Rising to the occasion
Virtual conferences become the new norm for meeting planners
Under normal circumstances, event planners put together conferences by assessing the needs of their clients and then figuring out the logistics: the venue’s size, the agenda and, of course, the expected turnout of attendees.
As with everything else, this normal routine has been upended by the coronavirus. The new normal is digital conferences and in-person events with limited capacity and social distancing. This initially threw many organizations and planners for a loop, but in a field where flexibility is fundamental, event planning professionals are adjusting.
Jessie States, director of Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International’s MPI Academy, which offers continuing education and certificate programs for meeting and event planners, says that before COVID-19 she would work with clients to discuss whether they wanted to weave virtual aspects into in-person conferences. Now, the question isn’t if events are going to be virtual but how to keep remote conference attendees engaged.
“We try to find the right platform for what we’re trying to accomplish, so that means not all of our digital agencies are going to be used the same way,” States says. “Sometimes that is hosting weekly webinars, or we host digital summits that can be half a day or a whole day long.”
MPI is using avatar-based platforms such as VirBELA (which looks a bit like the video game “The Sims”) to increase engagement. Attendees create a personalized avatar to interact with others in an immersive 3-D space, with the hope of creating a more connective experience.
The team behind Henrico County-based Convention Connections Inc. (CCI) can attest to the sudden ubiquity of remote and hybrid-style conferences, as they’ve had to quickly incorporate more technology into conferences and figure out how to safely comply with various in-person regulations throughout the country. CCI is run by husband-wife duo Marty and Diane Malloy. Diane was named the 2019 Virginia Meeting Professional of the Year, a collaboration between Virginia Business magazine and the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association. CCI is responsible for planning many large conferences, from the VA-1 Tourism Summit to the annual CrimeCon, a national gathering of true crime fans.
“The tough thing about the virus is that everyone is looking at it from their own visor,” Marty Malloy says. “We organize conferences across the country, so we have to change up the extent of the digital model based on state and local regulations.”
Some of CCI’s clients have never incorporated digital technology into their conferences before this year, which has meant building new working relationships with clients’ IT teams. While event cancellations due to the coronavirus are no longer shocking — and shifting to digital is now anticipated — most CCI clients are hoping to return to business as usual.
“It’s a combination of cancellations with moves to next year, and then if you can’t put the conference on [in-person], then you go the virtual route,” he says. “But the one thing I am hearing from most clients is that they can’t wait to get back to in-person events.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many clients and event planners alike.
“Nothing can replace in-person networking, and there is going to be a huge surge” of traditional conferences after the pandemic, States predicts. “When that happens, we will have a huge opportunity to stay better connected.”
However, the current shift to digital is proving a teachable moment on how to expand the reach and impact of conferences.
Ariel Cole is the special events manager at the Reynolds Community College Educational Foundation Inc. in Richmond and the former president of the MPI Virginia Chapter. This spring, she created a virtual commencement ceremony.
“It was a challenge of translating a personal and pivotal experience to a meaningful virtual experience,” Cole says. “One way we were able to do that was by working with different vendors to create personal slides for our students as their names were called.”