As we face this new environment of stay at home orders and social distancing, the events industry has been hit hard. Events across the world have been canceled, and event professionals everywhere are losing their jobs. The day that we can come back together for in-person events is unknown. What is known is that to keep our industry from completely collapsing, we need to find a way to move forward, keep connecting, and provide value to our clients and their customers. Our challenge now is to successfully make the pivot to producing engaging virtual meetings and conferences. We need to innovate, originate, and step outside our comfort zones and take some risks to discover a new kind of events industry.
Creating a successful, engaging virtual experience that has the same impact as an in-person event is an ambitious undertaking and requires thought, creativity, the right technology, and a skilled team. This is not about reducing the overall event expense or cost-cutting. People mistakenly think that going virtual automatically means the budget for the event will be half or even a quarter of the cost of in-person, but this is not always the case. Sure, if your event turns into a series of simple webinars or speakers speaking to a presentation deck using basic video conferencing software, then yes, your budget will probably be significantly less than an in-person meeting. However, you risk keeping your audience’s focus and getting them back in the future. If you are trying to recreate a fully interactive conference experience, with exciting staging, interactive sessions, exhibitors, networking, and social functions, then the cost savings will not be as much as you would think.
When going virtual, you need to think of your technology platforms as your venues. Instead of spending money on a hotel, food and beverage, offsite venues, and live in-person entertainment, you will use that budget to create your virtual world. Every program is different, and the technology you choose is key to its success. Understand your program and select the technologies that meet the requirements of each event.
You need to create a binge-worthy show that your attendees don’t want to leave. In a virtual environment, your audience has all the usual distractions as they do when in the office, you don’t have the luxury of the captive audience. At any point in your show, you could lose them to an email, a phone call, or another virtual meeting that seems more appealing. Boring or okay won’t cut it in this new world. To keep your audience engaged, you need to create an immersive experience. You will not only need the technology to deliver the experience, but you will need the eye-catching content, interesting performances, and social interactivity to excite your attendees.
So, we need the technology to deliver the world we are creating, and we need the engaging content to keep people interested, then we need to add a little “pow!” to the show. Just because you are not in a huge ballroom or venue doesn’t mean you can’t create a dynamic, exciting show. As we discussed before, a speaker reading off a dull set of slides is not going to keep your audience watching. You need to add music, video, graphics, and audience participation elements to keep your audience’s attention.
Next, you need to provide the networking component. Do you have a tradeshow as part of your conference? Bring in virtual tradeshow tools to allow your exhibitors to connect with your attendees. Allow your exhibitors and sponsors to buy ad space throughout your show with banners or short ads during breaks or between content. Provide the ability for attendees to join small group demo sessions or 1 to 1 meetings with the exhibitors. Provide peer to peer networking opportunities and appointment scheduling.
Don’t forget the social aspects of your conference. The happy hour receptions, and parties, bring in a live DJ or other group activities. Add team-building opportunities. How about adding optional activities like facilitated exercise classes or give-back opportunities. A comment feed or letting users “like” interactively can also be a simple way to hold attention, but make sure to keep a moderator on-hand (you’ll thank me later). Be creative, be engaging, deliver with excitement and passion.
Finally, you need the team to pull it all together. Don’t think your nephew who is “good at Facebook” is qualified to run this essential element. The experts you put together are crucial to the success of your event. You need your technology experts that understand how to integrate all the technology components of your program from your event registration solution to your virtual meeting platform and all the add-on technologies you choose. You need your creative team creating the buzz and your production team pulling it all together to deliver that all-encompassing experience. In a live broadcast, dead air is a killer. Make sure you have the expertise in place to deliver your vision fully, make the right calls if something doesn’t go as planned, and to execute. Your team and your contingency plans can be the difference between failure and success.
Our world is going to be effectively disrupted for a while, but meetings and conferences are still going to happen, just differently. If we use the current environment to hone our skills and innovations, think of all the possibilities we will have to combine these exciting technologies in the future with our in-person events to create even more amazing experiences.
Noël Williams | Managing Partner at Event Analytics & Design
Noël is a leading expert in event technology. She has been at the forefront of researching the shift to digital event technologies and virtual meetings.