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How to Create a Virtual Conference

Disruptive situations such as the COVID-19 outbreak can prevent attendees and exhibitors from traveling. Here’s our guide to developing a plan B.

The value of face-to-face meetings is not in doubt, but sometimes—such as during a disease outbreak, natural disaster, or some other disruption—it’s good to have a plan B.

Marketing Manager Kate Ratcliffe, CMP, began her career as an event producer in the real world before helping planners design meetings in the virtual one at CommPartners. She says, “As an meeting and event planner, I understand and value the benefits of on-site meetings, but as the world evolves, so must we.”

Whether the intention from the beginning was to design a hybrid conference, or a disruption has forced last-minute changes to an event, here are the steps to take before approaching a virtual event partner, and the services you can expect to find.
1.     Research virtual event companies as soon as you realize your meeting is threatened. Ratcliffe says CommPartners is currently getting three times the inquiries they usually expect at this time of year. “Ideally, we like at least two months [of lead time] but for limited services like livestreaming just a few sessions, we have turned it around in a week or two,” says Ratcliffe.
2.     Talk to your speakers and educators and check their contracts. First, some speakers will not allow their content to be livestreamed or recorded for later use, so you won’t be able to include them in your virtual event. Second, some speakers may be nervous about appearing on camera, and even if they are used to hosting webinars and other streamed events, it’s not what they originally signed up for. A quick conversation is polite and can allay any fears.  
3.     Reach out to your key exhibitors. It is possible to have a virtual exhibition floor, but exhibitors are responsible for providing their own content and they will need time to prepare the material. Further, there are a few ways to prove the value of a virtual presence to exhibitors.
4.     If you are going ahead with your conference but providing a virtual version for attendees who can’t make it, talk to the venue about its technical capabilities. Does the venue have a hardwired, high-speed internet connection? Do breakout rooms have lighting and sound equipment for broadcasting? The virtual hosting company can supply everything but if your venue has it as part of your contract then you can eliminate this line item from the budget.
5.     The first item your provider will ask for is your schedule. That will give them the dates, the number of sessions and keynotes, how many exhibitors you have, and what kind of networking events are included. The provider needs this information discuss your options and learn your priorities.
How Does a Virtual Event Work?
Depending on the scope of the project, virtual conference providers can either create a landing page on your website where attendees can simply log in to livestreams, or a whole portal designed to look like the venue and attendees create their own avatars.
Components of a virtual conference can include:
a.     Livestreams of presentations: from audio and PowerPoint slides to fully produced video and real time audience interaction. Presentations can also be captured for later use if the virtual conference dates are different from the live one.
b.     Expo halls. Ratcliffe says there is no limit to the number of searchable trade show booths but exhibitors will need to upload handouts, photos, video, and also provide staff for a live chat or train a chatbot. 
c.     Digital posters. These can be searchable or available in subject galleries to flip through.
d.     Discussion boards. Virtual attendees can network online and create their own branches of the discussion on particular topics.


Kate Ratcliffe of CommPartners

Budget and Sponsorships
Costs depend on the complexity of the event, not the number of attendees. CommPartners’ learning management system, Elevate, can handle up to 50,000 remote viewers for livestreams but the real costs are for providing multimedia specialists to film each presentation. Elevate can handle up to six sessions concurrently but additional ones can be captured for later broadcast. Planners will need to include staff resources in the budget, as well as some discretionary money. For example, there is no limit to the number of exhibitors Elevate can host, but each one will need to provide materials, and conference staff may have to help them meet upload deadlines and advise on content formats.
Virtual conferences are easily branded. Organizers can rename virtual venues with their logos or a sponsor’s name, and video feeds and marquis slides can be customized. Lastly, event organizers should keep in mind that hybrid events can have different sponsors online and in the real world. 

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