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Hands up if you’ve spent some time on the phone or swapping emails with customer service reps getting refunds for conference fees, air travel, and hotel reservations.
The list of IT conference cancellations is growing by the day, however, some conference managers are pivoting: conferences across the country are going virtual. Attendees won’t need their flights or hotel rooms, but organizers will still get access to an audience, and delegates will still get access to the content they need, with the cohort they want to meet.
Virtual events used to be a novelty in the industry. Now they’re becoming the norm by necessity. But can a live stream or virtual conference deliver the same experience? Can your planning team adapt to the shifting demands? The logistics and “feel” of a virtual conference are completely different than the traditional format. The IT workforce has been shifting toward remote work more quickly most other industries...are they ready to go to conferences remotely, as well?
The challenge can seem daunting, but with the right tools and systems in place, your virtual conference room can be just as good as, if not better than, a room full of delegates in a hotel ballroom.
The advantages of virtual conferences.
There are several benefits to hosting a virtual conference. They’re factors that smaller organizations have banked on – literally – for years.
Look at the line items on your conference budget: room rental(s), chairs, tables, linens, audio-visual equipment and technicians, catering, hotel, and travel expenses for staff, speakers, and VIPs...the list goes on when you’re in a hotel or convention center. You can cross those expenses off your list completely.
Your attendees are saving money, too. That means their professional development budget will go further. Instead of cherry-picking one conference on a topic of interest, they have the option to attend several, including yours.
This applies both in terms of attendees who have mobility issues, as well as delegates who might not have invested in the expense to travel a great distance. This can be especially beneficial when trying to secure speakers and moderators – you’re no longer limited by geography, so you can think outside the box.
Again, geography becomes irrelevant. A convention that would have typically attracted delegates from a small radius can now be promoted around the world. Anyone with an internet connection can attend. This opens up a larger potential revenue stream and a diversity of voices at your conference that would have been lacking at your in-person event.
More capacity for long-term networking.
How many of you come home with a wallet full of business cards that either you or a colleague will have to enter into your lead-tracking software? If your delegates and speakers are already sharing their contact information on the event platform you’ve got ready access to them long after the conference has closed.
If you’ve set up break-out rooms and private meetings rooms as part of your virtual experience, those members will be able to have an immediate, ongoing dialogue that could bear fruit for months and years to come.
Switching to a virtual conference at the last minute.
Not your first choice, of course. But as the guidelines around activities during the pandemic are still fluid, some of you might be holding out hope that your in-person event can still go forward.
So, you’ve established the event is going virtual. Where to start?
- Think about trimming and adding.
Now that you’re not going to have a room full of people, which parts of your program are impractical? Team-building exercises, product demonstrations, mixers. Don’t wipe out your exhibition hall just yet. There are alternatives for vendors who are willing to go virtual…
Look at components you wanted to have but weren’t practical because of space constraints or speaker availability. Can someone who couldn’t get to your part of the world make a virtual appearance from theirs?
- Pick a platform.
There are dozens of software platforms available. They include options for live streaming, real-time interaction, polls, question-and-answer functions, as well as event registration.
If you’ve taken the time to examine your program and figure out what should be streamed in real-time, what could be recorded and accessed at a later time and date by delegates, and what should be interactive, you’ll be able to identify your software needs potential providers. It’s their job to guide you to the right solution. Does your event need breakouts and, if it does, will your platform support this? Companies like Microsoft are addressing this quickly with new features to make virtual conferences even better (see: Reimagining virtual collaboration for the future of work and learning).
- Consider your location(s).
Do your presenters and moderators have an appropriate space for appearing on live stream? You don’t want your keynote giving a speech from their kitchen while the kids make a snack in the background.
You might want to bring your panelists to one central location. Or, rent a small space for your presenters and/or moderators in their hometown so your event still looks professional. You’ll also eliminate any distractions for your attendees and the presenters.
- Sell the switch.
A change of plans probably won’t shock your delegates. People have come to expect the unexpected during the pandemic. But delegates and vendors who were counting on the networking opportunities are going to feel cheated, and might pull out.
It will be your job to enrich the virtual conference experience, create online networking opportunities, create “space” for vendors to interact with attendees so there is still commercial value. Your software provider will have resources that can help you build an interactive, engaging program that incorporates dynamic networking tools – break-out rooms, private chat rooms, a virtual exhibit hall.
You can also deliver conference merchandise to your delegates’ doorstep so they feel like they’re part of the action, even if they’re attending from their home office computer.
Planning virtual conferences takes the right tech, and the right people.
You always give thought to the personalities of your speakers and moderators. It’s especially critical to have dynamic moderators who can keep a program on schedule without killing the momentum with rules or squashing opportunities for engagement. Your moderators need people skills.
If you’re going virtual, you’ll also need to consider their technical skills. You’ll have a few options if you’re planning ahead:
- Choose moderators who are already fluent with current technology.
- Arrange for someone from your IT department or your software provider to host a tutorial for your moderators.
- Arrange to have someone “shadow” your moderator who is fluent in the technology and can troubleshoot in real-time.
Your panelists are accustomed to meeting in a ‘green room’ with the moderator and an event organizer to review the procedures for an upcoming session. Be sure to book a time for everyone to meet in a virtual green room days before the event and then a half-hour before going live. You’ll save yourself some technical snags before your audience shows up.
The show must go on.
The loss of IT conferences – all conferences – across the country has taken a huge bite out of the economy. But it doesn’t have to take a bite out of your culture of sharing information, or your opportunities to network and market your product.
There will be some diehards who insist on the in-person experience, either because they dislike technology, want a break from their routines, or have a product to share that has to be seen in person.
But there is a wealth of ways to enrich your virtual conference so attendees still see value in the experience. There’s little sign that the winds are going to change direction in the foreseeable future. You might as well adjust your sail and go with the wind.
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