A DES Guide for Adding a Virtual Component to your Conference
With COVID-19 infection rates decreasing in some areas and increasing in others, the AMC Meetings team is busy planning client conferences with four different contingency options in place: a regular face-to-face (F2F) meeting, a hybrid meeting, an all-virtual meeting, and a potentially cancelled meeting. Adding a virtual component to an existing face-to-face (F2F) meeting or converting your F2F meeting to a completely virtual one has never been a hotter topic of conversation in the meetings and events industry. But before you rush off and start talking to digital platform vendors, take a moment to think about WHY you are adding that virtual component.
Such virtual components include hybrid meetings and virtual meetings:
- A hybrid conference is designed to share in an-person experience with virtual participants. Some people attend the in-person conference, while others watch a live broadcast. You can even coordinate local sites for small groups of participants to attend from afar.
- A virtual meeting is a web-based event that replicates many aspects of a traditional in-person conference, membership meeting, or tradeshow. At its inception, it is designed to be a virtual experience for which all participants use the internet to access.
Continue Achieving Your Mission
All meetings and events, whether F2F or virtual, should align with your organization’s goals and carry out your vision and mission. When planning an event of any kind, it’s always best practice to meet with your team and work through your goals, desired outcomes, and so on. Some of your top drivers may include the desire to:
Contrary to popular belief, innovation comes from content and adaptability, not necessarily tools. You can still demonstrate your innovative content, just with a different kind of learning than a F2F conference. With the right production, you may still use hands-on demonstrations to show how your industry is moving forward. One of the really positive things that will come out of planning conferences around COVID is that people will be open to doing something different—all bets are off now. We have some room to fall, and we will take that room to try new things and see how far we can go to succeed.
If you haven’t already, check out a recent post on our blog about maintaining industry partners and corporate sponsorships without in-person meetings. Read more to see how our PRD team pivots with exhibitor, sponsorship, and advertising opportunities during COVID, and also consider using gamification to engage attendees and market products.
Build and Support Your Community During a Difficult Time
Besides gaining valuable learning experiences, association members also attend conferences to reconnect with colleagues and friends, which refills their “emotional tank.” Even with a virtual meeting, it’s important to provide an environment for collaboration and engagement among members, customers, and industry partners. As with F2F meetings, you will still need to promote the meeting, hype people up, and get members excited and talking about the virtual meeting in advance; per usual, the time you spend promoting the meeting is just as important as the time spent hosting the meeting. Some premeeting engagement ideas include fostering premeeting conversations about a particular topic with the speakers.
Follow through with the hype by giving attendees an experience that is as close to F2F as possible: create breakout rooms by SIGs, job roles, or topics; facilitate virtual happy hours; even host virtual yoga sessions and cooking classes. While these virtual connection components seem overdone, seeing someone’s face and having a virtual interaction is still incredibly valid and may help fill attendees’ emotional tanks.
Broaden the Awareness of Your Organization’s Message
In a F2F meeting, only the attendees have the conference experience; it’s a fantastic experience, but it is “one and done.” On the other hand, a virtual component allows for more people to experience the conference than simply those who are physically present. With a virtual space, you are able to broaden your awareness beyond physical attendees to live virtual attendees and members who watch a recorded version later on, creating an experience that lasts much longer than the “one and done” moment. Virtual components allow you to increase your reach to members and nonmembers who cannot attend a F2F conference due to time commitments, financial barriers, travel complications, and global pandemics. The only requirement is internet access.
Virtual meetings do not inhibit providing an environment for collaboration. Even without a pandemic, association boards and members attend meetings remotely. Associations have consistently achieved phenomenal goals, even with virtual board and committee meetings. Big, progressive and innovative projects do not need to occur face-to-face to be achieved.
Designing Your Conference Goals
Working backwards when designing a virtual event can bring a freshness and alternative viewpoint that you might have missed otherwise. A sure sign of meeting your conference goals is positive feedback from your attendees. When you are planning your speakers, structure, and subject matter, discuss with your team what you would like attendees to say after your event.
- Do you want them to say that the speaker was phenomenal? If so, take the time to coach and especially rehearse with your speaker prior to the event. Some speakers are absolute experts in their fields with F2F speaking experiences who are used to receiving visual cues from live audiences. Help them gauge how the technology works, how to introduce a story, and even how to change the way they speak while giving a virtual presentation. Make sure you communicate who will be moving the slides and what buttons may or may not be pressed during the presentation.
- Do you want your attendees to remember that they met a like-minded soul in the virtual chat room? Many of your subject matter experts (SMEs) might not have previously spent time in the virtual meeting space and may be uncomfortable with the technology, so have a run through of the virtual technology with your SMEs before the event. And, make sure your chat room moderator is present and actively connecting your attendees to each other and to the SME.
- Do you want them to say how easy it was to navigate the virtual event? If your potential attendees are not virtual meeting-savvy, be very mindful of that when picking your virtual event platform and keep the user experience simple. Have a communication plan before and during the meeting to tell your attendees what to expect of the technology and how to use it.
Once you’ve determined the desired outcome for your group, you can begin to fill in the event strategy guidelines. Those include, but are not limited to, the specific technology involved, what content should be delivered, and how you will measure your success, including how you will report that to your entire team. Focus on what your participants want and need, starting with components you’re most comfortable offering, but do not feel like you need to do everything in your first virtual or hybrid conference.
Don’t let planning a virtual event intimidate you! Many of the pieces to a virtual event puzzle are pieces you are already familiar with; you simply need to step back and see the bigger picture before placing each puzzle piece on the table. People need in-person interactions to build and nurture their connections, so F2F meetings will not go away and virtual meetings will not completely replace F2F, though they likely will enhance them once f2f meetings are deemed safe. We can learn from these virtual meetings and use this experience to widen our scope so all future meetings have a hybrid component, not because a global pandemic mandates it, but because we chose to reap the benefits of reaching a wider audience and achieving our association’s mission.
Darlene Somers, DES CMP, is a senior meetings manager at Association Management Center.
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