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Industry Conference Spotlight: Fall NIC The Essential Virtual Experience

Brian Jurukta, President of NIC, discusses the Fall NIC Essential Virtual Experience and what attendees can expect from the platform. The conference will include new features plus a revised number of sessions that are shorter in length to keep the attention of those that are attending as well as create a simple way to fit in multiple sessions.

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Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast on a very special episode for a conference spotlight. We’ve got the one and only Brian Jurukta. He is the president of NIC and welcome to the show. 

Brian: Excellent, and thank you so much for having me, Lucas. 

Lucas: Well, this is exciting. So, Josh and I have been long time NIC attenders. I have the privilege of serving on the Future Leaders Council and it’s one of our favorite conferences to attend every single year because the people that we get to meet and our friends and interact with and the content, it’s top notch and you guys do an incredible job. 

And so now we’re in a different world, right, Brain? We’re in the world of virtual and a lot of people have questions about what is that going to look like? How do we go through with virtual conferences? What can we expect? And so this is a great opportunity to shed some light and bring attention to exactly what NIC plans for the fall conference. So Brian, I’ll pass it off to you. 

Brian: Excellent. And again, thanks for having me and thank you for the opportunity. Certainly I hear you loud and clear, right? As we move in or as we continue in this virtual world, what does a gathering like NIC, like the NIC look like in the virtual world? And so it’s something that we spend a lot of time, energy and effort, of course trying to figure out what are the tools and activities that our attendees really require to help achieve their business objectives. 

And so we started off by asking the question of our attendees: what are their main objectives out of the conference? And A, number one above everything heads and shoulders above everything was: we want to kind of maintain and build new relationships and connections. That’s our number one objective. It’s the efficiency of having everyone there at the same time to go ahead and have those conversations and get them really get a good sense as to, with whom should I be partnering or are there new partners out there? 

The second big objective is to get a pulse on the state of the industry. And in a time of rapid change like this, it is more important than ever to get together to have these conversations so that at the end of the NIC, you have a sense as to where things are and what the foreseeable future at least looks like. 

And then the third big component of course, is education. We have fantastic volunteer leaders that spend a significant amount of time really curating some of the best educational content out there.

So as we kind of figured those were the objectives, we then took a step back and said, well, how do we achieve this in a virtual world? And what was immediately obvious is you can’t just take two and a half days of an in-person conference and translate that into a virtual world. It just doesn’t work that way. One of the pieces that was most immediately obvious was that even from a timing perspective you can’t have sessions that start sometime around eight in the morning or so and then go till about five in the afternoon because of the time zone difference and people are going to be in different time zones. And so immediately we said, well, we’re going to have to kind of split this up. 

And what we’ve done is we’ve really divided the conference itself into an educational week where we’ll have 40+ educational sessions plus NIC Talks plus main stage sessions from about noon Eastern, till about five or six in the evening. And so when we go to five or six, there’ll be some kind of networking event or virtual happy hour in the evening. 

Then we have a Connections Week, which will be the 13th to the 15th of October. And that connections week is going to provide the opportunity to get to the other and really learn from others as well as meet others. And I’ll go into kind of some additional details later.

And so that’s kind of a conference, but then we said, you know what? This is really more- to help achieve those objectives, we need to really think of this more of a fall experience. So it’s not just the conference itself. It’s also the ability to connect outside of the conference. Cause in this virtual world, again, even trying to connect during a conference is sometimes challenging because life gets in the way of virtual conferences even more so than if you physically go and travel to a place and you’ve invested in the airfare, the hotel, the lodging and everything that goes with that. If you’re physically there, you’re not going to miss out on something because that time is really going by. However, in the virtual world it’s a lot, sometimes it’s actually harder to block that time off. 

And so we said, let’s turn this in the fall experience and combine the conference itself with a new tool that we’ve developed called the NIC Community Connect. And the Community Connect, think of it as kind of a directory of everyone that’s active. All the NIC constituents are active in the seniors housing and care space. Imagine the variables upon which you want to understand whether or not someone’s interested in a product or service, imagine knowing the answer to that before you even go up and talk to someone. 

And so at a traditional in-person conference, at a NIC conference, you may walk around and say, you know what, I’m interested in having a discussion with an operator around my products or services. And so what we’ve done in this tool is as someone signs up for the tool, we ask for their profile, and part of that profile is I’m an operator. I have five properties, their assisted living properties in these two states. I’m interested in these sources of capital and these services. And then on the flip side, we’ll ask you the same questions of capital providers. So I’m a debt provider, I offer this type of debt in these regions for these types of communities or I’m a service provider and provide these services.

If there’s a match between those two, there’s an opportunity for the two to go ahead and message one another on the platform. So it’s the most efficient way possible to find that person you’re looking to do business with and really connect people in a world where you may not be in the same place and same time. So arguably from that perspective, it’s more efficient than an in-person meeting down the hall. You may know the person’s an operator, but that operator may not be interested, right, in the services you’re providing. This is going to allow you to very quickly go ahead and narrow down that list and say, yeah, these are the five, six, ten, dozen people, whatever that list is, and as more people join this platform, the NIC Community Connector, the more people will be able to participate in that network event and connect with others and establish the right relationships for doing business.

And so that’s the fall experience. And so anyone that signs up for the event will also get complimentary access to the NIC Community Connector through the end of the year to connect 24/7, 365, right? Any day, you can go on there and look to see which new people have joined and like any platform, you know, additional features will be added over time as we build out the platform itself, whether it’s a communications mechanism, additional messaging features, so on and so forth. 

Now back to the event itself what I mentioned is we do, of course, have the educational sessions. One of the pieces that we realized early on is you can’t- in the in person world, you can have a 60-minute or a 75-minute in-person session. In a virtual world, you’ll be lucky to keep someone’s attention, right, for 60 minutes. You’re going to have to do a lot of singing and dancing to make that happen. And so we immediately said, well, you know, we have to cut this down to about 30 to 45 minutes. In some cases we will have hour sessions, if the topic warrants. But typically 30 to 45 minutes and a lot more focused. So in an in person session, you could have 60 to 75 minutes talk about the impact of changes in the lending landscape for seniors housing and skilled nursing. But in a virtual world in a shorter session, it will likely be one for seniors housing and a separate one for skilled nursing instead of covering both nuances within one session. And so we’ve increased the number of sessions, made them shorter to keep the attention of those that are attending.

The other interesting thing is going back to kind of the in person versus a virtual NIC. In the in-person NIC, you’re used to running into people in the halls, and we should still have some of those opportunities in a virtual world. So the virtual platform that we’ll have, you’ll actually be able to, when you log in and you’re navigating your way to your educational session, if you’re interested in, or you’re navigating to our partner spotlight zone, because you want to have a conversation with one of our partners, you’ll be able to see everyone that’s on the platform at that time. And you can actually get the list of everyone that’s on the platform and you can message them right then and there and say, hey, Lucas, great to see you. We’d love to catch up after this, you know, and you can chat with them in the session, you know, after this session, why don’t you give me a call? Here’s my phone number. And you can give him a ring right then and there, or let’s catch up, you know, later, later this week or whatever that time period is. 

But recognizing again, that in a virtual world, that ability to run into one another, that to I ran into in the hallway, that’s going to be a similar experience in the virtual world and so on. And you’ll be able to see people on the platform as well as people within, I was going to say a physical space, but in a virtual space and a particular meeting area. 

Lucas: It’s so interesting to hear that. It answers a lot of questions for me and Josh, you know, for you to be a developer and operator, what kind of questions come to mind for you? 

Josh: Well, I’ll tell you what, Brian, you answered a ton of my questions because the number one question in my mind really encompassed all of what you just talked about but: how do we possibly get the NIC experience in a virtual conference? And that’s the real thing. What you may not know, Brian, I don’t know if we’ve told you this story, but just to give you a kind of a full circle for me that I’m having right now in my mind while we’re talking. Lucas and I, about three years ago, standing in the hotel lobby in Chicago at the NIC Conference, literally among a lot of thought leaders- we love going to that conference- and we said to ourselves, how in the world do we ever possibly take all of this thought leadership and connect it to a wider audience in a more convenient way? And because more people need to experience this and because of maybe travel circumstance or whatever reason, they couldn’t make it. 

And we actually formed Bridge the Gap about three years ago. Now three years later, who would have thought, we’re talking about a virtual conference on the Bridge the Gap platform with Brian. So I’m having this full circle moment right here, but that experience you’re exactly right. I love how you touched on each one of them. And I’m also one of the things I didn’t realize, even after me and Lucas have talked with your team a couple of times about the event, I didn’t realize the value proposition of being able to connect with people long after the conference is over for, through the fall experience as I believe you referred to it. So I think that’s brilliant. 

And I think in these virtual platforms, as we’re all learning this year, the big thing that we feel like we have been missing is that experience. So I want to, first of all, say, thank you. Thank you, thank you for taking attention to that level of detail to every aspect of the conference experience to make sure virtually that can be experienced. So kudos to you guys.

Brian: No, I mean, thank you. It’s our first time and we are, believe me, we’ve been working hard and we are trying to make the best kind of attendee or participant experience possible. And we’re very hopeful to do that. I will not, unfortunately I will not be surprised if there’ll be some coalitions and you know, particularly in a world where you make decisions around whether or not content will be fully live or, you know, should we pre-recorded? So for example, NIC Talks, right, the fantastic content we’ll be able to produce. We have the CEO of ARP, Jo Ann Jenkins participating. Thrilled to have her as well as Krista Drobac; she’s executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care and several other fantastic speakers, all answering the question: how will COVID-19 impact the future of aging and aging services?

And those are typically in 12-minute speeches and Ted Talk-style speeches. And I think those will be particularly insightful in this day and age. But as we make a lot of these decisions in producing this overall experience, it’s our first time, it’s intimidating. But as you know, even as we look at the NIC Community Connector, as part of the broad Fall Experience, crisis breeds innovation, and I do think the NIC Community Connector will become more powerful as the number of participants grows over time. 

Imagine a world where there are 6,000 people that are active right now in the space looking to connect with others and have a vibrant online community. One of the other powerful pieces about the tool itself, though, is you have the ability of saying, contact me for these products and services, but if you’re not interested in these products and services, please don’t contact me, right? Because what you don’t want is you don’t have that spam experience. And that’s the equivalent of walking down the hall and at a conference, right, and you’re trying to get to someone or a meeting and being polite and having conversations with many people in between point A and point B. This is a much more efficient way of kind of accomplishing that objective. And so we would see a time when we were able to do that. 

And then one of the other features we’re actually developing for the NIC community connector is whether or not you’re familiar with dating apps, we’ll just say there are dating apps out there that allow you to swipe right and swipe left as to whether or not you’re willing to have a conversation. So we’re actually developing one for the platform where you can say, hey, am I willing to have a conversation with this person? Yes or no? And if both people say yes, the second person to say, yes, we’ll have the opportunity of reaching out and say, hey, you know, it looks like we’re both interested in having a conversation. Let’s set up a time to chat. And so that’s the opportunity to really say, gosh, hey, you know, we’re both interested in having a conversation in the products and services, you know, that you’re offering or that I’m interested in. 

And if you think of advertising and marketing overall, it’s not really advertising. I mean, advertising, if you will, if it’s a product or service you’re interested in at that time, then it’s a benefit, right. It’s like, oh my gosh. Yes, I’m interested in knowing about that. That’s exactly what I want to learn about. So tell me more

Lucas: Exactly. You know it’s funny. It was over 10 years ago, I met my wife on E-Harmony back when it was weird to do that. And, you know, there’s a funny saying that’s very, it goes around at NIC that it feels like it’s speed dating, right? It’s something that’s commonly mentioned at NIC. So I’m glad that you pointed that out. That should be fun. 

And then also it sounds like it’s gonna be very beneficial for a lot of the decision makers to kind of streamline their experience and connect with the people that they want to connect with in a way that makes sense virtually and what a great opportunity too, as you mentioned, these challenges, the NIC organization is taking them on and addressing them and saying, how can we make this valuable for the virtual attendees? You know, one of the other things that commonly comes up at the end of the conference is, gosh, NIC puts on the best NIC Talks, there’s the best content in the industry. And I was so booked up on meetings that I didn’t get to attend the ones that I wanted to attend. What a great opportunity here for people, as you space this out into more of an experience that they’re going to actually get to attend some of this amazing content that you guys produce, because they’ll be able to designate those time periods to do so. What a great opportunity.

Brian: I think you’re exactly right. I mean in this virtual world since mid-March or so when most folks have been in some kind of lockdown or stay at home, if you will you know, certainly the ability to deliver contents at a time, kind of on demand content, you know, whether it’s Netflix or in this case, NIC Talks or educational content, it’s almost an expectation, right? And so all of the educational content will really be available subsequently for consumption for anyone that registered to the conference which is the ability to go ahead and consume that content. And that’s why, in many instances, we are seeing people say, you know what I would normally send by people, my C-suite but at the I’ve gotta be investment, which is substantially lower than an in person conference this year, we’re going to send a much broader audience because there’s the opportunity to have some of our younger staff consume some of the educational content and there’s opportunity for networking. And so, you know, I think that’s exciting to them to see.

Lucas: That brings to mind something that’s really interesting because I’ve had some talks with a lot of the people that are in the business and when people are not in offices right now, they miss out on a lot of the dialogue that typically transpires from people being in the office, hearing things that take place, particularly young analysts, junior-level employees, or entry-level type positions in private equity firms, REITs, banks, etc., they’re really missing out on all of that extra comradery, learning the language, hearing people talk on the phone and putting deals together. You know, there’s a lot of organic conversations that take place that they kind of miss out on. What a great opportunity. Those typical junior level people oftentimes they’re not going to be able to attend the NIC, you know, like you said, it’s going to be C-suites and probably some high level executives. What a great opportunity for them to participate, get to kind of hear the industry speak. And like you said, this is one of the, I love the phrase that you guys are using an essential virtual conference. We’re all wanting to know what the future looks like and what a great way to finish off the year and kind of go into Q4 with some of the best industry speakers on the best topics that are transpiring now, as we are, in the COVID pandemic and we’ve learned so much from it. Now it’s a time for us all to come together and talk and learn.

Brian: No, it really is. In a time of rapid change like this, I think I had one of one of our board members made the observation, if you will, that a day seems like a week, a week seems like a month and a month  seems like a year. So when we think back to the spring conference, I mean, it does seem like, you know, a couple of years ago. That was March. So it’s been this incredible time. And so there is an opportunity to learn from one another. And so, and this actually is the other point as it pertains to connections, kind of the second week of the conference, again, the subset of the broader experience you know, we’re looking to have people learn from one another via peer to peer connections.

And so if you’re familiar with the zoom breakout functionality where you have, let’s say the topic will be something like:  trends in underwriting. And we would have you know, let’s say 50, 100, 150, 200 people that would attend the main session. We’d kick it off with let’s say a 10-minute introduction with Beth Mace, our chief economist, and then the attendees, the hundred or so attendees will be broken, automatically broken into groups of six to eight people. And it would be given a prompt to say, what’s the number one thing that’s going to change underwriting trends, and then everyone will be broken into those rooms for about, let’s say eight minutes or so, and be asked to introduce yourself and mentioned your one thing and you go around your virtual room and then automatically you’ll see something pop up. And there’s a little timer up there and says how much time is left in your little session. And then you’re pushed back to the main room. And so everyone comes back to the main room. The facilitator, the moderator will call on one or two groups to see what their learning lessons learned were. And then you’ll break into another group of six to eight people, and it’s an opportunity to meet another half a dozen or so people. And so by the end of that, one hour, you will not only have learned about the topic through what you’ve heard from others, you’ll also have met, let’s say a dozen people or so, and you can follow up with them subsequently whether it’s, you know via the NIC Community Connector. 

So that’s another means of facilitating those conversations and we will look for opportunities to also tech people, self select to say, hey, this may be something more for the C-suite conversation. This may be one for more junior participants, so that we have those groupings and here’s one for everyone to participate in to have those conversations. And then of course, we’re also bringing back Brain Dates, which you might be familiar with from the spring conference or early in the pandemic. And it’s a platform where it’s user-generated topics. And so you can generate your own topic and that topic might be something like, what are the lessons learned for testing in a small community? And I want to have a one on one conversation, or I can have a group of five, and we will provide you with kind of the platform to have that conversation. But again, you can meet other people, learn from one another, and at the end of the day you know, I think it is about learning and connections which is a lot of, again, those relationships and building those connections we’ve heard over and over again is an important piece of the NIC experience.

Lucas: Yeah, well said, well said. It sounds like there’s really a lot to look forward to. I think this answered a lot of my questions. Josh, same for you? 

Josh: Absolutely. Same for me. And to be honest with you. So I was really let down that when I heard that NIC was going to also be virtual, because that’s kind of like the highlight of I think a lot of people’s year, but you have renewed my excitement, answered a ton of questions, and I’ll tell you, the only thing I have anxiety about right now, Lucas is that little swipe feature that he was talking about. I’m sensing, I may have some rejection anxiety of like people not wanting to talk to me, but no, it’s super exciting. It’s always been a conference that I have told everyone that is coming into the business, whether they’re a developer, new operator, if you’re going to pick one show, one conference that you’ve got to attend, you’ve got to go to NIC. And so it’s really exciting that you guys are putting this level of attention to it. I know we’re going to all learn a lot together. I’m so thankful our listeners are getting to hear straight from Brian exactly what this experience is going to be like and the value that will keep on giving through the fall. So I’m excited about it.

Brian: Thank you for the opportunity. We’re certainly very excited about it all as well. You know, again, going back to that, the mantra: After all, crisis certainly breeds innovation. We’re trying to again provide the tools and the activities that help our constituents achieve their business objectives. They want to connect with others. They want to learn from others. And we’re trying to provide that efficient platform to allow people to do that, to get business done. 

Lucas: Well said, well said. Well, Josh and I, and Sara, our producer, we’re going to be excited to attend and follow along and go to the different events that you guys have and be a part of the experience. And you know, what Josh said, we don’t miss NIC. And so we’re not gonna miss this one.

Brian: Thank you. 

Lucas: Yeah, well, it’s very exciting. Brian, thanks for spending time with us to answer these questions. I know that our audience members are going to want to learn kind of how to connect. I know is the website it’s a great place to connect. But registration is currently open, correct? 

Brian: That’s right. Registration is open. Now, if you go to, you’ll see the banner ad right there to go ahead and register. And then once you register, you’ll receive an invitation to sign up for the NIC Community Connector. And we’re excited to see folks in there because that will be, we think something that survives even the pandemic, hopefully years from now, we’ll all look back and say, gosh, that’s really the director of people that are active in this space. 

Lucas: I love it. More engagement, more content and more connections. Thank you so much, Brian, for coming on our show today and answering these questions. 

Brian: Thanks so much for having me, have a wonderful day. 

Lucas: Okay. And thanks everybody for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

Industry Conference Spotlight: Fall NIC The Essential Virtual Experience