Engage or Die: Behind the Scenes of Running a Virtual Summit

After the COVID pandemic cancelled in-person events and conferences, organizers scrambled to go virtual. However, people quickly realized that simply having someone talk over zoom was not the same experience. Instead, organizers needed to build a better system to put on virtual events. As the Executive Director of the Peerscale community, I knew we had to put on a virtual event that was just as fun as our previous in-person summits. And in partnership with event organizer Lori D’Agostino, the President and Senior Event Producer at Momento Events, we managed to do just that. We moved our entire Peerscale retreat into a 3-day virtual summit, and got great feedback from attendees. 

In this article, I want to peel back the curtain on the planning process and share the lessons we learned from Lori in the planning process, throughout the event, and overall as the event loops into our community building efforts.

The planning process

Here were some of the best pieces of advice she provided that helped us plan the event with relative ease. 

Know what you want out of it: For us, events are all part of the Peerscale community, a network of CEOs at scaling tech companies. While content is critical, there has to be opportunity for people to meet, network, and have fun. Our in-person events are focused on fun as much as engagement content, so our virtual event had to be the same. 

Give yourself time: Lori recommended at least 8 weeks lead time allowance for a summit of our size (3 days of content), and I’m grateful we listened. It allowed time to coordinate schedules, order swag bags, book speakers, and deal with random delays as they popped up. 

Set up your virtual stage properly: We realized early on that we needed real infrastructure to promote the networking, engagement, and the fun we wanted to plan. In our case, we got lucky: Peerscale member Eventmobi has a fantastic platform, not only for managing registration but also  for hosting remote summits, so we got the chance to support one of our own. 

Plan messaging ahead of time: Most summits have three key times pre-event to send out messages: launch announcement, registration reminders, and pre-event communications. Lori helped us use all three opportunities to their maximum potential, highlighting not only the great content as we confirmed it but also the fun things we had planned (think: virtual yoga, mixology class, scavenger hunts and more). 

Leverage swag to encourage engagement: For our virtual summit, we sent out swag bags ahead of time. Inside, though, it wasn’t just pamphlets from sponsors. We included all the things that people would need to engage in the fun activities as much as the content for our event. For example, we included a mixology prep bag with all the ingredients necessary to take part in our virtual mixology class. 

During-event engagement

While you’re planning for these elements beforehand, it’s critical to think about what you want to happen during the event. 

Get creative on engagement opportunities: Because you’re remote, you can do a lot more. We had virtual scavenger hunts, mixology classes, cooking classes, yoga, and even celebrity cameo videos to add some levity to the event. 

Embed engagement throughout: We added engagement opportunities wherever we could, including: live polling or gamification during talks, live Q&A, upvoting proposed questions, breakout rooms, and 1:1 and direct message chats. We even layered engagement, putting some gamification or a Q&A within a breakout session, for example. 

Go the extra mile to delight attendees: Since most of Peerscale’s membership is in the Toronto area, we collected meal preferences ahead of time and had lunch delivered to our attendees just in time for the Lunch & Learn one day. That way people really felt like the conference was coming to them as opposed to simply them staring at a computer screen. 

Mix paid and unpaid speakers: If you have a paid speaker budget, leverage it for big name speakers that can draw in more attendees. With remote summits, you might even be able to get a higher level speaker since many will have a travel rate and a remote rate. If you aren’t paying (some) speakers, make sure they are getting clear value in some other way (promotion, etc). If a speaker isn’t paid and gets no value, you risk having dull content. 

Community requires background work

In trying to build community virtually, we learned there are a lot of little things that help ‘grease the wheels,’ so to speak, of networking and engagement:

  • Emcees can save the day: Virtual summits have an incredibly low barrier to leaving. So if something goes wrong or you have a technical glitch, an emcee can jump in at a moment’s notice to keep everyone engaged or guide the conversation. Our event emcee Tony Chapman of Chatter That Matters was just the guy to be our event quarterback and we couldn’t be more pleased with the decision to have him host our summit.
  • Virtual event managers are critical: Just like in-person, you need someone whose entire job is just to get speakers queued up, change slides, and keep the operations and admin running in the background. 
  • Plan for when people want to engage: Our experience found that a 2-day summit seems to be the ideal length for remote events, and that people prefer to engage in the afternoons and evenings. This may be different for your community, though – the key is to gather this feedback and adjust for the future.  

As you run virtual events, remember that you need to plan for the ways that people like to engage online. Simply putting a technological wall where there used to be a conference centre won’t cut it. We were lucky at Peerscale to work with a fantastic event organizer, and highly recommend working with a professional if you don’t have that knowledge in-house. Regardless, remember that events are supposed to be fun as much as they are about learning. Put that in the forefront of your mind as you plan, and hopefully you’ll see some amazing outcomes. 

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