When social distancing brought in-person events and conferences to a screeching halt in early March, meeting organizers needed an alternate solution for the long term. Virtual events became the obvious choice, and many companies quickly pivoted, reworking their calendars and plans to launch digital conferences, workshops and meetings.

It can be daunting to reimagine an in-person event for a digital format. Organizers are already under pressure to meet attendees' expectations and avoid last-minute cancellations, and a virtual setting presents new challenges and dynamics.

Mitel User Group Liaison, Denise Desjardins, understands this – and knows exactly what it takes to pull off an exceptional digital experience. She's an expert on virtual meetings, having orchestrated the Mitel User Group (MUG) Virtual Event for the last four years (the latest one was held in June 2020 and featured a guest appearance by Jay Leno). This digital conference provides our clients with the opportunity to learn and connect with others in the wider Mitel user community. It's extremely interactive and features a 3-D virtual environment with streaming keynote speakers, live Q&A, on-demand breakout sessions and interactive booths.

In addition to her work on our virtual event, Denise plays a vital role in the physical Mitel Next events. Her experience organizing events in both formats has given her unique insight on how to boost attendance and engagement – which she employs to great advantage. With her at the helm, participation in the MUG Virtual Event has grown consistently over the years.

If you're new to planning a digital conference, you also may be wondering where to start and how to make it a success. We asked Denise to share her wisdom as well as the latest expert tips and best practices for running virtual events.

Q: How many years has the Mitel User Group Virtual Event been held?

A: This is our fourth year! It gets easier each year but generating new ideas on how to make it fresh and interesting keeps us on our toes.

Q: Why did you decide to hold a virtual event in the first place? What did you find appealing about the format?

A: We were reaching 100 to 130 end customers at our in-person events. Mitel has so much information to share, and we knew we had to find a way to engage with more people around the globe in a cost-effective manner. We knew that VMUG (VMware user group) had great success with virtual events, so we gave it a try.

Q: What would you say are the top reasons people attend a virtual event?

A: From my experience hosting both virtual and physical events, the attendees for each differ. In fact, that's why we host both types of events. We can reach a broader audience.

One of the main reasons people opt for virtual events is a lower barrier to attendance. For example, many of our customers work in government, non-profit and education. It's not easy for them to attend a lot of in-person events due to tighter budgets and more complex internal approvals for travel. Physical event fees, such as the price of entry, travel and accommodations, aren't always easy to get approved, especially if the request is made on short notice. A virtual event, on the other hand, is often free or low cost, and it only takes a few hours out of your day. Attendees (and their companies) get a high return on investment from educational and virtual networking standpoints.

Another major draw of virtual events is content. Organizers have access to a wider range of speakers because there's no travel involved, and schedules are more accommodating. Attendees put a high value on the opportunity to meet virtually with top experts. Likewise, they have a greater number of networking opportunities, because virtual events are more likely to attract a larger group of professionals from around the world.

Q: Your virtual events sometimes coincided with competing physical events. How did you shape the digital conference to be as appealing as a physical one?

A: One advantage of a virtual event is that attendees have the flexibility to participate in sessions of specific interest to them. They can step in and out of the conference based on interest level – without anyone watching. Their level of engagement is truly up to them.

To facilitate that flexibility, we provide attendees with a virtual briefcase. They can add content to review at a later time, so they can focus their attention on live chat with product experts and networking with other attendees via chatrooms.

In addition, our virtual event is open for 30 days, and our training center is packed with free training sessions. The ability to schedule a time to return at a later date to take classes is an added benefit that attracts attendees.

We also add an element of fun with gamification. Attendees earn points for engaging in activities, such as watching a session in the auditorium, chatting with a product expert or taking a class. There is a leader board so you can watch your points add up! All of these small benefits add up, generate excitement and make the total event a true success.

Q: What three elements are essential for a virtual event?

A: The first essential element is content. Plan to offer a variety of sessions that appeal to all levels of your audience. Some attendees may want to hear about the company strategy and attend roadmap sessions, while others want to talk to product experts. Some people want to focus on expanding their skill set through training classes and may enjoy an element of fun, such as earning points for prizes through session attendance. Your content should be broad and deep enough to appeal to all types of attendees. There must be something for everyone.

The second element is striking the right balance between static content and live engagement. You want to create a sense of energy and life, even though the event is virtual. Announcements and notifications of what's coming up next keep traffic flowing and attendees engaged.

The final element is perhaps the most critical. You need a strong project manager. With the exception of live sessions, almost everything is pre-loaded in a virtual environment. This means it's critical to hit deadlines. It takes roughly eight to 10 weeks to organize the Mitel User Group Virtual Event, and our project manager plays a vital role in ensuring we have everything loaded on time.

Q: What's the right length for a virtual event?

A: Virtual events, just like in-person ones, require energy and focus from attendees. I don't recommend making an event longer than an eight-hour day. If your agenda and content require more than eight hours, you may want to expand to a two-day event, so your attendees can get the most value without burning out.

The key is to make the event reflective of the type of engagement that's available for attendees. For example, we adjusted the length of the MUG virtual event this year because we added some compelling interactive options. The event is usually open for five hours. This year we have seven sponsors, a live appearance by Jay Leno and a new professional development session, so we extended the day to seven and a half hours. With a global pool of attendees, we expect people to step in and out of the event throughout the day based on time zones and other meetings they may have that day.

Q: As the COVID-19 era progresses, how will virtual events evolve?

A: As the months go on, people will get burned out from spending most of their days in front of a screen, consuming information. We (and hosts of all virtual events) will have to rise to the occasion and find new ways to engage and excite attendees. We are ready for the challenge and are excited to begin imagining how we will step up and adjust our game plan to keep people interested in coming back for more.

Q: What's important to attendees today that wasn't as critical before COVID-19?

A: In my opinion, being part of a community that shares your personal or business interests and challenges is more important than ever. The work environment has changed drastically due to COVID-19. Many companies rapidly shifted to remote working and now, weeks later, they're shifting again.

Virtual events, such as Mitel's, offer professionals the opportunity to ask questions and hear about the experiences of others. We're confident this type of exchange is invaluable based on attendance numbers in our user group, which has seen an increase of 105% in active members in the past four months when compared to the previous eight months. Clearly, there is a high level of interest in finding answers and support during this time.

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