Face-to-face meetings and events are my first love. Since I was seven years old I have loved the idea of gathering people, providing them delicious food, creating fun and memorable experiences. I love it all.
I’m also a fan of technology. The early days of social media introduced me to a world I never would have known otherwise. The relationships I have formed over the last decade have been invaluable.
Webinars, virtual conferences, hybrid conferences, I’ve been involved in all of them. They do, in fact, have value. People can connect, they can learn, they can buy and sell without being in front of someone in the flesh. Online meetings and events do not replace face-to-face. They cannot capture the physical energy produced when a room filled with enthusiastic people are clapping and cheering. They cannot emit pheromones which help to create and solidify bonds between humans.
When people participate in events in-person, they are focused. Often, they have traveled specifically for a meeting, conference or trade show. Their time is allocated to the purpose of the event. Sure, they might be checking email or calling the office, but their physical being is on a mission.
Events allow for serendipitous connections. Ten years ago I sat next to Stuart Ruff-Lyons on a bus at the PCMA conference in Dallas. That meeting led me to serve on his NY Chapter board and ultimately becoming president myself. I sat next to Jeff Greene at a seminar and that led to me starting Seven Degrees. I met my friend Danielle Bobish when we shared a cab leaving the same event. Unplanned, unscripted things happen at events. It’s why they are so magical.
But ladies and gentlemen, here we are. We are facing a global crisis where it is prudent to reduce the amount of person-to-person contact. My friends and colleagues in the events industry are hurting. We are drowning. We are scared and some will very likely suffer long-term consequences.
But we can help. We can bring some of the event experience online. No, it won’t be the same, but we can do more than just sticking some Powerpoint slides on a screen. Companies like Digitell have been working with event organizers for years on virtual trade shows and online meetings. John Chen over at Geoteaming has been tackling team building in a digital world and has some great solutions. There is no lack of technology solutions to assist in production. However, executing a meeting from our living rooms requires some work. And if you were thinking about PCMA’s Digital Event Strategist program, it’s not too late to sign-up.
There have been a variety of reasons in the past where digital events made sense. Budget concerns, convenience, content, etc. However, this is the first time in recent history where we are facing a global lockdown. This is the first time where the nice-to-have technological advances have become replacements for scheduled conferences and conventions. Here are some tips on how to take a tough situation and make it tolerable.
As always, this is your best friend in success. If you are in a position to move a meeting or conference to a virtual environment, set expectations and dare I say, rules. Maybe not rules, but commitments from your attendees. You know your group best. What works for creative types might fail epically for your number-crunching conference-goers. Use your judgment and speak their language when it comes to adapting your live event to a virtual format.
- Ask attendees to be present. There’s a good chance they will be participating from home. Suggest that they find a comfortable place where they can join in for a long stretch. Ask them to think of their involvement like they would if they had packed a bag, boarded a plane, and picked up a name badge. While some people will be worn out from juggling a new routine, others will embrace the digital escape.
- Remind them to wear pants. Seriously, I’ve witnessed unmentionables make an onscreen appearance more times than I care to remember. But also, get them to dress to impress.
- Teach them about using background on your technology platform (many offer this) so they aren’t worried about people seeing their messy kitchen on camera.
- Prepare them to participate. Overcommunicate how to use your chosen platform, what kind of webcam to get (if you are using them), and any other technological barriers you foresee. Ask for volunteers who are able to assist anyone who struggles with technology.
- Talk to them about what they want. You can’t realistically get feedback from 4000 people, but for smaller meetings, find out what they want and be transparent about the economic impact of canceling vs. going virtual.
Hire an Emcee
If your event is typically run by an executive or volunteer leader, now is the time to invest in a professional. People like Glen Thayer and Samme Allen have been preparing for this moment for years. They know how to keep an audience entertained and engaged – even behind a screen and a thousand miles.
Your agenda will change, but it doesn’t have to be dismantled. Evaluate the existing schedule and decide what stays, what goes, and what needs to be shortened or changed altogether. If you produce events for the healthcare profession, what do they need now? Even if they are slammed and scattered, what can you do to assist?
- One-hour morning sessions for a week – addressing a hot topic or something previously planned.
- Offer breaktime suggestions. If you are going for a full-day or half-day, keeping people engaged will be a challenge. Treat breaktimes with respect – encourage email checking and phone calls, but give them a reason to come back. Have them set an alarm. Reward people who “return” to the program on time.
Talk to your speakers about their ideas. They probably have many keynotes that are being canceled or going virtual. What are their plans? How can they deliver their presentation to your audience so people feel like they have a similar experience to sitting in front of them? Can you share in the cost of AV for them to take the stage from home? Collaborating with their other clients could provide shared solutions.
- If your keynote was designed to be a lecture, take advantage of polling, hand-raising and Q&A to recreate more of the live experience.
- We like to mute people to avoid unnecessary background noise. Consider self-muting options and encourage clapping and cheering. Speaking to an empty room is energy depleting. Rev up your presenter with some real-time audience buzz.
There are many virtual meeting platforms like Zoom for interactive breakout rooms. For sessions that were scheduled to be lecture-style, talk to presenters about creating activities or discussions. You are going to need to create situations where people must engage. It’s easy to start checking email during an hour-long class. It’s harder to zone out when participants know they will be asked for insight and feedback and when they have to talk to their peers every 15-minutes or so.
Physical Fitness Reimagined
Morning activities have become a staple at many meetings. Keep the movement happening with these suggestions.
- Ask attendees to plan on that 5K run and share selfies on social media or through your event app.
- Create a place for them to share their times and their playlists.
- Have a virtual yoga session or Zumba class. That’s right – get those webcams out and sweat it out together.
Offer virtual lunchbreaks with facilitated discussion. Think about the types of conversations that naturally happen during lunch. People will need a sense of normalcy. Get them chatting about their kids, their pets and their hopes and dreams.
- Share easy recipes that people can make and “eat together.”
- If it’s dinner time, share some fun cocktail recipes. After a few days or weeks, we’ll need them.
- Have a contest for the wackiest “whatever you have in the pantry” recipe. I heard that canned Spam and peanut butter are a quarantine-favorite. Remember, you know if your audience will love this or roll their eyes at you like a teenager full of angst.
Many events include an awards presentation. For winners, this is a big deal and you don’t want to short change them.
- Ask people to dress up. If your awards ceremony is formal, get dressed up in your best gowns and tuxedos. It might feel silly to some, but the effort will be noticed by the winners.
- Video and slideshows can tell the story. Use multimedia to recognize the recipient in a meaningful way. Don’t lose momentum for next year by skipping the fanfare. Celebrating success does wonders for overall morale and we could all use a boost right about now.
Community service projects are near and dear to my heart. In times when budgets are tight, this is often the first thing to go. But in tough times, doesn’t helping others make us feel better? What can you do?
- Use a session to have a conversation about how you can support a charity or provide them with solutions to an issue they are facing.
- Encourage people to write notes to those who are on the front lines – healthcare workers, cashiers, delivery drivers.
- Bring in a new speaker to talk about the charity you planned to support during your show.
While everyone is consumed with COVID-19, we need to keep on swimming. We must keep connecting, keep learning and keep doing business. The more we can keep a sense of “normalcy with a twist” the easier it will be to recover. Virtual events are a good starting point.