With varying degrees of success and levels of enthusiasm, most meeting planners only began venturing into the virtual after March. But some hardy pioneers have been paving the way for years. One such vanguard is Celisa Steele, managing director of market assessment and advisory firm Tagoras. Since 2011, Steele has been researching and producing The Virtual Conference Report. She began converting some in-person events to virtual in 2017, working with organizations to help them think through their offerings. “A huge barrier to adoption has been removed just out of necessity,” she notes of the current landscape. “People who were lagging and unwilling to try an online conference are more than willing — receptivity is the biggest change. People are growing in leaps and bounds with their own familiarity.”
Virtual vs. In-Person Events
Let’s be frank: There are certain pluses of meeting in person that may never be completely reproduced in a virtual atmosphere, primarily because it’s difficult — though not impossible — to engage all five senses. “There’s a power to being in physical proximity that you just don’t get in a virtual meeting,” admits Howard Tiersky, CEO, president and founder of FROM, The Digital Transformation Agency.
Online, “The actual communication you engage in is in some ways lessened. A high percentage of communication is body language: gestures, posture, breathing, facial expressions.” Further, “Moving online does make any speaker shortcomings that much more glaring, but we should acknowledge that there are some less-than-stellar presenters in person, too,” Steele notes.
That stipulated, all-virtual meetings also offer some undeniable benefits. “The A/V component can actually be smoother,” Tiersky says. “Collaboration can be easier — if you have teams of people all working together on one slide deck or documenting brainstorming — it’s easier when everyone is in online mode.”
Anne Gorman, director, Event Solutions Sales for BCD Meetings and Events, says “I think one of the amazing benefits is being able to extend the reach of your event. With a live event, you are limited by things like ballroom space, budget, lift, etc.; virtual meetings break down all of those barriers and you can vastly increase how many people you can reach with your message.”
Kellie Sirna, co-founder and principal of interior design firm Studio 11 Design, agrees: “The main benefit of virtual events over in-person ones is the ability to unite people around the world. Sharing and enjoying a glimpse into each other’s day-to-day lives feels like a lifeline at a time when in-person connection is limited.”
And it isn’t just whatever comfort is afforded by the “we’re all in this together” mantra; certain attendees who may have been overlooked in other settings can actually thrive in this one. “Online, some people who might not be as comfortable sharing in person feel more comfortable online,” Steele says. Post-pandemic, this group can include not only natural introverts, but people who are feeling more insular than usual. Steele says she was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is possible to create connections with and among attendees online. “You think your view will be one-dimensional; but in fact, you form real relationships with people,” she says. “You pay extra attention, so you get a fuller sense of who people are.”
Does the Event Need to be an — Event?
For the transition to virtual, Tiersky says, “You have to ask: What’s the value a meeting planner provides to an online meeting? If you’re a great event planner, you have a bunch of relevant skills. It’s like somebody moving from radio to TV; it’s a different medium.” Before putting those skills in play, meeting planners are wrestling with a return to the fundamental question: Why are we doing this? “Thirty-seven percent of meetings serve zero purpose,” Tiersky says. “Companies in this space need to think more broadly about their value proposition and make sure they really know what they’re trying to accomplish. What is the real outcome? What will be different after the meeting than before the meeting? How will I know this was really successful? If we’re not specific about what success means, if we can’t figure out what the concrete value is, a canceled meeting is the best plan.”
Gorman feels the same. “Know your purpose,” she advises. “You are going to need to make a lot of decisions about how to adapt your event, and those decisions need to be grounded in why this event is taking place and who is attending.”
Steele adds: “Once you probe a little bit about the rationale, there may be a way to deliver that same goal. If the goal is to keep your attendees apprised of what’s going on in the industry, maybe an e-newsletter is better. Cancelation should be one of the options vs. postponement, vs. online.”
If the planner is satisfied that the value proposition is solid, the price point should be, too, Steele says. “There’s a lot of research around the fact that it’s not about the medium; it’s the message,” she says. “A lot of organizations are making what they plan to be short-term concessions on pricing, letting users see whatever the price tag is, then offering a pandemic discount.”
Once the determination is made to carry on with a virtual event, it should be extremely focused. The time allotted should be enough to complete the objective and no more. Steele advises planners to “be wary of cutting and pasting. Think about what is possible in a virtual setting that may not be possible in person, think of advantages. If it pivots online, maybe you’re changing the value: pre-conference workshops, exhibit hall, keynotes, 10 different tracks of breakouts — maybe these things don’t have to be co-located. Maybe we can create five separate virtual conferences for individual audiences.”
Preparing for the Event
Just as they do for in-person meetings, event planners can smooth the path to a great meeting. Pre-pandemic, Kevin Miller, partner and president of Unbridled Productions, offered companies help with every aspect of live event production, and he offers similar planning help for virtual events by “getting the presenters ready to go onstage, going into their virtual home office and talking them through it.” He now offers a virtual package that includes lighting, microphones, a wireless remote and backdrops to build in-house. “The key is to help clients be as prepared as possible for meetings,” he says, including positioning the computer for maximum engagement and rehearsing with clients.
Steele advises having multiple calls about content, scouting out opportunities to engage the audience and building within the schedule places for reflection questions. “We do a dry run with all of our presenters to see how they are presenting online, if we can give some feedback that might help them with that delivery; engaging not for the sake of engagement, but learning.”
As Tiersky sees it, “The No. 1 thing is to give people something to do. The worst thing is to treat the audience as if they’re at a movie: ‘Your job is to sit there and consume it.’ Good luck making your meeting as good as a middle-of-the-road Hollywood blockbuster.”
That said, just as with in-person events, much of the preparation for virtual events in fact involves thinking — theatrically. With smell and taste superseded, it becomes paramount to get the visual and auditory elements of the event right. In short, visuals matter. A lot. “Understand how your attendees consume digital content in their everyday lives and then emulate that, as much as possible, in your virtual meeting,” Gorman says. “Think television-style broadcasting à la ESPN or one of the national news networks. Focus on shorter segments, varied delivery styles and methods, and incorporating interactive elements like live polling or networking breakouts.”
Sirna also advises focusing on the theatrical elements. “Think of the physical space from which you’re hosting the event as your set,” she says. “You are the cinematic director of your own film. Ensure you have a fair amount of natural or soft lighting for beautiful illumination. The backdrop of your room should speak a bit to your personality in a way that is not overly distracting.”
When it comes to the dreaded “technical difficulties” that seem endemic to virtual life, Tiersky has something of an unexpected take: “Tech problems are not tech problems,” he opines. “They are human problems of people not doing what they need to do.” To minimize these “human problems,” planners can ensure the event connection has sufficient bandwidth to accommodate all possible attendees at all distances and in all situations. Depending on the size of the event, this may necessitate professional assistance.
For events of any size, Tiersky suggests communicating the virtual meeting etiquette early on, ideally before the event by video: How to log in, identify yourself in the name field of the platform and so on. Attendees should also know of a dedicated person or team they can turn to for support, technical and otherwise.
Even a seemingly small detail, such as the day of the week the event is held on, can make a substantial difference. “For in-person events, I typically recommend holding on Tuesday or Wednesdays, and at the end of the day, so folks have the time to finish working and commute to the venue,” says Rachel Harrison, founder of RHC: Rachel Harrison Communications. “Virtually, I would still recommend staying away from Mondays and Fridays as much as possible, but lunch-time meetings and slightly earlier evening events at, say, 5 p.m., are now more widely accessible. Make instructions very clear and provide necessary reminders. I’d recommend not initially inviting until about one to two weeks before. Offering to provide a calendar invitation which will put the meeting into their schedule and remind them 10-30 minutes prior to the beginning of the meeting has proved very helpful. Also, sending a reminder email the morning of the event doesn’t hurt.”
Keeping Attendees Engaged
Once attendees are present and properly plugged in, it’s time to shine. “Attendees should feel like they’re having a great conversation, learning something new and making a new friend [or many],” Sirna says. Her experiences have led her to recommend “hosting virtual events that feel more like a vacation, like a welcome break from the workday, rather than ‘just another Zoom’. This includes making morning meetings a pajama party or hosting a virtual gender reveal for one of our colleagues. Allowing the attendees to ask questions or participate in an activity at the virtual event will also drive engagement.” For a virtual panel about interior design for a recent trade show, for example, she said she invited attendees to “share a view of their spaces with me for design advice.”
The virtual meeting space is new not only for the planner, but often for the attendees as well. As such, “Don’t be afraid to ask people to do things that are a little unfamiliar,” Tiersky says. For example, he recently broke 40 attendees up into groups of five to participate in icebreaker activities, such as ‘Two Truths and a Lie’ and an activity using the Speed Dating model: placing random handfuls of people into a breakout room and giving them 15 minutes to discover something about each other or to brainstorm an idea. “People are willing to do things that are fun to get them engaged and loosened up,” he notes. “That makes their involvement in the event more productive and effective.”
To drive attendee engagement, Steele is partial to “unsessions” — discussions that go where the attendees lead. “The main difference between online and off is that online requires a little more planning and forethought to provide peer sharing and networking options, which tend to happen more naturally in person,” she says. “To add that aspect to the virtual conference, you have to provide scaffolding: A keynote presentation to get all attendees to hear one message, and breakout groups small enough to logistically provide a variety of viewpoints.”
For virtual communication, time is both more of a factor and less of one. On the one hand, attendees are unlikely to sit in front of a screen all day as they might in a ballroom; on the other, they may be far more likely to attend multi-day sessions online than they would be on-site, where the distraction factor is at least as much as at home. To engage audiences, Miller has organized a fireside chat between an entertainer and a client’s company president, something that was likely logistically less onerous than it would have been otherwise. He also highly recommends planning events with a mix of live and prerecorded sessions, particularly, in another nod to the theatric, pre-recorded sessions that seem live because they have been cleverly edited. “It’s a safety bet,” he says, “and it comes across a lot cleaner in the end. We’re soon going to be doing breakouts being recorded all over the world, throughout the night.”
Making the Pivot
While sight and sound are the obvious focus for virtual meetings, event planners are also engaging attendees by appealing to their other senses. Virtual cocktails, for example, are an increasingly popular outgrowth of the Zoom boom, though not as a way of replacing the in-person cocktail hour. In fact, planners may find attendees logging off for such impromptu carry overs from the pre-pandemic days. Instead, event planners connect the cocktails to the real world. Steele, for example, conducted a wine-tasting with a bottle the attendees had all tasted during a vineyard visit in earlier months and now had in their hands — neatly connecting the wine and the memory of the wine.
Harrison, too, found a way to translate her usual experience to a virtual one. “We’ve launched several liquor brands and typically would have a large event and hold one-on-one, desk-side tastings with media,” she says. “We pivoted quickly to bring these online — we hosted one-on-one virtual tastings to launch a new whiskey brand. We also just hosted a branded happy hour called, ‘A Cocktail Tour Around the World,’ which incorporated travel, tourism, and authenticity in the spirit and cocktail world. While at first we were wary, we quickly noticed that moving these gatherings online offered the opportunity to reach wider groups of people.”
Miller took this idea even further with an event earlier in the year with 400 to 500 online attendees. Along with cocktail mixes, his team sent out entire boxed meeting kits designed to be used during different parts of the meeting, with instructions on when to unbox what: a branded hat and jacket, boxed snacks for a virtual snack break, “things they would normally get if they were coming to the event.” The beauty of this approach is that it can be scaled and priced to fit an event’s audience, needs and budget.
Miller’s pivot to virtual has been all-in in other ways, too. While Unbridled Productions operates from a mansion in Denver that was a charming space for on-site events, it’s been reimagined as a “virtual backstage event room, with individual pods of setups to support different events.” And while he’s a strong advocate of the pre-recording, he was convinced to pivot yet again for one client in late spring, when his team held an all-live awards program with 300 to 400 virtual attendees. “They wanted to announce the winner, then have the camera and mic go directly to the winner,” he says. “We fought tooth and nail not to do that but, with a couple of little issues, it went very well.” The team created clear instructions for attendees on what to do if they were selected as a winner; touch here, click here. “It worked well — far better than we expected,” he notes. “We gave them 15 seconds to turn on the camera and mic before we went right back to the live host.” Also on tap for the event were award music, mics turned on for attendee cheering and a slide of the winner. That was a hair-raising timing challenge that could have dissolved into dead air but never did, thanks to multiple event producers and a crack tech team on the back end.
In the end, Tiersky notes: “Meetings are most powerful when in-person and virtual are combined; you can develop interpersonal relationships, and subsequent online meetings are more personal and more effective when they’re augmented by a mental model and impression of who that person is.” I&FMM.