Medical Alumni Weekend (MAW) is an annual event often held in early November, with the goal of engaging our alumni through educational programming and social activities to strengthen their connectivity to Duke and with their classmates. Educational programs typically include a broad range of interests such as the Dean’s Conversation, departmental Grand Rounds which feature specific topics, and this year, a session on Duke’s response to COVID-19. Social activities include class reunion gatherings and campus tours, and the signature event of the weekend is the Half Century Society Medallion Ceremony. Despite the pandemic, we went forward with a virtual format for Medical Alumni Weekend Schedule 2020.

Not every event offered at an in-person events was suitable for a virtual experience, and so we made some strategic choices to exclude events that would not adapt well. For instance, the donor reception doesn’t have a formal program, it is simply a cocktail party where all of the guests are able to socialize, which would have been challenging to recreate virtually. Likewise, we opted not to hold the awards dinner program this year. If we can find a way to execute it well, we would certainly consider adding it back into the schedule for future virtual gatherings.   

The campus tours we offer during Medical Alumni Weekend are always popular features. The Lemur Center tour always sells out. No matter how old you are, with or without kids, people love going to the Lemur Center! For MAW 2020, we offered virtual tours as on-demand content that everyone could enjoy at their convenience, with no capacity restrictions. Besides medical campus tours, we also worked with the Nasher Museum, Duke Gardens, and the Lemur Center for video content, and we even discovered a virtual Chapel Climb video to add to the selections. 

What elements did you incorporate in your virtual event to engage attendees? 

One of the most interactive events of the weekend was the Medallion Ceremony for the Half-Century Society. Alumni from the Class of 1970 were mailed their medallions ahead of the event. Attendees were welcomed from the Zoom waiting room into the event to the sound of Duke’s alma mater. After remarks from special guests, the inductees all draped their medallions around their necks, at the same time on camera, some with the help of family members.  Next, they were led in the traditional recitation of the Hippocratic Oath, followed by remarks about the class gift, ending with time for informal conversation. To conclude the event, attendees were treated to a view of their class composite photo from fifty years ago, and a uniquely memorable Zoom-style class photo was taken. 

Other class reunion parties utilized the Zoom Meeting format, with larger classes also using breakout rooms. These Zoom sessions were ninety minutes, and some even ran long! While our alumni couldn’t be together in person, they really did enjoy this virtual alternative. Based on this success, we chose to add a few breakout sessions during Medical Families Day on March 20, to encourage more interaction. 

How did you measure the success of your virtual event? 

Our ROI is hard to navigate fully for an in-person event, much less for a virtual format.  Fundraising is always a big part of reunions, and while 2020 was below previous gatherings, the final numbers exceeded our expectations. For MAW 2020, we measured success by registration numbers, event attendance, and whether registrants had attended previous reunions. Many attendees, who had schedule or travel conflicts in prior years, attended their first reunion in 2020. It was exciting to reengage these alumni, including some who had not been back to campus in forty years! 

Attendee satisfaction is also a top priority, largely impacted by the ease of registering for and attending the virtual events. CVENT was our registration platform, and Jeremy Houser was instrumental in making the registration process easy. Cvent also worked well for sending session specific email reminders with Zoom links to attendees.  We had no problems with people logging in to their specific events. 

Like many others, our team has been exploring registration and attendance trends. Our registration numbers were great, though we did see the 50% attrition rate that has been common in the virtual landscape.   We anticipated that virtual attendance from one of our older audience groups, the Golden Blue Devils, would be lower than for an in-person event. In fact, their virtual registration was good, but there was still a number of no shows. On the other hand, for some events, like the Dean’s Conversation, the initial virtual registration was actually higher than the in-person event, yet we still saw higher attrition than in-person.  With virtual audiences, there are so many variables outside the scope of a planner’s control. We have learned that timing which works reliably in-person does not necessarily translate to virtual events. We did discover some virtual time slots which yield better attendance than others.   

What else did you learn from planning this virtual event? 

Because most of our attendees are practicing physicians, we scheduled the bulk of our offerings on Saturday: two educational sessions, a signature event, and eight class gatherings. Attendees may have participated in four hours over the course of the day, but our staff had to cover events from 11am through 8:30pm. We intentionally scheduled thirty minute or one-hour gaps between programs on Saturday to provide breaks for attendees but especially for staff. As it turns out, thirty minutes was not enough. Some events ran over, and some of us working back to back events had to improvise and turn host privileges over to other staff if we were to have a short break and start the next event on time. Next year, if we are doing this virtually, we will need to consider these lessons when we make our schedule.    

What advice do you have for colleagues planning a similar event? 

Too often at events we are talking at our audience and not trying to engage them in conversation. Years ago, I remember a day-long board meeting which ended with time for board members to ask questions. One board member replied, “If you want something from us, just ask. We are busy people and listening and being informed is great, but at the end of the day, just let us know the action item.”  I still remember that and try to apply it when it comes to events.   

This challenge is especially true of virtual events. So, take the time to think about what you want to accomplish in a virtual event. If the audience cannot relate to the content from the beginning, they will be disinterested and log off.  Capture their attention right away, so they want to stay on and hear more. If we don’t have action items for the audience, what is their take away? Why are they on the call?  Why should they attend?  These are questions I ask! 

After many months of thoughtful planning and detailed preparation, it was so satisfying for me and my team to see people happy on their Zoom calls and interacting with the program. The success of Medical Alumni Weekend is a credit to the entire team: Brie Russell, Stephanie Lowd, Clark Conner, Stacy Davis, Sarah Nicholson, Crystal Grimshaw, Trina Marko, Susan Thayer. It’s amazing how our team members transitioned to doing virtual events, and how much we’ve all learned from each other!  


Virtually yours, 

Brenda Rimmer 

Associate Director, Strategic Events 

Duke Health Development and Alumni Affairs 


Kathy Wright, Editor