When You’re Forced to Shift from Live Events to Virtual

Apr 29, 2020

With all of the COVID-19 adjustments that are occurring right now, one of the questions that my clients have been asking about a lot is how they can effectively shift their events – especially annual conferences – from occurring face-to face to being virtual experiences.

While most organizations have hosted webinars via Zoom or GotoMeeting, the idea of reformatting a much larger event that happens with people physically together in the same location can be overwhelming…and, quite frankly, no one wants to muck up their most significant event of the year.

My first piece of advice is this: Take a deep breath and don’t panic.

As I’ve listened to the concerns, there seem to be 2 major categories:

  1. Will members interpret the change as being less valuable (and quit)?
  2. How do we technologically pull it off?

Let me address each of these issues separately.

Concern #1: Members aren’t going to think we’re as valuable as we’ve been in the past. 

Despite the fact that many membership leaders have come to think of their live events as *THE* reason why people are members, I really need you to understand that this simply isn’t true.

Your members are members because of the RESULT that they get from attending your events… and how your event makes them FEEL.

People who enjoy attending a conference or other large live event do so because they feel seen, heard, and connected during the event. They return home better informed, more prepared, inspired about the future, etc. Perhaps they met someone they hadn’t met before, or they connected with a company that they’ve realized can solve a big problem.

Making people feel this way isn’t limited to having them all together in a single physical space… but it does require some creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. It also requires you to focus on the RESULT, rather than the physical venue.

If you’re still with me and you’re nodding your head at the “focusing on the result” part rather than the physical venue, then this naturally is going to lead to the second concern.

Concern #2: How do we technologically actually do this?

Answering this question depends on whether you want to deliver everything LIVE, in the same way that people would have experienced in-person. Or are you open to the possibility of pre-recording content, and building interactive experiences around that content?

Either approach is acceptable, but they will vary both in terms of the platform that you’d use and the financial investment that will be required.

Option 1: Trying to do everything live just like you would a normal conference

You can make this approach as sophisticated or as simple as you want. On the sophisticated side of the spectrum, you have tools like vFairs (https://www.vfairs.com/ – which starts at $9K) and are intended to mimic the experience of a live event with registration, trade show, networking, training sessions, etc. all built into the platform.

On the simpler side (which is what my clients are tending to do), you can handle registration just through your normal channels and sub in Zoom for the training sessions. You can integrate sponsors in as “hosts” who introduce speakers, or do video interviews with them, etc. If you’re using an event app, you can probably just plug in links to Zoom or other webinar platform for each session.

For one client, my team is setting up a Zoom link to be used for the “everyone-in-the-same-room” sessions and then we’ll push people out to one of Zoom’s break-out rooms between speakers. When we’re ready for the next speaker, we’ll bring everybody back to the main Zoom. 

The big downside to delivering everything live, especially for a complex conference with hundreds of attendees, is that there are a lot of moving pieces that are happening all at the same time and it’s tough to problem solve speaker/attendee issues when you’re not in the same room with them. 

However, with that being said, I think most people understand that sometimes tech works and sometimes it doesn’t. It just feels pretty stressful and sucky when it’s happening.

Option 2:  Pre-recording as much of the event as possible

While this approach has not gained popularity among associations, “virtual summits” have been the model of choice for online entrepreneurs for years. I hosted a virtual summit a few years ago that was a week-long and had more than 700 attendees. At that stage in my business, I never would have gotten 700 people to come to a live event, so it really opened up doors to reach more people.

With this model, you pre-record as many of the sessions as you can beforehand. Then, during the Conference, you simply open up the pre-recorded session at the designated day/time.

Attendees still experience and interact with the content at the same time, so it has a live “feel.” However, you don’t have to worry about tech as much because you’re literally just opening up a web page. You can focus on being part of the conversation.

Mixed in with the pre-recorded sessions, you can certainly have some elements that are delivered live…like for things that are “time-sensitive” or need “up-to-the-minute” updates.

This approach can take a lot of the technological pressure off. Because most of the sessions were pre-recorded, all of the recordings/PowerPoints/handouts/etc. were already pre-posted on the session page which means there’s very little follow-up required in getting materials out to attendees.  

I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful, as you think through how you might approach your own events.  

I’d love to hear about strategies that you’re using to shift face-to-face over to virtual, especially if there is value that you feel has been GAINED in the process. It’s absolutely possible to do so!

Hit reply and share your thoughts.  I personally read every response.

How I Can Support Your Organization’s Growth Right Now:

Do you need help strategizing around a virtual event – or with getting the techy pieces into place? My team can make your event experience headache-free.

You can grab a spot on my calendar right now at joyofmembership.com/consult

Joy Duling is Founder and CEO of The Joy of Membership.  Since 2005, Joy and her team have helped associations, trade groups and membership-based nonprofits run their programs more easily and deliver exceptional member care.

You can find FREE tools, tips and training to help you run and grow your membership organization in The Joy of Membership Help Hub.