Planning a conference in the time of COVID-19: Tips for organizing a successful online event

Posted on June 25, 2020

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Posted By Krystin Dubuc
Image of participants of a virtual videoconference on a laptop.

Krystin Dubuc // Community Futures Fraser Fort George

Picture this:

You are in the process of planning your inaugural conference and have already done so much. You have recruited a committee of dedicated volunteers, booked your venue, met with sponsors, and lined up speakers. All seems to be falling into place when disaster strikes – in our current scenario, it’s a global pandemic that puts strong restrictions on crowds. Suddenly, your event is in jeopardy. How can you organize a conference now if you aren’t allowed a room of more than 50 people who can’t stand more than two metres apart? Is there any way to pivot and create a dynamic and engaging event all while respecting the rules of social distancing?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made this scenario a reality for events around the world and have left organizers scratching their heads on what to do next. An increasingly popular option is moving conferences to virtual platforms. While this is not a new concept, the sudden need to embrace the virtual world has many organizations shifting focus from in-person to online. With there are many examples of success online conferences, here are a few tips to consider to help make yours stand out.

Virtual conferences still require a lot of planning

There’s more to virtual conferences than considering the type of technology that will be used to deliver the materials. You need to rethink and restructure the ways the organizers and participants interact and attend sessions. It’s important to remember that virtual conferences are still conferences, and they still require just as much logistical planning as their face-to-face counterparts.

It is critical to have a strong organizing committee that can be innovative at taking the components of a physical conference and shaping them into an engaging virtual model. Your committee will need to think of logistics such as what “venue” will be used and who has technical expertise in managing those arrangements, recruiting and training volunteers (yes – they are still needed) in managing digital sessions, and considering activities for entertainment and social interactions (yes – this is still important).

In many ways virtual conferences can be less forgiving than physical ones if something is not working as planned so the committee needs to be well organized to ensure all kinks are ironed out before the event begins.

Technology is key

With a virtual conference, there are a lot of considerations needed to be made for the types of technologies being used. To make your decision, you need to research components like videoconferencing services and platforms, text-based platforms for communication, shared whiteboards, virtual worlds and virtual reality, and archival storage systems. There are many tools available and the best option for your event will depend on budget, technical requirements, media support, and IT support.

Equally as important is the experience of the participants, including the requirements for them to join the event. Will the requirements reduce accessibility of the conference to some who are interested? For example, if an interested participant has limited internet connectivity, are there any options for downloading content afterwards? It is key to consider the audience you wish to attract and work within their possible limitations. There is also security and privacy issues that need to be taken into consideration with the increase of virtual conferencing platforms being increasingly targeted by cyber attacks.

Networking is still possible online

Let’s face it, many of us enjoy attending conferences for the social components and often steer clear of virtual conferences because there is a perception that they are lacking in this arena. However, virtual meetings are becoming a way of life and with some creative thinking and experimenting, unstructured social interactions can remain a valuable component of online events. Here are some alternatives that you can add to your next virtual event.

Chat roulettes

As a way to replace coffee breaks, these breakout sessions randomly pair two or four people in a video chat to have a conversation. When someone decides they are ready to move on, they simply go back to the main room and choose a different group to join.

Social rooms

These are rooms where participants can “attend” to hang out and meet people. It could be as simple as a participant sending a message and saying they are available for discussion and invite others to join.

Speakers only

Provide opportunities for speakers to interact by setting up “Speaker Rooms” and “Speaker Events” so they have an opportunity to network with one another.

Evening activities

Consider traditional social activities such as live entertainment and tours and offer a virtual version for participants to join in.

Source:

Association for Computing Machinery. (2020, May). Virtual conferences: A guide to best practices. https://people.clarkson.edu/~jmatthew/acm/VirtualConferences_GuideToBestPractices_CURRENT.pdf

About the author: Krystin Dubuc is the Projects Coordinator for Community Futures Fraser Fort George, which is an organization dedicated to supporting small business at every stage in the Fraser Fort George region with training, tools, and financing. Krystin supports businesses through special initiatives and community based projects at CF FFG. Krystin graduated from UNBC in Prince George and has a passion for community economic development. She enjoys exploring the region with her family and seeking out the perfect glazed donut.

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