Tips for Hosting a Virtual Conference

Tips for Hosting a Virtual Conference

Back in 2019 (seems like a forever ago), the team at the Centre for Crisis & Risk Communications (CCRC) was planning to host an in-person Crisis & Risk Communication conference in Vancouver, BC in the fall of 2020, #CRISISCON2020. We had confirmed a conference hosting facility, confirmed key-note speakers – including a preconference workshop with world-leading risk communication guru (my friend and mentor), Dr. Vincent Covello. Things had begun to shape up nicely…

February, 2020, the team collectively decided to postpone the upcoming September conference. We sadly saw the #COVID writing on the wall. If you’ve ever hosted a conference before, you will know that it is a lot of work and incurs a lot of expense. In our business, we focus a lot on risk and risk assessment and at that time our conference facility deposit was at risk – we just didn’t see that ever coming back.

Although we felt that we and our potential presenters would have much to share – conference planning was halted.

In consideration of the risks, and with a focus on the interest of attendees and presenters, we are postponing #CRISISCON2020

As COVID-19 discourse began to consume mainstream and social media channels, the CCRC began hosting #CrisisnCoffee. Crisis and Coffee was a weekly virtual coffee chat, open to anyone (emergency management and crisis communication professionals, or anyone that was interested) to simply “drop in” to have a virtual coffee. The intent of these weekly coffee chats was to support community by providing a place to ask for help, share a story, or simply decompress.

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Crisis and Coffee chats attracted a global audience and began to host guests including Dr. Covello, Dr. Hyer, Dr. Coombs, Amanda Coleman, Bob Jensen, Neil Zeller, Patrice Cloutier, and more. The coffee chats were awesome and picked up great momentum, ultimately inspiring Virtually CRISIS Conference.https://www.linkedin.com/embeds/publishingEmbed.html?articleId=7524769802750149836

May 2020, we decided that we would investigate the logistics required to host a conference virtually – the early but growing trend in response to a world impacted by COVID-19. At the time, many people were in engaging in webinar and meeting-style presentations. Virtual conferences were just starting to emerge. We were determined that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right!

Here, I summarize my tips (simply qualitative observations) for your consideration when hosting a virtual conference. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions of would like me to expand on a specific area.

Be sure that there is a need / desire / interest in your conference topic.

The online space has seemingly become inundated with online offerings including webinars, seminars, meetings, and conferences – many of them being offered at no cost. Organizing any of these types of events can be time consuming. So before beginning, be sure that your topic is of interest to your potential audience. Just because you build it, does not mean they will come. You should be able to answer, “What is in it for them (your audience)”?

Set a budget.

This was more challenging for me than originally anticipated. Early on, I had not given budget much consideration. Thinking that this was a virtual conference, I did not see expenses as much of a barrier – that quickly changed. The online conference / webinar space feels pretty saturated. As a result, predicting how many attendees would register (revenue to offset expenses) was a real challenge and was ultimately a “best guess scenario”. Be sure to give consideration to all potential expenses. These may include: ticketing service (Eventbrite, Regfox), conference delivery platform (Zoom, Teams, BlueJeans, Skype), marketing (social media ads, email distribution), participant gifts or honorariums, and studio equipment.

Home-based studio set-up

For Virtually CRISIS Conference, we used RegFox as the ticketing and payment gateway. RegFox also seamlessly integrated Zoom as the video platform. I opted for Zoom as the delivery platform because our presenters were located around the globe. Further, I wanted a platform that most people had become familiar with as there would be no “tech support” available to our presenters. Sometimes, simpler, is better. I created a “home studio” with proper lighting, lapel microphone, and OBS Studio ( a free open-sourced software platform which allowed us to create a professional looking delivery). We promoted the conference with our email newsletter, through partnerships with some amazing organizations, organic and paid social.

Determine your presenter / panelist / workshop line-up.

Dr. Vincent Covello and Dr. Deena Hinshaw in conversation during a panel discussion with Dr. Chris MacLennan and Dr. Chaseten Remillard

Be sure that who you are asking to present, participate as a panelist, and/or host a workshop supports the need / desire / interest of your conference. Try to make sure that your presenters and their material reflect the values of your organization. Although they may have their own business (and potentially be a competitor), your audience, is attending your conference, and are likely associate your presenters with your organization.

As this Virtually CRISIS Conference was hosted virtually, we were able to invite and host presenters from around the globe. Presenters and panelists were able to join us, virtually from locations including the UK, Qatar, Thailand, New York, and Washington.

I am still so humbled by the number of amazing and inspirational presenters and panelists that agreed (with enthusiasm) to participate in Virtually CRISIS Conference.

Set a price.

Setting the conference price was difficult. With what felt like so much competition out there for audience attention and much of it being offered at no cost, arriving at the conference price was not easy. I wanted the price to be reflective of the tremendous value that our presenters and panelists were delivering. This, needed to be balanced with making the conference accessible to many. I also had to take into consideration rapidly shrinking professional development and training budgets. A price was set that we felt appropriately reflected the overall conference value. A significant early-bird discount was applied and multiple additional discount options were created to help make Virtually CRISIS Conference more accessible to anyone who wanted to attend.

Build your team.

The hub, supporting the studio.

In-person conferences require a team effort. So do virtual conferences. We were fortunate to have a great team help deliver what became a full two-day global conference. Much like crisis communication planning, be sure that everyone on your team has a role and clearly understands their responsibilities. Most important to me, was that one of our team members was accountable for watching the attendees box for presenters and panelists that were “arriving” into the Zoom platform. They were greeted with a welcome message and instructions before they were upgraded from attendee to panelist. Other roles included management of the Q&A box, the chat box, providing summaries of key points, time keeper, and social media monitoring.

Schedule your conference.

There has been a sentiment out there of people being “Zoomed out”. Some suggest that online meetings, training, webinars, etc, should not exceed two or two and half hours. That makes planning a two-day conference a bit challenging. Give consideration however, that unlike an in-person conference, your virtual audience will likely not “tune in” for the whole conference. They will likely simply review the schedule and pick and choose which presentation(s) they want to hear in real-time and will come and go. There is an expectation with online conferences, that all presentations and panel discussions will be recorded and made available to participants post conferences.

I also had to give consideration to the location and time zones of presenters and our potential audience. With presenters and audience joining us from coast to coast and from overseas, the timing had to be right. I elected to build the conference schedule in the Eastern Time Zone with overseas presenters scheduled early on in the program.

Consider something social.

It will likely be some time before in-person conferences return. Virtual conferences are likely going to be sticking around for a long while. Although there appears to be many advantages to the virtual conference idea, a big element that remains missing is social and networking interactions. No matter how great of a job is done in organizing a virtual conference, there is no real substitute for face-to-face interactions such as a handshake, a hug, a toast, and some laughter.

Where possible, attempt to build in some sort of a social opportunity for both your presenters and attendees. Picking up on our previous Crisis n Coffee theme, Virtually CRISIS Conference hosted a Crisis n Cocktails hours at the conclusion of the first day. In this session, all attendees were promoted to panelist so everyone could freely interact with each other. The conversation was delightful.

Have a back up plan.

Even though you may have conducted a technical test or technical review, always have a back up plan. Your back up plan should consider a “back door” way for presenters and attendees to get into the conference. Be sure to have an extra presentation or presenter ready to go, in case a scheduled presenter is unexpectedly absent. Be ready to respond to any sort of technical issue.

System failure resulted in reliance on an ipad mini for conference conclusion

Fortunately, during Virtually CRISIS Conference, we had a few devices logged into the Zoom platform, all upgraded to the status of co-host. Co-host status provides many, but not all of the same functions available to the host.

As we were nearing the end of the conference (one and half presentations to go), the computer system that was hosting Virtually Crisis Conference went dark. The Zoom capability was still running but computer function was absent. Rebooting the system would have “kicked” everyone off of Zoom – so that was a non-option. Fortunately, I had an ipad mini logged into the conference which had been assigned as a co-host. We were able to bring the conference to conclusion… on the ipad mini.

Overall, I am so happy of the outcome of Virtually CRISIS Conference. I have been asked if this will become an annual event. At this point, I am just not sure. I suppose, we still need to watch what is happening in the world and gauge, to my first point, if what we have to share still satisfies an audiences need / desire/ interest.

I discovered that there were many strengths and opportunities to hosting a virtual conference and at the same time note many limitations. I am so grateful to all of our presenters, panelists and workshop hosts for their support in what I am calling a great growth opportunity. That said, I am happy to share further insight, should you (my reader) have any additional curiosities.

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