How to Convert Your Physical Conference into a Virtual Conference

You’ve got a big decision on your hands.

You laid out a schedule of events to host this year for your members.

Maybe you only put one big annual event on your schedule. Maybe you laid out a packed line up of regular events spread across the whole year.

Whatever your schedule of events looks like, one thing is clear… it is not going to proceed exactly how you expected.

The pandemic prevents you from hosting these physical events, leaving you with a decision to make, summed up in a simple question that every event organizer is asking themselves right now…

“What am I going to do with all of these events I planned to host this year?”

Why You Shouldn’t Just Scrap Your Existing Conference Schedule

We get it.

Now looks like a bad time to host an event.

Things are chaotic. Physical events are banned in most states and many other countries. And even if you live somewhere that would allow your event, you now face a whole lot of logistical barriers and concerns you’ve got to abide by.

In short: Throwing a conference has become way more of a hassle than you thought it would be when you first laid out your event calendar for the year.

Given these challenges, it’s natural to feel your life would be easier to just cancel every event on your schedule, and reconsider hosting events once things get back to normal.

Again— we get it.

But here’s the thing.

In most cases, canceling—or indefinitely postponing—your events is the wrong move.

If you just cancel your events for the rest of the year, you will most likely…

  • Lose Significant Revenue. You aren’t going to collect any money from registration fees, or from your sponsors. To make up for this loss you are either going to have to incur debt or start cutting budgets. Both outcomes will create long-term negative effects that extend well beyond canceling a few events.  
  • Hurt Your Member Relationships. Your events are some of the most meaningful experiences that you give your members every year. If you cancel your event, you lose these touchpoints, you deliver a lot less value to them, and you overall increase the chances of losing members.
  • Delay the Inevitable. You could cancel everything until you can host normal events again. But how long will that be? Will that day ever come? Things will probably never go 100% back to normal. You will have to find some way to host events under new restrictions. Might as well start now and salvage the year.

All of these add up to one thing: a lot of big downstream issues that you can avoid if—instead of canceling your events—you put in the upfront effort to find a way to salvage your schedule for the rest of the year.

Here’s how you can do that.

The Key to Hosting Events in the New Normal: Virtual Conferences

Here’s the quick-and-dirty answer to what you need to do to save your conference schedule.

You need to take all of your events that you scheduled for the year, and you need to convert them from physical events into virtual events.

This is easier than it sounds.

Virtual conferences have many of the same requirements as physical events. They require a central topic that is relevant to your members. They require speakers who have prepared great content to deliver to attendees. They require sponsors, exhibitors, networking opportunities, and a bunch of logistical thinking to tie it all together.

And guess what? You’ve already figured most of this out.

You don’t need to rethink everything here. You can just take a whole lot of the work you performed when you were planning out your schedule of physical events, and apply it directly to your new schedule of virtual events.

And that’s some very good news.

It means you don’t have to change the core of what you are going to deliver to your members this year through events.

It means you only have to change how you deliver it to them.

And that starts with picking the right virtual conference platform to run it through.

First Thing’s First: Think Beyond Zoom

Over the past few months we’ve seen conference organizers get creative.

We’ve seen them host virtual conferences through Zoom, or a Zoom-like video meeting tool.

To do this, they basically just created a new Zoom meeting for every one of their conference sessions. When the session was about to begin, the conference organizers sent out a link to the video meeting to everyone who registered for that session. The attendees clicked through, entered the meeting, and then watched the speaker present.

This was a pretty clever hack. It helped conference organizers salvage some of their events, and all-in-all was a pretty good short-term fix to an immediate problem.  

But now that we’ve all had a little bit more time to test out this approach, it’s become clear that Zoom alone isn’t really a complete virtual conferencing platform.

Think about it. Zoom offers a convenient way to connect attendees with speaker sessions, but that’s about it.

Zoom alone can’t replicate many of the other critical elements of a conference, such as:

  1. Networking: Zoom has a chat feature, but that’s the closest thing to allowing conference attendees connect with each other. (And even if it was useful for networking, most of these events wisely disable the chat feature for their attendees to prevent potential for abuse.)
  2. Exhibitors and Sponsors: With Zoom you could read off advertisements before launching a session, but other than that the tool doesn’t offer any virtual space for paid placement within your conference, and does not offer opportunities for your exhibitors and sponsors to connect directly with attendees.
  3. A Sense of Community: Related to numbers 1 and 2, Zoom just doesn’t allow any real spontaneous interaction and connection between anyone at the event— speakers, sponsors, attendees, organizers. Your event becomes a content delivery service, and not a community builder.
  4. Price Tag Justification: To be blunt— a Zoom meeting doesn’t feel like a special event. It’s going to be very hard to justify charging the same ticket price for a series of Zoom calls as you would a big splashy event. It’s just going to feel cheap, and clunky, and mundane, and not worth paying a premium for.
  5. Efficient Organization: Finally, from the conference admin’s perspective Zoom simply isn’t a platform, it’s a series of meeting links that they need to organize, distribute, and troubleshoot… and they have to do so on their own, without any dedicated support from Zoom employees who know how to host a virtual event.

We don’t mean to pile on Zoom here, or to shame anyone who has used Zoom to host a virtual conference.

We just want to make a simple case.

Over the last few months Zoom helped conference organizers throw a few virtual events.

During that time, Zoom-based virtual conferences served a purpose.

But that purpose is now over.

And now it’s time to think a bit more critically and comprehensively about how to host a virtual conference, how to better leverage tools like Zoom to connect your audience, and what a dedicated and more complete virtual platform would look like.

Picking Your Virtual Conference Platform

Let’s get the obvious disclaimer out of the way…

Yes, we have our own virtual conference platform.

And we’re quite proud of it.

We’ve packaged everything we know about hosting conferences into it. We’ve built something that is already helping a lot of conference organizers convert their physical events into virtual events. And we would be more than happy if you checked it out.

You can learn more about it here.

And you can read more about how to use it to host a virtual conference here.

But with that out of the way, we want to make it clear that we aren’t writing this article as a sales pitch for our platform.

We want to share a lot of what we’ve learned about how to convert your physical conferences to virtual conferences, and to show you how to select the right platform to do so— whether you select ours or not.

With that in mind, there are a few factors to keep in mind when selecting your virtual conference platform.

You should evaluate platforms that…

  • Offer a Comprehensive Feature Set. Ideally, you will select a platform that offers every feature that you require to host a virtual conference under one roof. You have enough on your mind. You don’t need to try to stitch together a half dozen individual single-function tools to try to host a conference. Pick one that can do everything, and simplify your life.
  • Make it Easy to Customize Them. You already have your processes, procedures, and workflows figured out for your physical conference. You don’t want to have to relearn how to do everything because you picked a rigid platform that forces you to do everything their way. Ideally you can find a virtual platform that will adapt to your existing approach and fit your exact use cases.  
  • Provide White-Glove Service. This is a big one. No matter how great your virtual conference platform is, some things will go wrong. You don’t want to spend your entire event troubleshooting meeting links and helping tech-illiterate speakers join their session. You want to find a platform that includes high-touch service before, during, and after your virtual conference to ease your burden.

Consider these the table-stakes when evaluating a virtual conferencing platform.

If you find a platform with each of these in place, you will dramatically reduce the time, effort, and attention you will need to invest into this whole process.

Instead, you can focus your resources on the nuts-and-bolts steps required to follow to convert your physical conferences into virtual conferences.

Let’s take a quick walk through of what those steps actually look like.

Step-by-Step: How to Convert a Physical Conference to a Virtual Conference

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article.

We’ve explained why you must learn how to convert your physical conferences into virtual conferences.

We’ve warned you away from continuing to try to hack together Zoom-based conferences.

We’ve offered a few thoughts on what to look for in a dedicated virtual conference platform.

And now, as we begin to wrap up this piece, we want to provide the exact step-by-step process that you can follow to convert one of your currently-scheduled physical conferences into a virtual conference.

We’re going to present this process in a pretty simple, streamlined manner—and in roughly linear order—so you can use it as a virtual conference checklist of sorts.

If you need more information on any, or all, of the steps, feel free to reach out and we’d be happy to talk you through it.

But for now, consider these the essential, practical steps you will have to follow.

Step 1: Handle Physical Logistics

Look at all of the physical aspects of your conference, and cancel as much as you can, in order to recoup any investments possible. Check the force majeure clause on all of your contracts to see if current conditions justify these refunds.

Examples include:

  • Travel Services
  • Hotels
  • GES and Freeman

Step 2: Rethink Your Ticket Price

Look at the virtual event you are hosting, and decide if you can justify charging a price that is very close to the original ticket prices you were going to charge for the physical event.

If there is a big gap between what you were going to charge, and what you now feel you can charge, think through ways you can make your virtual event slicker, more professional, and more comprehensive to justify a higher price tag.

In addition, consider have tiered pricing options, including specific prices for members (based on their level), as well as premium session options.

Step 3: Create Your Website

If you don’t have a website for your conference information, create one. If you do have one, make sure it is complete. In both cases, your website should include the following information and features, at minimum:

  • Event calendar and session schedules
  • Sponsorship messages
  • “Virtual booths” for exhibitors
  • Networking capabilities
  • Links for attendees to join sessions
  • Self-service portal for attendees to build their schedules, including
    • Session titles
    • Session descriptions
    • Session dates, times, and durations
    • Speaker name(s) and bio(s)

Step 4: Create Your Session Schedule

You have two options here.

1. If you already planned a physical event, then you can just import that information into your virtual conference platform, ideally directly from your spreadsheet. Just change physical rooms to virtual rooms.

2. If you haven’t, then create it from scratch in your virtual conference platform. Just fill in key information—directly into the platform—such as schedules, sessions, tracks, speakers, and moderators.

In both cases, create the video meeting for each session, and input the details for the meeting into the session’s tab in your platform. (With some platforms, you will also be able to create a meetings in a more agile and spontaneous manner, through integrations with tools like Zoom and one-click meeting launches.)

Step 5: Sell Sponsorships and Exhibition Space (Optional)

If you are still offering these opportunities, you will begin the same way you would for a physical conference, by simply defining package options, selling them to interested parties, and collecting payment.

From there, you will need to collect digital assets—including logos, text, images, and PDFs of collateral—and distribute them throughout your platform, including:

  • On the conference website
  • In sponsored sessions
  • As downloadable documents
    • From specific relevant sessions
    • From the conference’s library

Step 6: Register Your Attendees

If they already registered for your physical event, then just import your list of attendees into your platform through your spreadsheet.

If they haven’t, then just send them a link to a self-service portal where they can arrange payment, schedule their sessions, and build out their own bio.

Step 7: Empower Your Speakers

Content is still king with virtual conferences. Give your speakers everything they need to deliver a great performance. Educate them on your platform, and any tools that integrate into it. Help them set up a professional WFH setup. Provide technical support before and during their session. And play moderator during their session and make sure no attendees cause a disruption.

Step 8: Engage Your Attendees

You also want to give your attendees an equally seamless experience. Make it easy to join sessions. Provide technical assistance (as needed). Give them easy access to downloadable content (such as each session’s presentation deck and supporting document).

Most important— help them connect with each other. Give them virtual networking opportunities. Give them access to sponsors. And give them access to the speakers, especially during each talk. Facilitate:

  • Real-time questions during sessions
  • Direct chats with other attendees
  • The exchange of virtual business cards

Keep the engagement going after the conference. Send follow up emails. Collect feedback through follow-up surveys. And nurture them with related content and news about you next events.

Step 9: Create Value-Add Monetization Opportunities

Virtual conferences can make it easier to further monetize the event content that you produce. For example, you can repackage and sell the content from your sessions after the event. You can see the learning materials themselves (such as the presentation and supporting documentation) or easily record the sessions (through your video meeting tool) and sell them after the event, or use them on-demand for your future needs. 

Step 10: Send ROI Reports

Finally, make sure everyone who invested in this event knows it was a big success. Virtual conferences are a new thing for pretty much all of your stakeholders, and you will go a long way towards maintaining their support if you show them how their participation was worth their while.

  • Share brand impressions and engagement with your sponsors.
  • Share booth visits and downloads with exhibitors.
  • Share attendance, engagement, and feedback with your internal stakeholders.

Are You Ready to Convert Your Physical Events to Virtual Events?

We hope we’ve provided a little bit of information that you might find helpful in this article, and which can guide you through this challenging moment.

It is possible to turn your physical events into engaging, amazing, and profitable virtual events. You just need the right strategy, the right project plan, and the right platform.

We’ve done our best to give you the right strategy and project plan in this piece.

And if you’d like to learn if Slayte might be the right platform to host your virtual conferences on, then reach out today and schedule an informal, no-obligation chat.

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