Every fall, more than 500 women stream into the Sheraton in Framingham, Mass. to attend the MetroWest Conference for Women. Since its inception in 2017, the MetroWest Conference for Women and She’s Local have created accessible and relevant conference platforms for local women to share, connect and be inspired. As a board member, I have been with the conference since its earliest days, helping to arrange large, in-person She’s Local events in Massachusetts communities.
Realizing that what worked previously was not going to work this year, the conference transitioned from an in-person to a virtual event model.
In the spirit of community collaboration, I share with you five learnings behind what made the event a success, how to maintain what makes your event special and maybe even gain something you didn’t realize you needed along the way.
Early on in the pandemic, we put a pause on regular conference planning and asked ourselves: What does our audience need from us right now? Instead of going dark in April while anticipating what September would look like, She’s Local began a series of virtual “boosts,” or essentially mini-panels, in-line with conference offerings.
Why was this tactic a success? It kept us connected to our audience, showed that we understood their pain points and where they were at that moment, and focused on continuing community building, even in an online world. The added benefit for our board was that it was great practice for how to take the entire conference virtual.
As regular event planning resumed, the world was still pretty uncertain in terms of if an in-person event four months was even possible. At first, we overthought planning for a virtual experience. We considered learning and using new software, but realized that keeping it simple would be best for our team and our attendees. Because the world is always rather unpredictable, your plan should have leeway to make adjustments up until the last minute. For example, if you have a large event in late 2021, planning an event that can be either live or virtual may be best to prevent the scramble at the last minute to change up the format.
Not every facet of your event will translate easily to a virtual model. For example, networking is a key aspect and value proposition for in-person conferences, which can be hard to replicate in a virtual environment. That doesn’t mean it should be eliminated.
Instead, get creative with your team to keep the spirit of connection alive, even if it looks a little different. You can facilitate networking, for example, through small virtual breakout rooms. The MetroWest Conference for Women provided three to five ice breaker questions for these rooms to help stimulate conversation among participants.
Virtual offerings are not limited to what you can do via videoconferencing and day-of! Social media, like Facebook or LinkedIn groups, can add additional networking opportunities and points of connection with your event audience before and after your event.
Particularly with the state of the world, everyone is experiencing some emotional exhaustion — a CDC survey found that in the second quarter of 2020, reported anxiety disorders were up threefold and depressive disorders over 2019. Anecdotally, it seemed that virtually every member of the conference team experienced a personal loss, health scare or other emotional tragedy in addition to the global pandemic, switch to remote work and school and other stress factors. This is where teamwork saved the day. The best events have teams of people working together, not only bringing creative ideas and unique perspectives, but picking up the torch for each other when times are tough.
Immediately following our September 17 conference, an attendee let us know that she had not previously been able to join us in-person and was so excited that the virtual option enabled her to participate. So, even though a virtual conference was not our first choice, it got us back to our initial mission of expanding access to opportunities for women in our local areas that they might not otherwise have to share their expertise and learn from other local women.
Instead of just grinning-and-bearing-with a virtual format, use it as an opportunity to test out new offerings. These types of events can be more accessible and inclusive, expand the diversity of minds that join you, and broaden your reach to new markets, industries or customers.
The virtual economy and environment are likely here to stay. This pandemic has shown us that business can succeed with people working remotely and there are a great number of opportunities to shift in-person meetings, events and even entire business ecosystems to be virtual, in turn making these more inclusive. Ultimately, I am sure that this new mode of operation will help us to further diversify how we connect and lead to innovations we haven’t even conceived of yet.
If you’ve got a big idea to share with the world or need help connecting with your audiences in this virtual environment, send our team a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you haven’t already, sign up for our newsletter here.
Rachael’s favorite part of her job is helping to tell stories on the best platform to reach the correct audience. As the manager of integrated PR strategy at Inkhouse, she is responsible for helping to craft and execute communications plans for a diverse range of clients, ensuring the teams are on-track to meet clients' goals. From social media content creation to media relations, her experience allows her to think strategically and creatively about storytelling across new and traditional platforms.