Hosting a Virtual Conference

Due to our new COVID-19 reality, in-person conferences may be a thing of the past for a while. But before you simply cancel any upcoming conferences that you have planned over the next year, consider using this time as an opportunity to convert your conference to one that happens virtually.

Disadvantages of Holding a Conference Virtually:

Networking and socializing are more difficult. Let’s face it, much of the reason we go to conferences is for the networking opportunities, and those casual meetings are more difficult in a virtual environment.

Attendees may be less invested and more likely to tune out. There can be a benefit to the registrants in that they can check in on topics that interest them and check out when a topic is being covered that does not, but it can be harder as the event planner to keep people’s attention.

You may have to get creative at a virtual conference to keep everyone’s attention and allow people to network in a different way. But there are upsides to web conferences as well.

Advantages of Holding a Conference Virtually:

Lower cost. When you eliminate the costly rental of conference halls, hotel rooms, parking, catering and more, it greatly reduces the cost for meeting planners and guests alike.

Anyone can attend. You will probably be able to attract a different set of attendees than you normally would at a physical in-person conference. People from anywhere in the world can easily attend from the comfort of their own home, which leads to opportunities to expand your network to new contacts and increase your reach.

You can attract a wider range of speakers. When you don’t have to fly in presenters from far distances, it increases your ability to book higher-profile speakers for less money, and expand your potential pool of presenters to those you might not normally be able to get.

Everyone can see the visual aids. Ever sit in a packed conference hall where you can barely see or read the visuals and slides on screen? That’s not an issue for those viewing from home on their laptops as long as you set everything up correctly with screen-sharing.

Plan your scale and budget
While virtual conferences are considerably less expensive than on-site conferences, you still need to pay for the presenters, the technology and likely some advertising and graphic design.

If this is your first virtual conference, it’s advisable to keep things simple. Many conferences have multiple “tracks” or sessions going on at the same time that attendees can choose from. But the more virtual rooms, sessions and speakers that you have to manage also increases the opportunities for technical issues.

The worst impression you can give your meeting-goers is to have connection issues or a presentation that can’t start due to some technical glitch. Make sure that the schedule is one that you feel you can reasonably manage.

Do some comparison shopping to see what your competition charges for a virtual conference similar to what you are planning. If they are an established organization that regularly holds well-attended conferences and yours is not, do not expect to be able to attract the same numbers or command the same price that they do, and plan accordingly.

Get quotes from some web conferencing companies
If you are simply going to have one speaker at a time with all attendees viewing from a main “room” you can probably get away with simply setting up your conference through Zoom or another self-serve web conferencing tool. If you have a technical staff member who handles your IT and/or web design and development, they may be able to set all this up, and create online registration and payment tools without you having to outsource the hosting.

However, if you are expecting hundreds of people and are planning on having multiple tracks and sessions that people can attend, consider hiring a company that specifically manages online conferencing. It will definitely cost you more, but if you want your conference to look and feel highly professional, hiring a company or an individual that manages online events can take your conference to the next level and eliminate a lot of stress and potential problems.

An online events company will also have beneficial insights on how to make the most of the virtual experience by tracking attendance statistics throughout the day, fostering chat, creating opportunities for sponsorship ads to screen between speakers, and more. They will also be able to set up a registration system, custom website or landing page, and gather attendees’ contact info in a database. These are all things you need to be doing if you want to get the full benefit of a virtual conference, and if you don’t feel you have the staff to handle it all internally, definitely consider outsourcing.

Put out a call for speakers
Advertise well in advance of your conference that you are looking for speakers. Post it out on your social media and within appropriate trade publications and mailing lists. Consider a few speakers that you think would be a particularly good fit and would attract attention and approach them directly to see if they would be interested and what their speaking fee would be.

Set a deadline for speaker applications. After that point, look at your speaker application and potential topics that you have and determine what mix would best appeal to your audience, and whether those choices fit your budget.

If you can manage to attract at least one high-profile speaker to your event, that can really help drive registrations and interest. So don’t hesitate to spend a large percentage of your speaker budget on that one person if you feel they are worth it.

Host your event
Be sure to send out a few email reminders leading up to the event. If you have not outsourced to an online event management company, ensure that you have a tech manager overseeing the coordination of all speakers and their needs before and during the conference. Doing a dry run before the event is essential. Assign a couple other staff to be available to assist with fielding any questions from attendees or speakers throughout the day.
Have a great virtual conference!