Events in the Time of COVID

By Kate L. Harrison

S ince March, nearly all events, from trade shows and conferences to corporate meetings, have had to pivot from in person to online. According to Forbes, as a result of this shift, some virtual meeting platforms have seen as much as 1,000% growth. That’s not necessarily bad news for either event hosts or attendees.

International Data Corporation (IDC) recently surveyed virtual event planners and attendees through the first half of 2020, asking what was working well and what was not working well in the virtual event space. Although the move to virtual resulted in a drop-off in attendance for many events, 46% actually gained attendees due to the elimination of travel costs. 

Perhaps most importantly, meeting planners tended to see virtual events as a success, not only in terms of attendance, but also measured by number of downloads, revenue, and audience engagement. Nearly half of organizers surveyed found virtual events to be less expensive to produce than in-person events.

Even after refunding ⅓ of the ticket price and offering a 15% reimbursement to sponsors, the conference net almost 10x over the in-person version.

This was the experience of Alicia R. Gilbert, President and CEO of Jack Friday, an association management company that puts on dozens of conferences and events each year. The first event Gilbert hosted after the shutdown was the biannual conference for the American Council on Gift Annuities (ACGA), a 650+ attendee, multi-day conference that was supposed to take place in Atlanta, Georgia, in April.

“With the hotel contract canceled on March 20, we had 30 days to move everything online,” Gilbert recalls. She spent three days reviewing platform options and ultimately decided on Brazen, a leading career fair and virtual event platform. Gilbert found it to be very affordable, and it allowed for both live sessions as well as pre-recorded and on-demand sessions that could be made available to fill in the gaps in the multi-day program. Most importantly, the platform had a good structure for virtual exhibits of sponsors that allowed for a booth-style experience, including live chat. 

Gilbert was able to retain about 60% of the audience (about 400 people) and most of the event sponsors. Even after refunding ⅓ of the ticket price to attendees and offering a 15% reimbursement to sponsors, the conference net was almost 10 times what they would have made from the in-person version. “We had no big costs beyond the platform,” she explains. Gilbert has since produced 20 other successful virtual events in a time frame of approximately seven months and, along with other experts we spoke with, offers the following takeaways, advice, and best practices.

Know Your Audience

While many platforms offer bells and whistles, from simple add-ons such as live polling to complex environments with virtual avatars that “walk” a simulated exhibit hall space, advanced platforms might be a turnoff to some of your sponsors or attendees. “It is essential that the technology be easy to use for the intended audience,” Gilbert advises.

“Gen Xers and boomers can be a bit tech fearful. I trained 47 speakers in five days, and I can tell you they can get easily frustrated. Millennials, by contrast, may really enjoy a high-tech experience, so you need to pick a platform that will work for your audience’s demographics.”

Charge Appropriately

In a recent survey, Wild Apricot, an event-software company, found that 87 percent of organizations are charging less for virtual event attendance than they did for in-person events, with 29 percent not charging at all. While it may be tempting to offer your virtual event for free to boost participation, Beth Surmont, Director of Experience Design for the event strategy and digital marketing agency 360 Live Media, warns against using the term free when marketing events.

“Meaning comes from sacrifice,” she notes. “If you just put your event online and don’t charge anything for it, it loses some meaning in the eye of the attendee. If you don’t want attendees to have to pay, [it’s] better to assign a value to the conference and then waive the registration fee thanks to a generous sponsor, a grant, or the generosity of the host.”

Take Advantage of the Digital Format

No matter what you charge, you can attract more attendees and boost satisfaction rates by adding additional value. One way to do this, Gilbert notes, is to provide access to more content than the attendees would have had in person. “At a live event, you have to pick and choose what sessions you will attend,” she says. “A virtual environment allows attendees to attend multiple sessions that were run concurrently.” The key is to make sure every session is recorded and available to attendees for a period of time after the conference. 

Brand Your Team

Just because your team is working from home does not mean they can’t have a unified look online. For example, attendees at the Professional Photographers of America’s 10,000-person annual conference in January will still be able to easily identify the dozens of staff members working for the organization.

“Every year we have themed events within the event and our staff are on the floor at all times wearing the matching and themed shirts we provide them, so they are easily recognizable,” explains Kristen Hartman, Member Value and Experience Director.

“This year every PPA employee that is participating in our virtual conference will still be wearing our coordinated shirts so that if you happen to be part of one of our livestreams, you’ll easily recognize the PPA staff. We all represent the brand.” Having your employees wear matching clothing or use the same virtual background can help create a sense of cohesion across a digital space. 

Book Expert Speakers

Wild Apricot found that guest speakers led to a 68 percent satisfaction rate for virtual conferences. Content by noted experts will also attract more downloads and readers after the event. As virtual events can cost less to host, consider reinvesting the savings into high-value speakers. 

Combine Content

Your virtual event doesn’t need to be entirely live or entirely pre-recorded. Combining the two is a great way to boost engagement and overall satisfaction. For example, you can stream a pre-recorded keynote but have the speaker available live in a chat for real-time Q&A. You can also do live polling while streaming pre-recorded content in order to boost engagement. In these ways, attendees can interact with speakers in real time rather than passively listen as audience members at a live event. 

Help Sponsors Connect

Opportunities to meet and speak directly with participants can be especially important for sponsors. Some platforms allow for live booth Q&A and private chat sessions, as well as setting up private virtual meetings. A virtual exhibit hall can allow sponsors to offer conference gifts, discounts, or free shipping on purchases to attendees who stop by their “booth” by clicking on a link or watching a video. Some platforms allow gamification of the exhibit hall, where attendees collect points for prize drawings as well as swag. Sponsor-provided swag can also be given out at the conclusion of individual sessions through a live drawing, mailing prizes to the winners. 

Swag & Custom Boxes

Given that attendees look forward to coming home with a bag full of event swag when they attend in-person events and many vendors want to physically hand something out, it is a good idea to replicate this aspect of your show if you can. One easy way to do this is to send attendees and speakers prefilled branded swag bags or custom-designed boxes containing sponsored items and conference gifts in advance. Custom boxes we have seen include attendee, welcome, speaker, award, and thank-you boxes.

You can send anything from tech to wearables and interactive items designated for specific virtual experiences. If you are worried about shipping costs, consider charging a nominal fee and including a charity partner. Given the reduced conference fees this year, Hartman proposed selling PPA “Right at Home” swag bags of giveaways for $19.95 and donating half the purchase
price directly to a charity. 

Create Experiences

Not every event at the conference has to be educational. Consider adding some purely social or fun gatherings to help attendees engage with each other and your brand. For example, you can hire a professional chef or mixologist to teach a mini class. Attendees can be given the ingredient list in advance so they can participate in real time—or the ingredients can be included in their customized and mailed welcome box. Concerts by popular musicians and even mini game shows or bingo can be a fun way to break up a multiday program and build rapport. 

Metrix Are Key

With almost half of virtual-event-generated revenue coming from sponsors, finding ways to boost sponsor satisfaction is crucial. And keep in mind that they, too, have been thrust into this new environment and want to make it work as much as you do. Providing metrics that vendors and sponsors can take back to headquarters is key to making them happy. “Find creative ways to drive attendees to visit the partners within the platform,” Gilbert advises. “Then make sure they can properly engage with attendees, track visits, track inquiries, etc. If they get that, I have found they are good sports about the new virtual format.”