In 2020, event organizers and producers were left scrambling to turn long-planned, in-person gatherings into virtual experiences. In the beginning, audiences were willing to accept some hiccups and interruptions, but as the months stretched on and technology evolved to our growing virtual needs, more people jumped on the virtual event train. Audiences became accustomed to well-produced online experiences. So, what does that mean for event planning in 2021?
Many say that the virtual experience is here to stay. Gone are the days that in-person events share only bits and pieces with an online audience. As we move forward, we should be planning hybrid events that have exclusive content for both the in-person and online attendee.
Whether you are planning a new event or looking to convert an annual in-person event to a hybrid or solely virtual event, the best thing to do is start from scratch. Chances are that your in-person event was never meant to become a virtual event, and trying to transfer each component can start to feel like pushing a round peg into a square hole. In this case, it’s best to treat each event as if this is the first time it’s happening — because in a way, it is.
Here are five steps to help your organization plan the best virtual events possible in 2021:
- Plan your event for the virtual attendee. Even if you are going to have an in-person experience, ensure that you are mapping out the virtual experience the same way that you would map out the in-person experience. Consider polling prospective attendees to get an idea of what they are expecting from your event.
- Prepare speakers and practice. Send out an introduction video or tip sheet that provides basic instructions on the platform you are using and conduct one-on-one calls with each speaker to make sure they are prepared. Include conversations about where they will be sitting or standing during their presentation and test their camera and microphone. Consider assigning a staff person to each speaker who can offer technical assistance before and during the event, as needed. You may also need to invest a little in some light AV equipment to help your speakers along, such as ring lights, HD webcams and microphones.
- Remember that scalability and shareability are two advantages of virtual events. If you typically host a three-day conference, now is the time to dial it back; avoid requiring a full-day commitment. Many 2020 event hosts found success with a “come-and-go” agenda, where attendees could pop in and out of sessions based on their schedules or access recorded sessions on-demand if they missed or wanted to revisit a session. Record everything and repurpose pieces of it for your social media or email newsletters.
- Accommodate people with disabilities. Include questions on registration materials that help identify people with disabilities who plan to attend. Reach out to registrants and discuss their specific needs. You may need to work with your presenters in advance to obtain supportive materials for the participants with disabilities or implement technology solutions that enable people to fully participate if they have a hearing impairment or are deaf; a vision impairment or are blind; or a learning disability.
- Prepare for the worst. While you hope that you will never need it, always be prepared for something to fail or go wrong, from weak Wi-Fi to a no-show speaker. We suggest drafting email templates to speakers and attendees that can be modified quickly in case you experience any technical difficulties during the event.
Most importantly, get creative and don’t be afraid to try new things. Approaches that may have been huge successes at your past in-person annual conference or fundraising dinner won’t translate to the virtual environment. Now is the time to experiment and try something new that will appeal to your attendees.
Brittany recently received her Pandemic Meeting & Event Design certification from Event Leadership Institute.