The Switch to Virtual Conferences: What We Learned

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that virtual events are here to stay!

We’ve been hosting our very own conference on aquaculture in the region for the past nine years. We had hoped to celebrate its 10th anniversary with a big bang in Vietnam last year, but alas, COVID-19 hit us like a bullet train. We were caught off guard and eventually had to cancel the event. For one, no one expected the pandemic to linger, and two, we were just not prepared for the shift to a virtual conference – lost opportunity.

Conversion – not that easy

We didn’t expect the pandemic to continue well into 2021 but here we are! Only this time we’re ready to make the switch to a virtual event. We did our research early on in the year for our conference which is always held in mid-August.  We found a tech company in the UK that hosts virtual events.  From then on began a series of frantic zoom meetings with the tech company, sponsors, key participants, potential speakers, etc.  It was not easy and often times frustrating as we learnt to navigate the new normal.

Having said that, we’re already used to zoom meetings with clients and friends over the past two years but more so in 2020. I have to say, this has not been an easy ride.  Zoom meetings and webinars are not the same as having a virtual conference platform.  Not only did we have to learn new things, we also had to take our sponsors and audience with us every step of the way – and it turned out to be even more time consuming than our previous physical events.

Lessons learned!

Here are a couple of challenges we faced in our first ever virtual conference and solutions to help guide all those who are planning to host virtual events.

Attendee engagementWe’re aware that even through webinars, there is no guarantee of an attentive or audience numbers.  Research shows that we’re all pretty fatigued by the endless webinars and zoom meetings.  However, a carefully planned and managed virtual event can be the next best thing to an in-person one, and offers some unique advantages. Engagement is about creating more immersive experiences, such as bringing the virtual event to life with interactive sessions. Proven examples include live Q&As, polling, and surveys. We had Q&As after each session and a survey at the end.  Because participants were on “mute”, they could only type their questions and comments via the discussion/chat boxes.  Speakers were able to respond directly and in real time via the chat box too. We had several other interactive opportunities like breakout sessions that involved participants (we do this at our physical conference too); we had a separate Q&A session with three successful business leaders in their field which drew a lot of interest. The sponsors’ virtual booths and scientific poster presentations at the E-poster gallery offered further opportunities to promote interaction and engagement with attendees.

Another strategy is to keep events smaller, while also allowing attendees to network with peers outside of presentations. Case in point: our past physical conferences were always hectic and full on for two straight days.  This time, we broke the event into three days of 4.5 hours each day. And because our participants represent more than 20 countries, we started the event at 2 pm in the afternoon which allowed for maximum participation.

Technical support and expertise:  A common misconception that most people have is that a virtual event is just another Zoom or Teams meeting. This is not true.  Creating an interactive experience is not something that can done with everyday tools. You must have access to the right technical support and expertise. This is crucial for recreating the live event experience that people know and expect. Working with a professional event platform provider will get you over any apprehension you may have over hosting a virtual event.  Access to structured training programs provided by the event tech company will ease the learning curve and arm yourself with the right tools to ensure the management of a successful event – from acquiring the best technology to planning the agenda, interacting with speakers and attendees, lead generation, etc.

Training for speakers and sponsors:  This is a must!  We’re able to do this as many times as we wanted with the tech support team. Many of the speakers needed the training whether it was for live or pre-recorded presentations, moderating live Q&As, etc. Sponsors benefited from learning to effectively interact with their customers and share product updates via their booths as well.

Personalized networking: When we first announced that we’re going virtual, many of our regular participants were already complaining that this would hinder networking opportunities.  Nothing like being able to interact face-to-face.  But still, event hosting platforms offer opportunities for people to interact directly with one another. Most virtual platforms offer some kind of digital lead capture tool.  Our sponsor’s booths allowed attendees to connect directly with subject matter experts and stakeholders. The booths could host virtual meetings with customers via virtual video calls and messaging, and sponsors could invite them to their respective booths to check out products and other information.  In addition, all registered attendees can connect and interact directly via virtual meetings and messaging.  The platform also offers filters to facilitate matchmaking, based on shared interests and priorities.

Privacy and security: This is a real fear for everyone who goes online. We have had to deal with scams from time to time and issues with payment online. As event organizers, we need to take this seriously and be responsible for our organization and our attendees, especially when it comes to exchanging confidential information. This is why you need a verified event management platform with security and privacy built-in to keep events safe and confidential. Do your research and due diligence.  In our case, we went with a company with a proven track record of having hosted similar conferences.

Reporting and analytics: This has got to be one of the many unique advantages of virtual events.  Like most digital interactions, they generate large amounts of invaluable data. A data-driven direction in event planning can result in improved outcomes for your events. You can draw insights from existing data to plan future events, test ideas and unlock new insights. All these can be done in the background while providing an atmosphere of learning, interaction, and engagement. Our sponsors found the real time data and analytics very useful. At all times, we were aware of the number of people attending the various sessions, which topic drew the most attention, the number of visits to sponsors’ booths and the E-poster gallery, etc. Sponsors were able to capture data on the number of visits to their booths, including the names of attendees and assess their interests in specific products or literature.  Choose an integrated event management platform that best fits your requirements for your organization, sponsors and attendees.

Web and conference app platforms: I’ve listed this last but web and app platforms are just as important as it has a direct bearing on access issues for everyone concerned. Some attendees experienced log-in problems with our web platform though this was successfully resolved with the help of the technical support team.  Others could easily switch to the app platform which worked just as well.  Equally important is the design of the web and app platforms.  We knew what we wanted in terms of the design – we visualized our needs based on our physical conference and this made a big difference.  Most of our attendees and sponsors have attended our past conferences – so the design was the first step to helping them familiarize themselves with the virtual platform.  The app design and tools mirror those of the web platform. 

Tip: Keep the design simple, with easy, accessible tools to help attendees navigate quickly and easily.

Parting shot:  As much as we, as event organizers, know that unexpected problems are likely to persist, there is no denying the value of virtual or hybrid events. By following best practices and gaining a thorough understanding of event planning problems and solutions, organizers can expand their audiences, appeal to high-value sponsors, and create engaging and memorable events online.

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