5 Virtual Meeting Lessons Learned

5 Virtual Meeting Lessons Learned

By Katherine Wayne

2020 was defined by many things—for associations and the staff who support them, the ability to pivot and adapt to the unforeseen were top among them. As 2020 began, AMC staff were busy preparing for the typical  20+ events we manage each year for our association partners.

And then….the pandemic. We all know what happened next. In-person events were canceled, parts of the country were sheltering in place, and there was only one thing left to do: embrace change and the challenges it often brings. But, as we found out, AMC staff are very skilled adapters, pivoters, and drivers of change.

We embraced the challenge of cancelled in-person events by redefining what virtual events could look like for the associations we serve. Instead of merely taking in-person conferences and moving them online, we created virtual events that not only educated but also engaged audiences and provided the community feel many were missing while social distancing and sheltering in place.  

It wasn’t always as easy as it sounds. There was a lot of work leading up to this change, with many staff stepping outside of their usual roles to research and reimagine what these new events could look like (check out how our Strategic Event Management team embraced virtual events in their Virtual Learning Curve case study). And after executing more than 13 virtual events and conferences in the span of half a year, we learned a lot of lessons along the way.

Here are our 5 top tips when planning an engaging virtual event.

Know Your Virtual Platform

It’s a good idea to research multiple platform options before selecting one to host your virtual event. But once you’ve made your selection, be sure you understand what actions your vendor will manage for you and which ones you’ll be responsible for handling. Ask questions and make sure you know what type of help your vendor provides in case something goes wrong with the platform during your event.

This is especially important when hosting virtual events with many components, as we discovered with the American Society for Bioethics & Humanities’ (ASBH) virtual conference in October. With up to 16 live sessions streaming simultaneously, this event had more moving parts that staff had to manage than initially thought. Luckily, our staff are experts at pitching in, but it can be a bit jarring to discover you’re responsible for more than you thought the day of your event.

Engage Your Audience with Customized Activities

Create opportunities for your audience to connect, but tailor them to your group’s individual needs. If your group is more education and networking focused, include activities that enable them to engage directly with speakers and leaders in your field with Meet the Author or Leader sessions.

If your audience is highly social and looks forward to the fun events you hold at conference each year, be sure to incorporate fun activities into the virtual space. Think beyond the usual virtual dance party or happy hour with a range of large and small activities.

When planning the Association of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses’ virtual conference, the staff team knew they wanted to bring the fun, festive vibe typical of their in-person conferences to their first virtual event while also including opportunities for self-care and networking. Along with a full slate of networking activities, like a Meet the Keynote chat, author-attended poster chats, and coffee chats with APHON leaders, they built time in their event schedule for meditation, self-care video breaks, and slow yoga—and then brought in the fun with Bollywood dance lessons and an Escape Room challenge.

Determine How Your Audience Prefers to Interact with Industry

Remember being onsite with your attendees back when we attended conferences in person? Did your audience actively engage with industry in the exhibit hall? Or, did they prefer a symposia approach to receiving information about new products, resources, and tools?

In the virtual event space, it’s important to understand how your attendees like to receive information from industry. If they typically didn’t tour the exhibit hall when your event was in person, they likely won’t visit a virtual exhibit hall. If your target audience prefers education-based group events over exhibit hall one-on-one interactions, plan instead to include symposia or meet the expert–type events.

But, what if your event schedule doesn’t have room for education from industry? Try offering bite-sized educational opportunities from your industry partners instead. That’s what the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives did when they played prerecorded video clips from industry during brief breaks, nimbly bridging the gap between a packed schedule and industry education.

Communicate Regularly with Your Speakers

Speakers are the cornerstone of your virtual event, so build a good experience for them by communicating frequently and often, more so than when your conference was in person. Whether this is their first virtual conference or they’re a veteran virtual presenter, speakers need to know what capabilities are available in the virtual event platform you’re using, how they can connect with their co-speakers, and the support they have from staff.

With more than 700 speakers at their October virtual conference, the ASBH team had a tremendous job  managing speaker questions, orientation, and expectations for its first virtual event. Staff met the challenge head on and developed a detailed speaker communication plan that included creating speaker guidelines, FAQs, a dedicated webpage, and weekly emails to touch base. A resourceful staff member even added links in her email signature to the speaker FAQs.

Have a Plan B, Plan C, and even Plan D

If the past 10 months have taught us anything, it’s that the unforeseen will happen. Though you can’t plan for every possibility, you should have a contingency plan in place in case of internet crashes,  platform glitches, and missing speakers. Be sure several people on your team have downloaded contact info for your speakers and attendees as well as each team member in case your system network or internet goes down and you need to contingency plan on the fly.

Need more virtual event resources? Check out our other virtual event blog posts: Keeping Your Conference Afloat Amidst COVID-19, Redefining the Corporate Partner’s Experience during COVID-19 Conference Cancellations, Is a Virtual Conference Right for Your Audience, and 5 Ways to Smoothly Plan a Virtual Event.

Learn more about our Virtual Event Management services.

Many thanks to the AMC staff who participated in the Virtual Conference Panelist session that led to this post: Colleen Bagnasco, Mary Beth Benner, Kaitlyn Gaede, Josh Karney, Talia Lionetti, Meredith Nichols, Joél Payne, Amy Sherwood, Natalie Steenberg, Miranda Walker, Sally Weir, Michelle Whitworth, Leah Zamora

Katherine Wayne is senior manager of corporate communications at AMC.

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