The year 2020 certainly has brought its share of challenges. And it drastically changed the landscape of in-person events.
People and organizations everywhere had to pivot and change how they were going to put on events.
Everything went virtual.
But this became a huge headache to many that had never done any kind of virtual event or, well, virtual anything! It forced many established organizations into the 21st Century and to use technology they never had before.
Making a Decision
The Minnesota Genealogical Society was no different and had originally planned (and had reserved space for) their annual North Star Genealogy Conference.
But here we were in March/April, at what would be the halfway point in planning our conference. But with stay-at-home orders, and the future seems uncertain, the committee had to seriously consider canceling the conference, or finding a way to do it virtually…in any capacity.
We started with a survey of our previous year’s attendees to get their thoughts. Would they even want to attend an in-person conference (if orders were lifted), would they want a hybrid? or would they want an entire virtual conference?
It became a resounding yes for a virtual conference. Which meant we needed to pivot our plans and do it with only 5-months to go.
From those results the committee had me look at current technologies on the market to see if we could pull off a hybrid or entirely virtual conference. So research was in my immediate future.
What did I find? That many new places had cropped up to offer virtual events, but they couldn’t deliver on what they were promising. Even really good, long-standing virtual event companies were actually saying they couldn’t take us on a client. Because they knew their capacity and that they wouldn’t be able to deliver.
We started to look at services like Zoom (which had major security issues at the time), Google Meet (which couldn’t hold the capacity at the time), Skype (not an easy solution to use), and some others.
The Society had been using GoToWebinar and GoToMeeting for a few years for their monthly webinars, education classes, and for their various planning meetings.
I kept finding myself coming back to those services and wondering if they could be used to do what we needed for the conference.
So I focused my energy on its capabilities, and in the end, we decided to upgrade our current plan to a more robust plan, and a few more licenses that could accommodate the conference.
All in all, it was a smart decision. We had already been using the software. We already knew much of what it could and couldn’t do. More importantly…we already had a base of volunteers that had used the service regularly and knew how to “moderate” with the system.
That in the end, was the most important piece. Being able to have a built-in pool of people that wouldn’t need much training to oversee the breakout sessions (all happening at the same time) was key to pulling this off. We wouldn’t have a lot of training time to get everyone up to speed.
During the process, I became the Technology Coordinator for the conference. Since I had already done extensive research on the services capabilities. I was also a producer of various live podcasts and had some experience with producing live “virtual” content.
So, It was my job to really flesh out what the service could do (or not) for use, find workarounds, create documentation, create and hold trainings, be the liaison between the committee and the GoToWebinar sales rep, and make sure we could give a quality and seamless conference for our attendees.
There were of course some hiccups, but the tech team and I were able to quickly pivot and create quick fixes to keep the conference going.
We were able to give a completely virtual conference, even with our famous “Ask a Genealogist” panel and our awards banquet.
But, with this being virtual, and many of our attendees looking forward to connecting with old friends they haven’t seen since the last conference, we needed to find a way to make this conference even more interactive.
In many of our in-person contests, we moved to online surveys to get up-to-the-minute results. Surprisingly, we had quadrupled the amount of participation in these events, than when they were in-person!
We also turned our annual awards banquet into a Do-It-Yourself banquet. I put together a special menu (with recipes) from the MGS cookbook, created a “how-to video” on how to have your own DIY banquet, and promoted it on the website and social media.
We even had a special hashtag for people to take pictures of their banquet, or themselves watching sessions and post on social media, which would post on a special wall on the conference page.
For our Ask A Genealogist panel, we had a special google form to ask for question submissions to help “seed” the live Q&A, so the panelists could do a little “research” beforehand and really be able to give some great personalized advice!
Because this was virtual we were able to do two things we had never done before; offer closed captions/transcripts of the sessions, and have on-demand viewing for a month, of all the sessions! Which was a huge hit.
While the number of attendees was slightly lower than in previous years (189 vs 250) we had an uptick in participation. People especially loved having on-demand access to view the sessions they missed during the conference.
So, if you’ve never done a virtual event, don’t be afraid to. The key is to really get your attendees engaged and interacting and to increase the marketing of your event.