Last year, what seemed like overnight, in-person events had to shift to virtual — and the trend toward hosting virtual events continues to grow as the pandemic continues and as participants see the benefits of going virtual, at least part of the time. As a result, formerly in-person events must adapt and innovate to stay alive, and organizations that rely on conferences for new business or for professional development must also adapt.
At Training Industry, we rescheduled the 2020 Training Industry Conference & Expo (TICE) multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic before deciding to transition TICE 2021 to a fully online environment. It was an exciting decision for us, since we are well versed in webinar production and have produced half-day virtual conferences. Still, pivoting an in-person conference to an online environment had many obstacles.
Based on our planning experience for TICE 2021, here are four key elements to consider when converting your in-person event to virtual — 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 networking opportunities? What about sponsors and exhibitors? What styles of sessions will you offer?
If you are transitioning an in-person event you’ve hosted before, start with what you had originally planned. Which components of the in-person event can translate well into a virtual setting, and which will you have to reimagine? When it came to TICE, session content was an easy solution; we just needed to provide additional training for speakers. We did have to reinvent our networking opportunities and how our sponsors could get the same value out of a virtual conference, where they didn’t have literal face-to-face time with attendees.
Next, set realistic goals and budgets based on those goals. Consider the reduced cost of a virtual event. You won’t need to pay for things like a venue or catering, but you may need to invest more in technology to execute a flawless event. One helpful tool might be to poll your target audience; they might have ideas that can help you guide your event strategy and budget. What do they expect from a virtual conference? (Will they even attend one?)
We sent a survey to our audience to gauge their interest in participating in a virtual version of TICE, what they would be willing to pay, and how much time they would be willing to invest in learning online rather than in a conference center or hotel.
2. Find the Right Technology
The technology you select for your event is the most important decision you’ll make. When you start evaluating platforms, the number of options might feel overwhelming, and it’s easy to be both excited and distracted by the toys, bells and whistles available on the market. Here are some things to keep in mind:
What Technology Do You Already Use?
Start by looking at your current tech stack. If you’re used to hosting in-person conferences, you likely already use event management software to track registrations, take payments and/or engage your attendees. Most tools have also had to adapt to the shift to virtual events, so check out your platform’s offerings, and then fill in any gaps.
What Is Most Important?
Next, think about what’s most important about your event. Is it speaker content? Ease of networking? Panel discussions? Let your priorities guide your technology decision. Platforms can be pricey, and you may not find every feature you need in one tool. Can you integrate more than one platform to create the experience you need?
What Is Your Timeline?
Finally, how much time do you have to invest in the setup and management of the platform? Find one that works with this timeline.
For TICE, we were able to continue using the same event management platform. It integrates with our registration and speaker and session information; plus, we can use a mobile app to encourage attendee networking during downtime. We are exploring other technologies to offer networking activities and games during the event for attendees to unlock prizes, gamifying the experience by adding some competition. Our goal is to make the attendee experience as seamless and user-friendly as possible. To that end, we are working to make everything accessible from the event hub, without the need to download additional software.
3. Encourage Connections
For many people, networking and socializing with their peers is the best part of a conference. At TICE, we’ve found that participants are able to meet almost everyone in attendance, which creates valued connections that last longer than the event. In fact, many of our attendees return to TICE to reconnect with colleagues they met at previous events. We didn’t want to lose this important aspect of our conference; fortunately, there are ways to encourage these connections, before, during and after a virtual event.
Before your event begins, create hype online. Depending on your business, you could create a LinkedIn event and invite attendees to join and begin networking there. Post thought-provoking questions that encourage discussion and collaboration well before you kick off the conference.
During the event, be creative with both formal and informal networking opportunities. Create formal events like roundtable discussions or “speed networking,” but don’t forget to carve time into the agenda for informal networking. For example, you could leave “rooms” open for five to 10 minutes after the session is over to encourage natural between-session conversations. And, don’t forget to have fun! It may be difficult to match the energy level of an in-person 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 the event, say thank you! Write an event recap, and let attendees know how to stay connected with their new connections. You can also continue encouraging discussions on your LinkedIn event page. If you have on-demand content available, encourage registrants to take full advantage; they can watch after the event and continue to post questions on social media or reach out to speakers. Finally, repurpose content and share key takeaways on social media and in emails, and invite attendees to join other events where they can continue the conversation.
4. Communicate Expectations and Best Practices
You’re not the only one who’s new to virtual events; many of your stakeholders will be, too. In addition to keeping your internal stakeholders in the loop and involving them in the planning process, consider external stakeholders as well. Make sure your speakers and sponsors know what to expect in the virtual environment. With all of the variance in virtual platforms, it’s important to create a guide that’s unique to the one you’re using. If possible, give them an inside look at what it will offer through screenshots or tech rehearsals before the event.
For TICE, we created best practice documents for both speakers and sponsors, tailored specifically to the platform we are using. For speakers, we included tips for planning an engaging virtual session and how to use videoconferencing for audience participation. For sponsors, we set expectations about what their virtual booth will contain and provided tips and tricks to help them drive attendees to their booth.
The last year has been a difficult one for all of us, personally and professionally. Fortunately, moving a conference or other learning event to a virtual platform doesn’t have to be one more stressor. By following these four tips, you can plan with ease, meet your stakeholders’ goals, and create an educational and engaging experience for everyone involved.