Best Practices for Hosting Online and Virtual Events and Conferences
As an event planner who prides herself in having a plan for every scenario, I am woman enough to admit that I did not have a plan for everything 2020 has thrown at us. These past six months have been a crash course in creative problem solving, and I am amazed at the virtual innovations that have been developed to combat an extended global halt in travel and in-person events.
While virtual events are not new, they certainly have been thrust into the limelight in 2020. In March and April, we had companies in survival mode - quickly flipping live events to virtual with very little time to put any thought into the details. With the future of mass gatherings still uncertain, companies are now making the call to switch to virtual with purpose and with time to dive into the details. If you are gearing up to go digital, here are my top 5 tips for building a better virtual event.1. Have a plan
A live event would have a very detailed (down to the minute) ‘Run of Show’, and a virtual event should be no different. Due to the nature of the virtual world (where in-person communication is not possible, real-world distractions crop up for attendees, and so on) organizers should craft detailed structure for every element of an event. This includes clear instructions for how attendees can interact with presenters and each other, and a clear strategy for measuring KPIs. In smaller breakouts or networking events, even if the goal is to encourage open discussion, providing guidance for the discussion will help avoid the frustration of people talking over each other or no one talking at all.
Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams are all fine options for virtual meetings. They are inexpensive, fairly simple to use, and most people are now familiar with them. They also are not the only options. The number of virtual meeting platforms has skyrocketed with new options going live almost every day. How do you choose? My advice is to first clearly define the type of event you are planning, what your event objectives are, and what sort of budget you have to work with. Depending on your main goals, and your budget, some platforms may be better suited for your event than others. If you are overwhelmed by the options, a professional event planner may be able to help narrow down the best platform for you.3. Get a meeting host
Every ship needs a captain and every event needs a host, especially a virtual event. While a host can be someone within your organization, I am a huge proponent of hiring a professional emcee to host my events. A good emcee can keep the show moving forward with energy, engaging questions, games, humor, and more, all customized to your company and your objectives. They offer a consistent element to your event and can provide a seamless transition to your next speaker or next section. They can turn a potentially boring, didactic presentation into an attention-grabbing interview and help with entertainment during breaks or networking/team building sessions. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone other than the usual faces doing some of the talking. If you don’t have a host, at the very minimum, you need a moderator to tell people what to do next and to field questions in the chatbox.4. Bring the event to the people
How do you create a feeling of personal connection with your attendees through a screen? Well, you get creative. Consider reaching out to attendees through the mail, augmenting their virtual experience with physical gifts, tokens, or tools they can use during the event. Interactive swag bag gifts that coordinate with the event agenda can be very effective. The Keynote speaker is about to present? Open Box 1 to find a copy of their best-selling book and a book light for those late-night reading sessions. Going into a networking breakout with a celebrity mixologist? Open up Box 2 containing a branded cocktail shaker and a recipe card for the event’s newly invented signature cocktail. The sky is the limit here and the gifts can be scaled to your budget, but I highly recommend sending something tangible to your attendees if possible.5. Be prepared for technical glitches
We can plan and prepare and plan some more but, at the end of the day, we are at the mercy of technology. At a live event, we have backups for our backups when it comes to the tech and AV equipment used. Virtual events typically do not have that option. Being prepared with a few backup visuals or speakers who can jump in on the fly (or having an emcee who can navigate the blip) can provide peace of mind going into your event. I also highly recommend rehearsing with any live speakers at the same time of day as your event to see if there are any bandwidth issues with their internet. In the end, a solid plan, a few practice runs, and a little grace will result in a successful event.
In this season of nothing but virtual events, always take into consideration your attendees’ time and the challenges in their lives. “Zoom Fatigue” is real. Balancing full-time work from home while homeschooling is a lot to juggle. Make sure the content you are offering or requiring is truly something of value and don’t keep them longer than necessary. Showing attendees that you appreciate them and their ability to balance the home/work/school life these days will go miles farther in increasing that feeling of connection and will enhance the success of the event overall.
However, the above being said, virtual events are here to stay. While in-person will, of course, come back eventually, the future of events planning will very likely feature hybrid in-person plus virtual attendance options. Thus, thinking digitally is no longer just a nice to have in the events world, it is a necessity.