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10 Takeaways from My First Virtual Conference

A communications coach sees the convenience, challenges, and potential of online events.

After years of putting on a business suit and trying to find comfortable dress shoes to walk around big conferences, it was a joy to attend one in a dress shirt, gym shorts, and bare feet—and still come away with meaningful networking exchanges and new business prospects.

This online experience I attended, Forward Together 2021, was aimed at the live-events industry. It was managed by allseated, hosted on its exVo platform, and supported by a number of partners in the special-event space.

The event industry is not my area of expertise, but a colleague invited me to attend. I expected to drop in for 20 minutes simply to investigate the online format. You can imagine my shock when I logged out of the conference and realized I had spent two and half hours there! Two and a half hours around a conference topic and attendees I didn’t know. Clearly there was something engaging about this virtual format.

Before I give you my best business-communication takeaways, let me describe the experience: You start by typing in your entry key, entering your name as others will see it, and uploading a photo for your “robot” avatar and your company logo. (See below.) Next, there’s a brief tutorial on how you move throughout rooms, including “teleporting” to the east or west coast (where geographically aligned attendees are circulating). crop.png

As you move through the main hall, which looks a lot like an exhibit floor from a typical convention, you can visit exhibitors (more on that in a bit) or interact with other attendees simply by clicking on their avatar. If they accept your invitation to chat, you’re both launched into a Zoom-like room for your private conversation. You can find each attendee in the directory to set up a video chat.

After my two-and-half-hour experience, here are my ten big learnings from my first virtual conference:

1.You still need networking skills. The fact that the conference is virtual does not let you off the hook on approaching strangers and introducing yourself. That foundational networking skill is still mandatory to get value in a virtual setting. This is especially important when you see two or more attendees gathered and you are prompted with “Want to join a group chat?” (The pressure is on: “Who’s this new person?”)

2. Your opening has never been more important. The first 30 seconds with a new contact will say a lot about the amount of time you merit with them. For me, as a communication coach, I opened with “I’m not in your industry, but I’m fascinated by how a virtual conference is changing the way you communicate with your colleagues. I’d love to hear your perspective.” Boom…off and running. Remember the key rules: ask questions and focus your conversation on the other person. (Click here to see my short video on this.)

Screen Shot 2021-01-27 at 7.17.39 PM.png3. Walking the exhibit floor has never been easier. In this virtual setting, when an attendee reached a certain proximity to an exhibitor area, the screen automatically started playing a video prepared by the exhibitor. No more walking by a booth where the video loop is already in progress, or the crowd makes it impossible to hear the speaker. There was also an icon to click for more information (e.g.: visit our website, download a PDF, etc.). And if the exhibitor avatar was nearby, he or she might invite you into a video chat. This is easily accepted or declined; it wasn’t awkward to turn down the request since you’re not face to face. forwardtogether1-panel.png

4. Keynotes and panel discussions are a breeze. No more jostling into a convention’s seating areas. A moderator comes on the screen about five minutes before a featured speaker and asks attendees to head to the main exhibit hall. Upon navigating there, you’re instantly “seated,” and the countdown tool shows the time until the event. Caveat: I did not see a Q&A feature, but there was a chat feature that a moderator could have managed.

5. Have your information ready to email. Instead of sifting through bent business cards, you can simply follow up with emails via your video chat(s).

Screen Shot 2021-01-27 at 8.02.44 PM.png6. After-parties still happen. At the end of Forward Together’s scheduled program, there was an after-party, set on the beautiful rooftop of a virtual Mexican resort. You could “walk” around and get a 360-degree view of the beach, ocean, and other resorts nearby. They even had a virtual DJ and music. The chat areas were an especially nice feature; upon entering, the background music automatically lowered so you could communicate in peace.

7. First impressions matter! It still surprises me when I see Zoom participants in poorly lit or cluttered environments. Take the time to get some decent lighting at your work area so other attendees can see and hear you. It’s a must for a virtual conference.

8. Hybrid conferences were all the talk of this conference. The general opinion was that the days of a few thousand people flying to a single location are gone. However, today’s 100-percent virtual events might quickly give way to the hybrid model, where some attend in a physical location but thousands more attend online.

9. The more interactive the better. Let’s face it, everyone is Zoomed out. But these virtual conferences have many other innovative ways to engage the audience through discovery, exhibits, gaming, puzzles, graphics, polls, and more. Conference planners need to make interaction a top priority.

10. Meeting planners are the new Yodas. Never before has the expertise of meeting and event planners been more valuable. Companies and associations need to connect, and these industry experts are staying on top of the trends and technologies that are making it possible. Virtual communication has incredible possibilities, and the event-planning industry is in the white-hot center of it all.

Bill Ganon is CEO of The Ganon Group, which offers communication coaching for executives and employees. Ganon is the lead trainer and a frequent conference speaker.

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