Believe It or Not, There Are Advantages to Getting CPE In a Virtual Setting

If there’s one main thing pandemic living has taught us it’s how to pivot. For many of us, we’ve had to figure out how to do our jobs at home (oftentimes while simultaneously wearing our parent hat). Our kids have had to adjust to learning in virtual classrooms. The past year has forced some people to switch or start new careers. And many businesses had to adapt to new business models.

Take Accounting Conferences and Seminars LLC, for example. For nearly a decade, the NASBA-registered professional training organization held two-day in-person conferences about 15 times a year, in different parts of the country, offering CPE credit to those attending sessions on the latest accounting developments.

But that all changed a year ago when the Rona caused companies to shut down all business travel. So ACS had to … you guessed it, PIVOT, by moving to a virtual format via GoToWebinar.

“Things have worked out really well,” said Rob Dowd, founder and managing director of ACS, who cut his teeth in public accounting at Deloitte and later Arthur Andersen. “We’re getting new clients that wouldn’t necessarily be able to travel to the different geographical locations where the conferences were held.”

The independent in-person conferences hosted by ACS attracted accounting and finance professionals from around the country who do the bidding of their company’s CFO—corporate controllers, vice presidents of finance, chief accounting officers, and accounting directors and managers, among others—so they could spend two days being briefed on the ever-changing accounting rules and requirements for topics like:

  • Revenue recognition;
  • Financial accounting and reporting update;
  • SOX and internal controls;
  • SEC reporting; and
  • Life sciences accounting.

“It has always been a two-day format because people will travel for two days and it allows enough time to really delve into the nuances of the topics,” Dowd said. “All the speakers come from the Big 4 or the different regional or niche public accounting firms. And then we’d also have panelists from industry.” 

Through the years conferences were held at different locations throughout the country, but the San Francisco Bay Area had by far the best turnouts, according to Dowd.

“That area has such a high concentration of technology and software companies, and they have the most complex technical accounting issues like revenue recognition,” he said. “So we gravitated toward there and found that other people, whether they’re from Boston or Texas or other hubs of technology like Salt Lake City or Denver, were willing to travel there to get that expertise. Most of our events are on Pacific Daylight Time so we can accommodate our folks in the Bay Area.”  

Now, accounting and finance professionals from those tech and software companies can learn about how rev rec is being applied in a SaaS environment and be educated on the standard’s latest nuances—and earn CPE credit in the process—from the comfort of their own home offices, wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants or even their PJs, if they so desire.

“The thing that separates us from other webcast providers is generally during a webcast you’re going to jump on there for an hour or two hours or four hours to learn about this new topic. It’s really rare to jump on there for two days and sit in your home or office and get updated during that big chunk of time,” Dowd said. “Attendees appreciate having the chance to really dig deep into these topics that you can’t do in an hour, two hours, or four hours.

“But you’re not going to sit down for 16 straight hours and hear somebody pontificate on what they think are the best ways to walk through revenue recognition, so it’ll be a mixture of lecture, case studies, and industry panelists,” he added. “One of the great things about going virtual is you can have great panelists from all over the country. Our next revenue recognition conference will have panelists from Starbucks and Bay Area tech companies. We might not be able to get those speakers in a live format, but the time commitment for them is not as difficult for just coming in and participating for an hour-and-a-half panel discussion.”

Dowd also said each 75- or 90-minute session is followed by a break so attendees can check their email and reply to urgent matters before the virtual conference reconvenes with the next topic and speaker.

While Dowd still believes there’s immense value that comes from a live in-person conference, he offered up a few other advantages to attending a virtual training event:

1. It’s more convenient (and cheaper)

Business travel can sometimes be a hassle—and expensive (well, expensive for your company because you’ll be trying to expense the hell out of everything you possibly can). The virtual conference means not having to worry about being stuck in traffic or flight delays or your luggage being lost or booking a room at a hotel with erratic Wi-Fi (although your Wi-Fi at home might be spotty because your kids are sucking it up on Zoom during school, but that’s a different story). So you’re saving precious time and your employer is saving precious money.

Speaking of saving money, once ACS decided to go virtual, Dowd said the business cut out all direct costs it would have to pay for a two-day in-person event, like for venue rental and food and beverages, which reduced the cost of attending a two-day virtual conference by $250 per person.

“We were able to reduce the fee for the virtual conferences from $795 to $545, which people really liked,” Dowd said. “We were getting comments like, ‘Why isn’t everyone doing this?’ and ‘Not only am I able to attend from my living room and having to not travel, my boss loves the cost savings.’”

2. These aren’t pre-recorded sessions

“They’re all done in a live format. Attendees are getting that instant interaction,” Dowd said. “If you don’t understand something on the slide the speaker is talking about, in real time you’re able to reach out to the instructor via the chat box and say, ‘Can you clarify what you mean by this acronym or this point?’ and they’ll be able to get right back to you and answer that question in real time. The average class size is manageable. We’re not talking about 500 people on a webcast. It’s usually an average of 80 to 100 attendees.”

3. Ask questions anonymously

So you’re in a hotel ballroom listening to a speaker and his or her talk ends and now it’s time for the audience Q&A. You’ve got a question you think is a pretty good one and you start to raise your hand for the moderator to give you the mic. But speaking in public is not an accountant’s forte, and anxiety sets in after scanning around at the 300 or so people in the same room as you. “Nevermind, my question isn’t really that important,” you tell yourself as you put your hand down. 

Well guess what? You needn’t feel intimidated by asking a question during a virtual conference. GoToWebinar is one directional, so you can’t see your fellow attendees, only the speaker and whatever materials he or she provides. And the instructor can’t see you. So ask your question pantsless if you want. Nobody would ever know.

“If you have a question that you might think is stupid or if you have a question that might put your company in a bad light—‘We’ve been doing it this way. Is this the right way we should be doing it?’—you’re able to ask your question anonymously in the chat box,” Dowd said. “We found that people are actually participating more than they would in a live event. They are asking more questions and they do like the low-risk anonymity of being able to ask questions through chat without having to hear their voice, without having to stand up and ask a question, and without having to identify themself.”

4. Review course materials repeatedly

The good news for those attending an ACS two-day virtual conference is you’ll get a video replay of the conference to rewatch at your leisure. The bad news for those who don’t attend is the conferences are not on-demand. So y’all are missing out on really engaging speakers presenting information in a way that won’t make your head spin. And the best part is you won’t have a person sitting next to you who was out drinking until the wee hours of the morning with his eyes closed and his head tilting backward snoring during the duration of the presentation. You know what I’m talking about. 

“One of the constant things we’re told by attendees is that the instructors are able to keep their attention during the session,” Dowd said. “And there are a variety of different delivery methods. It’s not just a straight lecture. It’s industry panels. It’s case study discussions with interactive polling. It’s more of a livelier format than just sitting there in a passive lecture.”

The next ACS virtual conference will be held on March 23 and 24, from 8:45 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. PDT on both days. The topic is “Revenue Recognition Accounting Update (ASC 606).” You can register for the two-day virtual conference here.

A full list of ACS events for 2021 can be found here.

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