How a Major Industry Association Successfully Virtualized a Face-to-Face Meeting into an Online Event 

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Key Considerations for Planning and Producing Virtual Events – Part III

This is the final section in a three-part series on virtual events. Part I covered the considerations that an organization should make before it moves its in-person event online, while Part II covered the importance of having a well-designed virtual event platform interface that helps create a great experience for all involved. 

In early March, the Executive Committee of the Eastern North American Region of the International Biometric Society (ENAR) faced a daunting decision – hold its annual spring meeting in the third week of March, bringing together more than 1,000 biostatisticians in a hotel conference center despite growing concerns about the novel Coronavirus outbreak, or cancel and face extreme financial hardship.

The Challenge – A Complex Event… Even in Normal Times  

In the busy spring conference season of the association world, ENAR’s story is not uniqueIt is a massive undertaking that requires months of planning to coordinate more than 625 speakers in a program with 125 sessions, across three-and-a-half daysIt is also the primary revenue generator for the organization, thus making its success critical for financial viability, and the primary benefit of membership. 

Time was running out. It was the first week of March and the conference was scheduled to start on Sunday, March 22nd. The Executive Committee met on Friday, March 6th to assess the situation. The choices were limited. An in-person meeting was no longer an option and canceling the event due to infectious disease was not covered by the event insurance. Canceling the entire meeting would lead to significant financial hardship from which ENAR would likely not recover. So, the only viable option was to move the meeting online. Once the Committee was in agreement and took the necessary governance actions, our team at Virtual  including professionals in our Client Services, Events, and Marketing Communications teams – were in a full sprint to pull off a massive, successful online conference in just ten business days. 

The Solution – Transform a Face-to-Face Meeting into an Online Event… in 11 days 

The next decision to be made was how the online conference would be delivered to attendees. There needed to be a central hub from which the event would run, it needed to be produced by experienced professionals, and time was running outThe team gathered their requirements and by March 10th, they had conducted a search, received quotes and narrowed down to three viable options. The following day, the Executive Committee reviewed the options and approved the requested budget to cover the new expenses for moving the event online. 

The production team managed the event working from home in six different states.

Building the Experience 

To start, the team went through the entire program to determine what would transition from the in-person to the online event, prioritizing program elements and understanding the tight timeline ahead. Items like a traditional poster sessionposter competition, and other in-person functions that would not transfer easily to an online event were removed from the programwith the discussion that we could think of creative solutions to deliver these after the main conference. Those decisions were made quickly and allowed most of the scientific content of the meeting to be preserved. 

The central part of the experience for the attendees, speakers, and instructors was a microsite designed specifically for the event. This was the platform that would serve as the central hub for the online event. Building it as a microsite allowed for flexibility and a focused experience during the event. The site focused on three specific roles – attendees, presenters, and session chairs. The actions and responsibilities for each role were clearly built out into short, simple steps. 

For example, attendees created a Zoom account, which allowed them to go through the program daybyday and register for individual sessionsFor each session, they would receive an email confirmation with a downloadable calendar invite, and an email reminder one hour prior to the session. 

Speaker Management 

With more than 600 speakers, moving online required an entirely new approach, including tech training, dry runs, and more. All speakers were asked to complete an online form that populated a database accessible by the production teamOf the speakers, 91% responded. It gauged people’s familiarity with Zoom if they wanted/needed training, and how they would be presenting their session (computer with audio, phone only, etc). The most valuable piece of data received was was presenters’ mobile numbers as another method to contact them, beyond email – especially if they didn’t’ show up for their session. Just like in-person events, presenters didn’t always show up on time, or where they were supposed to be. Had it been in-person for this eventvolunteer members would have been in charge of individual sessions and presenters, but because of the quick change to an online event, it was important to centralize communications and responsibilities. 

Communications 

With such a short timeline, communication was key between ENAR, the attendees, speakers, and session chairs. It started with notice that the event would be moving online and over 14 days there were 14 different emails covering everything from session chair briefing details to a welcoming video by the ENAR president. The goal was to communicate the extensive details about the event as quickly and clearly as possible. 

The production team was also in constant communication. Each morning started out with a full team briefing using Google Hangouts, which was also utilized throughout the day for the technical team to report in-session issues back to the full team.  

In-Session Management 

One of the most critical elements was the planning and execution of the sessions themselves. Details were documented for each session and a member of the production team was assigned to facilitate and monitor for technical support. Even though many of the presenters had prior experience with Zoom, having a “technical concierge” made the experience much easier for everyone involved, especially when the inevitable technical glitches happened. 

Roles and Responsibilities 

Twenty-five people based in six states made up the production team responsible for this massive event. The team from Virtual had responsibility for the overall management of the event, just as with the face-to-face meeting, and owned communications with instructors, presenters, session chairs, and attendeesDMI, long-time event A/V consultants for Virtual, were the technical production experts, tracked all of the session and presenter details, and handled the video productionIPG, a best in class event production company, built and managed the websiteset up and managed the technology tools, and staffed the live sessions. 

The Result – “An extremely well organized, smooth, and seamless event to our community 

When ENAR decided to take its 2020 Spring Meeting from a face to face event to a virtual one in less than 11 days, we certainly worked with the right partner…Virtual Inc. With 125+ sessions over 3.5 days and 625+ speakers, the Virtual Team delivered an extremely well organized, seamless event to our community. – Mike Daniels, President, ENAR; Professor & Chair, Department of Statistics, University of Florida 

Seven Key Takeaways  

Don’t do DIY. To pull off an event of this scale, on this timeline, in a way that allowed the dissemination of the scientific content of the ENAR spring meeting, and as such provided value to the attendees, required bringing in additional resources to augment our teamEven though our team has extensive experience in producing online events, working with partners that are experts in running large-scale online events 

Prioritize. Decisions on how to turn a face-to-face event into an online event requires decisions to be made on what components to keep, what to focus on and what to remove. 

Guide (aka Speaker Handling). Presenters require a high level of handholding, far more so than an in-person event. However, working and rehearsing with presenters is invaluable in creating a top-notch online event. 

Monitor. Having technical support in each webinar room is important, even seasoned presenters have technical issues and need help. 

Communicate. Use multiple channels to communicate with various audiences, such as the microsite, email, phone and social media with external stakeholders, and Google Hangouts, Google Drive and phone with internal stakeholders. 

Integration. Zoom or other conferencing technology alone is not sufficient for a full virtual conference experience. But by carefully integrating multiple technologies it can create a robust attendee experience. 

No substitutions. The experience of a face-to-face meeting cannot be replicated online. Given the global crisis, an online event was the best option available to ENAR. It went exceptionally well, especially giving the short timeline, but without question, the members are looking forward to gathering in Baltimore next spring. 

 

A special thanks to our team of contributors:

  • Stacey Comito, Vice President, Marketing Communications
  • Jessie Hennion, Director, Public Relations
  • Justin Montville, Senior Director, Infrastructure & Information Technology
  • Patricia Morin, Senior Manager, Client Services
  • Margot Rodger, Vice President, Events & Meetings
  • Leah Sibilia, Director, Events
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