Virtual conferences in the New Norm
Many businesses and people are waiting for COVID-19 to be over. They want business to return to normal. I have bad news for you. It won’t. By the time there is a vaccine that enables things to function as they did last year, too much time will have past and people will be used to the “new normal” and its new benefits. Businesses that chose to wait will have disappeared by then. Even if they survive, they will be behind and won’t be able to compete.
It’s time to pivot.
Conferences are an integral part of doing business. How many businesses and industries have been clobbered by COVID? There are many companies and sales reps that get all of their leads and sales from one or two shows for the entire year. The inability to attend a conference, expo, summit, or trade show has been catastrophic for them.
I love conferences. The people, the knowledge, and the buzz are what I crave. I attended my first virtual conference this week. There were quite a few bugs, but I give them kudos for jumping in feet first to make it happen. I expected some bugs in this new experience. The audience seemed to take it in stride when the bugs happened. We adjusted. We were happy to be there to get our conference fix.
The three-day event was the VRARA Global Summit. VR/ARA stands for Virtual Reality (VR) Augmented Reality (AR) Association. They said NO to canceling and said YES to taking on a hybrid event. You may expect a pretty seamless experience with this technologically advanced industry. Not so. Bugs should be expected when doing anything new.
It was hosted at Hopin.to. This is a relatively new platform that is an all-in-one platform that gives an event a reception area, stage, networking possibilities, sessions, booths, and registration. They are filling a need that will become more mainstream as we enter into our “new normal.”
Here are a few take-aways from my conference experience.
WHAT WAS GREAT
Open to everyone
They expanded their audience and made the sessions accessible to non-VR users. Everyone could access a normal web page that provided access to the event areas. Some tickets were free and the paid tickets gave access to different levels with exclusive sessions.
The format was pretty good for a new platform. The “stage” was a zoom-type of situation. Some sessions had a panel of moderators while others had presentations with slides or videos. The videos did not skip! By clicking a networking button, you could meet and talk with other people. There was a Chat area on the side. A speed dating feature allowed for meetings to take place and contacts to be made for future business.
Speakers were there from all over the globe. From Italy to Korea, they zoomed in to conduct their talks. There were speakers from different sides of the world in the same presentation.
Sponsors and vendors had their own space/page. The Expo button slid to a page with the “booths.” When a “booth” button was selected, a video could play with a clip about their product or business OR you could enter a live zoom-type situation where you could have a conversation with the rep. The portal allowed an attendee to ask questions, get demos, or download material…all without having to lug around 10 pounds of literature.
It was very convenient to be able to work while attending the conference. During the time between sessions, work could be done and then paused when a session began. Tons of money was saved without hotels, rental cars, and flights. Let’s not forget about the savings from the expensive downtown meals or $5.00 bottles of water.
Big companies with large budgets are usually the ones who can afford to send their people to these types of events. COVID has dramatically shrunk their budgets as income has been slash with closures. This conference offered a free ticket. This opened the doors to a new audience that is curious but would not have normally attended. Less overhead can open the possibilities of lower ticket costs and provide access to new markets.
Having a venue can be costly. Big companies may send people to several events a year. What if you want to go on to an event that is not sanctioned by the company you work for? What if you have an interest in an industry that is not within your current employment? Tickets for most conferences are beyond the budget of small entrepreneurs and the general public. How many of us have an extra $5,000 laying around for a business event? In addition, there is the cost of taking the time to go. If you are lucky enough to have two weeks of paid vacation leave per year, it usually gets spent on a vacation with the family, not at a conference.
A virtual event is only limited only by its bandwidth. This is a great opportunity to expand your audience and provide additional value for your vendors.
WHAT WAS NOT SO GREAT
There was a nifty schedule feature where you could select the session that you wanted to attend and it would keep a list for you. This would have been great except that the real schedule was wacked. Times and sessions were all over the place. You didn’t know when the “stage” would go live with the next session or what session would play next. The “stage” needed to be on the entire time. You could not do anything without fear that you would miss the next one.
Speakers did not know when they were live. Some of them would stare at the screen because they were unaware that they were live. We would watch as they were tried to figure out if they were live. Other speakers didn’t figure out that they were NOT live until the end and were surprised that they had been talking to thin air the entire time. It was possible that some speakers may have been ignorant that they were not live and that was the reason why there were so many dead times without any speakers. The platform needs to add a red light or some other obvious cue for the speakers.
There were speaker functions that would stop their presentation such as flipping to answer questions in the Chat. This could be jarring and if it took several minutes for the speaker to reconnect, the session could appear to be over when it wasn’t.
Speakers were constantly being cut off. They would be in the middle of their wrap-up or transitioning to questions and …poof… they were gone. Many of them were in the part of their presentation where they were giving valuable contact and company information leaving the audience to search for that information on their own. It would have been one thing if their time was up, but nothing would play afterward.
The time was UTC time zone. It flipped to my time zone on the second day. It was a challenge that could be worked out in the future.
An audience is valuable. It can be difficult acquiring their time and attention. When you do have it, don’t waste it. There were multiple times that nothing played on the “stage” for 20–30 minutes. This was wasted time that could have been filled by presentations that were spooled up and ready to play if a presenter did not make an appearance.
Presenters should have a training session and live practice several days before the event. This would ensure fewer dead times as well as adding to the speaker’s confidence level. It is already nerve racking to be a presenter without technical issues. Technical issues can throw off your concentration and waylay a carefully prepared presentation. In addition, it can be a little embarrassing to be a tech person and not know you are live.
If you are planning on hosting a conference, make sure someone is always monitoring the speaker channels and can move quickly to provide content if the speaker fails to log in. This monitor can contact someone to assist the speaker if they are experiencing difficulties.
The “booth” buttons on a web page was better than nothing at all. However, a 360 space with the booths on the concourse would have given the attendees more of a conference feeling. Links could be placed on each booth to download materials, view a video, or talk to a rep.
Most of the speakers did not have any branding, contact information, website address, or even their names visible during their session. This was a major loss of opportunity and hurt some speakers when their presentations were cut short during their company pitch at the end.
There not was a kickoff session that welcomed the attendees and provided an overview of what to expect from the event. This would have been a great time to introduce VR/ARA and build some brand awareness for the association. It would be a perfect opportunity to provide the reasons to join or upgrade their membership. If it happened, I missed it.
A kickoff would have been a great time to promote different areas of the conference and some features that were available such as Polls. It is a chance to encourage free participants to buy a ticket “at the door” by giving them a peek at what they were missing.
The organization could have added short segments between speaker presentations that promoted different benefits of membership.
It would have been a great incentive to offer a discount for VR/ARA memberships if they purchased one at the show. It would be an easy link to a page on the website and use the payment system that is already in place.
Lack of VR
I experienced only two speakers that were presenting in a VR world on the “stage.” I think many of the free tickets were people getting their first or second glimpse into the industry and are interested to see what is possible with this technology. More VR views would whet the appetite for a more immersive experience and inspire those that are hesitant to take the plunge into this new technology.
There are a lot of barriers for adoption into the VR/AR world. The cost of the equipment can be daunting. If you have a regular PC or a Mac, it is necessary to invest in a stronger computer that is PC based in addition to the cost of a headset. It is a big commitment. Exposure to the VR and AR possibilities could tilt the decision to invest.
There are a few new VR headsets on the market that do not require a computer. These have been long awaited and… we are still waiting. There is a six-month back order. Other makers are launching similar systems, but they are only at the pre-order stage at the moment. Either way, it is still an investment that needs consideration for most people who are not normally exposed to the industry.
Lack of AR
This was a HUGE miss for the speakers that specialized in augmented reality technology. Most smartphones are AR ready. The audience could have interacted during the presentation and the presenters would demonstrate the potential for this technology. If it makes a movie poster come alive, why not a presentation?
It would have been nice to have a store to buy a special event t-shirt or other logoed goodies. The beauty of an online store is that you only order what attendees actually bought. No more lugging around t-shirts sizes that did not sell.
Apps, headsets, and other gear could be available. This could be an added benefit for vendors and sponsors.
Virtual and augmented reality will be an important component of our future in the post-COVID world. A virtual, hybrid, or online conference can promote an industry and provide different levels of value that is inclusive to a new audience. I enjoyed attending the conference and look forward to the next VR/ARA Summit in September.
Things will never be the way they were before the pandemic. Don’t let the learning curve stop you from moving forward and conducting your conference online. There are always issues when adopting a new technology and attempting something new. Perfection comes with practice. So, let’s go practice.
Izzy house has been in marketing for 20+ years. Articles posted on LinkedIn and Medium.