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  • Writer's pictureJim Douglas

Lessons on Pivoting to Virtual: How to Rethink the Event Planning Process

On Global Meetings Industry Day, panelists shared how they are restructuring face-to-face meetings for a new, virtual world.

Although the face-to-face events industry may be on hold, planners are anything but idle, with many working around the clock to nail down new dates, renegotiate contracts and develop virtual solutions.  "I’ve been spending more time cancelling meetings than running meetings. I will say, it’s a lot more work," said Tricia Rawh, executive director of the Center for Education at the Cardiovascular Research Foundation, on a Global Meetings Industry Day webcast from Meeting Professionals International. "We’re focused currently on how do we take our in-person meetings, which have now been cancelled, and turn those into compelling, virtual experiences? It has certainly been a learning opportunity for us over the last few weeks about going virtual."

For many meeting professionals, this may be their first time organizing an online event.  Selecting a virtual platform is only part of the battle -- the traditional planner’s playbook must be entirely rethought for a virtual setting Rawh was part of a "Pivot to Virtual" panel discussion during the daylong Meeting Professionals International webcast. She and other planners joined event tech and production company PSAV's president Ben Erwin to discuss how they are navigating this new normal, and shared their lessons learned with attendees. 

Rethinking Content

The traditional face-to-face event encompasses two or three days jam-packed with sessions and networking breaks. That approach, however, does not translate well to an online event. While attendees are happy to spend a few days at an in-person conference in a new city, having them sit though days of virtual sessions at home is unrealistic.  "We really need to be sensitive to people’s wants and that they aren't going to want to approach a virtual event the same way they would approach it face to face," said Jim Huss, director of events and experiences at Intel Corp. "Instead of an hour-long breakout, you can do three, 15-minute modules. It's this idea that an event or a meeting might not happen over two or three days, but instead be spread out over two or three weeks. We have to allow for attendees to manage their daily lives and recognize that they're not necessarily setting aside time for this virtual event." Huss had to make similar changes to the company's Intel 360 event, a global meeting that brings together sales and marketing teams at the beginning of each year. The 2020 event, which was scheduled for February, had to be moved to an online format. According to Huss, the company quickly pivoted and prerecorded all sessions before uploading them online. Intel then implemented a companywide learning day where no meetings were scheduled, and all employees were encouraged to watch the online sessions and learn how the company planned to drive business in 2020. More than 15,000 on-demand sessions were viewed that day.

Tricia Rawh, executive director of the Center for Education at the Cardiovascular Research Foundation

Rawh of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation is also grappling with the transition to virtual. "The challenge for us right now," she said, "in terms of delivering our content, is do we do it live? Do we pre-record it? Do we roll it out like a Netflix series, where we do episodes and make it 15 minutes as opposed to 30 minutes?" The Foundation's TVT 2020 Structural Heart Summit, scheduled for mid-June in Chicago, was cancelled due to COVID-19. In its place, a virtual event with live and on-demand components is being planned. Details on how to handle the content are still being worked out. "This Netflix concept has been floating around our organization over the last several weeks," said Rawh. "TVT was just cancelled and that's a three-day meeting. So, do we roll it out over 10 days or 15 days? Do we make tracks so that people interested in a particular track will actually be sitting at their desk from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. every morning and looking at that track? Then, they move away and the next set who are interested in the second track come in?"

Coaching Speakers

In addition to content, meeting planners are also being forced to rethink how they approach speakers. Presenting in front a camera is quite different than presenting in front of a live audience. Moderating online panels can also be tricky, due to lag times and managing multiple speakers at once. To combat these issues, Intel had a few coaching sessions with speakers prior to its 360 event. "Most of our subject matter experts had been planning for months to have a course where they stand up in front of an audience of people and manage audience engagement," Huss said. "They're more comfortable presenting in front of actual people. It's a very different skill set to present to a camera when nobody's there to react to what you're saying, and some people are better at it than others. Over the years of all the virtual work that we've done, we knew we needed to have some coaching along the way before people got in front of the camera."

Planning for a New Normal

COVID-19 will likely change meetings for years to come. Even when it is safe to meet again, panelists agreed that many face-to-face events will include virtual components and hybrid events may become the new normal.

Jim Huss, director of events and experiences at Intel Corp.

"We're looking at how to manage the virtual business need in the short term, but we still expect to return to face to face," said Huss. "We're actively looking at the second half of 2020 or 2021 for rebookings. I think that new normal will probably be that hybrid approach of virtual where it makes sense and face-to-face to reinforce them." Huss encourages planners to seize this opportunity to explore virtual options and rethink their overall meetings approach. "It's a great refresh of some of the historical actions we've taken," he said. "We're refreshing our playbooks for how to go out and live in the virtual space, and kind of create a new norm that's likely going to be a hybrid approach. The philosophy around face-to-face events for a while now has been that the event itself isn't the end-all, be-all. There's time before the event, there's follow up, and we give reinforcement afterwards. This focus on virtual and virtual toolkits really just allows us more ways of doing those before and after things."

Coming Together as a Community

As meeting professionals adapt to coronavirus changes and look ahead to the future, panelists encouraged attendees to lean on one another. Industry associations and social channels are ripe with advice on everything from selecting the right virtual platform to increasing attendee engagement.

"Use other companies and communities like MPI to say, 'Hey, what's the best practice and what are people doing? Where's my playbook to go from step A to B to C?'" Huss said. "Most of us in the events industries are in the street. We've been in it for a while and have a pretty good network. I've come to find people in our peer groups are more than comfortable sharing. That can be a great resource for getting started and seeing what other ideas are out there."

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