the show must go on: what we learned from producing our first virtual conference 

virtual conference

Like all organizations that host in-person conferences, we’re adjusting to a new reality brought on by COVID-19. For the safety and well-being of everyone involved, we transformed our annual OPEN conference into our first-ever live virtual conference. The experience was an intense, educational, and surprisingly fun experience. Many thanks to the hundreds of participants and dozens of presenters for joining us on our journey. 

After the event, many in our community asked: how did you pull off your first virtual conference—in only a week? Here’s a highlight of what we did as well as advice to help you plan your online event. 

planning: the white board is your friend

We assembled a core team around the white board. We mapped out the key components of our action plan: goals, needs, event agenda, budget, and timelines, to name a few. Mapping everything out as a group allowed us to visualize tasks, identify gaps, and talk through roles and responsibilities. Eventually, detailed planning transitioned into shareable documents, but the white board was the foundation of our frequent huddles, keeping us focused and serving as a reminder of what we talked about.  

what worked:

  • We started with the right people in the room. Key event stakeholders coordinated and complemented efforts to make sure every aspect of the virtual conference was addressed from the start. 
  • A main facilitator coordinated people, tasks, and details. 
  • The streamlined virtual conference schedule represented a cross section of the original in-person conference agenda. 
  • Frequent huddles kept us all on the same page and allowed us to pivot quickly as plans developed (or unraveled). 

our advice:

  • Keep it simple—for event organizers and participants. When planning, don’t expect to shoehorn every aspect of an in-person event into a virtual conference; it’s a different animal. Streamline as much as you can.
  • Think about your goals before you decide on a tool or approach. Do you want to present information to a lot of people or do you want to engage all participants in verbal conversation? 
  • Make sure there aren’t too many information sources. Regular face-to-face or virtual check-ins—with a clear agenda—can be most efficient.

communicating: get the word out clearly

Once our plans were in place, we carefully outlined all of the key pieces of information each audience needed to know and made sure the calls-to-action were clear. Emails were sent out to presenters, registrants, partners, and funders. We also shared talking points with our staff. Our website was updated with the new information—including a tailored FAQ section—and announced virtualOPEN to the world through our social media channels. 

what worked:

  • We outlined who needed to know what—and their specific calls-to-action. We had to customize our communication for each audience versus a one-size-fits-all announcement.
  • Quality checks ensured we were consistent in our communication across all channels. 
  • Two people took the lead in drafting the language for all channels. This streamlined the process and helped with quality control.

our advice:

  • Minimize the number of points of contact for your panelists and presenters so that you reduce the risk of overloading or conflicting information.
  • Keep your communication with presenters and panelists easy to understand, and offer a simple, clear call-to-action. 
  • Feature an FAQ on your event landing page.

testing: will the prototype work in the real world?

As we started structuring the virtual conference—from the technical components to the forward-facing experience—troubleshooting was a critical part of our process. We were comfortable using Zoom for staff meetings and webinars, but a virtual conference was a whole new ball game. We often paused to ask ourselves, “What could go wrong?”. That helped us identify potential glitches and hiccups that could disrupt the experience.  

what worked:

  • Researching virtual conference best practices and tips showed us what to do—and not do. We found many perspectives through a simple Google search. 
  • Conducting a practice walkthrough of the technology and process challenged our assumptions about what was feasible and put our minds at ease that, wow, we can pull this off!
  • Developing a template script that session facilitators could customize ensured we had a consistent message. 

our advice:

  • Don’t spend too much time learning the technology; in our experience, it was relatively intuitive. Focus more on the process and ironing out the facilitator and end user experience.
  • Host and share any slides from a central location with a reliably good internet connection. This ensures consistent and high-quality transmission as well as reduces the time for “handoffs” between panelists.
  • Test the slides before the event. Merge slide decks for multiple presentations in a single session, and figure out how the slides will advance. 
  • Document the process so you know how to do it next time—and to share your learnings with others.

showtime: places, people!

When it was time to go live, our core team knew where they had to be and what to do. We had teams of two manage each session: one to handle the technology and one to facilitate the session for attendees. The presenters were provided clear instructions on their role and how the session would flow. All in all, the event was a success. Attendance exceeded our expectations. In fact, one presenter noted that there were more people in the virtual session than she would have expected at an in-person conference session!  

what worked:

  • Having teams of two to manage each session made for a better experience for our team and the audience.
  • Including the presenters in the session planning process alleviated confusion during showtime.
  • Making time for questions and answers added an element of interactivity to the sessions.

our advice:

  • Enable questions or discussion throughout each session, instead of only at the end, to prevent attendees from “zoning out” or leaving the session. 
  • Require presenters to call in at least 15 minutes before go-live for a “sound check” to make sure everything is running smoothly. Some panelists may not have presented in an online environment before, so the brief sound check also helps to shake off any jitters.
  • Be clear about how chat and question functions are to be used—and know there will still be participants who are confused about which to use.
  • Develop an evaluation plan so you know whether your virtual conference was successful.

Putting together our first virtualOPEN felt like a Sisyphean effort. Yet we were committed to sharing the latest research and learnings with one another and to continuing to move the field of I&E education forward. We could not have accomplished this task without the help and support from our staff members, the virtualOPEN presenters and panelists, and our generous sponsors.   


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