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Converting to Virtual Conferences: An Emergency Guide for Conferences, Tradeshows and Industry Events

A considerable amount of businesses and organizations rely on conferences, tradeshows and other industry events to raise awareness, increase and engage members, forge new business relationships, share knowledge or inspire others in their field. However, with the recent and rapid emergence of COVID-19, many cities have mandated social distancing rules which means the outlook for in-person conferences in 2020 is bleak. While frustrating, it’s also understandable, with the virus having infected over 1.3 million and claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people worldwide.

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While the toll this pandemic is taking on society and the global economy is nothing short of disastrous, it’s also birthing an era of adaptation where those who quickly adapt and shift to this new, uncertain future, thrive. This adaptation can be seen across all facets of society and business; people are staying at home and only leaving the house for essentials; businesses have rapidly shifted to remote work; Food businesses have quickly shifted to contact-less curbside pickup and delivery; even events and conferences are making the switch, with tech giant Google switching its Google Cloud Next 2020 event from physical to virtual.

It’s not only big businesses with huge budgets that can hold these immersive and effective virtual events. Utilizing simple tools like Zoom, or other similar platforms like GoToMeeting means that businesses and organizations of any size can shift their planned events from physical to virtual at relatively low costs – but what is the most effective way to do this? As covered in OpenWaters’ COVID-19 Conference Emergency Guide, it starts with examining the transferable aspects.

Virtual Conferences: The First Step

The key to success with any event is effective planning. If a business already has an event planned, it’s a good idea to look at the itinerary and see which aspects of that are transferable to a virtual event. A great example of an in-person conference itinerary is this: networking brunch, first keynote speaker, first set of breakout sessions, lunch and exhibitor hall for sponsors, second set of breakout sessions, followed by a networking dinner and drinks. For this example, the in-person aspects of events, like brunches, food breaks, exhibitions and networking dinners would have to be nixed, which leaves the two most vital aspects of an event, the keynote speakers and the breakout sessions.

Making the Switch From Physical to Virtual Rooms

Switching keynote speakers and breakout sessions from physical to virtual rooms is simple in theory, but there are a number of factors to be aware of. The first of these is understanding which web conference platform is best suited for virtual events and event administrators, Zoom is an ideal option because the available subscription plans allow for one master administrator and a number of hosts. These hosts are essentially the tech managers and program facilitators rolled into one, and are responsible for the smooth management of their ‘rooms’ and presenters. The number of hosts should also correspond to the number of physical rooms the event was originally planning for.

Once the number of hosts is locked down, the process of mapping physical rooms to virtual rooms should begin. This is most easily done using a simple excel sheet with the following columns: Date, Time, Physical Rooms, Room Host, Host Email, Zoom ID and, Zoom Meeting Link. Once the sheet is created, it’s time to populate each field. Date, Time, Physical Rooms, Room Host, and Host Email, are all self-explanatory, but the creation of a Zoom ID and Meeting Link can be tricky.

The easiest way to create these is by populating the excel sheet with the first five columns, then logging into zoom and importing the email addresses contained within the sheet as Users. To do this, log into Zoom, navigate to the Admin tab, select User Management, which should be located in the bar menu on the left-hand side of the screen, select Users, then select Add User. This should prompt a dialogue box that allows an excel sheet to be imported. Select the sheet, and make sure that each user is labeled as Licensed in the dialogue box. Once added, it’s time to log out and into each of the user accounts, recording their Zoom ID and Meeting Links in the appropriate tabs on the spreadsheet, while configuring each of the hosts’ settings in the process.

Configuration

 The process of configuring host settings is simple. In each of the host accounts, click on Settings and explore each for relevancy. While different events require different settings, some useful configurations include: auto-mute all participants, auto record, auto record to cloud, turn off all video, autosave chats, allow for polling, and allow for only hosts to screen share.

Training Hosts

 Each room host should allow time to familiarize themselves with Zoom’s features to ensure their presentations and sessions run as smoothly as possible. The easiest and most effective way of doing this is by holding a test conference with each of the hosts and presenters, so they can work out any possible platform issues before the event with a sympathetic audience.

Notifying Attendees

Once all settings are configured and hosts are familiar with the platform, the process of notifying attendees should begin. This can be done via email and should outline the reason why the event has changed from physical to virtual and any new processes as a result of this, while reassuring attendees that the content and timing of the event has not changed. It can also include tips on how to build a virtual conference schedule. For those that have purchased a ticket as part of a package, advice on securing a refund for airfares and accommodation should also be included. Once this is complete, it’s a smart idea to build a dedicated webpage that has the event itinerary with meeting links for each of the speaking and breakout sessions to mitigate any last-minute panic for attendees if they can’t locate emails with meeting links. The aim is to make the transition for attendees as streamlined as possible.

While the novel coronavirus has had a huge impact on the way conferences and in-person events are held, it doesn’t mean all events should be canceled. By being adaptable, utilizing available tech and following helpful resources like OpenWater’s COVID-19 Emergency Conference Guide, attendees, presenters and organizers can still run effective and engaging events that inform, inspire and even help businesses stay afloat in what is an undeniably uncertain time.

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