The Virtual Event Explosion

Virtual events

How to separate fact from fiction when transforming your live event to a virtual one

COVID-19 has been a major disruption in the event industry. Restrictions on travel and holding large trade shows, conferences and even small meetings is causing associations and event organizers to scramble and find virtual alternatives for their cancelled or postponed events.

It seems that nearly every event technology and service provider is jumping on the virtual bandwagon, offering new solutions. These include live stream of education sessions and digital virtual exhibit halls, chat rooms, matchmaking, meeting rooms and much more. Many providers have added Zoom or other virtual conference ‘platforms’ and starts-ups are popping up every day with complete virtual event solutions. There are so many “virtual event” options and solutions that it can make your head spin!

So, how do you separate “fact” from “opportunistic fiction” to produce a virtual event or other virtual offering that is right for your organization?

Associations and event organizers have been offering virtual education and training, online communities and marketplaces and other virtual offerings for years. One important distinction is most of these virtual events or offerings were designed to augment the organization’s live events, not stand alone on their own merit or provide on-going benefits.

While nothing beats the power of face-to-face events, given the choice between hosting a virtual event or nothing at all, it makes sense for event organizers to explore virtual options.

Rushing to replace a live event with a virtual event without proper planning and resources is not the best idea. Case in point, I recently attended a live webinar about COVID-19, and no one could hear the speakers, the speakers were not prepped properly, and the session had to be stopped shortly after it started because of technical difficulties. I’ve attended several other virtual events since then that had no technical difficulties but did not meet my expectations. I’ve read about other virtual events that were very successful, so it can be done if planned properly.

Develop Goals & Objectives

Take the time to develop your goals and objectives first and foremost. Have a clear direction on what your organization wants to deliver to your attendees and offer to your exhibitors / sponsors. Determine what your organization wants from the virtual event (retain registration exhibit revenue, generate new revenue, value-add for members/attendees, reach new audience, etc.). Once you establish your objectives and specific goals, then you can develop the appropriate strategies and identify technologies that can help you achieve them.

Keep in mind that a virtual event requires different considerations and decisions. It is not possible to covert a live event 100% to virtual. Decide what you want to offer first. Then, determine how best to deliver each offering in a new digital environment. For example, an hour-long presentation at a live event may not be appropriate for a live stream event. If you want to offer virtual networking, what should that experience look like? Should your event include virtual booths and what should be included in that booth? The technology capabilities are out there for many different possibilities, but you need to answer the who, what and why first, before you figure out the how.

Identifying the Right Technology and Provider

Technology alone will not ensure a successful event or ROI. However, is important to identify a technology provider that is experienced, has a proven track record for producing virtual events, offers the technology capabilities to fulfill your requirements and provides customer service support to handle technical issues and questions that will arise. Make sure that the technology has been tested on other virtual events over time and is not something that was quickly developed to serve as a stop gap or opportunity for a supplier to test out a new module or integrated solution that they have not yet tested themselves – that is a recipe for disaster.

The program or content delivered, number of days the program is presented, registration fees, promotion strategies, sponsorship’s and many other decision points shouldn’t be left up to your technology provider to decide. The provider can certainly help steer your organization in the right direction, offer best practices and match their solution capabilities to your needs, but these strategic decisions should be determined upfront, based on your organization’s objectives and goals, member / audience needs, competition, internal resources to execute it and other factors.

Events are vital for nearly every association and organization. Not only do they provide members and industry professionals with important education, certifications, networking, sourcing and other value, they are a critical source of non-dues revenue for organizations to continue their missions. Face-to-face events will come back stronger than ever because human beings need to connect. Until they do, make sure your organization plans and executes a successful virtual event that addresses the needs of your audience and organization.

Beyond the Virtual Event

Don’t think of your virtual event as a few days and then it’s over. Your organization should be developing digital strategies to extend education, networking, sourcing and lead generation year-round. By transforming your digital presence, your organization can generate incremental revenue and reach beyond your member or traditional live event audience. Perhaps there are targets that you may not have paid attention to before, under-served groups, or those that can’t attend your live events. Virtual events can help organizations expand the value provided to the industry and possibly open new markets and audience targets your organization serves in the future. Developing a digital presence year-round can also help boost your live event results by offering sneak peaks of conference sessions, expanding the live audience through live streaming of sessions, connecting attendees and exhibitors before the event, and other benefits.

No matter what your organization decides to produce, be realistic about your objectives and goals and internal resource capacity to successfully pull it off. Launches require more time, resources and different expertise – if you don’t have the internal resources and skills to pull it off right, bring in experts that can help guide you through the planning and execution phases to ensure your organization achieves expected results and the virtual event or year-round platform delivers on the brand promise to your audience.

photo credit: verchmarco


Karen Vogel

Karen is an accomplished marketing & business development leader who has launched, revived and managed industry-leading trade shows and conferences for Reed Exhibitions and consulted with dozens of trade associations, publishers, event organizers, and Fortune 500 companies to improve event financial, attendance, lead generation, and brand results over her 25 year career.

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