This has been an unusual year to say the least. Many conferences have canceled their in-person events and turned them virtual. For many professionals, getting to travel to a conference is not only a time to learn about innovative science, but also a chance to network with their professional colleagues they may only see once each year. They might fly to a city they have never been to and spend the day before the conference exploring. They get to meet like-minded people who have the same passion, mission and vision for their specialization. They also get to attend workshops to learn new information and techniques. Along with networking over lunch and dinner with strangers who become peers.
But COVID-19 has changed conference dynamics indefinitely.
Hosting a Virtual Conference
The global pandemic has caused conference hosts and vendors to think differently on how to keep up with constant changing and the ‘new normal for now’ situation the United States and the world is in. According to Jeff Cobb, the founder of the Learning Revolution, “If you don’t currently offer any sort of conference, launching a virtual conference can be a great way to expand your portfolio of offerings, attract new customers, and generate new revenue.”
As organizations decide to take their conferences online, this will give people an opportunity to attend virtually who wouldn’t have the option for professional development due to the cost of travel, hotels and other expenses.
Brainstorm with your team and think of the best speakers on the theme topic since just like in-person, conferences should have a theme. This will create interest in the attendees and make them interested in attending. “Introduce and sustain the theme, and highlight the connections among the sessions,” Cobb said, along with having an opening session and a closing session on each day of the conference.
To make the experience more personal for the attendees, utilize the chat section of Zoom by asking questions and encourage audience participation. Sending emails and updates to attendees introducing the speaker line up will get the audience excited to hear from the speakers.
Jon Picoult, a keynote speaker himself, said speaker presentations should be delivered through live video since slideshow based presentations alone may not keep the attendees attention. He said to keep the sessions interactive, by explaining to the attendees how to submit questions through the digital platform during designated question and answer time frames. For many who have attended Zoom meetings or conferences we all know how technology can break down. Picoult said, “develop contingency plans for whatever technical issues might crop up during the sessions.”
If an organization has never held a virtual conference there are virtual event planners that are available for hire with a quick Google search such as Whova.com. They offer “streaming, video replay, attendee engagement and networking.” As a disclaimer, a MOST employee has attended a conference through the Whova platform and it worked out well. She had access to the conference on a desktop and an app on her phone along with the ability to interact with other attendees through icebreakers and introductions.
A virtual conference also means a virtual expo. Chris Singlemann with New Breed Marketing said, “While you can’t perfectly recreate the conversational environment of an in-person conference, it is possible to integrate networking opportunities into your existing virtual events. If one-to-one networking is vital to your virtual event goals, you can set-up moderated break-out rooms and give attendees timed windows within which they can engage with other attendees or vendors.”
Since many vendors and sponsors work annually with a conference, it’s best to work with them to adjusting to the virtual platform since they sell products that are of value to your target audience. Create an online exhibit hall and a landing page for each exhibitor that includes their contact information. Cobb said, “Don’t worry if you don’t have a large audience. What most vendors want is a well-qualified audience, – that is a group of people who clearly possess the characteristics of the vendor’s target customers. If you can offer the chance to get in front of such a group, then you can greatly increase the efficiency of the vendor’s sales process – and that is valuable.”