â€śLetâ€™s Take This Onlineâ€ť: 5 Ways to Smoothly Plan a Virtual Event
The (MCA) hosts two in-person educational meetings each year that typically draw 110â€“125 people at each event. Seven weeks before the 2020 MCA Summer Meeting in June, with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in the United States, the MCA board and staff made the decision to transition to a virtual event this year and move our hotel contract to a similar date at the same location in a future year. With months spent planning the in-person meeting, all parties knew we needed to act swiftly and smartly to smoothly transition to a virtual event.
The June meeting was MCAâ€™s first virtual event, and we were concerned about how many people would register. Though MCA typically charges a member and non-member fee to attend, the MCA board decided to make this event free for everyone to encourage attendance. MCA staff acted quickly to finalize the schedule, identify the best virtual meeting platform, and start promoting the event. By the end of the event, we saw a 50% increase in registration numbers from the year before. There were 166 total registrations, compared to 109 in-person in 2019, including 55 first-time attendees (28 nonmembers and 27 members).
After having to quickly pivot and transition this traditional in-person event, we identified 5 key take-aways to help make for a smoother virtual event-planning process.
Decide (What Youâ€™re Doing)
Though many factors (such as hotel contracts, board meetings, and internal policies) may delay the final decision to transition your meeting to virtual, the sooner you make the decision, the more it benefits everyone. Staff will have more time to research virtual tools and platforms, prepare speakers, and market the updated event. Attendees will be able to better plan their schedules, not worry about travel dilemmas, and encourage their networks to join them. Because MCA made their decision almost 2 months before the meeting, staff had time to pull together the necessary resources and create updated processes without having to scramble. Registrants were able to invite multiple colleagues from their companies and help increase attendance.
Determine (What Youâ€™re Using)
With the explosive need for virtual event platforms, there is a wide range of tools at your disposal to choose for your meeting. But how to make the final decision? See if someone you work with has already used a platform and has success with it. At ±¬ÁĎą«Éç, our experienced Meetings Team, IT Department, and Education Special Interest Group have been sharing resources and tips on different virtual meeting software. There are also articles online (just a search away) that break down the pros and cons of the countless tools. Price is a key component, but donâ€™t forget to consider other factors such as ease-of-use, integrated registration capabilities, and interactivity tools (chat, polling, Q&A).
Just as with the first step (decide what youâ€™re doing), try to make your tool determination as soon as possible, taking into consideration factors like how soon you need to open registration or train presenters.
Prepare (Those Who Are Leading and Participating)
For a virtual event to run smoothly, youâ€™ll want to ensure everyone feels comfortable with the tool you are using. MCA decided early on to utilize GoToMeeting, which allowed staff time to figure out all the software nuances and then train committee leaders and external presenters on the tool. Itâ€™s important to set expectations for the technology in advance and keep the big picture in mind.
To ensure attendees of the different sessions were all on the same page, we created a standardized intro script and slide deck to present at the top of each session. This enabled everyone to receive the same instructions on how to use the chat and ask questions, and showcased the value of MCA and its strategic plan.
As with an in-person event, itâ€™s important to send regular communications promoting the virtual meeting. We also prepared a â€śKnow Before You Goâ€ť email that covered all the need-to-know details for the virtual event, such as installing the GoToMeeting software, tips for ensuring your connection was strong, and making sure attendees had the correct appointments on their calendars (with 12 different sessions over the course of the week, this was essential).
Finally, itâ€™s here! You CAN successfully pull off your virtual event. Just be sure to
- confirm all staff behind the scenes are aware of the flow of the presentations (e.g., who is sharing screens, who is taking questions, who is monitoring the chat). Even if a speaker is all set to present, have a backup presenter identified in case the original speaker is suddenly unable to present for some reason, such as their internet goes out or they are disconnected from the event
- have another mode of communication ready to use besides email or chat. Because our MCA staff were often sharing their screens, we had each otherâ€™s cell phone numbers at the ready and could text one another in case we needed to relay a message quickly
- designate someone to watch the clock (whether itâ€™s a staff member or volunteer) and give gentle reminders if any section is going too long.
Now that youâ€™ve made it through the marathon that is a virtual conference, itâ€™s time to collect feedback! We sent a post-meeting survey out after the last session concluded to start obtaining feedback right away. MCAâ€™s Executive Committee also convened a few days after the meeting to debrief, share their thoughts on what went well, and strategize on how to apply any lessons learned to future events.
By dividing your virtual event into these main phases, youâ€™ll be able to focus on what exactly needs to get done, streamline your virtual meeting planning, and host an incredible online event!
Peggy Doherty is a senior operations manager and Val Good-Turney is an operations manager for the Metal Construction Association.
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