By Jerri Barrett, Marketing and Event Consultant
COVID-19 has significantly impacted the event industry, forcing some organizations to cancel 2020 events, while others are moving to virtual events.
Virtual events are not new. For International Women’s Day 2013, Global Tech Women launched a global virtual conference, which featured more than 70 speakers from around the world and ran for 36 hours. More than 11,000 attendees joined the conference from 50 countries. A key learning from that conference: “When a conference is virtual, what becomes critical is the promotion of the conference to create awareness and excitement. Our sponsor, Google, helped us achieve global visibility and drove the global engagement,” said Deanna Kosaraju, CEO of Global Tech Women.
In 2016, VMware began hosting a conference on its campus in Silicon Valley called Women Transforming Technology (WT2). Over the past four years, the conference became an annual tradition, and plans were well underway for 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis began. The call for participation had been completed, the schedule of speakers was set—including Hollywood icon Laura Dern as the closing speaker—and registration had opened.
“I have always been a worrier/planner, so while I was watching the news in February and hearing more and more about COVID-19, I realized that we would need to be making a decision about whether to take our conference—scheduled for May 5—virtual, and the sooner we made the decision, the better off we would be,” said Arti Sharma, diversity & inclusion program manager, VMware. “We realized when the shelter in place order came into effect on March 6 that over 500 people were probably not going to want to nor be able to sit in the same room in May. On March 11, we got the approvals and input we needed to transition to a virtual conference plan.”
Sharma shared some issues that need to be addressed when making a conference virtual:
Registration fees: Because WT2 was underwritten by VMware and other sponsors, WT2 had the option to offer free registration for attendees and made registration open to everyone. They have seen an enormous spike both in attendee numbers and in the number of countries represented. What was formerly a Silicon Valley-focused event has now become global with representatives from multiple countries across six continents. While most organizations do not have this option, the cost structure for a virtual event is very different and needs to be accounted for in registration pricing.
Plan for breaks: Attendees working from home are frequently interrupted by children, significant others and pets. Make sure there are breaks between sessions and offer attendees speaker-led activities like stretches or gentle exercises.
Prepare your speakers: Every speaker at the WT2 conference agreed to participate virtually without hesitation. Each speaker can rehearse twice before the event to ensure they are successful. Rehearsals are scheduled close to the time of day their session will be held, so in addition to testing equipment and access, speakers will be given feedback on their lighting and background. Someone will introduce them, monitor the chat and organize Q&As, and make sure all attendees can access the system with their passwords. Make full use of volunteers and committee members.
Security: Everything should be password-protected and available to only registered attendees, each with a unique code.
Recordings: Video conference platforms include the option of recording sessions. Have speakers sign video waivers, and plan how attendees can access these recordings after the event.
Accessibility: Accessibility issues have been raised for a number of conferences—virtual conferences are no different. Closed captioning is available in some video platforms. AccessSIGCHI has created a guide for creating Accessible Remote Attendance on its website.
The conference app company Whova recently launched a series of webinars for their customers who manage conferences and need to rapidly address becoming virtual.
Key issues highlighted include:
Virtual conference platforms. Video conferencing platforms vary in their pricing, ability to scale, and the amount of control over access that can be exercised
Time zones. Conference organizers should be mindful of time zones and consider shorter days
Sponsor/attendee engagement. Event sponsors will turn to event organizers to demonstrate unique ways to connect with attendees. Conference apps, websites and conference programs can be used to convey important sponsor information. Networking functions in apps and on-video platforms can connect sponsor representatives to individual attendees. Also consider using gamification functions to encourage attendees to visit sponsor pages and websites.
Attendee networking. Many conference attendees seek to broaden their networks and identify collaborators and mentors. Consider providing a platform to enable attendees to create a profile page and engage on a community bulletin board, and offer the option during sessions for attendees to chat with each other.
In March, the RESPECT Conference had three days needed to go virtual to help protect their attendees. Brianna Blaser, counselor/coordinator at DO-IT at the University of Washington, was both a presenter and attendee of the conference. “As it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to go to Portland, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to present my paper but also that I would miss out on connecting with colleagues who I only see in person once or twice a year. I was so glad to hear that RESPECT was going virtual. They made heavy use of breakout rooms for small group discussions, which meant I was able to connect with so many of those colleagues and meet new people as well.”