Conferences During Covid: Expectation vs. Reality

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Prepare yourself for the new reality when it comes to the conference circuits during COVID-19. We came into 2020 with the expectation of attending conferences and making connections. It’s hard to believe that just this past February, we shared an article on ‘4 Tips For Conference Attendees‘. But the reality is that 2020-2021 will usher in the actuality of virtual conferences.

While not ideal, there are some solid pros when you go virtual. Whether the reality outweighs the expectations depends on a conference-to-conference scenario. Now is not the time to sit back and bemoan “what could have been” with your scheduled conference. It’s time to plan the best virtual conference your attendees will talk about in years to come.

In other words, if you are hosting a virtual conference, you want to set the expectation that you are a leader in this new format. Here are some ideas to knock it out of the park when it comes to hosting a virtual conference.

The Reality of Canceling In-Person

First, let’s talk about reality when it comes to the cost of canceling conferences. The biggest blow to canceling in-person conferences are the local venues. According to this report from Small Business Trends, global events are a $1.5 trillion industry. This includes the loss of airfare, hotel stays, dining, and transportation.

[Image: Conference Costs via Data Connectors]

Until the coronavirus is under control, this industry will not recover. It is inevitable that there will be substantial financial losses, and these are the things to bear in mind when bans are lifted, and we return to ‘normal’ once again. While we discuss how to host the best virtual conference possible, please also keep in mind how you can support local businesses. Maybe the reality of that means integrating locally sourced products for goody bags. If you’re able to plan on a larger scale, then securing a date for your event at a local venue post-COVID is the way to go.

Expectations With Virtual Venues

Normally, you expect a conference venue to have been scouted and set up to give attendees a welcoming vibe. When the focus shifts to a virtual conference, there are still ways to keep it fresh and personable.

In other words, the reality is that you can still set the mood and elevate your event. If your hottest WiFi spot is not camera-ready, fear not, because we’ve got you covered. Create a virtual studio with great lighting and cool backdrops. Did you have a backdrop already created for step-and-repeats? If the answer is yes, then get it set up. Even better, if you don’t already have something, call up your local printer so you can give them business during these tough times.

Another key factor in a virtual event is to be certain your hosting tool (Zoom, GoTo, or Webex) will be able to support the number of attendees you have. Not sure? Call your rep with the company and get that set and secured well in advance.

In addition to creating your virtual set, it’s also key to have a dress rehearsal. This is just as vital for a smoothly run in-person conference as it is a virtual one. It’s great to have a main tech person to run the show, but it’s even smarter to have a back-up. Check the tech, the lighting, the transitions. If you need a reminder of how this can go sideways (and there are so many of them posted across social!), the boss who couldn’t figure out the potato setting is probably the funniest. The main takeaway, it’s always best to be over-prepared with technology on a virtual stage.

[Source: Conference Fail on Twitter]

Exclusive Incentives for Attendees

How do you continue to elevate a virtual event for attendees? Create exclusive content and provide incentives for them! Here are a few ideas:

  • Create and mail out goody bags for attendees so they receive them a few days before the conference. A newer idea to add to the swag bag are facemasks and hand sanitizers with the conference logo or that of your sponsors. These will be appreciated and definitely come in handy!
  • Since attendees are encouraged to post about events they are at, be sure to alert your attendees to your event hashtag. Attendees can still take selfies with their mini props (which you’ve already sent out in their goody bags) and post that they are attending the conference, just virtually! Make it competitive and offer a discount to next year’s conference to whoever has the most clever post or the most likes on their post.
  • Distribute pre-signed copies of the speaker’s books (if applicable). Or, since we’re speaking virtually, how about credit them to purchase it digitally or through Audible? Again, this is best to set up before the conference so attendees can become more acquainted with your speakers and prepare any questions they may have.
  • And, be sure to include swag from your event sponsors so they are still front and center at the conference.

Keep Planned Breaks

Breaks during a conference are key moments to seize for networking. Many events have additional rooms for breakout sessions as well as refreshments and perhaps a cocktail hour after. This may be the trickiest one to work around.

On the other hand, it’s not impossible if you get creative! Since attendees won’t be able to grab the complimentary lunch or snack, why not provide vouchers for services like DoorDash? And while they are waiting for their order to conveniently arrive at their doorstep, they can remain on the video chat to speak with their fellow attendees.

Of course, this is more ideal for smaller conferences. However, separate links can be set up in a chat for breakaway sessions, of sorts. Zoom offers some great tips on how you can manage your virtual event here. And while we’re talking about it, your happy hour can still go on. Create a separate chat space for a virtual happy hour with attendees after the conference.

The Global Reality

One of the pros of a virtual conference is that your global reach expands. The reality is that speakers and attendees from around the world can participate without incurring travel expenses. If there were any that had previously been hesitant to travel far for the conference, this is ideal for them. And on the speaker end of things, this will save your company quite a bit!

If the time difference becomes an issue, then there is no harm in pre-recorded segments. However, if you are going the pre-recorded route, reach out to attendees beforehand to gather any questions they would like covered by the speaker. Since the pre-recording will eliminate the Q&A discussion that follows, this will become important to ensure the speaker doesn’t fall short of expectations. We are thinking outside the box with virtual conferences right now, so whatever works best for your company and the speaker is what you need to lean into.

Summing Up

Transitioning a planned conference from in-person to virtual doesn’t have to be stressful. Present your company as a leader in this new world of virtual events. If you approach this as more of an opportunity to shine and expand instead of scrambling to pivot into a make-it-work situation, then you’re already ahead of the game. Going into this new medium for conferences is going to be eye-opening and we hope these tips help you get a jump on how to stand out in the virtual world.


What ideas do you have to boost virtual conferences? Share them in the comments below!


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Category: Business, Communications
Tags: conferences, COVID-19, events, remote team, virtual conference, virtual event
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