The COVID-19 Pandemic has affected many industries and the meetings industry is not alone in this. In the early weeks of the pandemic the MeetGreen team had the opportunity to pivot a face-to-face meeting to a virtual meeting. The team had 10 days to make this happen.
This year’s Fair Trade Campaigns Conference was scheduled in March in the early days of COVID-19 for the United States. The team had to move quickly to come up with a solution. Once the client decided to continue with the event, it was time to pivot our planning to a virtual meeting.
Within this short time frame the Fair Trade Campaigns and MeetGreen teams stepped up and executed a successful event that brought a community together to share ideas, knowledge, and hope for the future. This would not have been possible without the strong, organized leadership of Billy Linstead Goldmith.
“After deciding approximately ten days out to pivot from meeting face-to-face to meeting virtually due to a global pandemic, our expectation was to successfully execute our event and to create a virtual space for our community to come together and get to focus on something other than all of the fear and anxiety running through the world. What better way to inspire optimism than to create a space to focus on a truly interconnected, global movement?
Our attendance grew by more than 60% compared with meeting face-to-face and the feedback received from attendees, speakers and other stakeholders has been fantastic. We were thrilled at event’s end knowing we delivered a program that invited people to lean into something positive and constructive when the world feels like anything but.
MeetGreen worked tirelessly over the last few weeks to make this transition possible and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
Billy Linstead Goldsmith, Director, Fair Trade Campaigns
To find out more about pivoting a face-to-face meeting to a virtual meeting let’s hear what the team had to say about this experience. Here is their story, in their own words.
Components During Transition
Talking with the team they all agreed that the first component of the transition is a good communication plan. Communicating to the attendees, speakers, sponsors and Marketplace vendors with the information they needed about the upcoming changes and how it will affect them.
Selecting a platform is the next priority which is a critical aspect to the event that impacts the agenda, networking, sponsors and even staffing needs. You will want to consider what your event needs to be successful and look at it in a way that you may not have considered to hone in on your event’s purpose.
Changing from a face-to-face event to a virtual event impacts your program agenda and the scheduling of your program. This requires you to look at audience retention, attendee engagement, speakers, sponsors, as well as time zones and the reasonable amount of time someone can attend virtually. Content is always king in event programming but more so with virtual events when time is short and distractions are plentiful.
Moving from face-to-face to a virtual event will greatly affect registration management. Here, you should consider current registrants as well as the cost structure for in person vs. virtual attendance, refunds, and registrant information migration.
“The beauty of the Fair Trade Campaigns Conference – and many other successful events – is the community and its energy. We had to figure out how we could keep that in a virtual environment and ensure the platform would allow for chatting amongst the audience.” ~ Jennifer Byrn, Project Manager
“You will likely want to revisit your program agenda and adjust so the program takes place across more days to align with best practices. Not even the most dedicated audience wants to spend 8 hours in front of their computer taking in content.” ~ Britta Ehnebuske, Technical Manager
“Ensuring you have a cost plan of what a virtual conference looks like for the following – sponsors, attendees, exhibitors, etc.” ~ Kate Wilson, Registration Manager
Roles for Virtual Events
Not only is each event different, each platform provides differing service levels that affects event staffing. Let’s talk about a few of the key roles vital for the Fair Trade Campaigns Conference.
The speaker manager role becomes very crucial in a virtual event and takes on responsibilities in a whole new way. Getting to know the technology that will be used during the virtual event, making sure to test out how it looks from the speaker’s point of view, and providing best practices resources for speakers to prepare for their sessions are a few key steps. Communication and guidance are very important to support the speakers in their success.
As a registration manager there is a lot of work that needs to happen if you are already in process with a face-to-face event to transition to a virtual event. This includes moving current registrants over to the virtual ticket type on the registration platform, issuing refunds, and other communications about the changes taking place.
At first blush, you might think registration needs would be minimal on live event days. Although staffing might be much smaller for virtual than face-to-face meetings, registration needs continue. We are called upon for troubleshooting login issues, showing attendees how to navigate the platform, and providing other assistance to attendees where needed.
The role of managing sponsors is also different for the virtual components as your prospectus that was originally agreed upon will change. In communicating with the sponsors, your goal is to keep them on board which means you need to give them new value of their sponsorship.
“As the PM, the role felt a lot different for virtual than face-to-face planning as my job became more about team management – providing the team with support and making sure timelines were met.” ~ Jennifer Byrn, Project Manager
“We put ourselves in our speakers’ shoes and recognized the nervousness the shift had the potential to cause, and worked to provide resources to support them along the way, such as on-camera best practices and tech checks an hour ahead of start time to sort out any video or sound issues.” ~ Britta Ehnebuske, Technical Manager
“When we went live, just as important as an in-person event, the registration manager had to help attendees navigate an unfamiliar space and troubleshoot login issues when they occurred. It was just like being onsite, if not more intense.” ~ Kate Wilson, Registration Manager
The planning process to go virtual includes an un-planning process for the face-to-face meeting, for example working with vendors to minimize cancellation costs for the client. It also includes being involved in the discussions about the platform, which might already be selected by the client. Collaboration, communication and documentation are all key to move project planning in the new direction.
“In this case our client had a relationship already with the provider of the virtual platform but once possible, they brought us in immediately to their planning discussions. We met with our client every day and we met internally every day.” ~ Jennifer Byrn, Project Manager
“Great communication and a virtual staging guide helped us put on a successful virtual event.” ~ Kate Wilson, Registration Manager
Best Practices for Speakers
Keeping in mind that speakers are in a variety of situations the team needs to think ahead to what the speakers might experience. To prepare speakers to think about their presentation and what they need to be aware of, the team put together best practices guidelines to help create a successful presentation. Here are a few examples:
- Engage participants by crafting your presentation to have the audience contribute using the tools available in your virtual platform (polls, Q&A, etc.).
- Choose a simple background, with few distractions. Even a bookcase can appear busy on camera and a blank wall is preferred.
- Stay on mute when not speaking to avoid causing feedback or echoing.
The team agreed a key role is having someone in the speaker’s green room to help each speaker as well as in the breakout rooms to facilitate chats and to watch for technical issues that may happen. To coordinate communications with each other on the back end and to solve problems that may come up, a backchannel outside of the event platform should be in place.
“This depends so much on the platform you choose and the support that comes with it, but I would also recommend having a back channel communication strategy, ideally that is not within the virtual platform you are utilizing. Slack was crucial for us to troubleshoot and act quickly on issues that arose.” ~ Britta Ehnebuske, Technical Manager
Pivoting to a virtual sponsorship may take some creativity and thinking outside of the box. Mapping out the in-person sponsorship benefits and creating equivalent online benefits are key to keeping existing sponsors and selling new sponsorships. Crafting and communicating the benefits, giving them the opportunities to shine is key.
In the case of the Fair Trade Campaigns Conference there was not enough time to include a virtual exhibit hall but given enough time you can give the attendees the same interactivity as a face-to-face exhibit hall.
“Depending on your sponsors, you may have to re-start the sales process all over again. Map out all the in-person sponsorship benefits and find a reasonable equivalent for each benefit in the virtual platform. Don’t be afraid to get creative and think outside the onsite box!” ~ Britta Ehnebuske, Technical Manager
“It depends on where you are at with the sponsorship process. If you have sponsors confirmed, you will have to re-sell them on the virtual benefits. Being creative is key – there is a lot these virtual platforms can do!” ~ Kate Wilson, Registration Manager
One of the biggest decisions you have to make is how to price your virtual conference, as this will directly affect the perceived value of the content as well as how many people register. Online conferences typically have lower registration fees than in-person events but audience makeup, how important your conference is to them, and the quality of your content all need to be considered.
This is only one piece of registration that is affected by moving to a virtual event. The registration management tool needs to be updated to reflect the virtual ticket type, pricing, and integration with the platform. Communication of these changes has to be coordinated with the registration manager to ensure the system is updated and to consider how refunds can be made.
Here are some key take a-ways that the team learned:
- Surprisingly, “onsite” time and virtual time spent, even with less virtual content hours, are basically the same and should not be underestimated.
- Technology to incorporate networking, engagement, and interaction should be included. Now more than ever, people want to connect with one another.
- Social Media is in many cases more important in a virtual conference than a live one.
- Registration may increase as your conference becomes more accessible from anywhere and more affordable to a new audience. Inclusivity is a huge benefit with a virtual conference.
- Be transparent in your communications—it’s okay if you don’t have an answer to how every aspect of your event will look right away. Give attendees, sponsors and speakers a date when you’ll know more and strive to meet that deadline.
- Everyone is surprisingly forgiving of technology issues as long as they feel invested in the event.
- Communication is key!
A Lot of Learning in a Very Short Amount of Time
Lessons carried forward to future virtual events are that communication, documentation, research, and setting expectations are all very important to the execution of a successful event. There are many moving parts and unknowns that are different from a face-to-face meeting. Even when you think you’ve thought of everything, you won’t be able plan for all the unexpected things that happen the day of the event. However, having a team that is flexible, resilient, and able to communicate with each other to take on the challenges that may occur is definitely a winning combination.