Last year, what seemed like one day, personal events had to move to virtual – and the trend towards virtual events continues to grow as the pandemic continues and participants see the benefits of virtual at least part of the time. As a result, previously personal activities need to adapt and innovate to stay alive, and organizations that look forward to conferences for new business or professional development also need to adapt.
In the Training Industry we have moved to 2020 Training Industry Conference and Exhibition (TICE) several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic before deciding to move TICE 2021 to a completely online environment. For us, it was an exciting decision, as we are well versed in the production of webinars and organized virtual conferences in the afternoon. However, porting a personal conference online has been a big hurdle.
Based on our planning experience for TICE 2021, here are four key elements to consider when transforming a personal event into a virtual one – or when planning a virtual event for the first time:
1. Consider your strategy
First, visualize your ideal event. What does it include? Will there be opportunities for networking? What about sponsors and exhibitors? What styles of classes do you offer?
If you’re postponing a personal event you’ve held before, start with what you originally planned. What components of a personal event can be well translated into a virtual setting, and which ones will you have to rethink? When it came to TICE, the content of the session was a simple decision; we just needed to conduct additional training for the speakers. We had to reinvent networking opportunities and how our sponsors could get the same value from a virtual conference where they didn’t have a literal face-to-face time with attendees.
Next, set realistic goals and budgets based on those goals. Consider reducing the cost of a virtual event. You won’t have to pay for things like venue or catering, but you may need to invest more in technology to host a flawless event. One useful tool may be to survey your target audience; they may have ideas to help you manage your strategy and activity budget. What do they expect from a virtual conference? (Will they even be present?)
We sent a survey of our audience to determine their interest in participating in the virtual version of TICE, what they are willing to pay and how much time they are willing to invest in learning online, not in a conference center or hotel.
2. Find the right technology
The technology you choose for your event is the most important decision you will make. When you start evaluating platforms, the number of options can seem huge, and it’s easy to get carried away and distracted by the toys, bells and whistles available in the market. Here are some things to keep in mind:
What technologies do you already use?
Start by reviewing your current technology stack. If you’re used to holding personal conferences, you probably already use event management software to track registrations, accept payments, and / or attract attendees. Most tools also had to adapt to the transition to virtual events, so check out your platform’s suggestions and then fill in any gaps.
What is most important?
Next, think about what is most important in your event. Is this the speaker content? Ease of networking? Panel discussions? Allow your priorities to drive your technology solution. Platforms can be expensive and you may not find all the necessary features in one tool. Can you integrate more than one platform to create the experience you need?
What is your time scale?
Finally, how much time should you invest in setting up and managing the platform? Find one that works with this timeline.
For TICE we were able to continue to use the same event management platform. It integrates with our registration and information about speakers and sessions; in addition, we can use the mobile app to encourage visitors to communicate online during downtime. We explore other technologies to offer networking events and games during the event for participants to receive prizes, gamification experience by adding some competition. Our goal is to make the visitor experience as simple and user-friendly as possible. To this end, we are working to make everything available from the event center without the need to download additional software.
3. Encourage communication
For many people, networking and communicating with their peers is the best part of the conference. At TICE, we found that attendees can meet with almost everyone present, creating valuable connections that last longer than an event. In fact, many of our participants return to TICE to reconnect with colleagues they have met at previous events. We did not want to lose this important aspect of our conference; fortunately, there are ways to encourage these connections before, during, and after a virtual event.
Earlier your event begins, create a stir online. Depending on your business, you could create a LinkedIn event and invite participants to join and start working online. Ask thoughtful questions that encourage discussion and collaboration, long before the conference begins.
During at the event, be creative with the capabilities of both formal and informal networks. Create formal events such as roundtable discussions or “high-speed networks”, but be sure to set aside time for informal networks. For example, you can leave the “rooms” open for 5-10 minutes after the session to encourage natural conversations between sessions. And don’t forget to have fun! It can be difficult to match the energy level of a personal event, but you can use music and graphics to mimic it. There are many games and icebreakers designed for virtual events that can help you set the right tone.
After events, say thank you! Write a summary of the event and let participants know how to stay in touch with their new connections. You can also continue to encourage discussion on your LinkedIn event page. If you have on-demand content, encourage registrars to take full advantage; they can observe after the event and continue to post questions on social media or reach out to speakers. Finally, reassign content and share key takeaways on social media and emails, and invite participants to join other activities where they can continue the conversation.
4. Report expectations and best practices
You are not the only one who is new to virtual events; many of your stakeholders will too. In addition to keeping your internal stakeholders informed and involved in the planning process, consider external stakeholders. Make sure your speakers and sponsors know what to expect in a virtual environment. Given all the differences in virtual platforms, it is important to create a directory unique to the one you are using. If possible, give them a inside look at what it has to offer, through screenshots or technical rehearsals before the event.
For TICE, we have created best practice documents for both speakers and sponsors, specifically tailored to the platform we use. For speakers, we’ve included tips on planning an engaging virtual session and on how to use video conferencing to engage your audience. For sponsors, we set expectations as to what their virtual booth will hold, and provide tips and tricks to help them attract visitors to their booth.
The past year has been difficult for all of us personally and professionally. Fortunately, moving a conference or other learning event to a virtual platform doesn’t have to be another stress. By following these four tips, you can easily plan, achieve your stakeholders ’goals, and create an educational and engaging experience for all participants.