From In-Person to Online: Transitioning to Virtual Events in the Age of COVID-19

As we continue to deal with the fallout of COVID-19 and its long-lasting impact, one of the biggest challenges we’ve helped clients big and small navigate is the transition from in-person events to virtual ones.

Traditionally, press events, conferences, lunch and learns, and networking events all fulfill pivotal roles in communicating with an organization’s various audiences. But how exactly can we collectively continue holding events that were typically in-person when we simply can’t gather in-person?

At the onset, the answer was to cancel immediate events and/or postpone for later in the year, with the hope that we’d get past the pandemic and return to “normal lives.” However, as March stretched into April, and April into May, and restrictions continued and school closures extended, it became increasingly clear that in-person events were unlikely to resume to the way in which we were  accustomed. So, how were we, as consultants, able to help our clients achieve their event goals? By changing our mindset and thinking virtual.

Believe it or not, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to a virtual event. As daunting as it may seem to plan any type of event during a global pandemic, virtual events actually provide the host with enormous flexibility and opportunities to share the event with a larger audience. Plus, travel time is no longer a consideration.

If you haven’t planned a virtual event yet, here are a few things to think about.

Budget and Bottom-Line

Shorter virtual events, like a news conference or lunch-less “lunch and learn,” can easily be pulled off internally, with minimal cost, by utilizing a web-based platform like Zoom, GoToMeetings, WebEx or others. Thinking about a bigger event, like a conference or open house? You’ll likely need to spend some cash ($10,000 and up) to ensure all the technological necessities and logistics are in place for a successful event.

Another budgetary consideration? Sponsorships. A virtual event may not attract the same sponsors as the in-person event without some creative thinking. It may be time to switch up sponsorship levels, create new sponsorship packages or adjust expectations for these unprecedented times.

Your Event Agenda

Unfortunately, not every aspect of your in-person event will translate to a virtual presence. Asking attendees to sit through too many speakers or for too long a period at a virtual event? Definitely a no-no.

In earlier times, an open house event might have allowed you to present information and speak to attendees at the exact same time, with attendees freely navigating from table to table. While you can still do some of those things virtually and achieve your desired outcome, you may need pair prepared content (PowerPoints, brochures, fact sheets, videos) with a webinar platform to give attendees the full experience.

Another option for content-rich events? Consider creating a series spread out over multiple days or weeks rather than one full day.

The User Experience

By now, many of us have a preferred platform for virtual meetings. But  when hosting an event for external audiences, think about ease of use, and those audiences who aren’t spending all day on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Put yourself in the shoes of an audience member: Do you need to have an audio only line for attendees who want to call-in?  How difficult is it to get to or download the virtual platform? If there are multiple webinar or meeting links, how many links does the user need to click on? Keep it simple.

Impact on Attendance

Physical events have physical limitations. By removing physical constraints and geographical limitations, anyone around the world can attend your virtual event. But bear in mind, just because people sign up, it doesn’t always mean they’ll attend.

Remember the Media

Ordinarily, it’s not difficult to grab your CEO and arrange a quick interview with a journalist before or after a news conference. But in the virtual event world, when everyone is watching through a computer, it’s not always that easy. Be sure to formulate a complete media outreach strategy and determine how you’ll handle media attendance and inquiries. Will you embargo the news? Set time aside for individual interviews and Q&A? Think about these questions before they arise and map out an appropriate plan.