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Going Virtual: Tips for Moving Your Big Meeting to a Digital Format

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GoingVirtual(1)Because of shelter-in-place orders, in March, our team was tasked with moving the American Concrete Institute (ACI) Convention from an in-person event expected to be attended by more than 2,200 people in Rosemont, Ill., to a virtual format in a mere 17 days. (ACI is AOE’s parent organization).  Despite the short notice, we managed to hold 179 online meetings during the week-long event, which was attended by 1,474 unique people for a total of 344 hours of meeting time!  Whew…that is nearly 430,000 person-minutes in meetings.

While this move from in-person to virtual was deemed a success, we learned many lessons that we’ll implement as we move forward in this new manner of hosting conventions and conferences. These lessons, assembled below, are provided to help you evaluate key factors related to managing events in today’s pandemic environment.   

What lessons did you learn during your recent experience moving to a virtual event in a short timeframe?

Oh, we learned so much! It was a huge team effort and could not have been achieved without our entire organization working together. One of the silver linings was that we have talked for some time about having more virtual offerings, but never found the time to investigate its potential. This mandated move, because of the pandemic, was a great opportunity to test how the meeting portion of our convention would do in the virtual space with very little risk to our organization, and the potential for great reward.

One of the key things we learned is the importance of making the process as easy as possible for attendees. Not everyone is tech-savvy, so keeping the virtual process simple and providing resources and training in advance of our virtual convention really helped the process go smoothly.  All our virtual meetings are led by volunteer chairs, so our staff reached out to those leaders to walk them through the process, answer questions, and boost their virtual meeting confidence. When planning, be sure to have live support available during your virtual event, should attendees have problems accessing the event.

How do I know if I should post-pone or cancel?

The answer to this question begins with an evaluation of the impact on that decision on your organization, attendees and other stakeholders.  What makes the most sense for the organization and its goals?  

Consider the timeline for cancelling or postponing your event. Usually the closer to the event date you get, the higher the cancellation fees rise. Knowing the cancellation timeframe can help you determine what financial hit your organization will take at different points in time. Cancelling your event gives your organization the opportunity to reevaluate your event, which may be a favorable option. However, event organizers should be prepared to pay hefty cancellation fees.

If finances are a concern, postponing your event may be a better option to explore. Some venues and most vendors may waive or reduce cancellation fees if you rebook the same or equal piece of business within a certain timeframe. With postponement, you are at the mercy of the venue/vendor, so be prepared to negotiate and make concessions.  Also, if you are going to postpone an event, make sure you can deliver on attendee expectations. 

A third option, for both cancellation and postponement, is evaluating your force majeure contract clause (if you have one, if you don’t, you should!). Force majeure is hard to prove and the burden of proof falls on the cancelling party, but if it’s a true force majeure event, this contract clause should release your organization from most if not all financial obligations and give you the flexibility to move forward (or not) with your event as you see fit. Keep in mind, in most force majeure clauses, the qualifying event must be “out of your control” and make holding the event “impossible or illegal.”

We are still undecided. What else should we consider about whether or not to move to a virtual format?   

There are many things to consider. Here is a partial list to start your discussions:

  • Identify what the value will be to attendees to participate virtually. Is there interest?
  • Consider how your event will translate virtually to the audience. Does it meet your organizations goals?
  • Evaluate if you have the time, resources, support, and ability to move your event virtually.
  • Determine what parts of your event you want to move to the digital space. You don’t have to replicate your entire in-person event in the virtual space. If it makes sense for your organization, spread out or layer your event over multiple days/weeks. You may even see increased participation.

Ok, we are moving ahead. How do I get started with the planning effort?  What are steps for creating the virtual event? 

Start with developing a high-level Virtual Event Plan. This plan will allow you to make decisions based on the focused needs of your event. As the planning process evolves, use the Virtual Event Plan as a guide to ensure your planning remains on track. Contents of the plan include:

  • PURPOSE: What’s the purpose of the event? Why are you doing it and how will the virtual event meet the goals of your organization? Are you trying to reach a larger audience? Save money? Accomplish work?
  • STRATEGY: Create a strategy. Who is your audience, and what experience do you want them to have?
  • LOGISTICS: Do you have the right resources, equipment, staffing, technical know-how?
  • EXECUTION: How will you execute? Will you do it yourself or hire out?
  • ENGAGEMENT: Involve and engage your audience in the event. Use a chat feature, offer a Q&A, open discussion/forum, etc.).

Other key factors to consider when developing your Virtual Event Plan include:

  • Access: What type of access you will give to the event? Is it open to all? Just your members or clients?
  • Fees: Will you charge a registration fee or will access be free? Reach out to your speakers to see if there is interest and willingness to present virtually.
  • Format: Consider if you will hold your sessions live or on demand.
  • Continuing Education: Will the sessions be eligible for CEUs?
  • Sponsors: Determine how you will recognize your existing exhibitors or sponsors in a meaningful way. How will you leverage digital opportunities for potential exhibitors/sponsors? For example, do you give exhibitors the opportunity to do a short demo at the start of a session? Or perhaps a short commercial break for a sponsor?
  • Timing:  Carefully consider the time zone for the virtual meeting. If you have attendees participating from all over the world, there really isn’t an ideal time zone for everyone, but is there a time zone that either works best for attendees or makes the most sense for the organizers?

What about technology?  One of my key concerns is the technology being easy for attendees. 

This is an important consideration. Be sure to review and determine your audience skill set. Are your attendees tech savvy or non tech savvy? Try to keep the process as simple as possible. Make sure your virtual event is easy to access and is visible on your website. Also, be prepared to provide tech support to attendees as needed. Attention spans are short these days, so reduce the amount of clicks or downloads to access your event, so you don’t lose participants.

Investigate the variety of platforms available to you for hosting a virtual event. One size does not fit all. How complex is your event? You may need something as simple as a live stream webinar, but if your event is more complex you may want a virtual conference format. Will your event be live or pre-recorded or a hybrid?

Want to add a social component to your virtual event? Know your audience and how they seek their networking opportunities. Do they like after hours networking? Then a virtual happy hour space, might work well. Do they like to stick to subject matter conversations? Then organize chats by topic. Not sure? Encourage attendees to connect with one another on their own. There is no one size fits all solution to virtual networking, so get creative.

How do you message and communicate the format change?

Communicate why you are moving to an online event instead of a physical event and be clear that the event isn’t being completely “cancelled.”  Be sure to share with attendees the value of attending the event in the virtual format. But, be clear and transparent about virtual event expectations—especially if this is your first time moving your event to the virtual space. It may not go perfect for everyone participating.

As with any event, it is key to communicate regularly and through multiple channels to ensure all attendees are aware of the platform change (email blasts, press releases, social channels, website, etc.). Also, be sure to regularly communicate with your entire staff and team regarding plans for your virtual event, so all team members are on the same page, and they are informed enough to answer questions.

Any final words of wisdom?

With the global pandemic, more and more people are working from home and for many it’s for the first time. Use this time of learning and adjustment to test your meetings in the virtual space. 

In 2019, the AOE Event Services team planned, organized and executed 150+ meetings, conventions, workshops and events; negotiated 75+ venue/vendor contracts; booked 8,300+ sleeping rooms; managed more than 600 speakers and raised more than $700,000 in exhibit and sponsorship revenue. Although we have offered virtual webinars and workshops for many years, our team of Certified Event Professionals now boasts experience moving large and small conferences and meetings to efficient virtual formats. Contact us today to learn more about how to we can help you determine the best option for your events.   

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