THE OTHER DAY, I was scrolling through LinkedIn and saw that a friend had posted a banner that read, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ ” I didn’t think much about it at the time, but it stuck with me.
Finding engaging ways to bring people together is at the heart of event planning. I love events. I love listening to speakers, taking notes to bring back to my organization, interacting with presenters, asking questions of support staff, marveling at new production elements and networking with colleagues. Typically, these opportunities come from the shared experience of being in one physical space.
But meeting together in person is often challenging for myriad reasons, both personal (e.g., time and expense of travel) and professional (e.g., resource allocation). Because of this, organizations and planners need to become more creative in order to present events in innovative ways. The way we’ve always done it just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Over the past two years, my organization has fully embraced virtual events, and I believe we’re at the forefront of a fantastic new way of thinking about event planning. It is no longer enough to simply livestream an in-person event. People who take the time to log in deserve to have an experience similar to in-person participants—the opportunity to network and engage with fellow attendees, while having their participation recognized and celebrated. We develop hybrid (online and in-person components) and fully virtual (no face-to-face experience) events with the online participant in mind.
We design the online platform in the same way that we design a meeting room. We look at it from the attendee experience, beginning with the participant’s arrival by logging in to the platform—much like walking into the hotel or conference center. Just as with a physical venue, the virtual space displays the organization’s colors and logos. Participants are greeted and receive an orientation, instructions on how to navigate the space and a preview of the event schedule via a video message.
As virtual participants wait for a presentation to begin, they may chat with others in attendance. To humanize the experience, we encourage attendees to create online profiles where they have the opportunity to upload a photo of themselves and share contact and biographical information—the virtual equivalent of exchanging business cards.
The platform is often designed with two main presentation windows—one for the live video feed and one for the corresponding slide deck. Additional windows exist to allow attendees to network and exchange ideas about the material being presented in the main community chat room. Attendees are also encouraged to engage with the presenter by submitting questions in a separate Q&A box within the platform. The presenter, in turn, engages with the online audience by asking polling questions to solicit real-time responses.
As with most in-person meetings, there is a conference keynote and several breakout sessions. Direction on how students can access these sessions virtually often comes at the end of the keynote session, where an oncamera moderator explains how to access these virtual spaces.
The virtual platform is also designed to accommodate individual needs. The windows (video, PowerPoint, chat room, etc.) are flexible and can be moved and resized as needed, and closed captioning is made available.
As excited as I am about this model, I know that it, too, will need to be adapted over time. But the strength of the virtual meeting lies in its versatility—and finding innovative ways to bring people together is a challenge we can all embrace.
Debbie Friedman-Hueller, M.A., CMP, CSEP, is a veteran of the meetings and events field. In her role at Laureate Education, she does more than manage event logistics—she is a strategist, a designer and a choreographer who executes in-person and virtual meetings and events.