Lessons Learned Hosting a Virtual Conference

How do we congregate in the lounge after hours? How do we greet new conference acquaintances? How do we hug our friends? How do we tell our friends that we can't hug them?

It was mid-March and nobody was adept yet at sheltering in place, to say nothing of furthering careers or appreciating finer parts of life. My colleagues in event planning were like dominoes, with each topple casting new light upon our collective fate. I was undeterred, and just a few months prior had proclaimed “The day I host a virtual conference is the day I retire.” No, as the standard bearer of the presentation industry, the Presentation Summit would show everyone how to safely hold an in-person conference during this crisis. Hand sanitizers everywhere. People sitting every other chair in seminar ballrooms. No buffets at our receptions. We could do this!

Then we went a bit deeper: how do we have lunch together? How do we congregate in the lounge after hours? How do we greet new conference acquaintances? How do we hug our friends? How do we tell our friends that we can’t hug them?

That, as they say, was the last straw. The notion that we would ask all of our longtime conference friends and a whole crop of first-times to fly in from everywhere, convene in one place, and not even be able to shake hands? With that grim reality came a new proclamation: “It took a global pandemic to make me hold an online conference. Now that we’re there, we’re going to host the best damn one anyone has ever seen.”

We will leave it to others to determine whether we met that lofty objective, but having attended dozens of virtual conferences in the last four months, and now having survived our own, here is what we think we did right, what we learned from the experience, and what we wish we could have done better.

Short Days and Short Seminars

When we host the Presentation Summit at a destination, we go from 8:00a straight until 6:00p, then we ask people to return after dinner, whereupon we have programming that often goes until midnight.

Might that work for a virtual conference? Not even close. We concluded that we could ask our audience to sit and listen for a maximum of four hours, and then only if we held shorter seminars than the standard hour and offer numerous breaks. We got into the following routine:

8:30a: Host greeting (15 min)
8:45a: Keynote address (30 min)
9:15a: Break (15 min)
9:30a: First breakout (45 min)
10:15: Break
10:30: Second breakout
11:15: Break
11:30: Daily Dish (conversation with a luminary, 15 min)
12:00: Something interactive, fun, and open-ended (trivia contest, 3D field trip, Zoom geekfest, etc.)

We were pleased with this schedule, but we turfed the entire Pacific Rim and Far East. One never has to worry about time zones with an in-person conference, only jet lag. But our schedule required the Far East to tune in after midnight and go until after 4:00a. We had hoped to return in our early evening and offer them a morning session, but we just couldn’t get it together. All sessions were recorded, and anyone the world over could easily catch up and watch when convenient. Nonetheless, we were left with the feeling that we had turned half the world’s population into second-class citizens.

The other issue, perhaps just a bit less grave, was that our end-of-day happy hours were taking place well before 5:00p. That’s me along the top of the Zoom wall drinking a celebratory marg at the conclusion of the event. At 11:30a. Maybe that’s why we were too fried to do anything by the evening.

Virtual conferences embody the expression, “Well, it’s 5:00 somewhere.”

Everything Live

By early summer, I had attended enough virtual conferences to satisfy a lifetime allotment, and my single biggest takeaway from those experiences was to resist at all costs recording seminars ahead of time and broadcasting them as playbacks. Some of the conferences that implemented that tried to spin it as a bonus that the presenters gets to be part of the Chat, enabling audience members to have dual streams of interaction with them. Others tried to pass off the recordings as live, advertising exclusive green-room time with the presenters afterward. One charged extra for this VIP privilege of actually speaking with the presenter.

No. Just no.

The virtual seminar experience is isolating enough; the last thing I would ever want to do is to add the most isolating layer of all — that of a pre-recorded message. We made it clear to our entire presenting team that they would be communicating live with their audience members, just as if they were in the room with them. If something blows up, we try to fix it and move on. If a microphone dies or a computer crashes, we replace them and move on. If a lawn mower starts up outside, we apologize and continue. Dogs barking because of Amazon delivery people ringing doorbells, c’est la vie.

The downside? Unimaginable stress over way too many moving parts. On more than one occasion, I envied my colleagues who described for me how they busted their humps to get all of the recordings in ahead of time so that they could then relax during the conference. Had we been more prudent and prepared, we would have required at least our keynoters to have recordings available as backups. Of the hundred and one things that we didn’t have time or resources to do, this would have gone on that pile.

The stress was worth it, however — every patron who offered feedback said they appreciated the presence and vitality of live seminars. There was one exception, which you can watch below. I could have done it live but chose not to. And I could have told people that it was pre-recorded, but I chose not to.

The one pre-record: the morning greeting from the third hole.

Not Just a Bunch of Zooms

As miraculous as it has been for our staying in touch during Covid, as wonderful a business tool as it has proven to be, we could not imagine just sending people off to Zoom windows, one after the other. Please use this long, convoluted URL at 9:00a and then this equally unintelligible URL an hour later. I didn’t know what, but I knew we needed something more cohesive than that. The other problem with Zoom is that control primarily resides with the audience, not with the presenter. You don’t decide how big your video window is or what the configuration of the layout is, your audience gets to decide that. Not that we’re control freaks…well, okay, we are control freaks, and you know what, you want us to be. That’s our responsibility, and hopefully our expertise, to determine the best environment for a learning experience. When to go full screen, when to show the presenter next to her slides, and how big. That’s our job and Zoom makes it next to impossible to do.

The firm we hired for technical services, TLC Creative, steered us toward Streamyard, a service that teams with Vimeo and YouTube to provide a digital broadcast studio. This was the kind of control that we were envisioning, whereby we decide what is shown, when, and in what proportion. These streams were all embedded in our conference platform and made available much like the programming guide from your cable television service.

This was all much more complicated than Zoom, requiring that our presenting team undergo tutorials and attend rehearsals. In the rehearsal session below, Troy Chollar from TLC Creative is in the studio with Summit presenter Nolan Haims, while other members of the presenting team are watching on Zoom. Troy’s screen is being shared and the three video windows are sized and placed according to one of seven presets created for the conference. A dedicated broadcast manager is “backstage” managing the images and the stream.

Broadcasting a virtual studio is not quite like using Zoom. Presenters needed to learn a new paradigm and rehearse.

In addition to the learning curve, the other implication of creating a studio like this is a bit of isolation for the presenters. Like a conventional broadcast studio, there is a significant delay, between 10 and 20 seconds, before the signal reaches audience members, making it impossible for the presenter to interact with them. See the next section about the value of good meeting hosts.

Zoom certainly had its place at the Presentation Summit — we used it for informal and more interactive events, such as panels and discussion groups, the trivia contest, our fabled Guru Session, and end-of-the-day schmoozes, where we all just hung out and gabbed. A far cry from what we would have done in person, but after months of sheltering, our veteran patrons who hadn’t seen their conference buddies all year treated it like a gift from the heavens.

Strong Monitoring

Just like you would not want to lead a Zoom or Teams seminar without a moderator, we came to consider our moderators to be indispensable. We hired seven of them, and they became the primary conduits between presenter and audience. At first, we had no idea what we were asking of them, and they said yes as if we were asking them to turn the lights on and off in a physical ballroom. We all learned together how much more involved it was.

First off, we didn’t call them moderators — we referred to them as meeting hosts, and we asked that they start the session on camera in order to proffer a proper introduction for each seminar leader. Then it was off to the Chat for them to follow everything that our patrons were saying. Was the audio too loud or too soft, were presenters covering material too quickly or too slowly, did people understand how to merge those two shapes in PowerPoint, what colors comprised the palette for a template, which microphones to choose for webinars…anything and everything.

At the same time, they needed to be listening to their presenters in case they wanted to invoke a poll, ask their opinion on something, or just have a dialogue. This required that the hosts live in two time zones: they needed to listen to the presenter in real time while simultaneously monitoring the Chat from people who were listening 20 seconds in the past. To bring questions to the presenters, they would place themselves on the Streamyard set and interact in real time, before returning to the time-warped Chat. They worked almost as hard as the presenters and we felt so guilty for initially asking them if they would do this “favor” for us, we ultimately gave them sizable raises.

Our technical team was wary of allowing anyone backstage not familiar with a digital studio environment; their normal practice was to have one of their own bring questions to the presenters via a private chat panel that only the presenters see. We wanted that relationship to be more collegial and personal. All of the meeting hosts are friends and longtime colleagues of the presenters and that rapport was felt by all. We are glad we insisted and TLC Creative reports that they now recommend this approach to their other clients. Anything that brings more interactivity, more human interaction, and more voices to the experience is appreciated by virtual audiences, and our meeting hosts demonstrated all of those important qualities.

Seminar hosts had responsibilities nearly as significant as the presenters.

From the Comfort of Home

When I committed to the Summit being more than just a collection of Zoom seminars, I was faced with a dilemma: what do I do with my own presence? I envisioned myself as the conference equivalent to Bob Costas hosting the Olympics: seated on a stool, in a studio, next to a monitor, ready to speak to personalities, tee up events, and introduce others. In fact, I spoke to several local broadcast studios to consider renting time there.

But that felt like it would be a disconnect, given that the rest of my presenting team would be streaming from their homes and most attendees would be watching from their homes. So I concluded that we would convert our family room into a makeshift studio, replete with stool, sofa chair, and flat-panel display.

From TV room to TV studio — the transformation of our virtual Conference Central.

The six stages shown above represent an entire day of redecorating and setup by our technical team. Our dog Coco was particularly happy at all of the toys and smells that we unearthed from below the removed couch.

Troy Chollar of TLC Creative did an outstanding job with lighting and getting me to look reasonably professional, and the overall look was indeed the cross between homey and polished that I sought. But as you can see from the photo below, managing all of the daylight from multiple family room windows was impossible. The reflections on the LED look like modern art. On balance, this was time well spent and I would do it again if presented with the opportunity.

Our cobbled-together studio was just slick enough to not be too corny.

Lots of Spamming

Veteran Summit patrons will note, with bemusement and perhaps a friendly eye roll, the volume of email that they receive leading up to each event. I send out individually addressed emails to every patron, starting two weeks out, and then every single day the week prior. I speak about the venue, about our daily schedule, about opportunities to participate, and I offer a what-to-expect guide for first-time attendees. I believe this to be worth the effort, as patrons arrive on site feeling as if they already belong to the conference community, and believing, for better or worse, that they already know me.

There is a prevailing belief that this is not required for a virtual event, that attendees are not interested in engaging in the same way. To that end, many conference platforms offer half-baked email services offering only generic welcome and thank-you emails. All of this sews the impression that conference organizers do not need to communicate with those who register to attend. Attendees don’t need directions, advice on how to travel, how to get from the airport, what to pack, where to go once they check in, etc. An email with a link to click is all they need.

I call BS on all of that. I believe a virtual experience makes it more important than ever to communicate earnestly. People know how to get to a hotel and follow signs to a ballroom; those are well-practiced maneuvers. But connect to a virtual conference? Register? Log in? Create a profile? Build a schedule? There is nothing familiar about any of that, so in addition to lots of emails, we created an entire online help website for attendees, exhibitors, staff, and presenters.

A virtual conference was foreign to so many, we created an entire online help system.

Furthermore, opportunities to network and meet others are so much more fleeting with a virtual conference. A few dozen of them might join us for end-of-day Zoom schmoozes; most won’t. We hope that everyone will be active in the Chats; most won’t. For a majority of the people attending, their rapport with me is all the connection they will get. So the obligation is mine to make that connection as strong as possible, and that translated into the perceived need to communicate every day leading up to the event, starting five days out. I’m sure there were some — just wanting to get in, watch a few seminars, and leave — who found this annoying, and we were willing to accept that collateral damage.

The platform that we chose, Swapcard, offers a reasonably well-conceived email engine, but the reply address was hard coded as a generic address so nobody could reply back to me. That was unacceptable, so I used our own homegrown registration database for this correspondence. I am accustomed to sending out individual emails en masse from there, but the registration pattern for a virtual conference made this exceptionally challenging. With an in-person event, the week before a conference is pretty quiet — we might take two or three registrations. That means that I am emailing to a stable group of recipients.

But this year, we took over 125 registrations in the six days leading up to the event, meaning that we not only had to make sure that those folks connected to the platform, we also needed to get them into our database…all while dealing with the myriad and various 350 last-minute items commanding our attention. This had me yearning for an email system built-in to the platform, like the one that I rejected because of the reply-address deficiency. Knowing what I know now, I might soften my position on that.

Have a Music Track

If you want to create an impression that a virtual conference is more than the sum of its parts and that there is a there there, nothing does that like music during the breaks and when coming in and out of segments. I wasn’t sure if it was legal for me to just play from Spotify or if I had to find royalty-free (aka dull and dreadfully boring) music. What I really wanted to do was pay homage to one of my favorite bands from the 1970s and 80s and sprinkle in Earth, Wind & Fire throughout the conference. Their music is distinctive, thematic, and decidedly uptempo — all the things I would want for interludes.

I was pleased that rightsholder Sony Records treated me like a non-profit (I did describe us in notably impoverished terms) and charged me just $25 per song. This was a big hit, and not just with the boomers; I was pleasantly surprised to discover how many young patrons know of Philip Bailey and the White brothers and how much singing along and grooving in chairs we saw during Zoom events.

Never Again, Please

These efforts all paid off — the Presentation Summit community felt as if it did come together this year, despite the extraordinary constraints and conditions imposed upon us. Also, we learned a whole lot of new things, and at my age, that is not trivial. There is considerable pride to be taken in being able to service a group of people who had no idea what to do and to do it with technology we had no idea how to use.

Despite all of these successes, a virtual conference pales in comparison to an in-person experience, and I passionately hope that by next fall, September 26-29 to be exact, we will be able to welcome everyone back to the real thing.

If you are planning your own virtual conference, we would be happy to discuss with you how you can learn from our experiences. Contact us at info@betterpresenting.com for a free consultation.

You can see for yourself what the 2020 Presentation Summit felt like — not to mention learn from the foremost experts in the presentation industry — as the entire platform remains open for business. All keynotes and seminars will be available for on-demand viewing, clear through until February 2021. Furthermore those who register for the 2021 event can attend the 2020 virtual conference for the ridiculous price of just $149. For complete details, visit the Virtual Summit website.

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