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Taylor Record
March 18, 2020

Was your event called off at the last minute? Here’s how to move it online.

Was your event postponed or cancelled over COVID-19? Here's how to convert your in-person event to a virtual event at the last minute.

South by Southwest (SXSW) made headlines for canceling their festival slated for 13 March, 2020. COVID-19 was still early days when the Mayor of Austin called off the event that thousands of exhibitors, speakers, performers, and more than 280,000 participants from around the world were planning to attend. An event that, with an economic impact of $355.9 million in 2019, the whole city was depending upon.

SXSW was just the first of what has been a cascade of event cancellations and postponements related to COVID-19. It’s going to take some real time for us to catch up and find a way forward. But it also means there’s never been a better time to experiment with new event formats, rethink our event goals, and do our best to put on a memorable event (even if it looks nothing like the event we first imagined).

Are you working on an event affected by COVID-19? Here’s what you need to consider about taking your event online. 

Need help organizing your last minute virtual event? We have organized events for everyone from Siemens, Toyota, and BNP Paribas. Get in touch with us to find out how we can help with your event.

A Case Study

WERDER LAB is the incubation program powered by Werder Bremen and our own betahausX. After five months of recruiting, WERDER LAB Pitch Day fell right at the beginning of all of this. Due to travel restrictions, only four of nine teams were able to fly in for the in-person event and we had to figure out how to take our event online with just a few days notice. The advice in this article is based around what we learned, what worked well, and what we’d do differently next time.

Choosing a Virtual Event Format

Assuming your event started out as a live event, the first step is figuring out what virtual event format works best. Take into consideration what you can realistically pull off with short notice and what will be the best overall experience.

Your virtual event format options are…

  • Live event with virtual audience. If you still have access to a space, consider setting up a stage with limited crew and filming your moderator or speaker to live stream to your audience. This allows for the most creative control and helps you create an event more in-line with what you imagined.  That said, you need to adhere to current recommendations by the WHO on gathering sizes, social distancing, and sanitization. Requirements: Videographer with equipment, limited crew,  event venue, virtual event platform.

  • Fully virtual live event. Another option (and probably the best at short notice!) is to take your event fully virtual. Most people will have access to a computer or smartphone with a microphone and camera. Coordinate with your speakers and your audience ahead of your event so they understand how and when they will participate in the absence of signage, support staff, and the pieces that help your in-person event run smoothly. Requirements: Computers or smartphones with microphone and camera, virtual event platform.

  • Pre-recorded. If you choose to pre-record your event,  you will lose a bit of the excitement that comes with a live event. That said, this option is the easiest and could be the best choice if you’re working with limited resources. This ensures that you have some quality control and won’t hit as many major snags the day-of. Requirements: Computers or smartphones with microphone and camera, virtual event platform.

Notifying all key stakeholders of the new format.

At present, there is a lot of stress surrounding event cancellations. People are wondering what’s been called off, what’s still happening, and whether their investment in the event is lost for good.

Communication is key here. You’ll want all of your key stakeholders to understand exactly what is happening and how their stake in your event is changing. Some of the best ways to do this are...

  • Craft unique messages to all of your stakeholders that address their concerns directly. This includes speakers, sponsors, event staff, attendees, etc. Where it makes sense, pick up the phone and call contributors to notify them of the changed format. Otherwise, a carefully worded email and an open line of communication should do the trick. Make sure people clearly understand what’s going on and their options.

  • Give a compelling reason why your event is still happening. If there was ever a time to be transparent, this is it! The trust in your brand depends on it. People who paid to participate in an in-person event may feel like the virtual event is of lesser value. Ask for their understanding and also come up with ways to mitigate that. Consider adding value to sponsors by giving them additional places to share about their products or services. Give speakers a recording of their presentation with a license to repurpose. Offer attendees access to recordings after the event, a digital community, or discounted participation on future events. Be generous with those who stick with you. Rather than upselling to them, find ways to monetize a new audience with the digital content produced from the event (more on that later).

  • Get clear on your refund policy. The question on everyone’s mind: “What if I don’t want to participate in the virtual event?” Dropoff is a likely consequence of changing your event format at the last minute. So from the beginning, clearly establish your refund policy, balancing the implications of both financial and customer loyalty. Come up with a consistent, transparent policy. Your stakeholders will appreciate it.

Selecting a virtual event platform.

With a virtual event, all the energy you’d normally dedicate to in-person logistics should shift towards creating a  virtual experience. There are tons of livestream and virtual event platforms to choose from depending on the complexity of your event. Some things you’ll want to keep in mind are what your event requires in terms of privacy, authentication, authorization, and customization. A few tools to look into are...

  • Livestream it. Platforms like Periscope, Twitch, Youtube and Facebook have  livestream options that are free and easy to use. They’re accessible to anyone who has access to the platforms and can be a great solution if you’re just trying to get your  event online to a large audience with minimal privacy, authentication or customization.

  • Or use a virtual meeting or virtual event platform. There are virtual meeting tools you might already be using like GoToWebinar or Zoom where you can restrict event access with a customized link and use breakout room and interaction features that you don’t have with livestreaming, but most of these have audience limits and are best for simple formats. If your virtual event is more complex, you might consider a virtual event platform like vFair, Virtual Summit, GoToWebinar, and 6connex to help manage all the moving parts. These platforms require some investment and significant setup, but the end product can be more professional and customizable.

Scheduling and pre-recording what you can

All events include some level of scheduled content. The benefit of a virtual event is that you can build more of this into the program so you have less to do on the day of your event. Some examples of this are...

  • Upload content to central location. This could be as simple as making all visual content available in a Google Drive folder or as elaborate as a virtual event platform, but make sure that your program, speaker bios, presentations, and important links are easily accessible to participants.

  • Create an email flow. While you might have had an email flow scheduled for your in-person event, it becomes more important with a virtual event as an opportunity to inform and engage with attendees. Leading up to your event, sure to include the same information you’d include for a live event (when, where, how) and direct people to a Slack channel or another communication medium where they can sort out any technical issues. During your event, remind them of where visual content for the event is located as well as inviting online participation via the Slack channel or other networking medium.  And after the event, set up a thank you email and follow through with any other deliverables you may have offered.

Creating online networking opportunities.

One of the most valuable takeaways from events and conferences can be the networking opportunities. Taking your event online should not prohibit you from creating opportunities for participants to engage and socialize. Some of the best options we’ve seen are…

  • Slack channel. Create an event-specific Slack channel where participants can ask questions, engage, or share their thoughts during the event. 

  • Breakout sessions. If you’re using a meeting tool like Zoom, their “Breakout Rooms” feature allows you to assign participants to smaller breakout groups. This can be useful for conferences with smaller panels or sessions, as well as creating roundtable discussions during the event.

  • Virtual happy hours. Bring the more social side of your event online with a virtual happy hour. Give participants discussion topics to help break the ice, and the concept is a lot less awkward than it seems.

Day of your event

There are a lot of things you won’t need to worry about when you move your event online, but you might need reinforcement in other areas. A few things to consider are...

  • Technology & connectivity. Get familiar and comfortable with your event platform before you have an audience to worry about. Find out about audience limits, bandwidth, or system limitations so you’re not scrambling the day of your event.

  • Event staff. You won’t need a caterer or bartender, but you should still have staff available to respond to emails or messages in real time and address any technical issues that your guests or speakers might have.

Repurposing recordings.

Once your event has wrapped up, you will have some of the heavy lifting done for you. Since everything was filmed and recorded, it should be much easier to repackage recordings.

Use this to your advantage and get more mileage out of your content after the event has finished. Leverage the videos as a lead magnet. Make your event highlights into short videos that you can use in your ad campaigns. It could even be possible to give people digital access to the full event. 

It’s not all bad.

And, look. All this goes to say that this is not an easy undertaking, but one that is completely possible. The bright sides of hosting a virtual event are that you’ll be effortlessly building your digital library, gaining analytics and ROI data that you wouldn't have access to for an in-person format, and finally, you’ll be in a really good place to do a virtual event again in the future.

Have you had an event impacted by COVID-19? Share how you're handling it with us on Twitter.

And if you want help getting your event online, we'd love to help you out! Get in touch with us with more information on your event format, budget, and timeline and someone from our team can help.