medium. Most of the presenters who had been lined up to come to New York, agreed to join us on Zoom. The few that were not comfortable were deferred to the day when the Club house can be re-opened. We look forward to that day, but when they join us, their program will be live streamed.
As the weeks and programs proceeded we began to realize that a virtual program is not the same thing as a program given from the Club house. We could compare the two experiences, in a sense, as being similar to the differences between a motion picture seen in a movie theatre or a TV program you watch in the comfort of your home.
In virtually all cases, a virtual program’s presenter is seated at a desk or table. The presenter’s face and voice dominates the screen and you, the viewer, are frequently on your own. The impact is not unlike being invited into someone’s stamp room and being spoken to directly you, the viewer. It is a very personal and immediate experience. A very powerful experience.
In short order we entered into a steady pattern of offering a virtual program every other Wednesday. Initially at 6pm, we adjusted our time to 5:30pm and by the end of the year we ended up providing a total of 21 virtual programs, including 2 special offerings at the APS virtual Grand American Stamp Show in August and the UK virtual Stampex event in September. Our presenters hailed from across the US and we have had 2 presenters from the UK. Our program schedule for 2021 will include multiple presenters from not only North America, but France, India, Thailand and Colombia. The virtual medium cuts through the barriers of distance.
Beyond our presenters, we had attendees from not only virtually every state but from every continent aside from the Antarctic. Clearly most would expect attendees from the US and Canada, but we had people from Mexico, Bermuda, the UK, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, France, Spain, India, the Netherlands, Peru, Germany, Isle of Man, Italy,Uruguay, South Africa and many many points beyond.
The numbers have been astounding. That very first program on April 13th, had only 81 people who registered. But these numbers grew very rapidly as our email list grew and we all became more comfortable. Today we typically have close to 400 people registering and close to 300 actually attending. As a point of comparison, our Club house can hold 50 people comfortably, 60 uncomfortably. We are reaching 6 or 7 times that number via Zoom.
You have also seen a response that reflects more than an audience level. You’ve seen the reports on new members. In the midst of all the horror brought by the virus, we have gained numbers of new members without any recent precedent.
All this has been very exciting. We are delighted with the reception our programs have seen and we would like more of our members to be there on the day. Failing that, one could view the programs in our video archive. The purpose of this article is to provide some context for all these virtual programs, the background to their genesis and an invitation to you, our members, to view them in the video archive. For more information on the collectors club head to https://www.collectorsclub.org
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