A virtual pet parade, a “social shouting” Slack channel, and Zoom karaoke—these are some of the activities that event planners pulled together after the Covid-19 pandemic canceled in-person gatherings and they searched for virtual options that wouldn’t, well, suck.
Like, say, a cake-decorating contest. Tenessa Gemelke is director of education and events at Brain Traffic, a Minneapolis firm that organizes conferences for content strategists, and this spring she was tasked with taking Confab, the company’s long-standing popular event, virtual. The conference is perhaps unique for hosting, among other novelties, separate gatherings for introverts and extroverts. “In the introverts’ lounge, it’s just for people who feel like, ‘I just really want to check my email and please don’t talk to me’; those were really popular,” Gemelke says.
This year was different. “People were so lonely, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” she says. The agenda included fireside chats that facilitated conversations in which people could be vulnerable, but there was also the issue of socializing. “We thought, this is TV, it’s not a party, there aren’t going to be appetizers, but what would someone watch on TV?” Gemelke says. “We always serve cake at the end of the conference … so we had a cake decorating contest.”
In an ideal world, next year’s cake would be served up in atoms rather than bits. But tightly packed in-person gatherings are likely to be among the last types of events that resume once the pandemic ends, which means that conference organizers will hang on to many of the virtual elements that were very much their Plan B. “I think what will come back first is very small local events,” says Julie Liegl, chief marketing officer at Slack. “People getting on an airplane to Las Vegas to go to a convention center seems very far away, but a group of CIOs going to a dinner in Atlanta, I could see that; I think it’ll be the small events that come back first.”
And, curiously, some of the unexpected benefits of online conferences will ensure they continue in some form, to everyone’s advantage: When organizers don’t have to pay for a physical space, they may be able to lower or even eliminate ticket fees. And events that don’t require travel can attract a much deeper pool of speakers as well as a broader audience.
That’s what Tosan Arueyingho, who runs the Black Is Tech conference and networking group, found when it came to planning this year’s event, held virtually in September. Arueyingho decided that going online presented such an opportunity to broaden his audience that he offered tickets for free. Last year’s event, which took place in New York, drew 1,000 attendees; this year, 6,000 people signed up. “Since we didn’t have the cost associated with setting up a whole venue, we had the opportunity to open it up to people; you don’t have to travel, you don’t have to pay for a hotel; that helped us grow quickly,” says Arueyingho, who’s based in Houston.
Arueyingho opted for an online conference platform called Hopin that enables video sessions, small group discussions, an expo environment, and messaging. The tool also collects data on participants’ activity. “The good thing about virtual conferences is that you have access to data—who connected, who came to your booths, who asked a question,” says Arueyingho.
That data is helpful both to sponsors and to organizers trying to determine what content is most successful. “Before, we’d be able to understand who was in the building, whose badges are left, but you didn’t understand how long they stayed,” says Lynn Edwards, the owner of Proper Planning, a Tacoma, Washington-based company that puts on large conferences for corporate and nonprofit clients. “Now you have this rich data; you can tell how long people stay. But the data doesn’t matter if you aren’t extracting the learning and aren’t changing your programming.”
Brevity Is the Soul of Zoom
But there’s one thing organizers didn’t need AI to tell them: Zoom fatigue is real. “People don’t want to sit in front of their computer for more than 30 or 40 minutes; that’s why TED talks are so successful,” Edwards says. It’s not just the virtual sessions that profit from being shorter; it’s overall events as well, according to Mary Beth Reidy, executive director of conference programming and partnerships at the Conference Board, a New York–based nonpartisan think tank that hosts dozens of events each year for businesspeople. “My opinion is that a three-hour event is the longest you can go with any degree of comfort, and I expect that the trend of shorter events will hold even when we’re back in person,” she says.
At an in-person conference, having a productive small group discussion can be awkward if participants flock to the celebrity in the room or gravitate toward people they know. But that issue doesn’t carry over online, where it’s easy to quickly assemble a small group on a Zoom call. “People are really thriving with the four- to six-person discussions,” says Reidy.
Of course, there’s a certain kind of engagement born from crowding into a hotel conference center with hundreds of people. So to facilitate that kind of engagement, some virtual conferences set up a Discord server or Slack installation before an event begins. The conversation often continues alongside actual panel discussions. “The other day I shared a statistic with a client: They had 500 attendees and 398 unique chat posts,” says Edwards. That format enables anyone—not just panelists—to answer questions that arise in a chat, and it encourages participation among introverts who are disinclined to walk up to a microphone in a room full of people, she says.
Arueyingho cites Verzuz, the Instagram show that became an early pandemic hit, as an example of the importance of comments. “With Verzuz, people rushed to be part of an experience that was totally virtual—the fun is in the comments, which bring something extra to the live experience; you feel like you’re in a room with people, and you’re actually able to express your opinions.” The pandemic has enabled that kind of dialog, and Arueyingho believes it’ll stick around for a long time.
Going virtual has refashioned participation in other ways. The organizers of the Democratic National Convention this year reimagined the roll call, the political ritual in which 57 US states and territories formally cast their votes for the Democratic nominee for president. Rather than having attendees stand up in a convention center to announce their votes, as is traditional, this year the DNC broadcast video of citizens on the ground across the country. The roll call began with a live aerial shot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, made stops at a beach in California, a field in Kansas, the Sioux nation in South Dakota, and a hilltop in Guam, and gave a plate of Rhode Island calamari an unexpected star turn.
“The roll calls are typically events that take place in the convention hall, and usually the most senior or connected member of the state delegations are the people at the microphone,” says Rod O’Connor, senior adviser for production and messaging for the Democratic National Convention. This year provided the opportunity to entirely rethink the format of the event: “So we decided we would invite people that wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to participate,” O’Connor says.
Technology promotes inclusion in other ways, too: The organizers of November’s Lesbians Who Tech virtual conference encouraged attendees to use a software tool that provides captions on the fly, ensuring access for people with hearing loss. And Neel Patel, who organizes events for Google as a brand strategy and accounts director at Grow Marketing in San Francisco, says online events make it easier for speakers to have translators on the ground: “We can reach a broader audience by doing the UN model.”
Recording content in advance can also expand participation and reduce the pressure to perform, planners say. Plus: Recording all material provides organizers with the opportunity to collect, archive, and potentially sell access to conference content long after the event has ended.
Having to plan a virtual event has also encouraged entirely new types of programming: Gabrey Means, cofounder of Grow Marketing, offers the example of an activity at a virtual conference where, at lunch time, participants listen to the same podcast and go for a walk outside; they can have a similar experience even when not physically together.
The Party Problem
But what about the fun? “I don’t think we’ve solved the cocktail hour,” says Reidy of the Conference Board. “There is a greater need in virtual to break up the monotony.” Liegl says a channel at the recent Slack Frontiers virtual conference invited people to “yell” by typing announcements in all caps; the Donut plug-in for Slack, which matches random members of a Slack installation for virtual meetups, also helped facilitate spontaneous connections.
The Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in September included a trivia happy hour, a Dutch baby cooking demonstration, and a pet parade, complete with slides introducing each animal companion during an unsurprisingly chaotic live Zoom; the event drew more than 150 people, including one participant who said she’d woken up at 5 am so she could tune in from Kyrgyzstan.
Gemelke expects to keep some elements of the virtual fun once Confab resumes in person. “Obviously people are not going to pack their pets in their suitcase”—Confab also had a pet contest—“but why couldn’t we have a cake-decorating contest on stage? I think we’ve opened our minds to possibilities we didn’t know existed before.”
Conferences in the future will likely combine real-world and remote experiences. For example, a Slack or Discord server can facilitate conversations regardless of where attendees are physically located. “We’re all dying to be in each other’s company,” says Means. “Now you don’t have to be in a specific place; there’s such a broad way to participate. I envision a world where we will have a live event but people can also participate in this rich digital experience.”