The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated our dependence upon virtual spaces in order to be able to continue to work and connect. While we all of course look forward to returning to live events when it is safe and practical to do so, difficult times call for innovative measures, and organizations are learning to deliver events that can provide meaningful, educational experiences for attendees while also avoiding Zoom fatigue.
For example, in October, PRSA and PRSSA presented ICON 2020, the first all-virtual International Conference for both organizations. We weren’t in Nashville as planned, but rather than simply present a series of Zoom sessions, the event effectively simulated a “live” experience. From the lobby entrance to the keynoters and networking opportunities, the may offerings helped elevate it beyond the “traditional” virtual event.
A key element to its success, and one that can serve other organizations well, was the integration of popular and familiar events, such as award ceremonies and a virtual exhibit expo, that members expect to experience. In addition, throughout the conference, the gamification aspect of rewarding attendees for finding objects hidden in the screen was, and can be for others, a creative way to keep everyone engaged as well as support some friendly competition.
In spite of the challenges that virtual events present, they also provide opportunities that strictly live events cannot. For example, conference organizers have opportunities to host speakers from throughout the world who would normally not be able to travel to the event. And a conference’s attendee base can also greatly expand, delivering direct access to content available to an international audience now more likely to attend.
When planning a conference, networking is one of the most difficult experiences to duplicate. It is therefore imperative that organizers consider the most effective ways to simulate those interactions and encourage making connections that will last past the conference itself. Creative uses of social media platforms can help conference attendees initiate and maintain frequent contact. Event organizers have the opportunity to recreate in-person activities such as a photo booth, virtual happy hours and exhibit halls online, each tailored to specific audiences. A shareable Instagram post and catchy hashtag can also provide opportunities to stay motivated and connected.
Cost is another aspect to keep at the forefront of virtual event planning. While many travel and/or in-person costs are eliminated, monetary factors unique to virtual events, such as choosing a host platform, must be factored into budgets.
While there is encouraging news regarding the development of effective vaccines, virtual conferences will continue to be essential events in order to protect everyone’s health and safety. It might be possible to attend an in-person gathering sometime in 2021, but it is very likely that it will also contain hybrid elements for those still unwilling or unable to travel.
For most of 2020, conference planners have, out of necessity, created new opportunities to help foster inspiration and enthusiasm at a time when people need it most. These innovations will continue to inform events as we slowly but surely emerge from this pandemic and are able to truly meet and greet each other again.
Jaliana Griesbach is a junior at Boston University studying public relations and political science. She currently serves as the Conference Coordinator for Boston University’s PRSSA chapter and as an Account Supervisor at PRLab. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Rachel Meltzer is a junior at the University of Oklahoma studying public relations, nonprofit studies and arts management. She currently serves as the National Vice President of Events and Fundraising for PRSSA and as the Research Director for Lindsey+Asp Agency. Connect with her on LinkedIn.