Virtual event planning and execution for your business

Virtual meetings, events and conferences have reached a new level this past year with the arrival of the COVID pandemic. Zoom, Google Meets and other online platforms have burst onto the scene to save the day, connecting people working from home offices, and “attending” Christmas parties, corporate anniversaries and conferences.

Edmonton-based ED Marketing and Communications has planned and executed special events for companies, both local and national, for over 10 years. This year, ED founder, Erin Rayner took event planning a different direction. Here she shares some of her virtual event learnings and secrets from the past few months.

What kinds of virtual events have you planned for clients?

Our event planning has included Christmas/holiday parties, one for a company of 1600 people; we have held a leadership conference, an employee achievement event, and a corporate anniversary.

And all of these events have been held online?

For some clarity around virtual event vocabulary, everything we organized for our clients was online. There was no in-person programming.

Not every aspect of a “real time” event is always in real time. Some of the program can be live, while some of it can be pre-recorded. When we are talking virtual events, we are also not talking about “hybrid events” where some people are in person, and some are off-site. Because of continuously changing regulations, we planned for no in-person events.

What does a virtual event itinerary look like?

We did a corporate 50th anniversary party with 120 attendees. The program was led by a live MC in studio, and we had a pre-recorded, fire-side chat and interview between the two co-owners followed up with a real-time key note speaker and pre-recorded videos splashed throughout.

There must have been a lot of planning from scratch this year. What are some of the things you had to take into consideration for virtual vs. in-person?

When you are working in person, there is always a contingency plan in case technology goes wrong; in virtual planning, it is no different; however, people get screen burnout, and attention spans are shorter. It is important to keep changing the focus, perspective, background, and action to keep people’s attention. One person standing and talking doesn’t work for long.

What are first steps in planning a virtual event?

We start with “What do you want the guest experience to be”? It can’t just be one more zoom meeting in a calendar.

What journey do you want to take your guests on? We establish how to set the tone or garner some excitement for the event by reaching out to guests in advance with printed invitations or a package, a meal or wine offerings, etc.

Did you have to help clients re-establish a vision for their events?

One key learning was you can’t take a live event and make it virtual. If you have been doing a sales or leadership conference in person for years and years, you can’t take that experience and expect it to happen on a screen. The goals of the event might be the same, but how you get there will be different.

Most clients did not have a vision for their event because they haven’t done this before. For a leadership conference we organized, participants would typically fly in for two full days of education, social and celebratory outings. We found ways to integrate company values into the event with video production, social pieces and breakout rooms. 360 participants received a package with materials and swag in the mail prior to the event.

Does “show flow” look different for a virtual event?

Show flow is still important! It’s a bit like creating a live-broadcast television special. An in-person event is about timing of applause and getting everyone to sit down at the same time. In this case, it’s about telling a story, creating an emotional journey for the guests—one that moves fast enough and makes an impact.

What do you tell clients that ask, “Should we bother with a virtual event?”

I consistently say, connection, joy and an event “high” with tears and celebration is possible online.

What are some limitations of an event like this?

The biggest thing is people’s attention span; it’s hard enough in a live event to keep people off their phones and sitting down; it’s really hard to keep people engaged when they are sitting at their computer and can answer that email that just came in.

Another piece to think about is event timing. Are you holding the event over children’s bedtimes or household dinner?

Also, are you using the right medium? Is the system you are using delivering the content the way you envisioned? Time zones are not insurmountable, but they also add a different level of planning.

What surprised you about virtual events?

A bunch of small, but significant things. First, a speaker who stands up makes a big difference. When a speaker is sitting, there is a shift in the energy, even in a virtual situation.

Another thing was keeping live comments going. One of the best events I attended, guests and the speaker were able to interact through live commenting. It keeps people involved and engaged when they can chat as the event unfolds.

What is some of the feedback you received?

It has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been moments when we have to help with technology or the online administration, but people were happy to find the energy and engagement they were seeking. That was across the board, for conferences, Christmas parties, corporate events and employee achievement.

The future of virtual events? What does it look like?

I see them integrated into the pre-pandemic event models.

There is a capacity advantage with online vs. in-person because there are not finite resources. You don’t have a limited number who can fly in, be accommodated, fed, etc. If a company wanted to include people who are on the leadership track, they can be included with a virtual event because the infrastructure is already there.

Maybe it’s not virtual every year, but there is a rotating option: one year in person, one virtually. No question, it will be an ongoing way that organizations communicate with their people, and it can only get better and more refined over time.

Thanks, Erin!

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