The SDRC’s first ever virtual annual conference took place earlier this month. It was our first ever all-virtual event and, I am pleased to say, feedback has been positive. As much as we love face-to-face events, there is still uncertainty as to when and to what extent they can return. For the foreseeable future, at least, virtual or hybrid events are here to stay. So I’m sure I’m not the only one who is planning a virtual event for the first time, or will be in the near future. I wanted to share some of my experiences and lessons I have learned. I hope this blog will offer up some practical hints and tips on how to organise a virtual conference.
First, and foremost, I want to make clear that planning an online event is not easy. Certainly not if, like me, organising events is not a part of your everyday role. Even though we have all been working on Zoom/ Microsoft Teams, organising a conference is NOT just doing the same with more people! Also, don’t assume if you have organised a face-to-face conference that transitioning to an online event will be seamless.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to host an event, but you will need to think through and plan your approach. I have included some questions below that you may need to ask yourself during the planning process and make organisation a bit easier.
Be clear and know exactly what you want to do and what your limitations are.
For the SDRC Conference 2020, we had already created a programme as the event was originally intended to be in-person. Because people already knew what to expect, we wanted to retain the feel of our in-person event and did not want to scale back. We needed not only a space for oral presentations, but also breakout sessions, poster presentations and exhibition stands. However, this increase functionality creates its own technical challenges which you need to be aware. I’ll get into these later.
Even if your event is “only” going to be a series of speakers, this in itself is more difficult to manage in a virtual setting. This is because your speakers are presenting remotely and are not standing beside you. Things to think about include:
- Where do speakers hang out before they speak? Are you able to host them in sort of green room?
- Who is counting the speakers in so they know when they are about to start broadcasting?
- Transitions- who is switching between screens/speakers?
- Is there a question and answer, if so, how will that work?
You need to be realistic in what you can achieve. Keep in mind how confident your organising team are with technology, the amount of time you have and your budget.
From a personal or organisational perspective, other aspects to consider include:
- do you have time to organise all of this?
- if something on the day doesn’t go right, will you know what to do?
Choose a platform
There are platforms that allow you to build your own conference from scratch. They will also help with many of the technical aspects of the conference. With virtual events, there are plenty of options out there. These options, I predict, will become bigger and better the further in we get to the pandemic and online events become the norm, technology will deliver more effective platforms to meet a wider range of needs. It goes without saying, however, that there is a lot of pre-event organisation involved with these. They may be less costly but will take more of your time to co-ordinate and construct.
With the above options considered, however, we at the SDRC were rather constrained by time and had to make a quick decision. We knew that we needed the additional support. This is why we are grateful to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) for their support. Not only did the EICC provide the technical support, but also the organisational expertise to run the event smoothly. If you do not know how to organise a virutal conference, do not do it by yourself. Not for the first time at least. If your organisation has the budget, I would recommend a bespoke platform, such as the EICC, with dedicated staff members who can lead on making the event a success.
Organise your Programme
Now that you know what you want, and how your virtual event will look, now you just need to bring it all together. There are some aspects to consider here that are specific to virtual events that I will outline below.
The SDRC Conference 2020 had three plenary speakers and eight early career researcher presentations.
For our plenary speakers, we streamed these live. If your presentations are live, make time to rehearse with your speakers. Even if your presenter/facilitator has given hundreds of talks at live events before, they may not know about platform they are presenting on at a virtual event. Check they are confident with what they are doing on the day, and that they know how they will access the online platform.
For our Early Career Researcher portion of our conference, we decided to prerecord these because we so many within a short time frame. We wanted to ensure this ran smoothly and on time. If pre-recording is an option you are considering, tell your speakers in plenty of time what you need from them. Provide advice and guidance and be available to answer questions.
For all your presenters and exhibitors, take time to make sure they are all well briefed. Is important to give specific deadlines for whatever you need from them. This is because you will need time to proof and upload the materials to your chosen platform, so there are no on-the-day issues.
The Conference Chair
Of course, the main focus of the day will be your presenters, but don’t forget the importance of your Chair, who will be integral to the running of the day. Please know that you have a Conference chair that has experience with virtual conference. Also dedicate some time with your Chair before the conference to familiarise themselves with the technology they will use. You need to decide, with the Chair, what they are comfortable with. For us, the EICC had a dedicated team to work on the technical side, therefore our Chair’s role was solely focussed on presenting. They did not need to worry about camera, switch between speakers, etc. We are also very fortunate that SDRC Chair, Professor Craig Ritchie, is a very experienced event chair. If you attended the SDRC Conference you’ll know Craig brought the day together rather expertly!
So you’ve organised the party, now you just need people to turn up!
How will delegates access the event? Will it be open to all, or will there be a special code emailed to them? Be clear about this, and communicate how delegates will gain access when they are booking event, so they know what to expect and you are not answering numerous questions about access in the days before.
Don’t forget, your delegates will have different levels of experience and comfort with technology. Even as more of us than ever are communicating through teleconference facilities, there will be issues. You will need someone on hand to help get people access to the event.
Throughout the day be available, ensure there is a point of contact for those that need help. I would highly recommend that this individual or team are not actively involved in the conference (i.e. not chairing or facilitating). This is because there can be a lot do to behind the scenes. The bigger the conference, the more issues there will likely be.
Preparation is key!
Have I mentioned yet how important it is to be organised? No event runs itself. This is especially true for online events. However with proper planning, you can mitigate or avoid any potential mishaps, and keep technical issues to a minimum. If you would like some more technical guidance on how to organise a virtual conference, please check out these blogs below:
One final point to make is that being involved in the organisation of one conference does not make me an expert! However, I wanted to share what I have experienced on how to organise a virtual conference. If you are going to be planning an online event in the near future, I hope this blog has been helpful. And if you have organised an event already and think there is anything I have missed, please let me know!