How to Plan a Virtual Conference

Think of the virtual space just as you would the on-site venue when you are figuring out how to plan a virtual conference. Where will everyt...
Harriet Daniels
August 13, 2020
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Attending conferences is always an exciting time for those looking to learn new information and network with industry leaders. Many organizations are looking for effective ways of how to plan a virtual conference where attendees get the most out of the experience. There’s a lot of ground to cover in the virtual environment. The details of planning a virtual conference can be as overwhelming as if an on-site venue. There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to bringing any group of people together for a conference, trade show, expo or convention of any size. So while hosting these events virtually may be a different format, the overall logistics is top priority to ensure success.

Think of the virtual space just as you would the on-site venue when you are figuring out how to plan a virtual conference. Where will everything and everyone go? How to make the venue user-friendly for everyone? Is there enough time to get everything done virtually?

As technology advances and new platforms hit the market at the blink of an eye, there are a lot of options available for how to plan a virtual conference. In many instances, this is unchartered territory depending on the industry which means planning is key to the overall success. Take a few minutes to review this guide and obtain some great tips on how to plan a virtual conference.

The Task of How to Plan a Virtual Conference

Does it feel like you drew the short stick and now need to figure out how to bring all this together for a conference? Well, you don’t have any time to waste before the trade show goes live.

These are tough questions that must be addressed above or there will be problems along the way. The virtual aspect provides a few challenges but also offers a lot of advantages that can be maximized. The only thing that will really change is being face-to-face over the course of the conference. Everything else about an event of this size remains constant so let’s get to work.

Virtual Conference Planning Checklist

Technology makes virtual conferences possible in a variety of platforms. However, there may be a learning curve for attendees and exhibitors if the platform is not familiar to all. Therefore, the technology divide will have to be factored into planning an exhibition since it will greatly impact every facet of the event.

So let’s begin with the checklist to get planning underway.

1.     Select the virtual format

Thanks to technology, there are a ton of available formats to host a virtual event. Select which one will work best for the amount of people attending. Popular platforms like Zoom may work well while exhibitors may find Virtual Expo/Vendor Village as a way to engage with conference goers. 

2.     Select the date of the conference

While in-person conventions may have lasted up to a week, a virtual event may be hosted for a couple of hours or spread out over a few days depending on the timeline. However, it’s important to select an actual date early so attendees can adjust their schedule and block out the time.

3.     Share convention speakers and exhibitors

Just like with anything where there’s a choice, attendees want to know if it will be worth their time to log on or hear a speaker or chat with an exhibitor.

4.     Share information early and often

Things look different in the virtual world when it comes to engagement. Event planners will want to share the virtual platform, date and speakers early and often to help build excitement but also to give everyone time to register.

5.     Post the convention agenda

Similar to on-site conventions, attendees want to review the agenda to ensure they are maximizing their time. Posting the convention agenda gives everyone a chance to prioritize sessions and streamline networking opportunities.

6.     Prepare for questions

A virtual conference will likely come with a lot of questions ahead of time, during the event and after it closes. Face it, people want to know who they can talk to if something happens. Event planners need to make sure enough people are on hand to address questions.

7.     Provide a pre-expo testing session

So what is a testing session? Basically it is a session where upcoming attendees and exhibitors and speakers can test out the event platform to see how everything will work. There’s nothing worse than to be ready to sign on virtually and something goes wrong and you miss the information. Or worse, you are scheduled to present and there is a glitch in the system. A testing session will give everyone time to make sure they are ready to go.

 8.     Get creative with swag

Who does not like to get something free at a convention like a shiny new coffee mug, great writing pens, a nice portfolio or even T-shirts and the list goes one. In a virtual environment, these may not be practical. So here is an opportunity for event planners to find fun, creative ways to up the swag game. How about links to free consulting sessions, receive a box of gear or any number of other ideas. The sky is the limit virtually.

9.     Incentivize early registration

This may be a good idea for those looking to have additional folks participate in the event where in the past budgets only allowed for one person to attend. So why not give slight discounts to those who register before a certain date, or an organization has five or more people participating. It’s just one more way to increase engagement of the virtual conference.

10. Share. Share. Share.

Again, make sure to share information early that the conference will be virtual. Veteran attendees and exhibitors will have to shift a lot of their preparation logistics so make sure they have plenty of time to get this done without financial penalties.

This is just a beginning checklist to help get things started in planning a virtual conference. Remember, going virtual is a big shift so be prepared for something to pop up at the last minute.

Virtual Event Planning Timeline

In planning a virtual conference, the timeline to get everything in place will depend on several factors. One thing a virtual event does not have to compete with on a large scale is date availability at a venue. So if there is a timeframe that may work better, go ahead and put it on the calendar.

The event planning timeline will be established when the date of the conference is publicized. It may be a few weeks to several months or longer to plan an event. The promotion of the event typically begins early in the process while the other details are finalized.

One of the biggest decisions to be made will be determining which platform to utilize and the level of functionality. It may take some extra time to figure out which option is best. The team working to plan the event will need to discuss a variety of other details to ensure a smooth transition with moving the expo online.

When it comes to planning a virtual conference, the matter of time is a huge element in the overall event. People attend conventions from all over the country and in many cases from around the globe. The designated times of conference events may need to take the time difference of attendees into account. If it’s mostly a domestic audience, consider beginning the conference day at 10 a.m. CST so it’s not too early for those on the West Coast and equally not too late on the East Coast.

So in planning the timeline of the virtual event, build in some flexibility for conference goers to pop in and out as needed based on their schedule. It will ease the stress of not being in person and help promote overall engagement.

Digital Tools & Technology

Perhaps the single most important aspect of how to plan a virtual conference centers around the digital tools and technology utilized to convey messages and connect everyone. It may start with the check-in process to gain access to the conference information sessions, keynote speakers, and the networking opportunities that many find invaluable.

While the event may be considered virtual, some aspects such as product displays that have to be set as if on-site and a live demonstration presented. In this case, additional equipment may be required to pull this off. The ability to bring all this together and bridge the distance can be a huge success because of technology.

Shipping equipment like cameras, lighting and other easy to use digital tools are critical in this process for those who will be presenters and exhibitors. So while exhibitors may not be in a booth space in the exhibit hall, they may still use technology to have a virtual booth to highlight products and services.

The behind the scene details of a virtual conference vary but the digital tools can enhance the experience beyond expectations. The right technology can add pizazz and flair to a presentation and keep attendees glued to their devices.

A lot of planning and organization must be in place to make a virtual conference seamless to attendees. While some miss packing up gear to have shipped to a venue, the travel involved and the set up and breakdown time; for others a virtual expo reduces that time and leaves more time for engaging potential buyers and following up on leads. So yes, some like the face-to-face approach that a traditional on-site event provides, however making the change to a virtual environment could open many other opportunities.

 Virtual Conference Networking

One of the fringe benefits of attending a convention of any category is networking with other industry leaders and decision makers for their company. The time on the trade show floor along with mingling between sessions can net valuable connections. The objective of course is to locate buyers for products and services. So exhibitors must think outside the box for ways to engage conference goers in a virtual setting.

Technology will allow exhibitors to make product demonstrations, answer questions and have one-on-one dialogue with attendees. It might be innovative to establish individual sessions for each exhibitor to conduct a variety of activities over a two or three-day period.

The schedule could look like this:

11 a.m. – Exhibitor product demonstration with time reserved for question and answers

1:30 p.m. – Networking session with exhibitors (general questions)

4 p.m. – Schedule one-on-one time discussion with exhibitors (30 minute sessions)

7 p.m. – Networking session with exhibitors (general questions)

First, the exhibitor can be flexible about the sessions and can offer any type of incentive. Everyone likes to get a little treat in exchange of their time and interest. The main goal is to get folks to connect virtually and have those leads turn into closed deals. The challenge for event hosts is how to plan a virtual conference and make activities like this work well for all involved.

It’s a good idea to talk to exhibitors well in advance to learn what may be most useful for them to connect virtually. Some exhibitors may expand their manpower and have additional staff on hand to help field the audience. Others may relish the one-on-one discussion sessions which helps them sort out the curious in order to reach the serious.

How all of this occurs will likely be different for each exhibitor just like their traditional expo booths may be the same size dimensions but the visuals are different. Attendees may want to gravitate to the general sessions so they can compare things before deciding to sign-up for a one-on-one time slot with a vendor. Again, with planning a virtual conference flexibility is key across the board.

Virtual Trade Show Benefits

Some may be wondering what’s the big deal of planning a virtual conference, especially if they looked forward to the in-person events at venues around the country. One benefit may be the travel cost savings associated with on-site convention. Just that number alone can make a virtual conference more attractive. However, there is a list of other benefits to be realized by going virtual.

1.     Eliminate the crowds

Even if it’s a convention of a few hundred people, it can still seem crowded and unable to get close to the vendors or industry leaders you seek. A virtual conference eliminates the rush of everyone trying to get to the same place and allows for a relaxed atmosphere.

2.     Get a great seat

The early bird gets the good seat. But sometimes this can be difficult if fighting crowds in a large convention center. However, attending a virtual conference means you can sit anywhere you like with access to your device. Lounge in your man-cave or she-shed, tune in from your office or where ever you deem is a great seat.

3.     Execute networking plan

Often during large expos, it’s difficult at best to have a brief exchange with an industry leader or a vendor. In the virtual world, conference goers can snag times in various sessions that will allow them to ask questions of who they want and have a more dedicated exchange. This time will be valuable to those who want to maximize technology. This is a priceless benefit that will pay off in dividends.

4.     Save valuable time

While the travel time is eliminated with a virtual convention, so is the time of getting acclimated to the on-site venue and getting where you need to be on time. The benefit of a virtual conference is that by clicking a link attendees arrive in the right place and not wandering around trying to locate a vendor’s booth or a meeting room. It’s a simplified experience that makes an impact.

5.     Obtain answers to questions

Since the event is virtual, attendees can send a question via a chat function to a presenter, or even have a real-time dialogue during a vendor session or individual session. It’s almost like being there in person, but better.

Virtual Conference Vendors

In taking on the task of planning a virtual conference, vendors have a blank canvas for a booth online. In adjusting to a virtual venue, conference vendors should utilize a variety of tools to engage convention goers. Just because you are not in person does not mean scale back on planned activities at the booth. Find a way to be more purposeful in sessions with those looking for product demonstrations and asking questions.

Sure, set up that booth in a company warehouse or other location so it feels a bit normal for the representative. Have good camera angles to capture all the bells and whistles and to see the product up close. Also make reading material available on services and other product highlights so those interested have something to refer to, consider and ask questions.

Just because you are not in person does not mean you can’t still hand out great swag. You may have to follow up with obtaining shipping information to get gear distributed to lucky winners. It may not be feasible to send everyone a writing pen. But if you put together a couple of swag bags with several trade show giveaway items that may be received and easier to send out.

The big thing for vendors is to be available in the virtual space so attendees can connect with you. It’s disappointing to look forward to speaking to a vendor and they are not available for a session. So shift a bit, adjust the camera and be ready to chat with those attending the conference. It’s a good way to get a step ahead of the competition.

Create a Virtual Conference Agenda

As with traditional conferences hosted in person, a printed agenda or one accessible in the event app, helps keep things moving smoothly. The same will be true for an online convention. Early in the planning process, event organizers should create a virtual conference agenda to outline the entire convention. While many may question why since the event will be virtual; that is the exact reason because it will be virtual.

While technology has connected groups of people like never before, in many regards virtual conventions are new on the scene. The challenge will be to get the buy in support early and overcome the learning curve.

By creating a virtual conference agenda, everyone who registers will have access to map out their individual itinerary and know just what to expect. In addition to setting the tone of the event, the agenda allows attendees to branch out beyond their comfort zones. In having a virtual conference agenda, it helps unite everyone planning to attend and provides other key details to login to hear other speakers and make other connections.

In some cases, a traditional convention has several challenges that prevents attendees from doing all they would like in the timeframe of the event. By having an agenda, the attendee can navigate the virtual conference better. There may also be an opportunity to have other colleagues register to obtain useful information for the organization. So where in the past, the company’s budget may allow only one or two members to attend, a virtual event will likely be less expensive making it possible for others to attend.

So in creating a virtual conference agenda, it helps in the overall planning for all involved. The overall focus of a virtual conference is to bring people together while not at an on-site venue. So every aspect of the virtual connection should be used to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Virtual Conference Best Practices

The mention of a virtual conference may for some be a welcomed change because it means they can login from anywhere. However, while a virtual conference may denote a more casual atmosphere for attendees, there are a few things to be mindful of prior to logging in, during the event and once adjourned.

1.     Remember you are logged in to a virtual conference

Be sure to mute yourself when not speaking during a session. You don’t want to be embarrassed by what others may hear in the background. Sometimes even the slightest background or environment noise is pickup by a sensitive microphone. Take a few moments before the conference begins to find a good location free of noise and interruptions.

2.     Eliminate Distractions

If you are distracted during a session it will show up on the camera for others to see. Now is not the time to conduct another meeting, have an ongoing phone call or any number of things. The conference should be a dedicated time to immerse yourself in new information and network. Be attentive. If you are able to set a one-one-one or small group discussion with a vendor or speaker, give them your full attention.

3.     What You Should Wear

Listen, this is not the time to wear your favorite T-shirt that has seen better days. While you don’t have to wear a full suit and tie, at least put on a nice top or polo to still appear business casual. Remember since the event is virtual, everyone will be paying attention to little details like attire.

4.     Speak Clearly and Listen Carefully

Be mindful that not all internet speeds are the same. So while you may have a fast, high speed network, others may not be as fortunate and struggling to keep up. During a presentation or even during a general question and answer segment, try to speak in a moderate tone and speed so you are not garbled or something is missed if waiting for network speed to catch up. And in the reverse, once an answer is being given, listen carefully. The person is taking time to address a question, be respectful enough to listen to what they have to say.

5.     Technical Problems Happen

During the virtual conference, there is bound to be some technical difficulties somewhere in the connection. It’s par the course when dealing with technology. It’s a good rule of thumb to have patience while the situation is resolved either on your end or with the event organizers.

Virtual Conference Software

As more and more organizations turn to virtual conferences in lieu of on-site events, the planning committee will need to find the right software that works best for the masses. A word of advice here, there are a number of software products that can be used to integrate various aspects of the convention from registration to networking.

However, it will depend on what each group will need to accomplish when deciding on a software suite which is also determined by budget. If there is time, conduct test sessions with several different software options versus just finding what everyone else is using. Not all software works the same for every setting. One program may work best for keynote presentations for large attendance availability, however, it may not perform well during a one-on-one session. These will be things that have to be worked out before the information is distributed to conference goers.

Although there are software options that are in wide use like Zoom, there are others like Hubb or Pathable that are gaining traction as more groups take events virtual. If time allows, explore other options to discover the functionality and ask questions. And be prepared there will be somewhat of a learning curve among those who will use the software during the conference so be prepared for lots and lots of questions from everyone. Consider creating a dedicated team for the convention to just answer technical questions as they interact with the software.

Time to Hit the Virtual Trade Show Floor

Once all the planning and promotion is done, it will be time to open the convention including the virtual trade show floor. Conference goers will adapt to the new environment and find their way around.

The biggest thing will be that everyone is connected in the same space to share the latest information, preview advancement in products or a host of other activities. The virtual trade show can be just as interactive as in person, it will require planning some engaging presentations beyond the normal PowerPoint presentations. It’s time to take it up several notches on the virtual trade show floor.

Exhibitors still have a big job ahead of them to make the trade show floor effective for them and the convention goer. So when attendees enter the virtual trade show booth, be ready to greet them enthusiastically and give them a tour. It may be a longtime conference attendee who has had to make the adjustment to the virtual trade show or it could be someone new to the event in either format but tech-savvy to navigating the virtual environment.

The virtual trade show floor will be void of the normal hustle and bustle typically associated with on-site venues. So this is where exhibitors will need to make sure their trade show booth bridges the distance to draw folks in. The goal, whether in person or virtually is the same, is for attendees to walk away with information that could translate into a sales lead.

Planning a Virtual Conference with R+L Global Logistics Trade Show Experts

All the details are in place and the countdown has begun for the virtual conference going live for all to enter. Whether it’s equipment that needs to be shipped to convention presenters or trade show booths that have to be set up in a warehouse space to do product demonstrations or more, R+L Global Logistics is flexible to get everything delivered.

R+L Global Logistics has the ability to handle product and material distribution to virtual conference attendees. It’s just one example of how we handle the logistics associated with trade shows. In addition, our team offers a full array of supply chain logistics including pick and pack along with fulfillment services.

Our team is well versed in dealing with short deadlines and can offer expedited service to meet the need of shifting to a virtual environment. R+L Global Logistics has a 99.5 percent delivery rate so shippers can rest assured their trade show freight is handled by professionals.

By working with a trusted team of carriers, R+L Global Logistics delivers trade show freight from coast to coast. Excellent customer service is our trademark and shippers have access to track freight each mile of the journey. Delegate the shipping aspect of planning a virtual conference to R+L Global Logistics. Call (866) 415-8986 to obtain a free quote and ask questions. 

Need help shipping your trade show booth and materials? Fill out a short form or give us a call and one of our trade show specialists will answer your questions.

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