After the pandemic started last year, event planners, sponsors and attendees were forced to pivot quickly from in-person to virtual events. It soon became clear the traditional in-person event couldn't simply be adapted to a virtual environment. It would have to be reimagined―and even reinvented. Though it didn't all go perfectly, many event planners discovered they could host successful, engaging virtual experiences.

What lessons and inspiration can we glean from our pandemic year? Mitel User Group Liaison, Denise Desjardins, has been organizing virtual events for years before the pandemic. In episode 23 of the Bollottafide Podcast, she sat down with Anthony Bollotta ahead of the 2021 Mitel User Group Annual Virtual Event (May 20, 2021) to reminisce and share some of her wisdom.

Ready to participate in a virtual event now? Book your spot at the annual MUG event on May 20 >

The virtual advantage

Denise said that, like other organizations, Mitel hosted more virtual events in 2020 due to travel restrictions during the pandemic. Yet, she warned that no one should fall into the trap of thinking virtual is simply a stopgap. In fact, virtual events offer several compelling advantages in any environment:

Positively productive

Virtual events eliminate the stress, time, and cost of travel, of course. But what's not often discussed is the tremendous amount of flexibility they offer attendees, who can work their daily schedules around the agenda. Need time to finish that big report? Or pick up the kids from school? Focus on the sessions that matter most and skip the less relevant ones. When people can take care of what matters in their everyday lives, they're more engaged at the event. It's the best of both worlds.

Extra days, extra value

Unlike an in-person event, which has a defined start and end, virtual events can (and should) be kept open for at least 30 days past the live component. This extended period offers benefits for hosts, sponsors, and attendees alike. By making the material available for a longer time, hosts can create an agenda packed full of compelling content and speakers. With extra time, attendees can return again and again to watch videos and download content. As clicks pile up, so do valuable lead data―a boon for sponsors and their sales teams.

Always-on classroom

Training is a major component of the annual Mitel User Group Virtual Event. However, Denise says, there are so many classes in the training center, it's not possible for attendees to complete them all during the live event. The advantage of going virtual is that all these resources can stay accessible after the event ends. For this reason, Denise keeps the event website open for 30 days.

Return on investment

Virtual events provide tangible evidence of success. By measuring attendance, downloads and other web analytics, sponsors can calculate exactly how valuable the event was for them.

Dos and don'ts of hosting a virtual event

To gain the most value from all the time spent on a virtual event, it helps to understand the dos and don'ts. Here's Denise's list, based on what she's seen in the past five years:

DO know your audience

Engagement is a critical success measure for virtual events, so it's important to choose entertainment that's a good fit for your audience. As an example, a global virtual event with a cocktail hour is a fantastic idea. A mixologist can walk everyone through the steps of making their own drinks at home. But, with participants in both North American and European countries, this only works well if the measurements are in both metric and imperial. It's a small detail, but one that could either unite or alienate your group.

DON'T expect the audience to start talking first

As the event organizer, your primary goal is to raise the level of attendee engagement. Be sure your host can keep the room interested and active.

DON'T ignore privacy data laws

A good rule of thumb is to comply with the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). At registration (and not any later!) be sure to ask attendees for consent to share their contact information with sponsors.

DO set expectations with sponsors

The solution center is like a trade show floor where sponsors can chat live with visitors. But it's important to realize that interacting in this type of setting doesn't come naturally for many people. Encourage sponsors not to measure success based on the number of conversations, but rather by the number of downloads of their material. Virtual events are an excellent opportunity for lead generation.

DON'T assume booth staff know how to engage in a virtual environment

Advise sponsors to work with booth staff ahead of time and prepare them with tips and ideas for starting conversations. For instance, they should have canned questions ready to use when attendees enter the booth, such as: Have you heard about our new product? Can I show you a demo? Were you interested in knowing more about this feature? Have you thought about...

DO invest in gamification

Games are an effective way to bring introverts out of their shells. Gamification elements reward attendees with points when they visit the virtual booth, download documents, and talk to an expert.

DON'T stop promoting the event―even after the live component ends

As long as you keep the virtual event open, you can drive new registrations by marketing the event on social media. This is an additional benefit for sponsors, who will continue to collect new leads throughout this period.

Do track metrics throughout

Continue to review and report on results even after the live component ends. Keeping events open for 30 days or longer gives you more traction, so it's important to continue to look at the numbers until the event is closed.

Planning a virtual event? How to make it successful >

In-person, virtual―or both?

There are pros and cons to each type of event, in-person and virtual. One of the most compelling reasons to consider doing both is the ability to reach more people.

That's because each type of event attracts different people. An in-person event is a big draw for those who enjoy the entire travel experience, from getting on the plane and staying in the hotel to socializing during sessions and at the end of the day. But if in-person events are all your organization does, your team will miss engaging with certain customer segments. It's not just introverts, either. Some people don't have the funds to travel (think nonprofits) while others are constrained by work projects or family responsibilities.

That means there's a strong argument for doing both: it gives you the opportunity to reach a wider audience.

Just like the workplace, expect to see the event industry adopt a hybrid approach. Virtual events are likely to dominate for a while longer. But as the world opens, events will become a mix of in-person and virtual, giving you plenty of opportunity to put the tips above to good use!

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