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What I learned by converting a physical conference to a virtual one in just five weeks!

May 27, 2020

The pandemic shut down the Bay Area on March 17; our event was on April 21st. Find out how we quickly pivoted and pulled off a successful virtual event!

While I was, by no means, the first person to host a virtual event, I was one of the first in my network to pivot from a physical event to an interactive virtual event, due to the pandemic. While there are always lessons learned, I would say we nailed it! I have spent the last month post-event responding to clients, partners and industry colleagues about what platform I used and what worked for us, as they begin to transition their own events to virtual. Consider me your guinea pig.

Our event was supposed to be April 21-22, 2020 in San Francisco and, at five weeks out, the decision was made to go virtual rather than reschedule. I needed to select a technology vendor right away, and through my LinkedIn network, I found Dahlia+ Agency.

While there are plenty of virtual event and webinar platforms out there, what separates Soliman Productions (under the Dahlia+ umbrella) from the others is that, while with most you are just paying for access to their technology and platform, Soliman not only built-out the livestream site, they also produced the event. We planned it, but they managed the technology the day of the event and ran the virtual green room where speakers waited to go on. They were like our AV booth (sound and video switchers), help desk (a human was behind the help button on the site) and site developer in one! This was a lifesaver for me.

We condensed a 1.5 day event into two days for 3 hours each, to avoid losing guest’s attention and being aware that they have other obligations. With no true breaks, and slightly shorter sessions, we still accommodated all of our planned topics and speakers we had committed to. We did host our panels simultaneously to tighten time as well.

We didn’t want it to feel like a regular webinar where speakers talk at you, and I think it boils down to the nuances and small details you add to create engagement and interactivity. At the time, the small details felt painstaking, adding to an already challenging workload, but post event, we could see clearly how each of them truly enhanced the overall event experience. Some of the details that were successful:

  • The Summit Supply Drop box we sent was a total win! We asked guests for their shelter-in-place address during registration and shipped them a box full of goodies, an agenda and a letter with ways they could participate in the event. The call to action to hashtag and tag us with the message lightboards we sent or to show us their WFH set-up with #fromwhereisummit was a hit! Guests could not have been more appreciative and excited to receive these boxes.
  • Virtual Bingo – This encouraged guests to really engage and listen for buzz words, to post on social, participate in a breakout or visit the sponsor’s virtual booth in order to win a set of wireless Beats by Dre. The learning here was to make it harder to get BINGO, and probably have a prize for anyone who completes the whole card.
  • Hearsay team members from throughout the organization recorded intro videos introducing themselves, their role and the upcoming speaker. This offered a more human, and broader, view of our organization.
  • Assigned chat motivators that kept the chat box active and fun.
  • Virtual Sponsor Booths allowed our partners to shine.
  • Our transitions between speakers were not just a holding screen. In order to help the guests feel “seen” we incorporated several slideshows into the transitions between sessions. One featured guests at past events, one had current and past award winners, and another showed all the amazing social media posts by attendees.
  • Guests loved being able to get more curated content by selecting which simultaneous breakout panel best suited them to attend.
  • We organized small group Think Tanks. They were pre-assigned and a facilitator reached out in advance to create a sense of accountability and excitement. They were able to see and speak with industry colleagues and discuss best practices, successes and practical applications of lessons learned.
  • We created virtual backgrounds for our speakers so they could have some privacy in their home, and also feel more like a studio set. We gave them all several branded options.
  • Our designer also created a custom coloring sheet with some branding, to distract kids at home or for doodling while listening.
  • We still held our annual awards as a part of the event, highlighting photos of the winners and examples of their work. We asked the guests to join us in toasting the winners with the branded prosecco bottles and branded insulated champagne tumblers we included in their gift boxes!

Take-aways:

  • Reach is greater with virtual. We went from a mid-sized in-person conference to a virtual one that reached nearly 5x as many people. Many commented that they would not have been able to attend the physical one and were so excited to be able to participate now that it was virtual.
  • Content is king. We had amazing and diverse speakers, offering many different perspectives.
  • While you have a more captive audience at a physical event, you get more engagement with virtual. Our active chat box provided real-time feedback and comments on the speaker and event, as well as friendly banter with the other attendees.
  • People miss the physical networking, so anything you can do to emulate this in your virtual event will go a long way with attendees.
  • Creative ideas came from throughout the organization. Brainstorming was fun and essential!
  • You need a partner. Perhaps your team is large enough and you only need the technology, but for me, a production partner was like hiring AV, essential.

Were things perfect? No. Were they epic? Yes.

There were a few minor bumps with various vendors, but attendees were very complimentary about how professional and engaging the event was and they loved the touch of sending them the swag box. The big take-away was that they were truly appreciative that we still held the event virtually, rather than canceling or putting it off.

Becky Brewer

Senior Event Manager

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