How To Move Your Conference From Physical To Online During Coronavirus Pandemic?
As the coronavirus pandemic marches around the world, leading to unprecedented measures to stop the virus's spread, the number of events being cancelled is rising and especially academic researchers are scrambling to find alternative ways to share their work and interact with collaborators. Some of these efforts have already led researchers to start to think about the concept of a meeting. Even the academic world is known by its cultural conservatism, the debate over "What is the point of a conference" question seems to be inevitable in near future.
Many organizers and participants have turned to online platforms as a way to share work, creating virtual conferences that resemble at least some parts of a physical event. These could be the beginning of a shift to online conferences and some have already begun discussing ways to build a virtual community and many of them rapidly set up platforms to hold virtual sessions for a meeting, inviting their speakers to present by webcam or to upload their presentations. However, converting a physical event into a virtual one can seem like a daunting and a formidable endeavor. For most organizations, the shift doesn't come naturally.
What is a virtual event?
First of all, it's important to understand what a virtual event is. Nowadays, from students, who were forced to stay home and attend online classes, to scientists who are collaborating to find a cure for Coronavirus are all using an online meeting platform and online meeting platforms suddenly became very popular all around the world during the Coronavirus lock down.
A virtual event is an online event that involves people interacting in a virtual environment on the web, rather than meeting in a physical location. Popular uses of virtual events include virtual trade shows, virtual job fairs, virtual conferences such as virtual translation conferences, virtual sales-meetings, virtual college open days, virtual company-wide gatherings. Virtual events are used by companies to deliver presentations, training, job fairs, expos, internal meetings and sessions. They are led by a range of key stakeholders, including company executives, marketing managers, product management, human resources and more.
Main Types of Virtual Events
- Virtual Summits / Conferences :
- Online Music Concerts:
- Virtual Meetups:
- Ask me anything (AMA's):
- Fireside Chat :
Best suited for small groups of participants. You can invite multiple speakers, host several tracks and sessions, have breakout sessions in between, conduct live polls & surveys. Speakers and attendees can have two-way communication between them over audio/video in real-time.
A webinar is a virtual seminar on a topic where usually a host presents a lecture or demo. This format is best suited if you want to reach a larger audience. The presentation can be downloaded and the audience can ask questions over chat or audio.
Yes, a concert can be organized online. It's just that the audience will enjoy the show from the comforts of their home. While the artist can also perform from the comfort of his home or show can be Live-streamed from a studio.
In-person gatherings may have their own benefits. But just like social media, online meetups are the best medium to connect people you share common interests with, but in real-time. Privacy of the participants is maintained by allowing access to only the invitees.
Ever heard of AMA-ask me anything? A session with an expert or guest speaker. It's a unique way of interviewing where the guest takes questions from the audience in real-time as well as some pre-submitted questions.
Hugely popular among the startup community. It is an informal discussion with a guest and the moderator. Its comfortable setting makes it engaging for the audience as it seems like you are listening to your close friend sharing deep insights.
Pros and Cons of Virtual Events
Pros of Online Events:
If you've been considering hosting your first virtual event, or if you've been on the fence about it, here are the three things you need to consider when you make your decision:
- A virtual event can be more profitable than a live event,
- There are people who won't travel to your live events but would love to engage with your content,
- A virtual event gives you flexibility in a way that a live event never will.
What's great about virtual events is that they're flexible and can be tailored to your business needs. If you can think of an event you can host in-person, the odds are that you can host it virtually, you just need to ensure you have the right platform and tools at your disposal.
Venue hire can run in the tens of thousands of dollars just for one day, and that doesn't even take into account the cost of food and drink, accommodation for speakers, and venue insurance. With virtual events, those costs are non-existent. All you have to pay for is the platform, promotion, and speakers.
Most physical venues have a limit to the number of people allowed in, and then you have to take into account the cost of hosting thousands of people. Virtual events make it much easier to scale, meaning you can host more people for a fraction of the cost. This also means you can expand your reach and promote brand awareness.
30% of people are more likely to speak to a person in a virtual booth. Maybe that's because people are scared to approach someone at an event or they just enjoy the anonymity. Either way, virtual events offer tools such as polls, Q&A, live chat, and even a downloadable resources section so your attendees can fully engage with your content. Also, some platforms offer the ability to integrate with widgets, such as sli.do, so you can really ramp up the interaction.
- Environmentally friendly:
The costs of hosting an in-person event aren't just monetary, they can be environmental. Virtual events take away the need for people to travel hundreds of miles to venues, and instead allow them to access your event from much closer to home, not only saving businesses money, but reducing the impact on the environment.
Virtual events are nothing if not resilient. There is no need to cancel a virtual event because of weather or even a global pandemic. Because attendees can view the event from anywhere, it means that factors that would cripple a physical event aren't even a consideration.
- Provide analytics and reporting data:
Want to know how many people viewed an entire presentation? Or, want to find out how many questions were asked? These are hard stats to pull from in-person sessions, but are at your finger-tips with online events. Why is this important? Knowing your viewing stats or engagement scores can really help you fine tune your content and determine what's working and what's not without having to rely on a post-event survey that only 10% of attendees will actually respond to.
Cons of Virtual Events:
When arguing in favor of virtual events one cannot neglect their limitations. They require precise program planning and demand a certain level of discipline from the participants. This leaves little space for the kind of unplanned spontaneous social interaction that is more likely to happen in face-to-face settings. Networking is easier when talking to somebody in flesh and bone. In addition to this restriction of social interaction, individual experiences such as getting to know new places and cultures are something that cannot be delivered online. Here are some cons of virtual events below;
- Lack of networking opportunities:
While there are heaps of opportunities for attendees to engage with speakers and content, there are fewer to interact with one another. You can mitigate this with live attendee chat and social networking events, but there aren't really any ways to interact with other attendees offline.
Attendees at a virtual event will have to contend with distractions that aren't necessarily there in-person, which is why we always recommend attendees and presenters try to find a quiet place to attend the online event.
- No getting away from the office:
Otherwise known as a business vacation, attending an event can be an opportunity for people to get out of the office, making them very enthusiastic about participating in conference and event activities.
- Can limit audience:
If your prospective attendees aren't all that internet savvy, a virtual event may turn them off, so it's important to provide potential attendees with links to any FAQs or contact details for event support prior to the event.
How to Organize A Virtual Event?
- Create goals for your event,
- Optimize conference program content to draw attendees,
- Promote your virtual event,
- Recruit sponsors,
- Maximize registration,
- Maximize attendance,
- Maximize leads per sponsor and lead qualification,
- Provide virtual booth for sponsors and exhibitors,
- Use a high quality virtual event tool,
- Create a realistic program and orchestrate online presentations,
- Allow attendees ask online questions or make comments,
- Integrate social media and allow sharing.
Keys to success in the organization of online events
As for any kind of event, one of the first things to define is the target group. The event format and structure need to be designed accordingly. The event format very much affects all steps that follow these first decisions; it is therefore worth spending enough time to think through the format and assess whether it is feasible in terms of the given budget and manpower.
As mentioned before, the organization of a virtual conference may require less human resources than a face-to-face conference, especially during the event. Nevertheless the workload must not be underestimated and a careful distribution of tasks and responsibilities between the members of the organizing team is essential. Several steps for the preparation of a virtual conference are similar to those for a face-to-face meeting.
What comes as an additional challenge in virtual conferences compared to face-to face events are technological issues (related to software and hardware). Especially the activities during the event must be planned in great detail, e.g. by writing a script. In particular, the roles of moderators and hosts during the event deserve special attention.
Virtual Conference Software & Tools
Various online conferencing tools are on the market, both for free and as paid/licensed services. They offer a lot of technical possibilities that serve most purposes well. Basic functions such as control of microphone and camera are quite similar and can be used intuitively. Choosing a software is therefore rather a question of personal taste and availability in the case of licensed services. Differences might be noticed in connection stability, video/sound quality and maximum number of participants who can be online at the same time.
What is more important than the choice of a specific software is the appropriate use of different functionalities and if necessary the combination of different applications in a clever and user-friendly way. In all cases, user-friendliness should be the most important criterion for choosing a solution and then shaping use of it during the conference or meeting. Remember that your audience is unlikely to be as technically savvy as you are and will require help with all steps that aren't completely intuitive or self-explanatory.
Hardware for Virtual Events
Hardware requirements differ between hosts and regular participants. For the latter a few pieces of equipment are enough: A computer (desktop or laptop) with a stable internet connection (WIFI or cable), a microphone (built-in or external), loud speakers (or preferably a headset) and optionally a camera for video transmission (built-in or external). Although we don't recommend it, most applications can also be accessed via smartphone. In general, one can state that the better the equipment is, the better the online experience will be. For the host, professional equipment is essential. Depending on the format and size of the event the quantity and arrangement of devices may vary. The hosting team needs to keep in mind hardware and software options and test what equipment is necessary and how to physically distribute it in the hosting room. Many institutions already offer fully equipped rooms for virtual conferencing, but if you do not have this option, it is worth spending enough time at an early stage to try out the set-up in detail.
The setup may be arranged in any form that allows the hosting team (incl. the moderator) to work comfortably. The position of the moderator should be defined first, depending on light conditions, background etc. What counts in the end is the image that goes out to online participants!
The microphone(s) for the moderator should be as distant as possible from the host computers to avoid undesired background noise. Any microphone other than the moderator's should be muted.
The camera should be in a position and height that allows the moderator to look at the screen and into the camera at the same time (orange line in photo).
All devices should be connected to electricity rather than run on battery.
Cables on the floor should be taped to avoid confusion and dangerous traps.
The windows should be closed to avoid noise from outside. Sunshades should be in place to maintain constant light conditions.
The door to the hosting room should either be locked or have a "Do not disturb" sign on the outside to avoid interruptions.
Management of A Virtual Event
Before the event
Depending on the event's format and its requirements the organizers may need to prepare or purchase software and hardware. Some software products require different licenses depending on the number of participants. What is just as important as the set-up of the physical room where the event is hosted is the configuration of the virtual conference room(s). As a general rule we recommend preparing as many of these configurations as possible in advance – everything that saves time during the conference makes the life of the hosts easier. What needs to be planned carefully is: how many virtual rooms are needed, whether there should be parallel rooms, when they open and close, whether they are open or password-protected etc. The layout of each room can be specified according to the scheduled program. A change of layout is usually also easily possible during a session. It is useful to predefine various layouts
Throughout the whole event we recommend including a chatbox so that people can communicate if there are any technical issues. Some software packages offer both a public and a private chatbox. Any files that ought to be shared during the conference should be uploaded in advance in order to save time. Sharing uploaded files is preferable to screen sharing in terms of bandwidth. Uploaded files should be tested to check whether they work in the chosen software: not all data formats are supported, and some are automatically converted (e.g. animated slides or sound in presentations might not work). To guarantee a good online experience hosts and participants need to be well prepared. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the organizers to instruct users properly prior to the conference. Therefore, a detailed communication strategy should be developed that defines when, how and what information is provided to whom. Important: If the event aims for an international audience, all times of sessions and meetings must be communicated with indication of unmistakable time zones (e.g. GMT, CET etc.).
Depending on the planned level of interaction participants need to know how to use certain functions of the software. I.e. if there are only presentations (one-way communication) it is enough to listen and instructions can be limited; if participants are expected to collaborate with each other they may need to use their microphones, camera and perhaps tools such as screen sharing or whiteboards. We recommend providing a short guide or manual for the specific chosen software early enough ahead of the conference. In addition, it can be useful to offer a (voluntary) test session so that everybody can get acquainted with the software and check whether their computer system is configured correctly (software updates, plug-ins, add-ons, drivers etc.). For all speakers and facilitators such a test session is obligatory!
During the event
After finishing all preparatory tasks, the actual hosting starts. Hosting an online event is a demanding task. Therefore, the moderator should concentrate solely on his/her role while the hosts deal with the technical part. Wherever technology is involved things can go wrong; the hosts must therefore anticipate potential situations in advance. We recommend writing a script that lists all actions minute by minute.
Online events should start and end according to the planned time schedule. Delays can be even more annoying online than in face-to-face meetings. Therefore, the hosts should support the moderator in striving to stick to the schedule and if necessary gently but firmly interrupt speakers when they exceed their time limit. To maintain a high level of attention among participants and give them the opportunity to get a cup of coffee there should be breaks every 45 to 60 minutes.
Opening of Event
Participants should be instructed in advance how to enter the virtual room (e.g. "first name, last name, institution"). Leaving academic titles out can contribute to a more inclusive atmosphere. We recommend disabling microphones and cameras for all users at the beginning. Depending on the number of participants they can be welcomed in the chat when they enter the room. Also, a little small talk before the session starts can help create a friendly atmosphere. If there are technical questions in the chat the hosts should react quickly to solve them. If the number of participants allows it and they are experienced users and perhaps know each other, microphones can be opened for everybody right away. At the beginning of the conference the moderator may explain some basic functions of the software, above all how to raise a hand (=indicate will to speak) with the corresponding symbol and how to use one's microphone and camera once permission has been provided. If you want to record the event, participants should be asked for their agreement or at least be informed, if not done already before the event.
Discussions & Interactive Sessions
To avoid background noise and echoes, for any online meeting we recommend allowing only one person to speak at a time and muting all others in the meantime. To keep discussions organized, participants ought to use the tool to raise their hand if they want to speak. The moderator can then announce who is next to speak and the hosts can switch on the microphone and optionally the camera for this person. The chat can also be used to keep a discussion organized e.g. by posting the order of upcoming speakers. If the group is not too big and participants are disciplined the hosts can assign microphone rights to all participants and they can mute and unmute them on their own. It is important that the moderator is always visible on video when he/she assumes an active role. In general, whenever there is something going on, i.e. somebody is speaking, at least one camera should be active. If a participant speaks and has no camera available the moderator should still be on video. Any static situation should be avoided except from the lobby at the beginning or end of a session.
When the event has ended, the hosts can either leave the virtual room open for future uses or close it so that participants cannot enter anymore. To save the results of a session the hosts should consider using appropriate tools or foresee one person who takes minutes. Screenshots or text from note boxes and chats can easily be saved to an external file. If participants are to be involved more actively, they can be asked to leave their notes in an open shared file during or after the session. If the event has been recorded the file(s) can be edited (cutting, anonymizing participants etc.) and made available to participants. If the organizers want to analyze the event and obtain feedback, participants can be invited to take a survey. The link can be provided directly after the event or later by email.
Connecting your virtual event to an event management system
Unfortunately, a conference tool alone is not enough to make your virtual conference come true. You also need a proper conference management tool such as MeetingHand Online Event Management Software which will help you to collect registrations, bookings or payments and share event information with your participants. through your event website. MeetingHand also provides a free event app which allows you to contact your participants through mobile phones and share event information.
During Coronavirus pandemic, Meetinghand has developed a virtual conference integration method to the events you created in MeetingHand environment. By using this feature, you'll be able to create online sessions for a virtual event and share conference links with your attendees. If you wish to learn more about MeetingHand virtual conference tool, you can contact us by clicking this support line.