As attendees started second-thinking travel and meeting plans due to fears about COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), meeting professionals across the country scrambled to switch to a hybrid or virtual format for their gatherings. Yet, delivering the value of a conference via a video stream is not as easy as pointing a video camera at the keynote. By starting with goals and objectives and exploring emerging technologies, you can deliver a surprising amount of meaning for your stakeholders.

Smart Meetings polled leading event technology companies for tips on what to consider if you are virtual curious.

A Partner Deal

“We know nothing beats the value of face-to-face meetings,” says Jim Sharpe, CEO of meeting management solution company Aventri. “During this time, however, you don’t need to cancel your event. You can benefit organizers, sponsors and attendees in a different way,” he said.

He announced on Thursday that the company has been working on a partnership with three digital event solution companies to make virtual events easier to plan. Account managers will walk planners of large and small gatherings through the discovery process to determine their true needs—online networking, chat capabilities, surveying, content capture and distribution, closed caption, creative services, monetization or any other items on a virtual laundry list—and then help them connect with the partner. Aventri has vetted virtual providers and is actively working with Digitell, Evia and Intrado Digital Media.

A Three-Legged Platform

Think about what each audience wants out of the event, advises Jordan Schwartz, president and CEO of Pathable, which partnered with Zoom to enable virtual events integrated with app navigation and “Birds of a Feather” group video meetings. He described the raw materials of a standard meeting as a stool supported by the three legs of education, networking and commerce.

The education component might seem straightforward. Companies have been sharing information through webinars for a long time. However, doing so effectively takes some thought, Schwartz said. Without the captive audience in the ballroom, ensuring audience attention can be a problem. He recommends that planners include interactive components such as question-and-answer periods, polling and audience response. Additionally, keynote speakers need to be trained on the technology and techniques for delivering the presentation in the new format.

Even if the planner thinks software training or selling widgets is the only objective, attendees probably think spending time with their peers is just as important. “We are humans, and we crave the ability to look other humans in the eye,” he said. Group video meetings are one way to bring the “serendipitous hallway” back into the equation.

For the revenue side of the balance sheet, Schwartz envisions exhibitors interacting through the app in virtual trade show booths. Instead of having their badges scanned, attendees click into pages, where they can request information. Creating “office hours” can enable attendees to join exhibitors in a Zoom room from the convenience of their “sterile bunker.”

A Strategic Approach

“Proper planning and an overarching strategy are paramount to moving to a hybrid or virtual event,” counsels Louis Layton, vice president of digital products with the brand experience company Freeman. The strategy should consider the overall attendee journey and ensure a feature-rich experience delivered on single platform, regardless of the underlying technology. For example, information about sessions, speakers and exhibitors should be on a single portal that combines matchmaking, meeting scheduling and other types of chat and social interaction without having to connect to disparate systems, websites or download additional software.

Organizers also have to consider how content is delivered. Presentation style, length and audience interaction will all require best practices that are more aligned to the needs and attention spans of a virtual community. “Content should be delivered in shorter chunks, layered with interactivity throughout to keep attendees engaged.” Gamification, chat, social feeds and matchmaking encourage networking.

He also suggested including a virtual tradeshow for exhibitors to show off their products and services using multi-media solutions, including digital product showcases and virtual and augmented reality. Exhibitor portals with advanced search functions can help attendees easily find relevant information for product and services.

New Normal?

Pathable’s Schwartz does not think purely virtual meetings will ever replace in-person meetings entirely. “If any of us had a choice, we would hold a full meeting,” he said. But they could be the answer for some planners at least temporarily (especially if they can get their deposits back). “The overhead is orders of magnitude lower than for a full destination conference, so the relative ROI could be higher,” he said.

Freeman Senior Vice President of Digital Experience Michael Schaiman agreed to a point. “While it won’t replace an in-person opportunity, it certainly can be worthwhile to invest in a great experience for those unable to attend the event,” he said. “Organizers should be taking a long-term approach to these platforms. The virtual event will become a constant in the lives of all attendees—both live and remote. “

Aventri’s Sharpe is bullish on how the industry will perform once cautions are lifted. “We expect that after this clears, there will be an enormous pent-up demand. Think about the amount of business development, partnerships, learning that takes place at these events; we expect a swift and strong rebound,” he said.

However, Sharpe also predicts that meeting planners will want to incorporate more virtual elements in their formats after experiencing it. That includes enhanced communication for real-time updates, better leveraging of data to understand how people interact and real-time recommendations about who to interact with in the ballroom. “That is the next frontier in better meetings,” he said.