July 2020 Blog Melissa

The Pivot to Virtual Meetings and Events

The value of face-to-face interactions will never go away, but we are facing an unprecedented time in history that is forcing us to pivot toward virtual events.

What I have found in the last three months is that there are hundreds of different virtual event platforms from which to choose. There are high-end platforms built to mirror the live conference. You can navigate through all the rooms—the lobby, lounge, conference room, etc. as you would as if you were really there. At the other end of the spectrum, some others simply offer an agenda with pre-recorded or live speaker sessions. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to use as each are quite different. Selecting the technology is secondary. What needs to come first is to decide what the virtual program needs to achieve for the attendees. Figure this out first, then this will help narrow down the stack of virtual event platform options.

  • Is the event one day, or multiday?
  • Is there a need for an exhibit hall?
  • How about engagement such as Chat and Polling capabilities?
  • Are you planning a virtual event that also needs to offer multiple content options simultaneously or are you offering multiple single content experiences?
  • If your event is providing CE/CME credits? The analytics tool that many platforms offer will be useful. This data is available for a set time after the event date and it shows which sessions that the attendee participated it. It also can help your exhibitors collect data from each attendee who visited their booth.

Planning a virtual event requires the same care and attention as an in-person event.  A lot of event planners I’ve talked to on industry forums mention there's a big misconception that virtual events are easier to run than in-person events. What I’m learning is that it’s just as important to over-prepare for your virtual event as it is to produce an in-person event.

While there may not be the food and beverage, venue, rooming lists, and logistics to manage, the technical, communications and overall experience for virtual events requires just as much, if not more, effort than an in-person event. We might need to spend time helping presenters familiarize themselves with the technology and provide pointers on how to pre-record sessions, or do practice runs for the live sessions.  Additionally, we may now need to assist the exhibiting vendors and the sponsors on how to upload their logo, content, and other information into the software.

Attendees who are new to experiencing an event on a computer or mobile device instead of in-person may expect it to be a lesser experience, but it doesn’t have to be. This is our time to be creative and innovative. Afterall, a virtual event without networking and engagement is just a webinar. Some ways to enhance the attendee experience is to offer gamification, networking and F/B during the event.

  • This can be in the form of a leaderboard game. The attendee can get a prize for accumulating the most points by completing their profile, live chat with another attendee, or visiting an exhibitor virtual booth.
  • There is a tool called ‘Icebreaker’ that allows sponsors to "sponsor a break" and create questions for attendees to discuss.  Additionally, some of the platforms offer networking lounges.
  • If your attendees generally receive food and beverage as part of the live event, this can still be incorporated with a virtual event by using Uber Eats or Grub Hub. Both of these companies work with associations to set up accounts specific to an event. A per person monetary cap can be set, you would select the time to send the electronic gift card to each attendee, and set the timeframe that the attendee can use it.

Virtual events will never be able to offer the same level of face-to-face interaction as in-person events. That being said, there are many benefits. For instance, it can involve a larger audience since it could capture attendees who were not able to make it to a live event, and the sessions can be recorded for use of future paid on-demand sessions.

While current circumstances necessitate going virtual, having a strong team in place will mean a pivot to digital can be an alternative you have full confidence in, and one you can trust to deliver the engaging, informative experiences to the association attendees.


Melissa Striharsky is a Program Coordinator at McKenna Management, Inc. She brings with her over 20 years of customer service and event management experience, which she acquired while serving in a variety of roles in the fast-paced hospitality industry. Melissa previously worked as the Senior Event Manager at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA, planning and orchestrating 100+ weddings per year. Outside of providing high-quality membership and event support for her clients, Melissa enjoys traveling, reading, gardening, spending time with family, going on hikes, and planning for the next adventure with her husband-to-be.