Year 2020 was off to a great start with many in-person events on the books and planning well under way. The week of March 16th was an unmerciful hit to the gut when COVID-19 landed on our doorstep and was no longer only a reference to terrible things happening in other parts of the world. We spent the next 10 days working long hours cancelling, renegotiating, and postponing every piece of business we had on the books.
Every company was affected, but the events business, the industry with the sole responsibility of gathering people in large groups, larger the better, and very rarely six feet apart, would be deeply affected. I quickly realized this was more than a two- or three-week hiccup and we were not going to be able to bounce our way out of this one. We needed to be pro-active, so like everyone else, I decided to pivot!
Moving events to a virtual platform sounded exciting and innovative at first but 'virtual' and 'digital' have become words as common as the phrase 'let's meet for coffee' once was! Like everyone else, I have spent my days with my face projected on someone's monitor cognisant of the clutter on a dresser behind me or trying not to shift my eyes when my husband walks by. Video conference calls have replaced not only our physical meetings and coffee breaks, they have also taken the place of conference calls. So, although we have lost some personal touch in meeting with someone, we gained some connection with what was once only scheduled as a call.
The move to virtual video calls has resulted in a level of comfort for many self-proclaimed non-techies. Hosting a video conference call a year ago made people nervous and non-committal, saying they would 'give it a try but is there a phone number I can use in case it doesn't work?'. Now when we talk to clients about hosting Virtual Events, we get supportive nods as opposed to deer-in-headlight reactions.
There are countless virutal event platforms who all offer a different suite of services. If you thought picking a physical venue for your event was challenging, selecting an online venue can be extremely overwhelming. There are many questions to answer before you can type anything in a Google search. Is this a new idea or is it a physical event you are now trying to do virtually? What is the purpose of the event? Do you have stakeholders who expect visibility? How much interaction do you need to offer? Can you charge for an online event? Is it cyber safe, will you put your attendees at risk?
Pulling together a successful Virtual Event should not be left to chance or positioned as a 'lets see how we make out' project. There are many aspects to consider and you have one shot at this, so make it effective.
Finding a software provider
Because the industry went from 50 to 100 in literally days, the capacity levels are unmanageable. Some providers have put unrealistic expectations on their staff and continue to pile on business. To them and their clients, I say ‘take cover’. Others are sensible, only taking business they can manage, resulting in turning down business. In either scenario we find ourselves with little customer support.
Be watchful for new providers offering a product not quite ready for launch, resulting in unprepared, disastrous launches. I would be very hesitant to be anyone’s first kick at the can!
Security compliance is not as simple as it sounds. Every country and provinces within a country like Canada have their own compliance standards. If you choose to do business with a software provider from anywhere in the world, they may have plenty of security jargon in their terms and conditions, but that in no way means that it meets Canadian compliance. Having a privacy lawyer review the contract is strongly recommended. You could be subject to fines and possible imprisonment if you are non-compliant!
Things to think about when making your plan
· Decide what type of event you are hosting. Webinar? Hybrid? Virtual Conference? Trade Show?
· If you have sponsors and you want to keep these sponsors, they need visibility and ROI for their investment. This will require some creativity.
· If you have presenters, make sure you are dedicating the same care and attention to the production quality as you would if you were hosting in person. There is much to consider. No one wants to watch the Keynote speaker from the chin up, in a semi-lit room. Also, remember a virtual platform does not always include webcast services. You need another provider for that.
· If you have meeting materials, consider how these will be distributed. Your platform likely has a nice and accessible portal for attendees.
· Do not make the link public, you are asking for trouble. Attendees should be requested to register. This means you also need a registration system.
· Do you want to offer the opportunity for live Q&A or one-on-one chats in real time?
· Set your show hours accordingly. If your attendees are in a different time zone, you should accommodate.
· Engage additional staff to work during show hours to ensure everything is running smoothly. Always be ready for troubleshooting.
· Don’t decrease the budget! You may think moving to an online platform will be cost effective, and it can be in many ways, but there are other costs you need to consider. Once all is said and done and you’ve spent funds on software licencing, streaming services, creative design tools, production costs, and project management, you will easily be making up for costs saved on catering, venue, and AV. Think of it as an investment because some of these costs are one-time fees or annual costs.
Although there are many pros such as cost savings for attendees who do not have to travel or take extended time away from work, there are challenges to overcome like how to keep attendees engaged and fight against distractions. I’ll be sharing some thoughts, advice, and ideas on virtual events over the next few weeks. One day soon we will be back in action, running mics, and serving food, but for now we are fully committed to producing successful virtual events. I also think these new digital concepts are going to stick around and only get better and more interactive. Already we’ve had some great discussions about how to add some real value to online events. Virtual Fatigue is a real thing so it’s our job to keep them interesting.
For now, I am not debating what shoes to wear on event day! So there’s that…..